Book excerpt: Once Upon a Time in Compton

The story of two gang detectives working what many considered, in its heyday, to be some of the meanest streets in the country


The following is an excerpt from "Once Upon a Time in Compton," the story of gang unit detectives Tim Brennan and Robert Ladd who witnessed the birth and rise of gangsta rap and were involved in the investigations of the murders of hip-hop stars Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. Click here to order.

It was almost befitting, like in a Greek tragedy, that Tim Brennan and Robert Ladd would be the first to arrive on the scene as Orlando “Baby Lane” Anderson lay dying, gasping his last breaths on May 29, 1998.

Their lives had been intertwined with his for years by this point – as though fate itself had fashioned things that way – from the start of Baby Lane’s “career” as a member of the South Side Crips (SSCC) through his alleged involvement as the key player in one of the most iconic moments in hip-hop history.

It was practically common knowledge, both on the street and through Tim and Bob’s extensive investigations, that Baby Lane was the man who’d murdered legendary hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur. And there he was now, dying at their feet, one of three men who would die that afternoon in a triple murder. Baby Lane’s best friend, Michael Dorrough, also wounded during the shootout, would later be charged, convicted, and imprisoned for all three deaths.

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This was just one of many violent incidents the two men would either be a part of or bear witness to during their time serving on the Compton police force, both as officers on the beat and as homicide detectives running the gang unit. 

This book is their story as partners for fifteen years working what many considered, in its heyday, some of the meanest streets in the country. They knew the players. The players knew them. They watched those players grow up, join gangs, and saw the impact those gangs had on an otherwise lawful community of good people who were simply trying to make their way towards what they believed to be the American Dream. 

From 1982 to 2000, they knew the world of Compton inside out. They watched the rise of gangsta rap and knew its architects: Eazy-E and the members of N.W.A, Suge Knight, DJ Quik, MC Eiht, and others. They also knew east coast hip-hop artists Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, because both rappers frequented Compton.

When Tupac and Biggie were murdered, Tim and Bob were heavily involved in both criminal investigations and wrote search warrants for them, as well as arrested suspects involved with the murders. They have clear-cut beliefs about who killed both, based on extensive evidence and their own research. The murderers in both cases have always seemed clear-cut to them, despite the fact that they’ve been presented as “unsolved” for nearly two decades.

In the end, despite their best efforts to fight against what was happening in the streets, they found themselves fighting against an even larger machine as apathy outside of Compton and corruption within the city ultimately led to the demise of the Compton Police Department.

Chapter 7: rocks, paper, killers

In the seventies, cocaine had a certain cachet. It was for the well-to-do, rock stars, and celebrities. An expensive drug that appeared on mirrored platters at tony parties, in the VIP sections and bathrooms of discos, and piled high on coffee tables in high-end hotel rooms as bacchanals raged in the background, it was the ultimate high for “The In Crowd.” It was chic to have tiny silver and ivory spoons and tightly-rolled hundred-dollar bills to snort powder, gold razorblades to chop it, diamond-rimmed vials of it hanging from necklaces, and long pinky nails for dipping into mounds of the stuff for a quick bump. This wasn’t a drug of the inner city. It was an elixir for the elite.

Tim and Bob with a cache of weapons seized from the street. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com/)
Tim and Bob with a cache of weapons seized from the street. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com/)

The eighties came along, and with the era came rock cocaine, also known as “crack” – a form of the drug cooked down to a potent alkaloid crystal that could be smoked. Its arrival would change everything. Cheap and readily available, rock cocaine’s presence would send a shockwave throughout the streets of Compton and, in time, all across America.

As the demand for the drug began to grow, a partnership developed between the cocaine cartel and the leaders of the gangs in Compton. Crips, Bloods, and the Latino gangs all had enough members and muscle to traffic the product and help its spread. Dope had always been a mainstay for the gangs. With the rise of crack, the money they would see from moving the drug was about to reach unprecedented levels.

Tim and Bob first began to notice rock cocaine in 1983, and things very quickly began to spin out of control. The first signal that there was a change happening on the streets occurred when they would drive down a block that was well-known for being a place where a particular gang sold drugs.  They were used to gang members scattering and throwing the product to the ground when the cops appeared so they wouldn’t be caught with it. Up to this point, it was usually bottles of PCP they tossed away. Now there were small, white hard rocks on the ground.

The two didn’t know what the stuff was at first. Then, almost overnight it seemed, those small, white hard rocks were everywhere. All the gangs seemed to have this stuff. The number of sellers in the community increased tenfold.

Each gang in Compton had an established place where they dealt their drugs. These spots were identified by the graffiti in the area that marked their turf and by them crossing out preexisting graffiti and writing “187” over it. It was well known that 187 was the California penal code for murder. It meant death to their enemies and rival gangs who dared to trespass. People from surrounding cities knew where these dope spots were located and had been venturing into Compton for years to buy PCP, heroin, and marijuana. The traffic coming into these areas soared once rock cocaine was on the scene.

In each gang, there was a hierarchy in terms of who did what in the drug game. Most of the Black gangs had formed in the early seventies and had cliques within them based on age.

Graffiti in Compton. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com)
Graffiti in Compton. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com)

The most elite level was the older members who’d been around since the founding days or not long after. They were referred to as OG’s - Original Gangsters - and Veteranos in the Latino gangs. They commanded the highest level of respect, usually based on past deeds where they’d proven themselves on the streets as being hardcore. The more violent the crime, the greater the respect. If someone was a known killer with one or more bodies that could be attributed to him, that person was top shelf, respected by members and rival gangs alike. Murder was the pinnacle when it came to gangbanging.

The next level was the Gangsters. They were typically sixteen to twenty-three years old and had also made names for themselves on the streets, usually through assorted crimes and murder.

The lowest level was the Baby Gangsters (BGs) and Tiny Gangsters (TGs). These were the youngest members in the gangs, ranging from around twelve to seventeen years old.

Crip with bandanas and cane. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com/)
Crip with bandanas and cane. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com/)

The OGs and Veteranos handled the manufacturing and distribution of the drugs. They were often referred to as “High Rollers” and “Ballers.” They were the big dogs and it wasn’t unusual for them to cross color lines and consort with rival gangs in order to make money. Gang colors and rivalries mattered, but money green trumped all.

The Gangsters were involved in selling and distribution. The BGs and TGs, however, were the frontline of the operation. They were the ones in the trenches selling the drugs on the street and acting as lookouts. Because BGs and TGs were all under eighteen, they were considered juveniles, so it was easier for them to incur the risk of being caught by the cops. This worked well within the gang’s operation because these kids were usually were released to a parent or only received probation. They would be back out on the streets selling rocks before their paperwork was even finished.

There would be ten to twenty gang members working the corners in their territory where they sold rocks. Cars would be lined up like at a McDonald’s drive-thru. The gangsters would rush the cars, going right up to the driver’s window peddling their wares. The idea of that now might not be so shocking, but back then it was a surreal thing to witness. Anyone who ever watched the HBO series The Wire’s depiction of Hamsterdam, the protected area where illegal drug transactions were allowed without consequence, would have an idea of what this looked like.

Except here it wasn’t protected.  Here it was illegal as hell.

Cops called these dope spots “cherry patches.” They could drive or walk into them and arrest both buyers and sellers at the same time. They had to be caught first, though, because folks broke out in every direction when the law showed up.

People poured into Compton from everywhere for rock cocaine. They came from adjacent cities like Long Beach, Paramount, Carson, Gardena, and Torrance, even traveling from Orange County. Their presence was conspicuous. It wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on with a nervous-looking white guy driving away from a known block where rocks were being dealt. He was a buyer. Buyers risked a lot coming into these areas to get a fix. Some were robbed, carjacked, even murdered.

In addition to these outdoor drug markets where dope was being sold on the corners, rock houses began to spring up all over the city. These headquarters where the gang leaders could often be found – usually with stashes of drugs, caches of weapons, and stacks of money – would be how Tim and Bob eventually came to make a name for themselves working as partners on the P.M. shift. When they made a bust, they would get everybody at these houses; gang members from the top level on down.

***

Everyone was making money.  The amounts coming in as a result of how much people loved rock cocaine were astounding.

The Ballers were now driving flashy cars. Fourteen-year-old kids were being stopped with five hundred dollars in cash in their pockets. The so-called High Rollers at the top of the food chain were driving brand new Mercedes, Cadillacs, SUVs, and tricked-out lowriders through the neighborhoods, showing off the spoils of the dope game. They wore expensive clothes and lots of gold jewelry. It was all very impressive to people who’d never seen this kind of money or ever thought it was possible to attain. The message being sent was clear:  they could have all this stuff too, if they were down to bang and slang to get it.

***

Weapons seized during gang unit raid. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com)
Weapons seized during gang unit raid. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com)

Because all the gangs were flush with money made from selling rock cocaine, it was possible for them to buy more than just flashy clothes, jewelry, and expensive cars. They could now also purchase arsenals of weapons, arming themselves militia-style. They weren’t just buying handguns, either, but new, sophisticated equipment, unlike anything that had been used before on the streets by civilians. The rise in popularity of these types of guns would lead to one of the most violent and destructive times in American history.

***

Prior to rock cocaine taking over, whenever Tim and Bob went to the scene of a drive-by shooting, there might be one or two victims who had been injured. Typically, they’d have four or five bullet wounds from shots fired from a pistol or a shotgun. Once crack arrived, and with it, an avalanche of money and the ability for gangs to buy more high-tech weapons, the entire dynamics of rivalries and payback changed. Now when drive-bys happened, there was no longer just a victim or two with treatable injuries. There were multiple victims as well as dead bodies. Gangs were armed with AK-47s, M-16s, Uzis, and MAC-10s with thirty-round clips. They could roll up on a scene and just spray bullets, taking out everything in their path. Houses were turned into Swiss cheese by high-powered weapons. Many innocent bystanders, caught off- guard in their yards or inside their homes, were taken out in the process.

Compton had become a full-fledged warzone.

Neither Bob nor Tim, when they were hired, could have been prepared to see this kind of carnage. Not in a present-day American city. But there it was, and it was happening every day, particularly at night during the P.M. shift, which was when the most murderous activity seemed to jump off.

The crime scenes during this period were unimaginable. Throngs of people would be gathered around the cordoned-off areas screaming at officers. Family members and friends of the wounded and dead would be crying, hysterical, trying to burst through the yellow tape. Some of the grief-stricken managed to break through and had to be intercepted by cops, sometimes even tackled, to keep them from getting to the loved one they were mourning.

Then there were the dogs.

Wild packs of them roamed the streets of Compton in the eighties and nineties. Called “ghetto dogs” and “Compton dingoes,” they would sometimes show up at crime scenes where someone had been shot or killed and the body still lay bleeding in the street.  While cops were busy restraining and tackling distraught relatives of the deceased, dogs would dart past them, run over to the body, and start lapping up the blood.  The crowd would scream, gasp, some collapsed. The cops would have to chase the dogs away.

As if crime scenes weren’t complicated enough as it was. Cops were dealing with paramedics, trying to make sure they didn’t trample over anything that might be important to the investigation, as well as instructing other cops who were working the scene. Add to that the arrival of higher-ups like captains, lieutenants, and sergeants, all wanting to see what had gone down and have their say about what should happen next. Then the news media would show up and there’d be a swarm of choppers flying overhead. People screaming over the dead and the dying, medics, cops, bosses, and the deafening sound of aircraft circling overhead. It was a surreal kind of chaos that could easily overwhelm someone who wasn’t prepared for this kind of police work. It was one of the reasons some cops didn’t last and moved on to quieter suburban cities. Ones without bodies piling up in the streets.

Sometimes a victim’s body would lie in the streets for hours until the coroner showed up. The area around the body would be marked off with yellow crime scene tape, but that didn’t stop people from sometimes driving right through it and almost running over the body.

Gang members would often be among those screaming at crime scenes over their “homie” who had just been shot or murdered. Tim and Bob knew their faces and which sets they repped. It was usually no secret to the gangbangers as to who’d been the perpetrators. They would angrily declare they were going to take revenge, jump in their cars, and speed away. They were going to strap up, then head out for payback. They’d go looking for the perpetrators in the rival gang’s neighborhood, but if they couldn’t find the right person, that didn’t stop them from shooting up the place anyway. Somebody was going to pay. Sometimes they would go from rival neighborhood to rival neighborhood looking for the instigators, eager to exact an eye for an eye, a body for a body.

Tortilla Flats gang members being arrested by Compton PD. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com)
Tortilla Flats gang members being arrested by Compton PD. (Photo/comptonpolicegangs.com)

Cops felt powerless in these situations. Barrages of gunfire would explode in the distance as they worked to clear a crime scene. They knew it was the sound of retaliation for the victims at the current location, but nothing could be done about it. They couldn’t just abandon the scene and rush over to try and stop further bloodshed, and the department didn’t have enough cops to go around. All units were often busy at similar violent crime scenes throughout Compton. They just had to let it happen. Once officers were finished processing a crime scene, they would head to the next one to deal with more bodies, more devastated loved ones, more bloodthirsty dogs, more medics, cops, bosses, and, in short order, more swarming media choppers overhead.

For the department, it was a terrible position to be in; to be so outnumbered by crime, there was no possible way a shooting could be stopped, even with advance knowledge that it was about to go down.

Imagine going through this night after night. It was extremely frustrating.

Logic would suggest that after a night of rushing from crime scene to crime scene, cops on the P.M. shift should would all be eager to go home and pass out once it was quitting time. Many of them, however, were so keyed-up after being in one frustrating adrenalin-fueled moment after another, they still had adrenalin pumping through their bodies and needed to calm themselves a bit before heading home.

There was a bar in Long Beach called The Thirsty Isle, famous for their thirty-three-ounce schooners of beer. It was the favorite watering hole for many of the guys on the P.M. shift. Tim, Bob, and several of their co-workers would head there, down a schooner or two, and try to wind down from hours of frustration working the streets. There’d be lots of talk and waxing hopeful about a time in the future when there was enough manpower on the Compton police force to stop gangbangers before they could retaliate. A time when they could get ahead of the rising body counts, instead of just dealing with the aftermath. They’d drink, talk, and dream. On especially wild and violent nights, the entire P.M. shift could be found in The Thirsty Isle, trying to take the edge off.

***

These drug wars would go on for years. Thousands died on the streets of Compton as gangs battled over turf, power, reputations, and money. The rock cocaine business was booming. By the mid-eighties, it had expanded far beyond the city to the rest of the country as gangs began to see a broader potential for commerce that came with this highly-addictive drug.

Compton gangsters start showing up driving cars with out-of-state license plates. Oregon. Washington. Kansas. Arkansas. Louisiana. Texas. Oklahoma. Colorado. Nevada. Compton’s Crips and Bloods had realized it was smart to start branches of their organizations in other states and sell rock cocaine in those places. They could command higher prices, sometimes double what was being made in Compton. These proved to be easy transitions, as most of these places didn’t have gangs in them that were formidable enough to challenge their presence.

It was similar to the picture rapper DJ Quik painted in his song “Jus Lyke Compton," where he described his tour stops in cities that now had the same kind of gang activity and violence popping off in them like what was going on back in his hometown.

Places that had never heard of a Crip, a Blood, or even the city of Compton itself now had gang members on corners in neighborhoods selling crack to streams of eager buyers. With the gangs and the crack came drive-by shootings and a level of violence that had been unprecedented in some of these areas.

The Compton P.D. received calls from police departments around the country asking for information. They hadn’t been prepared for the arrival of gangs and drugs in their communities and the hell that was subsequently unleashed. Los Angeles and Compton had formed gang units ten years prior and had a level of expertise law enforcement agencies desperately needed. Narcotics units were also involved since Crips and Bloods were now trafficking rock cocaine across the country.

The gangs were making millions from the sales of the drug. Police departments across America formed gang units and narcotic units as a means of counterattack. It was common for narcotics units doing drug busts to come across stacks and stacks of money, often in the tens and hundreds of thousands or more. These large scores of cash sometimes proved too tempting for unethical units. They were dealing with huge sums of money; more than most (if not all) of them had ever seen. Who would know it was missing if no one told, they rationalized. And if someone did tell, who would believe a gangbanger over a cop?

***

Compton was averaging over a thousand shootings incidents and seventy to eighty homicides a year. Those were astounding figures for a city that was only ten square miles. Rock cocaine was behind it all. The drug ruled the streets and the people addicted to it. It seemed to be an unstoppable force, continuing to generate millions for gangs with no signs of slowing down. Street officers like Tim and Bob would assist the narcotics unit with search warrants.

When rock houses were busted, large amounts of cash would almost always be recovered. Fifteen to twenty-five thousand. Sometimes even more.

In 1987, when Sergeant Hourie Taylor disbanded the gang unit because of a manpower shortage and the personnel went back to working patrol, Sergeant R.E. Allen’s narcotics unit was disbanded for improprieties.  Taylor and Allen had a long-running rivalry that had only intensified when each was appointed to run his own unit. Officers in both units – including Tim and Bob, who were in the gang unit when it was started up again a year later in 1988 – would find themselves loyal to one man or the other, Taylor or Allen. It was no secret to anyone in the department that Allen didn’t like Tim, Bob, or Bobby Baker because the three men often brought in more drugs than his narcotics unit. Taylor was a staunch ally to Tim and Bob, which further widened the chasm between him and Allen. The rivalry between Taylor and Allen would deepen and escalate over the course of Tim and Bob’s careers and be one of the things that led to the demise of the Compton P.D.

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