The story of community activist Michael Taylor's life and death – of his rise from L.A.'s Skid Row to the broadcast booth at KPFK 90.7 FM, of his ill-fated venture into micro-radio and his execution-style murder – reached some kind of closure this week.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury returned guilty verdicts against Andrew Lancaster, a.k.a. Hodari Lumumba, charged with orchestrating the grisly April 1996 slaying. Lancaster, 26, a onetime partner in Taylor's micro-radio collective, was convicted of one count of first-degree murder and a second count of kidnapping for extortion in connection with the slaying. A penalty phase, in which Lancaster faces a possible death sentence, begins this week.
Few of Taylor's associates are likely to celebrate the conviction of one young black man for the killing of another young black man in a dispute over a piece of radio equipment. “I'm just glad the whole thing is over,” said Miguel Sanchez, a close friend of Taylor's, upon hearing news of the verdict. “The whole thing has been emotionally draining.”
And Lancaster's brief trial also left unanswered key questions about the killing – in particular the role of a shadowy figure named Mzee Shambulia, another partner in the micro-radio collective, who was never charged in the case. “The case is not over,” said one friend of Taylor's. “The person who masterminded this crime walks the streets.”
As detailed in the Weekly last fall (“Deadly Frequency,” November 6, 1997), Michael Taylor left KPFK and his interview show, Bridging the Gap, in the winter of 1995-96, disaffected with the station's new managers, whom Taylor thought were selling out.
Taylor and several similarly disaffected colleagues teamed up with a group of ex-cons, including Lancaster and Shambulia, who promised to put up seed money for a micro-radio venture. But within a few months, Taylor's relationship with Shambulia disintegrated, in part over Shambulia's efforts to sell advertising for the broadcast, and Taylor backed away from the group, taking the micro-radio transmitter with him. Lancaster, described in the trial as “Mzee's flunky,” was instructed by a furious Shambulia to get the transmitter back.
In reconstructing the events of the night of April 22, 1996, Deputy District Attorney Eleanor Hunter relied heavily on the testimony of Lancaster's two accomplices, Shawn Alexander and Jornay Recurnd Rodriguez, who reached plea agreements and are awaiting sentencing.
Close to midnight, the three men went to Taylor's mid-Wilshire apartment to demand that he turn over the transmitter. Shambulia, they said, was to pay them $1,000 for the job. Taylor was led at gunpoint from his house and driven to a deserted railroad throughway near 67th Street and Crenshaw Boulevard, where he was bound and gagged. Lancaster doused his face with Liquid Plumr in an attempt to get Taylor to reveal the location of the transmitter. When Taylor still would not talk, Lancaster, according to prosecution testimony, shot him five times in the head and torso with a 9mm handgun.
In pressing her case for first-degree murder to the jury, Deputy D.A. Hunter suggested that Lancaster had no intention of freeing Taylor, even had he disclosed the transmitter's whereabouts. “The defendant was not going to let Michael Taylor go from that location after tying him up, after throwing Drano into his face, and after putting duct tape on him,” Hunter said in her closing argument. “He was not going to let him go. The act was willful, it was deliberate, and it was premeditated.”
Lancaster's attorney, Ron Rothman, put up a cursory, ineffectual defense. He suggested in his opening statements that Taylor was not the nice guy everyone made him out to be, reminding the jury that micro-powered radio, a sophisticated form of civil disobedience, was in fact “illegal.” The defense called not a single witness on its behalf, and the attorney conceded in closing arguments that Lancaster was at the murder scene.
The jury returned two days later with guilty verdicts.
And so ended the trial of Andrew Lancaster for the killing of Michael Taylor, netting a third conviction for prosecutors. But it has proved an unsatisfying resolution for many of Taylor's friends and associates.
Some believe that the police never sufficiently pursued evidence of Mzee Shambulia's complicity in the crime. Shambulia's house, for instance, was never searched, and he wasn't interviewed until months afterward – this despite the fact that Taylor told friends, only days before his murder, that “If I turned up missing, the reason for my death would be Mzee.” In the besieged world of the radical left, some thought Shambulia was given a pass because he was a police informer, while conceding they had no evidence of this claim.
Veteran LAPD Detective Stephen Watson, the lead investigator on the case, insists that police pursued every lead and were simply unable to construct a case against Shambulia. “I have no doubt he was involved in trying to get the transmitter back,” Watson told the Weekly. “But at this time we don't have evidence to implicate him [in the murder].”
Others are unhappy with the prospect that his killer may be put to death for the crime. Taylor's friends Miguel Sanchez and Karen Pomer plan to take the stand during the penalty phase of the trial and plead for Lancaster's life. “It's what Michael would want,” Sanchez said. “I don't think killing [Lancaster] helps resolve the senselessness of all of this.”
Members of Taylor's family, including his mother, are expected to take the stand and ask for Lancaster to be put to death.
To his supporters, Michael Taylor was a messenger of hope from the streets of urban Los Angeles. Having been reborn himself, Taylor believed no human being should simply be discarded. Friends recall that he met Mzee Shambulia and Andrew Lancaster at the homeless shelter where he worked and, perhaps naively, thought he could help them down the path he himself had traveled. The tragedy of his untimely death is that Taylor's message was silenced by the very people he was trying to help.