According to Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore, 50% of all homicides in LA are gang-related. As a result, covering homicide in Los Angeles means covering gang violence. The statistics become their own, seemingly inevitable narrative that hangs like a cloud over the criminal justice system.
But this isn’t a story about statistics: it’s a story about coincidence.
Officer Oliver Medina takes the stand. He has a broad face adorned with unruly eyebrows. His boyish disposition is disarmingly friendly — a stark contrast to his finely pressed uniform and the imposing silver badge on his chest. He speaks with sincerity when he testifies regarding the homicide of Michael Lowe. The first responder on the scene, Medina found Lowe lying on the ground in a puddle of blood. Medina performed CPR on the victim until the paramedics arrived, but his efforts were futile. Lowe was pronounced dead at the hospital.
From my perspective, Lowe’s homicide seems to have a straightforward narrative. On December 1, 2017, Jeremiah Lacroix, alleged member of the Kings Have Arrived gang, showed up at a bar in Monrovia where he saw Lowe, an alleged member of the Nuevos Varrios. The men exchanged words resulting in a fistfight, which culminated in Lacroix taking out a gun and shooting Lowe three times before fleeing. The story and the trial itself feel familiar. Gang-related homicides occupy so many of the criminal justice courts that watching them has become tragically routine. But then something a little unusual happens.
The prosecution calls the coroner, Dr. Matthew Miller.
Matthew Miller is my brother’s name. That means nothing. It’s a very common name. And yet, it makes me stay in the gallery for a few minutes longer. My Matt Miller is a 22-year-old Seahawks fanatic who eats Cheez-Its for most meals. This Matt Miller is a specialist in anatomic and clinical pathology. He wears a well-fitted, light-blue suit and a pastel-pink tie. He speaks in short bursts of medical terminology as he articulates how the bullets pierced Lowe’s chest, abdomen, and left thigh. It’s a combination of wounds that Miller describes as “non-survivable unless he was already on an operating table.”
Lowe was obviously not on an operating table. I come to find out that the altercation occurred in a dive bar. Photos shown in court display yellow evidence placards by signs for Budweiser. A wooden rod marks the trajectory of a stray bullet into a pool table. A white sneaker lies beneath a tattered barstool.
On a Saturday night, I decide to drive to Monrovia to see the bar for myself. I want a clearer picture to piece together the violence in my mind. Upon entering the small town, I turn right, and police lights flash in my rearview mirror. My gut sinks as I am pulled over onto the dusty shoulder of the road.
I roll down my window and come face to face with Officer Medina.
Yes, that Officer Medina. The one with the friendly disposition. The one who performed CPR on Michael Lowe. The one who took the stand the day before.
I flounder as Medina informs me that I had turned right on a red light where signs expressly forbid that automotive action. Definitely my fault. Then Medina asks, “What brings you to town?”
I don’t know what to say. If I tell him that I’m here to investigate the scene of a homicide — the exact homicide that he just testified about in court — how will Medina respond? Will he be flattered that I recognized him? Will he be offended and give me a ticket? Will he accompany me to the bar and describe the scene in vivid detail? Will he think I’m stalking him? Will he assume that I’m just some entitled journalist who has come to his hometown to unearth personal tragedy for a quick scoop?
I am silent for what seemed like a minute but was probably half a second. My mouth opens.
“I’m just going to a bar.”
Medina lets me off on a warning. He gives a jovial smile and nods “have a nice night.”
I smile back and proceed to a bar that was the scene of a homicide. My fingers grip the steering wheel as I anticipate the bars on windows, the broken glass on the outdoor pavement, the seedy crowd with face tattoos. I lived in a rough part of Chicago for most of my adult life — in an apartment across the street from a methadone clinic. I know these kinds of bars. But as I near the address on my GPS, I realize something.
This is not one of those bars.
Situated just off Main Street, the hometown, local watering hole is nestled between a flower shop and a hair salon. Around the corner is a comic book shop and an all-you-can-eat sushi place. White string lights adorn the outside seating area of a taco shop under which smiling couples munch on chips and salsa. The avenues are lined with decorative street lamps — each baring a banner celebrating a student who has graduated from the local high school.
The inside of the bar is exactly what I’ve seen in the crime scene photos, but now it’s animated. Where there were once evidence placards there are now half-empty bottles of Coors Light. Two young women gossip behind their well-manicured hands — their backs turned to an Angels’ game. A woman in a yellow dress beats her boyfriend at pool. A cover band plays “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks as middle aged couples dance in their chairs. The bubbly bartender wears a black, sequined bra exposed beneath a flowy, white blouse and jeans. There’s free popcorn here, and I’m told there’s karaoke on Thursday nights. A kitschy sign hangs over the bar that reads, “One tequila. Two tequila. Three tequila. Floor.”
I like it here. I am having a nice night. And then it hits me: what if Michael Lowe also was here just to have a nice night?
Honestly, I’m embarrassed that I failed to look at the victim like a full-fledged human being rather than a two-dimensional stereotype of a gang-banger. I’m embarrassed that I failed to put myself in his position. This is a new facet of privilege that I didn’t realize I had: I can walk into any bar and, based on my appearance and the color of my skin, no one will ever assume that I was asking for trouble.
I’m embarrassed that I saw Lowe’s death as part of an inevitable narrative of gang related violence.
Whether or not you believe, as the defense argues, that Lacroix acted in self-defense, the fact that he shot and killed Lowe is undisputed. But there’s no evidence that Lacroix went to the bar on a mission. There wasn’t a “hit” out on Lowe. As far as the evidence suggests, there was nothing inevitable about the men’s altercation — Lacroix just happened to show up as the same bar as Lowe.
There are countless other Kings Have Arrived-affiliated apartments and common hangouts. There are six miles between the men’s respective gang territories. There are thousands of other bars in the valley where Lowe and Lacroix lived.
What are the chances that Lacroix would decide to walk into that bar on that night?
What are the chances that the men would fight?
What are the chances that Lacroix would pull the trigger?
What are the chances that Michael Lowe would walk into a bar and he wouldn’t walk out alive?
It’s a series of coincidences — many of them having no more meaning than the fact that I heard my brother’s name in court or that I happened to be pulled over by Officer Medina. Coincidence destroys the general narrative of statistics, the story we craft to assure ourselves that this could never happen to us.
Because in reality, it could.