Los Angeles September 2001

Up in Smoke

Next door to deadly violence life goes on
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The first gunshot came before 6:00 A.M., and although it sounded as if it was right in front of our house, neither my wife nor I wanted to bother calling 911. It was only one shot—hardly a cause for alarm. Here in L.A.'s Echo Park neighborhood we hear gunfire routinely, either from gang kids showing off on a Saturday night or from the Police Academy firing range, just over the hill in Elysian Park.

Twenty minutes later Regina, the homeopath across the street, left a message on our answering machine saying there were SWAT cops all over her front yard. She sounded annoyed. "Do you know what's going on? The police say I should go to the safest room of the house, but which one is that?"

That got us up. I started the coffee and walked down the front steps to get the newspaper and see what was happening. Halfway down I saw that the street below was blocked by three black-and-whites, their doors open. An officer crouching behind one door had his gun out, and when he saw me, he waved and yelled, "Go back inside!"

And so began the last day of life for my neighbor, forty-year-old Paul Jacobson. Like me, Paul was white, educated, balding, and seemingly financially secure. He had no visitors that I ever saw other than his longtime girlfriend, Sandra, and even she hadn't been around much lately.

In the thirty months we were neighbors, we had only three conversations: when my wife and I first moved in and I wanted to trim the eucalyptus trees that bordered our properties; about six months later, when his white husky killed one of our pet ducks; and finally a year ago June, one night at about eleven, when he exploded in a rage because of smoke from our wood-burning hot tub. His last words to me were screamed from the darkness of the bushes just inside his property line: "Come over here and I'll blow your fucking head off! You're going down!"

Paul scared me, I admit it, and I resented him for it. When I saw the police taking up positions around his house that morning at dawn, I was glad that I wasn't involved. I didn't know we would spend the next twelve hours under siege, bearing witness to Paul's suicide-by-cop.

By 9:00 A.M. an LAPD armored vehicle had arrived. A negotiator spoke to Paul on a bullhorn, trying to assure him that everything would be fine if he would just put down his gun and come out. A little before ten the sound of a gunshot came from inside Paul's house, and I wondered if he'd shot himself. It was followed a few minutes later by a burst of semi-automatic fire. "Oh, come on, Paul," the negotiator said. He sounded disappointed. "That's not helping things."

Paul screamed something about the CIA and the FBI and their having the wrong address. "Keep the cameras rolling!" he yelled out his front door. "They're gonna kill me."

Around 1:00 P.M. the SWAT team that had taken up positions in our front yard started firing tear gas into his house. Paul replied with shotgun blasts and more bursts from his semi-automatics. And so it continued all afternoon, the excitement gradually giving way to an almost boring repetitiveness. My wife, a photographer by trade, ventured to the front window from time to time to try to shoot some video footage. Admonished by the SWAT team to keep in the back of the house, we tried to make cookies, but we were out of eggs. I called Regina and, to make her laugh, asked her if she could send some up with a SWAT guy. We worked on our taxes.

At 5:00 P.M. the police switched to flash-bang grenades. Almost immediately smoke began coming out of Paul's house, and a suddenly panicky SWAT team fumbled desperately with our garden hoses, hoping to contain the blaze. We were evacuated over the back fence just as Paul's ammo dump caught fire, setting off hundreds of exploding rounds.

The fire brought helicopters to the scene. The story had become newsworthy then, according to the reporters I talked to that night. It brought back memories of the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout.

"We get lots of barricade stories," a woman from the local ABC affiliate told me. "But not many of them have this dramatic a finish."

More than twenty pistols and rifles were pulled out of the rubble of the house; a shed in back was found to contain gunpowder, casings, and primers—all the makings of homemade bullets. There were .22 longs, .38s, .45s. Paul was found dead inside a walk-in fireproof safe he used as his gun locker. His body was crumpled, knees drawn up as if in prayer.

I feel relief that Paul's threatening presence is gone, and as time goes on, I think about him less often, less intently. But I wish I knew why he died this way. Who was he? Where did he work? Was he mentally ill, or a drug abuser? How did he get his guns? Why was he so angry all the time?

People say L.A. is a place where nobody really knows his neighbors. Maybe it's true. A year ago we did our best to care for the neighbor on the other side of our house, who was dying of cancer. Before she went into the hospital, she tidied up her life, finally throwing out the pitiful estate of her son, who had died years before. A white supremacist with a methamphetamine problem, he was killed in a motorcycle accident; he left behind boxes of Nazi medals, Nazi flags and videos, a box full of ammo, and a carton of used syringes. According to a story told in the neighborhood, there was also a bomb—which was carried down to the local police station, and which the bomb squad said could have blown up our entire block. But neither the police nor any other official source has any record of this incident, so that's one more thing I'll never really know.

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