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The Bus Boys, a black rock/punk band from LA dedicated their second album, American Worker (1982), to Sarai Ribicoff. She was one of their earliest supporters and in the words of musician Brian O’Neal, "the most intellectual rock & roll person I knew."

 

One of those deaths that stay with you

Excerpted from
Ghost Town: a Venice California Life by Pat Hartman

November 1980

Senator Ribicoff's niece, who lived in Venice, was shot and killed in a robbery outside a Washington Boulevard restaurant not far from her home. Things are going to be hot around here for a while. As if the political connection weren't enough, she worked for a newspaper. Now we'll see a crackdown on Crime in Venice.

A guy named Frederick Thomas, who is black, was arrested for the killing. Sarai Ribicoff was 23 and looked like Anne Frank would have if she'd grown up. The police were told that one of the assailants seemed to be wounded, so they checked out the emergency room at Marina Mercy, and there he was, with a bullet wound on the left wrist. They got blood samples to compare with blood on sidewalk at the crime scene.

Thomas was identified by John Shoven, a Stanford economics professor who was Sarai Ribicoff's date. Shoven had already given up his wallet containing about $200 when Ribicoff was pushed to the ground. Witnesses said she didn't resist, but the man shot her anyway. "Senseless" seems to be the consensus. No flowers, send money to a memorial fund at Yale.

Thomas has a previous record: possession of PCP, robbery and assault. In a strange twist of fate, the first public defender assigned to the case refused it because of a conflict of interest: he had dated the victim. There's no bail because it's "murder under a special circumstance" - that's during a robbery, and lying in wait. The second suspect is still at large.

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The papers have been full of Crime in Venice. Frederick Thomas's last address was in southwest LA with his mom, but the deed was done in Venice, and he fled first to a place in Venice, and he used to live here and the victim did too, so it's ours.

The Herald Examiner has something about it every day. They believe a meticulous follow-up of a single murder will "help shed light on the growing problem of crime in Los Angeles." Actually, the same paper shed some light on that very problem about a month before the murder with a big scary article on urban crime. The lead paragraph quoted the owner of a restaurant called Chez Helene, who said that a diner there would have a wallet or purse stolen on their way out, on an average of once a week. This is the same Venice restaurant in front of which Ribicoff was shot in a robbery. If any of the newspaper's reporters has noticed this ironic twist, they haven't mentioned it. Now we are told that the management of Chez Helene has hired a security guard "to reassure patrons." (Hey, what I want from security personnel is more than reassurance.) Why didn't they hire a guard before, knowing that somebody was getting ripped off at least once a week, that they knew of? In fact for every incident the restaurant management was told about, there were probably several unreported. Anyway, Chez Helene also reports that business has not been affected by the murder. Yeah, right.

Ribicoff was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale and former campus correspondent for Time magazine and had worked for Mademoiselle magazine. Everybody says how multitalented she was, in addition to being "sincerely committed to social justice." At the time of her death, she was an editorial writer for the Herald Examiner and supposedly could have become one of the great newspaper or magazine editors of all time. If the social justice part is true, she could have done untold good for such assholes as Thomas.

Witnesses say that Ribicoff didn't fight back, but Thomas shot her anyway. He shot at Shoven and missed. He also seems to have managed to shoot himself, like his more famous counterpart Gary Gilmore. Then he ran to a building at 919 Fifth Avenue at Broadway, where Shoven's wallet was later found. A woman who lives there drove him to the hospital. At the time of his arrest he said he'd been injured in a drive-by shooting.

One of the papers ran a big article about this building. It's only ten years old and totally wrecked. Graffiti all over it, most of the windows boarded up, mailboxes ripped out, litter all over the place, bloodstains on the floors. The manager says she's scared to go out of her apartment and it takes over a year to evict bad tenants. Out of 26 units at 919 Fifth, only three tenants are there legally. The cops say it's a cancer in the community and may be the worst building in Venice. Since it was built there have been hundreds of arrests at that corner, fights, heroin sales, lots of guns confiscated. It's so bad a cop once had his gun stolen there.

January 1981

The big news is that the accomplice is no longer at large. Anthony LaQuin McAdoo surrendered and is being held without bail. The police went to his home, one street over from ours. Next time he showed up, his folks had a talk with him and brought him down to the station on New Years Eve. Other family members were not happy about that, but his mother felt it was better than having the police gun him down on the street. The stepfather has been around for 13 years and says McAdoo is a great kid. He has a bunch of trophies from high school football and baseball. He's had "no major arrests" and apparently isn't a gang member. The Herald Examiner ran a photo from two years ago when he was 17, dressed up for the senior prom and looking like a son any parents would be proud of. That was the "before" picture. In a current photo where a deputy leads him to Municipal Court, he wears a shiny jacket and a stupid backwards baseball cap and looks like he's in the middle of cussing somebody out.

Frederick Thomas has been charged with shooting and robbing a salesman three hours before killing Sarai Ribicoff. He denies it. The accomplice, McAdoo, pleads innocent to murder, attempted murder and armed robbery. Chez Helene says it was hard to find someone who would take the security guard job, but he's still there and there have been no more incidents.

August 1981

The prosecutors decided not to try to execute McAdoo. No jury would have gone for it anyway, since he was only along for the ride. He needed money to fix the transmission on his 1965 Impala, and had no intention of killing anybody. That in itself might not impress a jury, but the fact that he didn't pull the trigger would certainly make a difference. He agreed to plead guilty to first degree murder and testify against Thomas. Then he backed out of the deal, "fearful of his safety behind bars" the paper says. Also his family was threatened.

It's often difficult for the Herald Examiner to find something fresh to say in their daily case log, but a recent chapter revealed something new. The police did not actually follow a trail of blood from Chez Helene, like Hansel and Gretel with their trail of crumbs in the forest. Thomas and McAdoo were chased by two knife-wielding cooks (employed by another restaurant), who saw them go into 919 Fifth, and came back and told the cops about it. This has been kept quiet for more than eight months, supposedly for fear of retaliation against the men, but now the police have given them certificates of thanks in a public ceremony, so it kind of makes you wonder.

November 1981

The Frederick Thomas trial has finally started. In a news photo he seems to be wearing wire-rim glasses, definitely not your typical Oakwood gang accessory, which I bet his lawyer bought to make him look sensitive and intelligent. The paper says he "flipped a blue handkerchief in his hand as he walked past photographers." Showing his Crips colors, the arrogant bastard.

They requote the testimony of Ribicoff's companion John Shoven at an earlier hearing. "Sarai was pleading that she did not have a purse, which he seemed to want. He put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.....it did not go off......He then lowered the gun to her torso and shot her. He waved the gun at me and shot but missed."

Things seem kind of confused. Ribicoff was on the sidewalk when Thomas shot her at point-blank range, but the same bullet is supposed to have gone through his wrist. In the earliest reports she was said to have been shot in the chest, but actually it was in the back.

Testimony has been heard from Maureen Young, the woman to whose apartment at 919 5th the suspects fled. She was home with her own four children and five others at the time. Young is kind of related to McAdoo, who is described as her sister's cousin. He didn't want to go along to the hospital but Thomas badmouthed him for being a coward. She drove them to Marina Mercy, where McAdoo had second thoughts and took a powder.

Before that day, McAdoo didn't have much of a record at all: his only prior arrest was for possession of three joints. Already he had a file, was labeled a criminal, so why not take part in a robbery? Whereas a guy with a clean slate might have thought twice before getting involved. Wouldn't it make sense to stop sending people to the penitentiary "graduate school of crime" for drug violations? Just asking.

December 1981

A week or so ago it was discovered that important evidence has never been analyzed. Tissue scrapings were taken from Thomas's hands, at the time of the arrest, to determine whether he had fired a gun. The samples were labeled and stuck in a drawer someplace and totally overlooked until the sixth week of the trial. Since the Herald Examiner has been interested enough in this story to print something on it every single day for more than a year, how come none of the reporters caught on to the missing evidence?

Then there was an article by Randall Sullivan about a character in the drama who particularly caught his interest: a young black guy who appeared dressed in a suit, every day of the trial, and seemed to know everybody. An interview revealed that this Robert Anderson used to hang out with Thomas and was his rival for leadership of the Crips. He later joined a radical group called The Family, which planned to destroy the power and water facilities of Los Angeles. (What a swell way to convert people to your ideology.)

But then he joined the Army and got stationed in Europe. He was mellowed by the experience of being around people who didn't have racial questions uppermost in their minds. He started to read and educate himself and decided to be a lawyer. When Anderson came home in 1978 to Oakwood, the unemployment rate among youths was a lot higher than the 50% admitted by county statistics. During the next three years, ten young men from the neighborhood were sent to state prison for first-degree murder. Anderson enrolled at Santa Monica College, worked some shit jobs, then had a position in CETA until the program was discontinued. Now he lives on the GI Bill payments and still wants to go to law school at UCLA. Sullivan makes a great story about the divergent paths of the two homeboys, one an accused murderer and the other a struggling student who has come to believe "that a world run by white people he has never met will make a place for him."

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As Thomas’s trial continued, Anthony McAdoo overcame his fear of retaliation and testified against him. Thomas showed him the gun beforehand and said, "I've got this in case any of the victims get out of hand." McAdoo did the prosecution's case some harm by saying that the victim did get out of hand, in other words Ribicoff struggled against her assailant. (Shoven, her date, of course has said that she didn't resist.) The defense lawyer Richard Hirsch says there is legal precedent to the effect that a struggling victim is responsible for whatever happens next.

This guy had one of his associates write to Sarai Ribicoff's father and ask him for his personal opinion of the death penalty. Mr. Ribicoff, who is also a lawyer, alerted the prosecutor of this pathetic ploy. The judge said it was not unethical but certainly imprudent. Hirsch used to be president of the LA County Bar Association. He also used to be a prosecutor himself, and specialized in obscenity cases. I wonder if Lenny Bruce ever ran up against him. (Later note: apparantly not, but he did go on to defend Tommy Chong.)

Speaking of obscenity, Hirsch sure has himself a potty-mouth of a client. Immediately after the crime, when the two men knocked at Maureen Young's door, they were arguing loudly because McAdoo didn't want to go along to the hospital. Thomas called him chickenshit and said "We're in this shit together." In the car, McAdoo told her "The nigger must think I'm crazy. He shot the person and he wants me to take the gun and shoot the damn thing in the air." Thomas glared at him and said "Shut your fucking mouth." Later, an informant who was on the county jail bus with Thomas reported him as saying "I killed the bitch because she wouldn't give up the gold." Obscene language aside, Thomas is said to have boasted about the deed to at least four fellow prisoners since being in custody.

Ballistics tests show that the gun used in the robbery of the salesman three hours before was the same one that killed Ribicoff. Apparently it's never been found. The meat salesman could not positively identify Thomas. The guy seems very confused. When Shoven and Ribicoff were accosted, the first thing Thomas said to them was, "This is for real." At first the salesman testified that the gunman greeted him with the same phrase. Then he reconsidered and said maybe it was just something he overheard at the police lineup. It seems very unlikely that someone could be confused about a thing like that. We tend to remember the dialog in moments of stress.

At any rate, Thomas was convicted of first degree murder, and then the trial swung into the penalty phase and character witnesses were summoned. Thomas has been described on the stand as a peacemaker and a loving and understanding father to his illegitimate daughter whom he used to visit several times a week. His aunt said he baked a cake for his mom on Mother's Day in 1979. The parade of character witnesses pissed off Deputy DA Barshop, who threatened to introduce Thomas's juvenile record for assaultive behavior, which dates back to age thirteen. The judge said this would be okay, but Barshop didn't do it because he didn't want to leave any basis for an appeal. The jury voted 7-5 on the death penalty, so it's a mistrial. It they don't retry the penalty phase, he gets life without possibility of parole. Of course the DA wants to retry it, and the defense wants to leave well enough alone.

January 1982

While waiting to learn whether the Ribicoff case will be retried, the Herald Examiner runs personality profiles of the two attorneys. Thomas's lawyer is a liberal democrat who is opposed to capital punishment. He described Thomas in court as a "frustrated, unemployed man with a four-year-old illegitimate daughter." The thing is, I've run up against a lot of these frustrated, unemployed guys, of many ethnic groups. As teenagers, they cut school every chance they get and ridicule anybody who tries to learn for being wimps. Then they complain about not having had opportunities. These guys, when you hire them, resent anything that resembles instruction, and they cop an attitude like, "Don't tell me how to do my job, man." When they bitch about not receiving adequate job training, it's hard to feel sympathy. We're supposed to empathize with Thomas being a father. He irresponsibly knocks up some girl in the neighborhood and probably never contributes a cent to the kid's upkeep, and the jury is supposed to be lenient because he's a daddy. This is the kind of stuff that makes me fed up with liberals.

The lawyer says that Thomas has "a reputation of arbitrating disputes between Latin and Black street gangs in the Venice area," and suggests that perhaps he could become a peacemaker in prison. "He can become a leader in that world within a world." Like I care. In his closing argument before the jury, Hirsch defended Ribicoff's killer by saying, "It was a situation that got out of hand...A matter of seconds was the difference between life and death. Somebody panicked, somebody died." My ass. This guy talks about robbery and murder like it was some kind of act of God or nature, like a hurricane, that nobody really had any causative responsibility for.

Randall Sullivan's column on Sunday summed up the implications of the Ribicoff trial. He talked on the phone with Sarai's mother in Connecticut about the family's decision not to press for a retrial of the penalty phase. They knew all along it was unlikely that a California jury would sentence Thomas to death. The necklace that Sarai either struggled or did not struggle to maintain possession of (depending on which witness told the story) was identical to one that Mrs. Ribicoff had bought in Europe and worn for many years, a gold chain supporting a gold and crystal flower with a diamond chip. She got one just like it for Sarai when her daughter graduated from Yale and left to make a career on the West Coast.

He also interviewed the founder of the Beverly Hills Gun Club, which is actually located in Culver City, but all the celebs go there anyway. The shooting instructor said the murder was "the single most consciousness-raising event in this city in the past five years." He told Sullivan it caused all the media liberals (like Sullivan) to think, "Hey, that could have been me."

Sullivan describes Venice as "...the real front lines, the only community in Los Angeles where wealthy white people and poor black people live in the kind of close proximity large eastern cities have been dealing with for years," and Chez Helene as a "French restaurant among a gentrified block of boutiques and creperies surrounded by a black ghetto on three sides."

Defense Attorney Hirsch told a reporter that he often used to eat at Chez Helene but hasn't been back there since the murder.

Back in April, the twenty-part series "How to Understand Inflation" that Ribicoff wrote for the Herald Examiner won a first prize in the 1981 Gerald Loeb Awards competition, administered by the UCLA Graduate School of Management.

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At work, a woman told me she was standing in front of Chez Helene on the very spot where Sarai Ribicoff was killed, only 24 hours before that event. When we got onto the subject of gangs, a nurse who was listening in said, "I thought the Crips were dead. They were finished a long time ago." Since she was black, I didn't want to presume to be too much of an authority, but said as far as I know the Crips are still a viable organization. About the V13 gang, I said that according to my daughter they are a relatively laid-back outfit in general, and prefer not to exert themselves. The black nurse recalled an incident where some V13s invaded the hospital in search of a Culver City enemy they hadn't quite managed to kill. It was necessary to give the patient a fictitious name and change all the labels on the census boards, chart backs, etc. I said yeah, that's why I qualify with words like "general" and "relatively."

February 1982

The newspaper reviews Thomas's history of violence. September 1975: arrested for striking a man and taking his wallet. Released in his mother's custody. 1976: three arrests, one for threatening somebody with a large knife. 1977: arrested for purse-snatching, convicted, spent 11 months at Camp Gonzales in Malibu Canyon, during which period he was reprimanded a dozen times for fighting with other inmates. (This is the guy his lawyer claims is such a great peacemaker who will be a good influence on the violent dudes in the Big House.) 1980: two arrests for possession of PCP, serving six months for one, let off the other time. September 1980: arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, later reduced to possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail, and if the time had been served he would have been behind bars the day he jumped the salesman and killed Ribicoff. According to a fellow inmate, Thomas said about Ribicoff's escort that he's sorry he didn't kill that dude too. Anyway, instead of serving the 180 days, Thomas was put in an outpatient drug counseling program.

Various reporters have interviewed the jurors (all women) who voted against the death penalty. One criticized the victim for trying to hold onto something as trivial as a gold necklace. Another said she shouldn't even have been at that restaurant to begin with. Another put all the blame on her date for not being able to handle the situation. One of the holdouts voted against death because Thomas had no previous criminal record, which is bullshit, only they weren't allowed to know that. Several jurors said they were actually influenced by the argument that Ribicoff contributed to her own death by resisting. She asked for it, she deserved to die, and that's that.

The younger guy, McAdoo, got 25 years to life. The penalty phase for Thomas was not retried and he was sentenced to a life term. The judge really gave him hell and made it quite clear that if the penalty had been his to decree, it would have been death. Not content with saving his client from a death sentence, the defense attorney filed a motion to appeal the verdict. That fucker will probably be out in a couple of years.

 

© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman
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