The summer of 1982 was the highest and lowest time of my young life. Having passed the high school equivalency exam with plans to drop out midway through my senior year, I was convinced to stay in with some sage advice from a fellow stock clerk named Manuel at my job at the old Hunters Books on Rodeo Drive and Little Santa Monica who threatened to kick my ass if I quit school as he’d done just a few months from the finish line. From there I managed to pull my academic shit together enough to graduate Beverly Hills High School that June.
Not only that, but through a special second-chance program for underprivileged underachievers implemented by the U.S. Navy and called BOOST short for Broadened Opportunities for Officer Selection and Training, I suddenly was staring at an opportunity to go to college – USC, or maybe even the goddam naval academy! — that up until then had been nothing more than another in a long line of unaffordable pipe dreams. The recruiter shepherding my application was very optimistic that I would qualify.
Then it all came crashing down one night a few weeks later in July when I was arrested for ADW – assault with a deadly weapon. And indeed on La Cienega Boulevard just south of Wilshire, a block away from the apartment where I lived with my mom, I had brandished a gun and pointed it in the direction of another person. Nevermind that it was entirely a demonstration of self-defense against a crazed and threatening driver of a limousine who wouldn’t stop following me down Wilshire and that the firearm was an empty .22-caliber Ruger rifle that had been an 18th birthday present that previous May from my aunt and uncle and that I’d had with me because I was returning from a shooting trip out in Santa Clarita with the West LA LAPD Explorer troop I was a member of, it must have been a slow night for the police because it seemed the entire force descended upon me and the irate chauffeur until two of its finest cuffed me up and took me to jail where I was strip-searched, processed, allowed one phone call (to my mom) and then put in a cell with an angry dude who claimed his only infraction was being a black man in Beverly Hills.
He asked me what I was in for. I told him I’d shot a cop. He left me alone after that, and a few hours later I was released. In a frantic search for help with my bail my mom had fist called my oldest high school friend Morrie Zager who hemmed and hawed and was of no help. After that she called my friend Mark Burton. He didn’t hem and haw at all. He said to her not to worry that he and his dad David would meet her at the station the elder Burton cut a check for $500 and I was a free man.
And a ruined one. Though I eventually had my day in court via a preliminary hearing with a lawyer Mr. Burton paid for, and the case was dismissed once it was discovered that the chauffeur had not only lied in his witness statement but that it had been his pronounced antagonism and aggression that brought about the entire unfortunate incident, the damage had been done in that the navy wasn’t very much interested in candidates who demonstrated such poor judgment.
My mom was a bit more forgiving. In open court she got the judge’s gavel going after saying my only mistake was that I hadn’t loaded the gun and killed the bastard. I love my mom.
But the navy no longer loved me for its BOOST program. Sure I was still welcome to enlist, but any opportunity for USC or the Naval Academy was no longer on the table.
And so there I was in the middle of my first summer out of high school. What should have been one of the most exciting and expectant times of my life about-faced into one of the most depressing with no job, no prospects, no idea what I wanted to do.
As if my friend Mark’s dad hadn’t done enough for me already what with posting my bail and getting me a lawyer and not even so much as hinting about getting paid back, the next thing he did was offer me a job, which I readily and appreciatively accepted without even knowing what I’d be doing other than it would be warehouse work in a pretty bad part of town. And that’s how I came to be employed at the Georgia Thread Company at 1106 E. East Pico Boulevard near Central Avenue.
My first day at work involved me driving from the slums of Beverly Hills downtown via the 10 Freeway. I had been downtown before, often actually. For most of my sophomore and junior years my mother had been a distributor for the Herald Examiner and many were the afternoons after school or the early weekend mornings that I’d go down with her to the plant to pick up that day’s newspapers destined for paperboys and porches throughout Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz.. But I’d never been to this barren dangerous tract whose only jewel was the architecturally significant Coca-Cola facility a couple blocks east on Central Avenue.
How dangerous? Well, upon being brought into the expansive warehouse and introduced to my immediate supervisor, a haggard and skittish dude named Mike Benjamin who couldn’t walk without the use of those metal crutches with the cuffs that fit about the forearms, we shook hands and he asked me if I owned a locking knife. When I told him I had a Buck knife at home he told me to bring it with me tomorrow. And then for the day he loaned me a spare he had with a six-inch locking blade in a tooled leather belt holster.
“Wear it whenever you go outside around here,” he told me. “Everyone does – even the bosses.” Benjamin equated it to a badge. “If people see it on you chances are you’ll never have to use it, but without one out there the chances are you might run into a situation where you wished you had one to use.”
It’s advice I never failed to heed. And fortunately the worst I ever encountered out on the street was nothing more threatening than some ominous predatory staring from the ever-present indigents in the vicinity. Whether they kept their distance because I was carrying or because they figured any white boy down around there was either too tough or stupid to bother with, I wouldn’t know — and I certainly had no interest in finding out.
The work itself was tedious in its monotony — and for the record, I had no idea that what I was doing involved rebranding spools of stolen thread.
Alongside another warehouse worker named Carlos with penchants for dirty jokes and blaring Spanish-language AM music stations on the company radio while Mike sat at his desk smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone, my main task was pulling labels off of the bottoms of spools of garment thread and replacing them with Georgia Thread Company labels.
And with the exception of the occasional light bulb needing to be changed or floor that needed sweeping, this was what I did. I’d open up a box filled with large spools of white thread, yank off one label and stick another. As such, the high points of the day were when the roach coach would honk its arrival with “La Cucaracha” in the alley outside the back of the warehouse at 10 a.m., the 1 p.m. lunch hour when I’d get in my beat-up 1965 Mustang and drive up to Tommy’s at Beverly and Rampart for a chiliburger. Then another break later in the afternoon usually spent out back smoking cigarettes. I also looked forward to the moment each day when Mike would finally get sick of all the Mexican music and demand Carlos switch it to a top-40 station like the Mighty 690 or KTNQ at which point I was guaranteed to hear the Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” two or three times an hour.
I don’t know which I hated more. The horrible music I could understand or the never-ending stuff I couldn’t.
Occasionally a thread delivery or a bank deposit would need to be made and the company vehicle was an old Dodge van whose transmission was a three-speed stick with the gearshift on the steering column. If this job taught me anything – besides the potential importance of keeping a big knife visible at all times – it was how to operate a manual transmission.
I wasn’t the first choice in drivers. Carlos had seniority on me by a couple months and so he’d usually get tapped for the duty. But one day Carlos was out sick and I was the only one available to make a trip to a bank on Ventura Boulevard in Encino.
“Do you know where Encino is?” Mike asked. I nodded. Do you know how to drive stick?”
“Sure!” I said enthusiastically, having never done so before in my life. The extent of my two years of driving experience had all been with automatic transmissions. Even the Yamaha Champ 50cc motorbike I drove before I had my license was a no-clutch three speed.
Climbing up into the driver’s seat I managed to find reverse and only stall the van out once before I got her pointed in the right direction and moving forward. I took an extra turn around the block to get better acclimated, and my guess is that the worn out truck’s worn out tranny was pretty forgiving because by the time I came around on 16th from Central Avenue I was confident enough in my new-found skills to just bypass turning up Paloma and completing the lap and instead I got onto the westbound 10 Freeway headed for the north 405.
It was smooth sailing until I crested the Sepulveda Pass and while dropping down to the San Fernando Valley floor the Dodge stalled. Just quit running. I’m not sure how I knew what to do, but after coasting for a quarter mile or so I took the van out of gear, pushed the clutch back in and dropped it back into second and slowly let the clutch out until the gears caught and she pop-started right back up and stayed lit. It was something akin to me having my own private Obi-Wan telling me to trust the force.
The trip back from Encino via the 101 to the 110 was thankfully stall-free.
But that’s enough backstory. Let’s get to the reason for this recollection. Mr. Burton’s partner at the Georgia Thread Company, was a guy named Don Serra and the two men couldn’t have been more opposite. Whereas Mr. Burton was a quietly avuncular family man with a broad forehead and a bushy mustache, Don was all slick and loud bachelor flash and salesman glitz. Mr. Burton drove a Jaguar XJ-6 sedan, Don drove a Mercedes 450SL convertible. Mr. Burton wore a suit and tie, Don wore his hair well-oiled with a perennial fake tan beneath creased designer jeans and loud shirts unbuttoned halfway to expose gold chains and a hairy chest. When Mr. Burton needed something done he came back and considerately discussed things with Mike. When Don needed something done he came back and condescendingly ordered Mike around. No one liked Don. Everyone loved Mr. Burton.
Their only similarity was that they were both criminals, something I didn’t know until after Don was murdered. I wasn’t stupid, mind you. It didn’t take me swapping out labels on too many spools of industrial thread to wonder what was being covered up, but I knew my place which was that it was none of my business.
Not that I didn’t try to make it my business. At one point I remember there was some issue that exploded about sort of inspection happening on short notice and there was a very pressing need to hide some of the warehouse inventory. Don was frantically angry and yelling about how screwed they were at Mr. Burton who was far more calm and composed. I think it was more a sense of loyalty to Mr. Burton than any criminal inclinations that inspired my offer to be of assistance, but nevertheless I told Mr. Burton that if it would help, I’d be happy to put however much of the thread would fit in my car and store it in the garage at my apartment building.
As Don continued to rant with his usual flamboyant annoyance, I clearly remember the look of bemused surprise Mr. Burton gave me as he tuned Don out to consider my offer. He looked right through me for a few seconds then slowly shook his head and smiled while clapping a hand to my shoulder.
“I really appreciate that,” he said, “but it won’t be necessary.”
I worked for Mr. Burton for a few more weeks after that, quitting in September when I got a full-time messenger job that paid a little better and was closer to home in Century City.
It was about six months later when I got a frantic call from Mark that his dad was in the hospital because he’d had a heart attack after he went into work and found Don dead with his throat cut and blood all over the Georgia Thread Company warehouse where I had worked.
I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t believe it when Mark told me that the cops thought his dad had done it. Eventually Mr. Burton recovered and was released from the hospital and as the time progressed to when Mr. Burton was arrested the story I learned was different than what made the papers.
It was true that Don and Mr. Burton had schemed together and concocted a plan wherein they reported Georgia Thread Company’s thread inventory stolen in February of 1983 and with apparently little resistance collected $225,000 from their insurance carrier. It was in the aftermath of the caper when investigators from the State Insurance Department focused their attention on the case that things began to unravel. And swiftly.
What wasn’t entirely true were the statements that Benjamin made. He told police that Serra got cold feet as the net pulled tighter around them and threatened Mr. Burton with cooperation with the authorities as if Serra was some sort of stand-up guy underneath all the hair oil and gold chains and asshole attitude. The news reports backed-up this faux portrait of Serra as tragic victim by implying he was done in because of some sort of attack of conscience he had.
Not at all.
What I learned from my friend Mark and what makes far more sense is that Serra started blackmailing Mr. Burton by demanding a bigger cut in exchange for keeping his mouth shut. On at least one occasion Mr. Burton agreed to Serra’s demands, but Serra came back again wanting still a higher price for his silence. None of that aspect of Saint Serra made the newspapers – nor should such greed get somebody dead. But still, while Burton and Serra had gotten themselves into one hell of a mess, Serra took it to the next dangerous level by demanding a bonus while threatening a double cross.
As to whether or not Mr. Burton was complicit in the conspiracy to kill Serra I do not know. But I don’t believe he was. Benjamin certainly stated that Mr. Burton told him to make the arrangements to have Serra killed, but when you consider the source it’s just hard to accept.
What I believe is that at some point Mr. Burton shared his frustrations to Benjamin as to what Serra was doing and how problematic he was becoming and then Benjamin took the initiative to have Serra killed by finding someone to do it. Benjamin’s motive isn’t hard to find: Serra’s share of the insurance scam was there for the taking.
At worst Burton may have been interested in arranging a good scare for Serra so that he’d shut the hell up, but not permanently.
For Benjamin, with no love lost between him and Serra and a fat share of the settlement hanging around, perhaps he saw a greater opportunity. Thus he went out among biker bars in Whittier and Santa Fe Springs and South Gate aggressively and openly trolling for a $5,000 hitman. And it went to hell from there when James Goodrum and Susan Roselli got hooked for the duty. But it was Goodrum who did the actual cutting of Serra’s throat during the evening of March 23, 1983, apparently beating Roseli to the punch by only a matter of minutes.
Strangely enough it came out later that Goodrum already knew Serra – because he had been hired and was doing the exact same label exchange job I’d been doing a few months earlier.
Goodrum insisted in his confession that he’d never intended to off Serra. His intention was to take the $5,000 Benjamin was waving and run. The 43 year old from Maywood whose nickname was “Bear” claimed when he confronted Serra on the day he killed him he’d even considered warning Serra about the plot against him, but instead Serra started to argue and pulled a knife.
During the alleged struggle that followed Goodrum said the knife nicked Serra in the throat, but I don’t know if “nick” is the right term since Serra’s throat was cut from ear to Adam’s apple. Goodrum then took Serra’s wallet and fled, reportedly not knowing that Roseli and a companion were outside waiting for Serra to walk out.
Only a short way into the police investigation both Benjamin and Goodrum and Roseli made statements implicating Mr. Burton.
Goodrum later pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in September 1985 in a deal to avoid the death penalty. By agreeing to testify against Mr. Burton, who had finally been arrested and charged in July 1985 and held without bail at L.A. County Jail, Goodrum instead received a sentence of 25 years to life, which means if not already he’ll be eligible for parole in the next few years.
Benjamin who was 44 at the time of his arrest, cut a similar plea bargain, accepting a second-degree murder jacket in exchange for his testimony at the Burton trial. Roseli, 31, was granted immunity in June 1985 for producing a photograph of Serra along with a written description of him that Mr. Burton allegedly provided for her. It was never made clear why Roseli had waited more than two years to produce that photo, but prosecutors hailed it as the corroborating piece of evidence they needed to file charges against Mr. Burton and they did so shortly thereafter.
Mr. Burton maintained his innocence throughout his trial, but on the so-called strength of the testimony of Benjamin and Goodrum as well as the Roseli photograph, he was convicted at 56 years of age of being the orchestrator of Serra’s murder. He avoided the death penalty and instead was sentenced to life in prison.