With so much news contending for public attention, it might seem as if the investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department into the July 27 death of Gemmel Moore may have slipped into oblivion. Not so, says Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who ordered detectives to take a second look after Moore’s family raised concerns. The investigation is ongoing.
In fact, says Lieutenant Joe Mendoza of the Homicide Bureau, who is heading up a team of two full time investigators, the investigation is still in its early stages, with a number of potential witnesses coming forward who have been granted limited immunity.
Moore, 26, died in Democratic politico Ed Buck’s West Hollywood apartment of an accidental methamphetamine overdose, said the LA County Coroner. West Hollywood Sheriff’s deputies also apparently found no direct evidence of foul play after interviewing Buck, 63, on the scene, checking his apartment and talking with numerous neighbors who said that Moore, an African American sex worker, was a regular visitor to Buck’s apartment. They initially filed a simple death report.
However, a friend of Moore’s, another young black male client of Buck’s, told Moore’s mother and community activists that Buck’s sexual fetish involved injection use of crystal meth. When Moore’s mother, LaTisha Nixon, went public with her concerns that there was more to her son’s death than a simple overdose, McDonnell decided to have detectives delve deeper.
Buck’s attorney Seymour Amster told the LA times that that his client had “nothing to do with this young man’s tragic death.” Amster added that Moore’s overdose was “a self-imposed accidental death.” Buck has not yet publicly commented.
McDonnell talked briefly about the investigation during an extensive interview by phone on Monday on a range of subjects for the Los Angeles Blade’s next print edition.
“Initially, like any of these cases, patrol went out and took an initial report that would then be looked at by both the coroner and follow up investigators,” McDonnell said. “When we became aware of the concern by the family, we had Homicide [Bureau] take at look at it, as well. And that investigation is still ongoing. We have some of our best investigators involved and following up on this. What the outcome will be, I don’t know at this point. But I can tell you, it is getting the attention that it should.”
McDonnell corrected media reports that suggested the investigation was prompted by new evidence, new information. “It wasn’t that. It was that issues were raised by the family,” along with news accounts that “were enough to ask our Homicide detectives to take a look at this case and report on it.”
“We felt it was our obligation to look into those issues,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell explained that homicide investigations are conducted by a team. The detectives work under the supervision of a Lieutenant who makes the decision, after reviewing their work, if they need additional man-power or what needs to be done beyond what has been done.
McDonnell said he is not “leaning one way or the other” in determining whether a crime has or has not been committed. But he emphasized that if—as sometimes happens even at the end of a long in-depth investigation—the investigating team determines the death to be a homicide but with insufficient evidence to proceed, they will not simply “file” the case away somewhere.
“We never give up on a homicide,” McDonnell said. “We work it and work it, if it’s something we can show that it was cleared, it was justified, it was an accidental or it was an undetermined. But if it was a case where we know it was a murder, we never give up on that. Some remain unsolved for years and we clear some of them years after the occurrence with DNA, new witness statements—somebody comes forward with a piece of information that they were sitting on or they’re on their deathbed or they’re in prison or whatever their reasons are, they decide to come forward, and that will make the case for us.”
But to be clear, neither the Sheriff’s Department nor the District Attorney’s office has made a determination about whether a crime has been committed in this case.
Lt. Joe Mendoza of the Homicide Bureau is heading up the team. “What they’re working on right now is trying to interview any possible individuals that might have any knowledge as to what transpired during this incident,” Mendoza told the LA Blade during a phone interview on Tuesday. “I know that in the media, there’s been a lot of different people interviewed. However, we cannot use that because it’s hearsay so we’re trying to identify those individuals and interview them ourselves so we can get a first hand account of what they know regarding this investigation.”
Community activists have set up a website— Justice 4 Gemmel —for possible witnesses to come forward. However, as Mendoza noted with media interviews, all allegations are considered hearsay until the story and any technology used to substantiate the story are vetted by Sheriff’s investigators. (Think hackers and bots.)
“We are making progress. We’ve interviewed quite a bit of possible potential witnesses and so we are headed in the right direction,” Mendoza said. “We’re still in the midst of conducting other interviews.
And our goal is just to have in-depth interviews with any potential witnesses so that we can submit all of our findings to the district attorney’s office so they can render an opinion if there’s any criminal culpability on the part of anyone.”
Mendoza would not talk extensively about whether DA Jackie Lacey has granted immunity to those coming forward nor would he detail who the team is interviewing, neighbors, more clients, Buck’s political friends and enemies?
“There has been some limited immunity granted to some of the individuals that requested it that were interviewed,” he said. “I’m not going to get into the details about who is being interviewed to protect the investigation and to protect the process. However, I can tell you that we’ve done countless interviews and all of that information will, at some point, be turned over to the district attorney’s office so they can render an opinion.”
What is somewhat unclear is whether, like on TV law and order shows, the investigators are compiling information and evidence that they think proves a case, one way or the other—or after they complete their investigation, will they give the compiled information to the DA and let Lacey make the determination?
“We are continuing to work with the coroner’s office and with our detectives in trying to make sure we have all of our information, make sure this is a thorough investigation, and based on the outcome of all of these interviews and based on any physical evidence that we have—then we discuss this case to see if there’s any criminal culpability of any of the parties involved,” Mendoza said.
The family alleges that Buck forced Moore and perhaps other clients to inject drugs and that is what lead to Gemmel Moore’s death.
“And that’s what we’re trying to see—if we can develop any information that would lead us to be able to determine that,” Mendoza said, “because there were only two individuals, as far as my understanding, that were in the room. So we’re doing this through interviews with people that have had past contact with Mr. Buck. However at this point, the investigation continues.”
Mendoza said the investigation is a “joint effort” with the DA’s office. “One of the determinations we’re going to try to make is—based on all the information that we gather from the interviews and from witnesses—we’re going to see if we believe that there’s any laws that have been broken. And then we’re also going to present that to the district attorney’s office so they can evaluate whether there was any criminal culpability,” he said. “We don’t make the initial determination. We just investigate potential crimes. And this is not a clear-cut case. so we are trying to get all the information together to present to the district attorney’s office just to confirm whether they believe a crime occurred or did not occur.”
Mendoza said they haven’t gotten to the point of narrowing the scope of the investigation to see if any lesser charges might be brought on anyone involved.
Mendoza also said that his team is not influenced by public outcry or political pressure.
“We just go on doing our jobs—seeking the truth regardless of any political pressure. It’s still very early in investigation,” he said. “As time goes on, there are more and more people that are coming forward that we still need to interview. So we’re continuing that process.”
Meanwhile, Moore’s death has served as the catalyst for a hard look at the silent crystal meth epidemic among young black gay men, prompting Jeffrey King and In The Meantime Men to create a South LA Crystal Meth Task Force. Check Jeffrey King’s Facebook page for more.