This one is personal. As a young rookie police officer, just out of the academy, I worked West Los Angeles (WLA) division of the LAPD, on the same watch as Fred Early. Although we never worked together, we were on a lot of the same calls. I had heard of his reputation as a solid cop who had been in several “good” shootings in the South end of the city where several suspects were killed. Perhaps that is why he was transferred to one of the less active areas, WLA, which borders Beverly Hills.
I learned much from Early, just watching how he handled “hot” calls with the utmost professionalism, but primarily observing his officer survival skills. You knew if Early was on your call, you never had to look over your shoulder—he had your “6.” His nickname was “Crazy Fred,” and he lived up to that moniker. I recall one night after work, Early dangerously climbed a six-story tower next to the station and waved to us disbelievers down below—that was Early. After his death, many of us began calling each other “Fred” as a gesture of what he meant to us. I even named my dog after him. So how could an officer who survived so much be taken down by some burglary suspects while off duty? That is the story.
On Saturday, September 9, 1972, at 4:30 in the morning, Policeman Fred Early of the Los Angeles Police Department was on his way home after spending time with some friends. He was off duty, driving his personal vehicle near the northwest corner of National and Sawtelle boulevards, just off the 405 Freeway. Always attuned to his surroundings, no matter whether he was at work, Early observed a possible burglary suspect acting suspiciously near the closed Thrifty Drug Store.
Stopping his vehicle, he watched the suspect for several minutes. Believing this was indeed a burglary going down, he circled and parked his car at a service station at the southwest corner of the intersection to better keep the man under surveillance.
In an era with no cell phones, Early left his vehicle and went to a pay phone to request assistance. As he was talking to the operator, the suspect spooked and ran. At 4:30 in the morning, the city is just beginning to stir, and there would have been very few cars moving. It appears the suspect realized this and, seeing Early’s car stop, started running southbound across National. Early dropped the phone receiver in mid-sentence and pursued the fleeing suspect. He chased him west to an extremely dark parking lot at the rear of 11316 National Blvd. As he reached the parking lot, he was attacked from behind by one or more additional suspects and was shot twice through the left leg. The assailants beat Early, kicking him in the head and body until he lost consciousness. Leaving him for dead, the suspects escaped.
When he came to, he fired his revolver into a block wall to summon help. For the next several months, Early was in and out of the hospital for treatment of his numerous wounds. He suffered from blackouts and severe headaches. While undergoing treatment at UCLA Medical Center, he sustained irreversible brain damage and never recovered. He died from his injuries six months after the shooting. He was just 31.
Just after his murder, then-Governor Ronald Reagan took the unprecedented step of offering $10,000 in state money to find the men who had shot and beaten Early. Twenty-five years later, in 1998, city officials met to consider offering additional rewards. The Police Protective League, which had offered $10,000 in 1973, once again offered that money. The Los Angeles City Council offered an additional $25,000 for information leading to the arrest of the suspects. It was a positive move to crack the case, but no suspects have been arrested, and the case remains unsolved.
During his short life, Early often talked about his love for his four girls. At the time of his death, the kids were between the ages of 5 and 12. A quarter of a century after his murder, the four attended a ceremony to honor their father with LAPD’s highest measure of bravery, the police Medal of Valor. A tearful Michelle Bonnee, Early’s youngest daughter, said at a news conference “I have the burden of looking into my own 5-year-old daughter’s eyes and trying to answer the questions she has of her grandfather—a man I remember well but barely knew and whom she will never know.”
“We have nothing to lose is the way we feel about it,” Hollie Ashworth, one of Early’s daughters, said of the new round of rewards. “Not that [an arrest] would ever make up for my father. But there would be justice in finding the person who did this and some closure for the family. That’s the hardest part, knowing there is somebody out there that got away with this at the expense of four little girls.”
LAPD detective Roseanne Parino (now retired) summed up why the hunt must continue for the perpetrators of Early’s murder and all the suspects out there who have gotten away with the murder of a police officer. “People become more mature, have more of a sense of mortality. I think just the time and distance from the act may bring people out who at the time were reticent, for whatever reasons, to speak.” To give peace to Early and all the other victims of the hundreds of unsolved police murders, we can only hope and pray this happens often.
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Jabultema@lapdhistory.com or 928.607.1210