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Peter Mehlman

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Following the Evidence

Posted: 10/26/11 10:53 PM ET

At 7:10 a.m., evidence dotted three feet of a stone stoop. West to East were two nut-infested energy bars in their wrappers, five mini-Dove Bar dark chocolates (one half-eaten) a nearly polished-off bag of plain M&Ms and $9.50 in quarters huddled in a clump.

The quarters were what would make anyone in Los Angeles look around for hidden cameras. Maybe this is some UCLA quasi-psycho-socio-economic philosophy experiment: When adults find 38 quarters on their front stoop, what do they do?

But there were no cameras, no one watching from behind the bougainvillea. Now the mystery got interesting because, in LA, we think we know the sociology of the city so well that, through amateur detective work and blatant racial profiling, any mystery is solvable.

It's not true, but we believe that.

As for the Mystery of the Stoop Loot, the first conclusion bolstered that belief: In the dead of the night, someone from the underclass went car-to-car looking for doors left blithely unlocked by blithe upper middle class drivers. That someone opened three or four doors, boosted the stashes of parking meter money plus the bonus candies. Pleased with the haul, the thief took a snack break on the stoop until a private security car drifted up the block causing the perpetrator to flee without the loot.

Aha: What we have here, gentlemen, is an UNSUB well versed in the coin receptacles of multiple automotive makes and models. Chances are, we're looking for a valet parker or car wash employee... in short, a young Latino male.

After all, valet parkers and carwash employees are overwhelming Latino, right? And he must be male because a woman would have put the coins in her purse, right? And he must be poor because what kind of upper tax bracket guy commits such a scrounging crime, right? And he must be young because he took just one bite of a Dove Bar before turning to the M&Ms and people don't acquire a taste for dark chocolate until they hit forty, right?

That first flood of deductions took maybe fifteen minutes. The unraveling of them took almost a month.
At a West Side car wash that very same day, the woman in her late thirties with the shammy is Caucasian as the driven snow. Fine, the economy has taken a nip at this sociological detective work, but still, she could be an anomaly. No need to be rash and widen out the suspect pool, right?

Uh... eight days later at a downtown restaurant, the valet parker in the red blazer reading a graduate-level clinical psychology textbook between fetching cars is most definitely Asian. When one driver realizes he has no cash but swears he has a bunch of quarters somewhere in the car, the valet has no idea where to look.

The fraying investigation plods on.

Just over two weeks later, a klatch of uniformed Catholic High Schools girls invade a Santa Monica 7-11. Scanning a thousand varieties of pure uncut calories, one girl says, "Where's the Hershey's Dark?"

A second girl says, "Ugh, I hope they're out of it. I've been like, totally OD-ing on that."

The Mystery of the Stoop Loot drifted toward the cold case file.

Twenty-four days after the initial crime scene appraisal, a friend at the most pretentious coffee place in the history of the world recounts a story about how a friend of a friend's son, an elite private school kid, admitted to regularly rifling through parked cars in search of meter money. Apparently, this was how he could afford a Trek Mountain Bike.

At this point, there was no choice but to toss the composite sketch drawn altogether. How can so many perfectly wonderful stereotypes suddenly go so wrong?

But then, it's not so sudden: A neighbor tells a story of one night some twenty years ago when he got a call from the police telling him his car had been stolen.

"Don't worry. We caught the thief."

"How? Did he get in an accident or something?"

"No," the officer said, "we just pulled him over because Mexicans don't drive Volvos."

Amateur detective work in LA, professional detective work in LA... so much can go wrong where no one really knows anyone.