DECEMBER 27, 2015
IF THE LAPD can hold out for another few days, Miguel Angel Cano, aged 34, will retain the unwanted honor of being the second-to-last man killed by the department in 2015. They’re up to 20 for the year. Cano died early in the afternoon of November 9 on Stagg Street, in a quiet San Fernando Valley neighborhood just west of the Van Nuys airport. The first news reports were puzzling. “A man was fatally shot by Los Angeles police Monday afternoon after he was reportedly acting bizarrely and standing in traffic,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. Bizarre behavior is not usually a capital offense, so I read on. The Times quoted a police spokesman who laid out a brief official narrative. “The officers observed the man and his strange behavior,” he said, “so they deployed a Taser to de-escalate the situation.” When that weapon proved inadequate to the task, the officer went on, police fired beanbag rounds. The problem, whatever it was, was still not solved. It did not de-escalate at all. Instead, “the situation escalated,” the spokesman said. “Shots were fired and the man was killed.”
Confused, I called the LAPD media relations line. The officer who answered the phone couldn’t tell me much, only that Cano and the police “did get into a use of force before the OIS,” or officer involved shooting. In other words, “there was a struggle.” When I asked how it began, what was “strange” about Cano’s behavior, if he had been armed or in danger of harming anyone, the officer asked me to wait while he looked for the file. He couldn’t find it. “I think he reached for a weapon,” he said eventually, apologized, and then fumbled some more. In the end, all he could tell me was this: “They gave him commands. He failed to obey. A Taser was deployed and used. A beanbag shotgun was also used. It did not have any effect. An OIS occurred. There were no injuries on the officers’ side.” He wouldn’t be able to say more until the incident had been investigated. How long would that be? “About six months.”
Soon, though, the department settled on a slightly fuller story. Chief Charlie Beck told the Police Commission that Cano had been “running in and out of traffic, acting very aggressively,” and when police confronted him, he “refused to submit to arrest,” so they shot him with a beanbag round — a sort of mesh sock stuffed with metal or ceramic shot — and then a Taser, but he continued to lunge toward them. “In fact,” said Chief Beck, he was able to wrest the beanbag shotgun away from one officer and fire off a round. “They returned fire, killing the subject.”
That Saturday, I drove out to the Valley. Just before I turned onto Stagg Street, a battered van drove by, spray-painted with the words, “LAPD killed my friend. We need justice. You could be next.” Across the back doors, beneath a window emblazoned with stickers (Dodgers, Raiders, Hello Kitty) were scrawled the words “RIP ‘Drifter.’” The van stopped a few feet past a small shrine on the curb that marked the spot where Miguel Cano, a.k.a. Michael, a.k.a. Drifter, had fallen five days earlier. There were candles, flowers, a teddy bear, a six-pack of Corona, a can of Modelo, a wooden cross. Behind it, on the picket fence of the closest house, a handmade sign spelled out the words “Stop LAPD violence” in black and red marker.
The van’s driver was a white man in his early 30s named Robert Laverdure. His arms were heavily tattooed, and more ink, on his scalp, peeked out from beneath a ball cap. He had known Cano, he told me, for 15 years. “He was my friend,” he said, then choked up and went silent. That Monday, Cano already lay dead on the asphalt when Laverdure had arrived at the scene. But Laverdure’s girlfriend, Stephanie Moreno, a young woman with a pierced lip who sat looking shell-shocked in the van’s front seat, had been with Cano just before the shooting. So had Ray Beedle. It was in front of his house that Cano was shot. Cano used to date Beedle’s niece, and hung around long after that relationship ended. “He just kind of grew on me,” Beedle said, “like a fungus.” He shook his head. “He became one of my best friends.” At the time of his death, Cano was unemployed and staying with friends in a house down the street. Beedle, a thickset man in his 50s, saw him nearly every day. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him, Beedle said. “No one disliked him.” Cano was drunk a lot and could be obnoxious, but he made up for it by clowning and making people laugh, and he had a big heart, Beedle said. “He helped everyone out.”
No one but Miguel Cano and the two police officers who shot him were there to witness the events that immediately preceded the shooting, but none of the witnesses I interviewed who were present just before and after it occurred found the LAPD’s story credible. That Monday, Moreno had been driving to Beedle’s house to help look after his elderly mother, she said, when she noticed Cano on a side street with three young white men around him. They were skaters, and Cano’s head was bleeding. She thought that they had jumped him. She stopped the car and called out. The skaters told her that Cano had fallen and they were trying to help him up. He was cursing. “I was like, ‘Oh, he’s drunk,’” she said. A police helicopter was already circling the block. She assumed it was for Cano, that someone had called 911. She tried to convince him to get into the car. He refused. “He could hardly walk,” she said. “He was barely making it.”
She parked and managed to get Cano into the Beedles’ backyard. Ray Beedle met her there. Cano, he remembered, kicked at a piece of wood as he walked into the yard and was so drunk that “he spun around completely and fell down.” The helicopter was still circling. They tried to convince him to stay, but he refused. He pushed past them through the gate and stumbled back out to the street. Beedle and Moreno stepped into the garage and were debating whether or not they should go after him when they heard the shots. “It was seconds” after Cano walked off, Moreno said. “Not minutes, seconds,” and not nearly enough time, she said, for the sequence of events described by the LAPD to have occurred.
The shots, Beedle said, were all the same: the sharp, quick pops of handgun rounds, not the distinctive echoing bark of a shotgun. (LAPD’s beanbag rounds are fired through an ordinary pump-action Remington with a slightly modified barrel and a neon green stock.) His sister, Kim Romo, was inside the house at the time. “I heard six shots at least,” she told me. “There was no time lapse between them: it was BAMBAMBAM.” Beedle ran out first and saw Cano lying bleeding on the ground, two officers standing over him, their guns still aimed at his body. “I said, ‘Why did you kill my friend?’” They said he had rushed them, and ordered Beedle away from the body.
In separate interviews, Beedle, Moreno, and Romo all told me that there was no shotgun in the street or anywhere near Cano’s body, no beanbag, and no Taser. Both his hands were empty. He was wearing skinny jeans and a tank top, Moreno said, and was clearly not hiding a weapon. When Laverdure arrived a few minutes later, police had just begun taping off the scene. He too said he saw no weapon anywhere near his friend’s body. Only later, after more police came and pushed back the neighbors and the onlookers and family members who had gathered, did anyone notice a Taser lying on the asphalt not far from Cano’s corpse, like a space-age plastic pistol. “It was bright green,” Laverdure said — there was no way he could have missed it. Beedle, Romo, and Moreno concurred: the Taser appeared later, after the two officers who shot Cano had been ushered away, and driven off.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Laverdure told me before I left. Cano had had scrapes with the law before, he acknowledged. “Everybody has their demons. His demon was alcohol. That’s no reason to kill a man. There’s police that are alcoholics. There’s judges that are alcoholics. There’s all kinds of people in high society who are alcoholics. Do they get shot?”
The funeral was held on a Wednesday at a mortuary in a largely treeless sweep of San Fernando where the boulevards reach long and straight toward the mountains. The pews in the brick-walled chapel were nearly full. Many of the mourners wore black T-shirts printed with Miguel Angel Cano’s image. His mother sat in the first row, wearing a striped sweater, her hair cut short. Her son lay a few feet away in an open casket. Two giant flat-screen monitors were affixed to the wall to his left and his right. They showed images of him as a boy and later as a young man, on the beach, in the dunes, at Disneyland, clowning and posing with his friends, sometimes with his head shaved to the scalp, later with long curly dark locks and a mustache, with his own son, with his daughter as an infant in his lap and as a girl at school receiving a certificate, Cano grinning proudly beside her. He was smiling in almost every photo, usually goofing for the camera. In one image that flashed on the screens as the priest doled out communion wafers to the mourners, Cano wore a giant, rainbow-colored Afro wig, and his friends and his relatives laughed in the pews. In another he lay on his back on a green lawn with one of his children in each of his arms, smiling.