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What Happened at the Botanica

News editor 1999-2006

State Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez was on the phone on this October day in 2006, and he wasn’t happy. He knew we were about to publish a story about the final hours of labor giant Miguel Contreras, who on May 6, 2005, had been found unconscious at a South L.A. botanica and pronounced dead a short time later. Six months after Contreras’ death, the LAPD had raided the dingy storefront and arrested two women on charges of prostitution. A year after that, we had our story, and Núñez wanted us to kill it. He didn’t want the paper besmirching the image of the labor boss and behind-the-scenes operator who had engineered Núñez’s path to the statehouse. Núñez didn’t buy the argument that the death of one of L.A.’s most influential political minds should be fully examined for the sake of history. Nor, of course, did he think we should shine the bright light of journalism on the lineup of politicians who gathered at the hospital that day in 2005 (led by then-councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow) and expose the pressure they exerted on doctors, police and coroner’s officials to hush the circumstances of Contreras’ death. “What about the effect your story will have on Contreras’ family, particularly his young son?” he asked. “And why does your paper pick on Latino leaders?” he demanded. Uh, maybe because they hold some pretty high offices, I told him.

Truth is, we probably never would have published the 4,000-word “The Final Hours of Miguel Contreras” on October 26, 2006, by David Zahniser, if Los Angeles were a more aggressive media town where news could not be so easily stifled by the powerful. In New York, this would have been old news. Within hours of Contreras’ death, newspapers would have teemed with details; instead, our story broke the news of Contreras’ final day some 18 months after his death.

Like many stories, this one provoked some well-reasoned but mostly preposterous attacks. Harold Meyerson, whose twice-monthly column had been cut from the Weekly that same month, said we were wrong to pry into details of a “private death,” a laughable notion about privacy unrecognized by state law, which allows — in fact, demands — more accountability of death than life. The Nation’s propagandist Jon Wiener, in his misinformed 2007 screed about changes at the Weekly, insisted the story exemplified a rightward shift demanded by the paper’s new owners. He was flat-out wrong. The new owners had nothing to do with the story, in the works for more than eight months. In that same article, L.A. Times media critic Tim Rutten declared, “Nobody else thought it was a story”; in reality, Rutten’s own paper and the Daily News could not ignore it and they both ran follow-up stories.

Finally, with the publication of the Miguel story, so-called progressive Los Angeles realized that L.A. Weekly was no longer a paper that bowed at the altar of its sacred cows — never mind that the paper had been skewering politicians left and right at the hands of Jeffrey Anderson, Marc Cooper, Daniel Hernandez, Christine Pelisek, Rob Greene and Zahniser for years.

One more question about Contreras: Isn’t anyone curious whether he ingested some fatal concoction of herbs at Botanica Inca on Florence Avenue?

 

From “The Final Hours of Miguel Contreras,” By David Zahniser, October 27, 2006

Despite his stature, or perhaps because of it, the details of Miguel 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, including New York, Chicago or London. Was he at a fortuneteller 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 pro-labor 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?