MORE

The Final Hours of Miguel Contreras

Honoring the king maker: a young Miguel dreams (Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov)

Honoring the king maker: a young Miguel dreams (Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov)

His death grabbed the attention of the national media, which noted his leadership of the 2000 janitor’s strike. His funeral drew 3,000 people to the Cathedral of the Lady of the Angels. Contreras and his funeral Mass were name-dropped in the play Water and Power, a discourse on Los Angeles politics performed at the Mark Taper Forum.

The sun had just set last November when officers from the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Division infiltrated a dingy storefront on gritty Florence Avenue in South L.A., not far from the roaring 110 freeway. Technically, the place wasn’t even a storefront, but rather a series of nondescript back rooms, stuck behind a liquor store/video-rental shop and sealed off from the outside by a metal security door.

Posing as johns, the undercover officers from the LAPD’s vice squad entered the business from a side street and asked for a massage. Moments later, 28-year-old Susana Ortega emerged with a condom and asked one of the men to remove his underwear. Her words gave the officers what they needed to hear; they arrested three people — two for prostitution, and a third for serving as a pimp.

The bust was like many in South Los Angeles, where roughly 50 blocks of Figueroa Street make up the most heavily trafficked prostitution corridor in the city. The only difference: This sting operation went down at the same place where, six months earlier, paramedics found the unconscious body of Miguel Contreras, the most renowned union official in California, the man credited with resurrecting the labor movement in Los Angeles.

LAPD Sergeant Dan Hudson confirmed last week that the May 6, 2005, death of the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor prompted police to set up the prostitution sting. Hudson would not elaborate on what it was about Contreras’ death that led police to raid the business, known as Botanica Inca. “I’m not real comfortable going into all that,” Hudson said. “But because of that [death], we started looking at it.”

The demise of the 52-year-old union boss blind-sided the federation’s 800,000 members and sent ripples throughout the region’s political establishment, just 11 days before the contentious 2005 mayoral election. The race pitted embattled incumbent James Hahn — the man Contreras’ organization ostensibly supported — against challenger Antonio Villaraigosa, a rising political star and Contreras friend who had been groomed for the job by the powerful labor boss. Contreras, a farm worker from the Central Valley town of Dinuba, started out with the United Farm Workers and, two decades later, turned L.A.’s County Federation into a powerhouse. After his leadership of the janitors’ strike in the year 2000, unions around the country looked to Los Angeles for models on how to organize, and Contreras became a giant in L.A.’s labor movement.

News of Contreras’ collapse reached the city’s political elite on a Friday night and made its way onto the front pages of four daily newspapers the following day. Some said he died of a heart attack. None mentioned where he died: on an especially forsaken stretch of Florence Avenue, the type of boulevard where even the corner McDonald’s has security bars on the window of its drive-through — on the inside. The newspapers also did not broach the odd circumstances that surrounded his death, on that day or in the ensuing months.

Contreras had been in a self-describedbotanica, a type of business that dispenses alternative medicines. No longer breathing by the time paramedics reached him, Contreras was pronounced dead at Centinela Freeman Memorial Hospital, then known as Daniel Freeman. The police report on his death said the 911 call was made by an unnamed business owner at 4:25 p.m. Asked to identify who found Contreras, police officers wrote: “Unknown.”

Despite his stature, or perhaps because of it, the details of Contreras' death have eluded the public record. Had he been an elected official, or even a low-voltage celebrity, many more questions would have been asked about his final hours. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine such secrets being kept in any other big city, includingNew York, Chicago or London. Was he at a fortune teller or a botanica? A massage parlor or a den of prostitution? Or all of the above?

Throughout his political career, Contreras had been a behind-the-scenes operator — pouring money into campaigns, mobilizing union workers on Election Day and pushing for the passage of prolabor policies, including such massive public-works projects as Staples Center and the now-abandoned $11.5 billion remodeling of Los Angeles International Airport. Contreras was in the background during the 2000 bus strike, brokering a conversation between then-mayor Richard Riordan and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Now, even in death, Contreras has stayed behind the scenes, leaving the public a mystery regarding the circumstances surrounding his demise.

Even if the questions are awkward or unpleasant, they deserve to be asked, if for no other reason than to preserve the record of one of L.A.’s most influential figures at the end of the 20th century. Historians have done the same in the case of Martin Luther King Jr., another powerful figure who spoke on behalf of the downtrodden, seeking to understand the man in totality, by exploring his more private side. And so the question remains, what happened during the final hours of Miguel Contreras’ life? Why is it so hard to track down the woman in the botanica who found him? Who delivered his wallet to the LAPD in the days after his death? And how could his death have triggered a sting operation but not an autopsy?

Under state law, a coroner must conduct an inquiry and determine the cause of “violent, sudden or unusual deaths.” Medical examiners must also respond if the person who dies is unattended — that is, does not have a doctor with him at the time or has not seen a doctor in the previous 20 days. Three other people who died on May 6, 2005 — and whose death certificates were viewed by the L.A. Weekly — had a signature from a doctor. A fourth death certificate was signed by a coroner, and resulted in an autopsy.

The issue has been whispered about to such an extent that Supervisor Mike Antonovich, certainly not a politician aligned with the federation, sent a one-sentence letter on October 19 asking if Contreras received an autopsy and if not, why not. This week, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office responded in a one-page letter that it concluded that the 52-year-old union activist had diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension — not to mention two brothers who went through heart surgery themselves. “His cause of death was based on history and external examination, consistent with other Coroner’s cases of similar circumstances,” wrote Dr. Christopher Rogers, the coroner’s chief of forensic medicine. “The history is that he collapsed suddenly while having his fortune read.”

Rogers also said investigators took a tissue sample from Contreras’ heart, saying that it showed that the labor leader had already experienced smaller heart attacks. A coroner’s spokesman said the department relied on police and Contreras’ son for other information.

Deputy Coroner Barbara L. Nelson, the official who signed Contreras’ death certificate, said no one ever informed her about the location of the death, or the sting operation. Asked about the new information, Nelson said she still would make the same decision today, forgoing an autopsy in favor of interviews and an external examination of the body. Yet Nelson conceded that a botanica can prescribe cures with harmful side effects. And she noted that coroners are often at the mercy of grieving family and friends when compiling information on the deceased.

“There’s nothing there that would change my mind and have brought him in,” Nelson said. “I would have handled it the same way. And him being somebody of prominence, it wouldn’t have made a difference either.”

Contreras’ widow, Maria Elena Durazo, provided a one-paragraph statement this week, saying she is content with the official review of her husband’s death. “Our family continues to grieve, which is why we would appreciate the media allowing Miguel to rest in peace, as we are fully satisfied with the information involving his passing.”

The woman who dialed 911 from 647½ West Florence Avenue nearly 18 months ago initially sounds calm as she describes her discovery of Contreras, according to the nine-minute recording of her call, a copy of which was obtained by the L.A. Weekly. In a voice that sounded soft, feminine and slightly high pitched, the caller tells the 911 operator in Spanish that a gentleman had come to her for a “consulta de baraja” — Spanish for card reading. She tells the operator that her visitor took a seat, then experienced an attack. “Como un embolio?” the operator responds, asking her if it was like a stroke.

The woman then tells the operator that Contreras’ chest is not moving, that he appears pale. As the operator asks his questions, the unnamed caller checks with another person as she answers. As she is guided through the basics of CPR, the caller sounds increasingly distraught. “No está respirando,” she says in a hushed voice, after checking to see if Contreras’ airway had been obstructed. The call is silent for roughly a minute. By the time the paramedics arrive, she sounds as though she is on the verge of tears.

Asked who placed the call, fire department spokesman Ron Myers said his agency would not know unless it was on the 911 tape. Paramedics do not request the names of witnesses when they respond to an emergency, focusing instead on the needs of the patient, Myers said. “We dispatch between 1,200 and 1,500 runs every 24 hours,” he said. “We don’t worry about who it is that’s calling necessarily, because we would be inundated with information.”

The incident was categorized by the authorities as a “VIP death,” a sign that it was different from the many others that occur in South Los Angeles.

Nearly 18 months after that call, the sign for Botanica Inca has been removed. The building has been cleaned out and the exterior has been whitewashed. The woman now living in the rear rental space is Maryanne Gutierrez, the daughter of the landlords. Gutierrez moved into the apartment earlier this summer. After she settled in, she noticed that strange men knocked on her door, uninvited, nearly every day.

Gutierrez said she had been told by her parents that some or all of the workers were deported after the bust, which caused Botanica Inca to be evicted. But her mother, Irma Logan Gutierrez, refused to say who had been renting the space at the time of the arrests.

Once the LAPD completed its sting, the City Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute two of the three people they arrested — Edwardo Ramirez, who had been arrested on suspicion of pimping, and Wilma Robles, who had been arrested on suspicion of prostitution. The third, Susana Ortega, was a first-time offender who saw the prostitution charge dropped in favor of a lesser one — failure to obtain a license for a massage parlor. Ortega agreed to an HIV test and was sentenced to perform Caltrans duty.

Ortega’s public defender, Ninaz Saffari, said Ortega is fluent in English, a fact that makes her somewhat less likely to be the one who called 911. Saffari said she was unaware that a death had occurred at Ortega’s massage parlor. “I would probably advise her not to talk to you, because her case is not completely over with,” Saffari added. “She is still on probation. She still is under obligation to the court, and anything could be used against her in a probation violation hearing.”

Miguel Contreras was pronounced dead at Centinela Freeman Memorial Hospital. The hospital was a straight shot from the botanica, and could be reached by driving east down Florence Avenue right into Inglewood.

The waiting room of Centinela Freeman quickly filled with grief-stricken politicians and labor leaders. Then-councilman Antonio Villaraigosa was among the first to arrive at the emergency room, as was then-councilman Martin Ludlow — who had served at Contreras’ side as the federation’s political director only a few years earlier.

As more politicos arrived, hospital administrators opened up Centinela’s Medical Education Conference Center, a series of meeting rooms where mourners could get bottled water. For a brief moment, the shock of Contreras’ death brought the breakneck mayoral campaign to a halt. But the divisions created by the battle for power were apparent, according to sources who were there. Villaraigosa, Ludlow and Durazo were ushered into a smaller room, Conference Room C, while Hahn and his aides sat outside with the ever-growing crowd. “By the time I got there, there were probably 20 to 25 people,” said Tyrone Freeman, who heads Service Employees International Union Local 434B, which represents in-home health-care workers. “But it just grew to a larger and larger number. There were people outside, inside, everywhere.”

State Senator Gil Cedillo, who had broken with Villaraigosa by endorsing Hahn, made his way inside the smaller room that housed Villaraigosa and Durazo. The door to Conference Room C was closed for much of the night, except for the times that Ludlow paced in and out, talking on his cell phone and becoming increasingly agitated. One City Hall veteran said Ludlow sounded like he was engaged in a “shouting match.” He later learned what provoked the confrontation: issues surrounding the coroner’s investigative process, and the most expeditious way to avoid an autopsy.

“It was over the doctor’s death note. He wanted it issued there. He wanted it issued at the hospital,” said a mourner who showed up at Centinela Freeman.

Without a doctor’s signature, it would be likely that the county’s medical examiner would conduct a full autopsy on Contreras. Once Contreras was pronounced dead, Ludlow — the man who would succeed Contreras weeks later — had begun calling administrators at Kaiser Permanente, searching for a doctor who could sign the death certificate, according to two sources who refused to be named. Ludlow contacted Kaiser’s West Los Angeles office, a facility located in his district, asking them to track down Contreras’ doctor. That office tried without success to locate Contreras’ physician that night.

Nelson, the deputy coroner, signed off on Contreras’ death certificate, noting in her report that the labor leader had been under the care of two Kaiser physicians. Both refused to sign the death certificate. Nelson said Kaiser is notorious for refusing to sign the paperwork after a patient death as an extra precaution to prevent malpractice lawsuits. She also pointed out that the body had been harvested — its organs donated for other patients — before her office viewed it.

One Kaiser official in Los Angeles County, who asked to remain anonymous, said the health-care organization contacted Contreras’ family physician shortly after his death and learned that Contreras had not seen him in two years. “You’re not supposed to sign off on the death if you think the death is unexpected,” the official added. Two of the main players that night, Ludlow and Villaraigosa, would not comment after being contacted by the Weekly.

Kaiser spokesman Jim Anderson said patient confidentiality laws prevent him from discussing any specific case. But he also argued that it is “certainly not the case” that his company automatically refuses to sign death certificates. Anderson also pointed out that a family physician is not the only medical expert authorized to sign death certificates. “If it’s pretty clear to an E.R. doctor what the cause of death is, they probably could sign it,” Anderson said. “But it depends on the circumstances.”

Dr. Takashi Oshita, the man who pronounced Contreras dead at 5:21 p.m. at Centinela Freeman, said this week that he could not comment about the man he treated. But he argued that emergency-room doctors never sign a death certificate; only the physician of the deceased is allowed to do so. Asked whether the evening was unusual, he referred all additional questions to hospital administrators, who said they could not broach the issue without permission from Contreras’ family.

If L.A.’s power brokers were in pursuit of details about the circumstances of Contreras’ death, they did it under the radar.Mike Garcia, the head of Service Employees International Union Local 1877, returned to L.A. the day after Contreras died. He wasn’t told about the botanica, and said he relied on the vague accounts of others. “I just know what I heard and read in the paper, that he was in his car and that he pulled over, and had whatever problem that he endured,” said Garcia.

Many of the labor movement’s top representatives did not know, or ask, whether Contreras had been in his car or stopped off between downtown Los Angeles and LAX, possibly to pick up his wife. Cedillo, the state senator, searched for the location where Contreras collapsed but was never sure he found it. “Because it was such a tragedy, I don’t think anybody wanted to go any farther,” said Freeman, the head of SEIU Local 434B.

The one woman who still wanted to know more was state Senator Gloria Romero. She allegedly went to the head of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City — Pat McOsker — seeking answers in the days after Contreras’ death. McOsker would not provide any, according to sources familiar with the conversation. “Later on, I heard that Gloria Romero was trying to figure out what happened,” added Natalie Rayes, Hahn’s former deputy chief of staff. “I heard from people that she contacted some of the fire department folks to figure out what happened.” McOsker denied that he had been contacted by Romero, saying that he had no idea where the death occurred and never looked into the circumstances. “I just knew that my friend Miguel died suddenly, and that it was heartbreaking,” he said.

Romero, who declined to comment, also contacted the county coroner’s office, according to an official for that agency.

Labor leaders were also stunned by Contreras' death because only the night before, he had presided over his annual Cinco de Mayo party at the La Fonda restaurant, not far from the federation’s headquarters. The union boss held the event each year to honor the hard work of community-minded labor figures. Unlike previous years, the party was a room divided, with some who favored Hahn and others backing Villaraigosa.

Hahn had managed to secure the endorsement of Contreras’ Federation of Labor, with union members arguing that they should reward someone who had worked on their behalf at City Hall. But many still felt an allegiance to Villaraigosa, who had been the organization’s favorite in 2001 and lost after a nasty race against Hahn.

And most of them knew that Contreras himself wanted to see Villaraigosa win, with a few wondering if his enthusiasm for Villaraigosa could have inspired some mayhem with campaign mailers. Weeks before the 2005 election, a few union leaders aligned with the Hahn camp concluded that the federation had dropped every voter with a Spanish-language surname from the group’s pro-Hahn campaign mailings in three heavily Latino City Council districts: 1, 7 and 14 — districts represented by Ed Reyes, Alex Padilla and Antonio Villaraigosa, respectively. At least two had confronted Contreras directly. But Contreras, the master of behind-the-scenes movement, said he would look into the matter.

by the time of his death, the federation’s top executive had been at the helm for nearly a decade, helping the federation rebound from the disastrous 1994 election — when Proposition 187 passed and Democrat Kathleen Brown went down in flames as a gubernatorial candidate — and reach the heights of 1998, when Democrats swept every statewide office. By 2005, the federation was truly a player — as was Contreras himself, serving on the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners and the state’s Board of Corrections. Less than three hours before his death, Contreras called Hahn campaign strategist Kam Kuwata, saying he and Rick Icaza — head of the grocery workers’ union, then embroiled in an ugly job action — had some information to relay to Senator Dianne Feinstein.

If Contreras were still alive, L.A.’s political scene might be very different today. In the months before his death, Contreras had been looking at ways of changing the makeup of county government, by targeting some of the elected county supervisors who had so angered the various employee unions. Contreras conducted a poll to see if Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn could unseat Supervisor Don Knabe for a seat in the South Bay. And he even eyed possible challengers to Supervisor Gloria Molina.

Instead, Contreras’ death allowed the ascension of Martin Ludlow, who took over the top post at the Federation of Labor only to be indicted in a campaign fund-raising scandal half a year later. Ludlow, who pleaded guilty last year, became the star witness in the prosecution’s campaign-finance case against Janett Humphries, the head of SEIU Local 99. Maria Elena Durazo, Contreras’ widow and Ludlow’s replacement, is still finding her footing in her first year on the job. When the federation singled out four Democrats for a massive show of support in the June primary, only one achieved victory.

Contreras’ death left its mark on Los Angeles in another way, shifting the center of gravity between City Hall and the County Fed. In previous years, Villaraigosa — like so many other Democrats — might have needed to consult Contreras on pivotal issues, from labor relations to development projects. Now, Villaraigosa wields the type of influence once held by Contreras. Contreras was the person whose ring had to be kissed; now, Villaraigosa is slowly becoming his replacement.

One key battle that might have gone down differently if Contreras were still around is the legislative fight over control of Los Angeles Unified School District. In labor circles, some privately imagine the late union boss intervening last year, as Villaraigosa attempted his school takeover, to ensure that a face-saving deal was brokered much sooner. Others questioned whether Contreras might have stepped in to ensure that the city’s Democratic mayor speak more aggressively on behalf of Phil Angelides, the foundering candidate running against Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The way power is wielded in this town changed dramatically with Contreras’ passing. Now the head of the Federation of Labor is likely to turn to Villaraigosa for counsel — not vice versa. Now the power is not behind the scenes, but loudly situated in City Hall for all to see.

Even in death, Contreras found a way to marshal his supporters to victory. When officials at L.A. Unified considered naming a new high school after Edward Roybal, the city’s first Latino congressman during the 20th century, union activists quickly swept into action. The campus, they protested, is on the very site where Durazo and Contreras first met.

Union activists sent letters and packed the boardroom on the day of the critical vote. Four months later, an army of politicians and union workers celebrated in the auditorium of the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex. They watched a stirring DVD about the labor leader whose life began in Dinuba, and ended, unbeknownst to the public, in a tiny storefront on Florence Avenue.