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The Fifth Witness Excerpt

PART ONE: The Magic Words

ONE

Mrs. Pena looked across the seat at me and held her hands up in a beseeching manner. She spoke in a heavy accent, choosing English to make her final pitch directly to me.

“Please, you help me, Mr. Mickey?”

I looked at Rojas who was turned around in the front seat, even though I didn’t need him to translate. I then looked past Mrs. Pena, over her shoulder and through the car’s window, to the home she desperately wanted to hold on to. It was a bleached pink, two-bedroom house with a hard-scrabble yard behind a wire fence. The concrete step to the front stoop had graffiti sprayed across it, indecipherable except for the number 13. It wasn’t the address. It was a pledge of allegiance.

My eyes finally came back to her. She was forty-four years old and attractive in a worn sort of way. She was the single mother of three teen-age boys and had not paid her mortgage in nine months. Now the bank had foreclosed and was moving in to sell the house out from under her.

The auction would take place in three days. It didn’t matter that the house was worth little or that it sat in a gang-infested neighborhood in South L.A. Somebody would buy it and Mrs. Pena would become a renter instead of an owner – that is, if the new owner didn’t evict her. For years she had relied on the protections of the Florencia 13. But times were different. No gang allegiance could help her here. She needed a lawyer. She needed me.

“Tell her I will try my best,” I said. “Tell her I am pretty certain I will be able to stop the auction and challenge the validity of the foreclosure. It will at least slow things down. It will give us time to work up a long range plan. Maybe get her back on her feet.”

I nodded and waited while Rojas translated. I had been using Rojas as my driver and translator ever since I had bought the advertising package on the Spanish radio channels.

I felt the cell phone in my pocket vibrate. My upper thigh translated this as a text message as opposed to an actual phone call, which had a longer vibration. Either way I ignored it. When Rojas completed the translation, I jumped in before Mrs. Pena could respond.

“Tell her that she has to understand that this isn’t a solution to her problems. I can delay things and we can negotiate with her bank. But I am not promising that she won’t lose the house. In fact, she’s already lost the house. I’m going to get it back but then she’ll have to face the bank still.”

Rojas translated, making hand gestures where I had not. The truth was that Mrs. Pena would have to leave eventually. It was just a question of how far she wanted me to take it. Personal bankruptcy would tag another year onto foreclosure defense. But she didn’t have to decide that now.

“Now tell her that I also need to be paid for my work. Give her the schedule. A thousand up front and the monthly payment plan.”

“How much on the monthly and how long?”

I looked out at the house again. Mrs. Pena had invited me inside for the meeting but I preferred meeting in the car. This was drive-by territory and I was in my Lincoln Town Car BPS. That stood for Ballistic Protection Series. I bought it used from the widow of a murdered enforcer with the Sinaloa cartel. There was armored plating in the doors and the windows were constructed of three layers of laminated glass. They were bulletproof. The windows in Mrs. Pena’s pink house were not. The lesson learned from the Sinaloa man was that you don’t leave the car unless you have to.

Mrs. Pena had explained earlier that the mortgage payments she had stopped making nine months ago had been seven hundred a month. She would continue to withhold any payments to the bank while I worked the case. She would have a free ride for as long as I kept the bank at bay, so there was money to be made here.

“Make it two-fifty a month. I’ll give her the cut-rate plan. Make sure she knows she’s getting a deal and that she can never be late with the payments. We can take a credit card if she has one with any juice on it and an oh-twelve expiration date.”

Rojas translated, using more gestures and many more words than I had used, while I pulled my phone. The text had come from Lorna Taylor. CALL ME ASAP.

I’d have to get back to her after the client conference. In most law offices, Lorna would be the office manager and receptionist. But I didn’t have an office other than the back seat of my Lincoln, so she ran the business end of things and answered the phones out of the West Hollywood condo she shared with my chief investigator.

My mother was Mexican born and I understood her native language better than I ever let on. When Mrs. Pena responded, I knew what she said – the gist of it, at least. But I let Rojas translate it all back to me anyway. She promised to go inside the house to get the thousand-dollar cash retainer and to dutifully make the monthly payments. To me, not the bank. I figured that if I could stretch her stay in the house to a year my take would be four grand total. Not bad for what was entailed. It was likely that I would never see Mrs. Pena again. I would file a suit challenging the foreclosure and stretch things out. The chances were I wouldn’t even make a court appearance. My young associate would do the courthouse legwork. Mrs. Pena would be happy and so would I. Eventually, though, the hammer would come down. It always does.

I thought I had a workable case even though Mrs. Pena would not be a sympathetic client. Most of my clients stop making payments to the bank after losing their job or encountering a medical catastrophe. Mrs. Pena stopped when her three sons went to jail for selling drugs and their weekly stipends of financial support abruptly ended. Not a lot of good will to be had with that story. But the bank had played dirty. I had looked up her file on my laptop. It was all there, a record of her being served with notices involving demands for payment and then foreclosure. Only Mrs. Pena said she had never received these notices. And I believed her. It wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where process servers were known to roam freely. I suspected that the notifications had ended up in the trash and the server had simply lied about it. If I could make that case, then I could back the bank off Mrs. Pena with the leverage it would give me.

That would be my defense. That the poor woman was never given proper notice of the peril she was in. The bank took advantage of her, foreclosed on her without allowing her the opportunity to make up the arrears, and should be rebuked by the court for doing so.

“Okay, we have a deal,” I said. “Tell her to go in and get her money while I print out a contract and receipt. We’ll get going on this today.”

I smiled and nodded at Mrs. Pena. Rojas translated and then jumped out of the car to go around and open her door.
Once Mrs. Pena left the car I opened the Spanish contract template on my laptop and typed in the necessary names and numbers. I sent it to the printer that sat on an electronics platform on the front passenger seat. I then went to work on the receipt for funds to be deposited into my client trust account. Everything was aboveboard. Always. It was the best way to keep the California bar off my ass. I might have a bulletproof car but it was the bar I most often checked over my shoulder for.

It had been a rough year for Michael Haller and Associates, Attorneys-at-Law. Criminal defense had virtually dried up in the down economy. Of course crime wasn’t down. In Los Angeles, crime marched on through any economy. But the paying customers were few and far between. It seemed as though nobody had money to pay a lawyer. Consequently, the public defender’s office was busting at the seams with cases and clients while guys like me were left starving.

I had expenses and a 14-year-old kid in private school who talked about USC whenever the subject of colleges came up. I had to do something and so I did what I had once held as unthinkable. I went civil. The only growth industry in the law business was foreclosure defense. I attended a few bar seminars, got up to speed on it and started running new ads in two languages. I built a few web sites and started buying the lists of foreclosure filings from the county clerk’s office. That’s how I got Mrs. Pena as a client. Direct mail. Her name was on the list and I had sent her a letter – in Spanish – offering my services. She told me that my letter happened to be the first indication she had ever received that she was in foreclosure.

The saying goes that if you build it, they will come. It was true. I was getting more work than I could handle – six more appointments after Mrs. Pena today – and had even hired an actual associate to Michael Haller and Associates for the first time ever. The national epidemic of real estate foreclosure was slowing but by no means abating. In Los Angeles County I could be feeding at the trough for years to come.

The cases only went for four or five grand a pop but this was a quantity over quality period in my professional life. I currently had more than ninety foreclosure clients on my docket. No doubt my kid could start planning on USC. Hell, she could start thinking about staying for a masters degree.

There were those who believed I was part of the problem, that I was merely helping the dead beat game the system while delaying the economic recovery of the whole. That description fit some of my clients for sure. But I viewed most of them as repeat victims. Initially scammed with the American dream of home ownership when lured into mortgages they had no business even qualifying for. And then victimized again when the bubble burst and unscrupulous lenders ran roughshod over them in the subsequent foreclosure frenzy. Most of these once proud homeowners didn’t stand a chance under California’s streamlined foreclosure regulations. A bank didn’t even need a judge’s approval to take away someone’s house. The great financial minds thought this was the way to go. Just keep it moving. The sooner the crisis hit bottom the sooner the recovery would begin. I say tell that to Mrs. Pena.

There was a theory out there that this was all part of a conspiracy among the top banks in the country to undermine property laws, sabotage the judicial system and create a perpetually cycling foreclosure industry that had them profiting from both ends of the spectrum. Me, I wasn’t exactly buying into that. But during my short time in this area of the law, I had seen enough predatory and unscrupulous acts by so-called legitimate businessmen to make me miss good old-fashioned criminal law.

Rojas was waiting outside the car for Mrs. Pena to return with the money. I checked my watch and noted we were running late on my next appointment – a commercial foreclosure over in Compton. I tried to geographically bunch my new client consultations to save time and gas and mileage on the car. Today I worked the south end. Tomorrow I would hit East L.A. Two days a week I was in the car, signing up new clients. The rest of the time I worked the cases.

“Let’s go, Mrs. Pena,” I said to myself. “We gotta roll.”

I decided to use the waiting time to call Lorna. Three months earlier I had started blocking the ID on my phone. I never did that when I practiced criminal, but in my brave new world of foreclosure defense, I usually didn’t want people having my direct number. And that included the lender attorneys as well as my own clients.

“Law offices of Michael Haller and associates,” Lorna said when she picked up. “How can I – ”

“It’s me, what’s up?”

“Mickey, you have to get over to Van Nuys Division right away.”

There was a strong urgency in her voice. Van Nuys Division was the LAPD’s central command for operations in the sprawling San Fernando Valley, the north side of the city.

“I’m working the south end today. What’s going on?”

“They have Lisa Trammel there. She called.”

Lisa Trammel was a client. In fact, my very first foreclosure client. I had kept her in her home for going on eight months and was confident I could take it at least another year further before we dropped the bankruptcy bomb. But she was consumed by the frustrations and inequities of her life and could not be calmed or controlled. She’d taken to marching in front of the bank with a placard decrying its fraudulent practices and heartless actions. That is, until the bank got a temporary restraining order against her.

“Did she violate the TRO? Are they holding her?”

“Mickey, they’re holding her on suspicion of murder.”

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear.

“Murder? Who’s the victim?”

“She said they’re charging her with killing Mitchell Bondurant.”

That gave me another great big pause. I looked out the window and saw Mrs. Pena coming out through her front door. She held a wad of cash in her hand.

“All right, get on the phone and reschedule the rest of today’s appointments. And tell Cisco to head up to Van Nuys. I’ll meet him there.”

“You got it. Do you want Bullocks to take the afternoon appointments?”

Bullocks was what we called Jennifer Aronson, the associate I had hired out of Southwestern, a law school housed in the old Bullocks department store building on Wilshire.

“No, I don’t want her doing intake. Just reschedule them. And listen, I think I have the Trammel file with me, but you have the call list. Track down her sister. Lisa’s got a kid. He’s probably in school and somebody’s going to have to take him if Lisa can’t.”

We made every client fill out an extensive contact list because sometimes it was hard to find them for court hearings – and to get them to pay for my work.

“I’ll start on that,” Lorna said. “Good luck, Mickey.”

“Same to you.”

I closed the phone and thought about Lisa Trammel. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised that she had been arrested for killing the man who was trying to take her house away from her. It’s not that I had thought it would come to this. Not even close. But deep down, I had known it was going to come to something.

TWO

I quickly took Mrs. Pena’s cash and gave her a receipt. We both signed the contract and she got a copy for her own records. I took a credit card number from her and she promised it would withstand a $250 a month hit while I was working for her. I then thanked her, shook her hand and had Rojas walk her back to her front door.

While he did that I popped the trunk and got out. The Lincoln’s trunk was spacious enough to hold three cardboard file boxes as well as all my office supplies. I found the Trammel file in the third box and pulled it. I also grabbed the fancy briefcase I used for police station visits. When I closed the trunk I saw the stylized 13 spray-painted in silver on the lid’s black paint.

“Son of a bitch.”

I looked around. Three front yards down there were a couple of kids playing in the dirt but they looked too young to be graffiti artists. The rest of the street was deserted. I was baffled. Not only had I not heard or noticed the assault on my car that had taken place while I was having a client conference inside it,  but it was barely past one and I knew most gangbangers didn’t get up and embrace the day and all its possibilities until late afternoon. They were night creatures.

I headed back to my open door with the file. I noticed Rojas was standing at the front stoop, chatting with Mrs. Pena. I whistled and signaled him back to the car. We had to get going.

I got in. Message received, Rojas trotted back to the car and jumped in himself.

“Compton?” he asked.

“No, change of plans. We’ve got to get up to Van Nuys. Fast.”

“Okay, Boss.”

He pulled away from the curb and started making his way back to the 110 freeway. There was no direct freeway route to Van Nuys. We would have to take the 110 into downtown where we’d pick up the 101 north. We couldn’t have been starting off from a worse position in the city.

“What was she saying at the front door?” I asked Rojas.

“She was asking about you.”

“What do you mean?”

“She said you looked like you shouldn’t need a translator, you know?”

I nodded. I got that a lot.  My mother’s genes made me look more south of the border than north.

“She also wanted to know if you were married, Boss. I told her you were. But if you want to circle back and tap that, it’ll be there. She’d probably want a discount on the fees, though.”

“Thanks, Rojas,” I said dryly. “She already got a discount but I’ll keep it in mind.”

Before opening the file I scrolled through the contacts list on my phone. I was looking for the name of someone in the Van Nuys detective squad who might share some information with me. But there was nobody on the list. I was going in blind on a murder case. Not a good starting point either.

I closed the phone and put it into its charger, then opened the file. Lisa Trammel had become my client after responding to the generic letter I sent to the owners of all homes in foreclosure. I assumed I wasn’t the only lawyer in Los Angeles who did this. But for some reason Lisa answered my letter and not theirs.

As an attorney in private practice you get to choose your own clients most of the time. Sometimes you choose wrong. Lisa was one of those times with me. I was eager to start the new line of work. I was looking for clients who were in jams or who had been taken advantage of. People who were too naïve to know their rights or options. I was looking for underdogs and thought I had found one in Lisa. No doubt she fit the bill. She was losing her house because of a set of circumstances that had fallen like dominoes out of her control. And her lender had turned her case over to a foreclosure mill that had cut corners and even violated the rules. I signed Lisa up, put her on the credit card plan and started to fight her fight. It was a good case and I was excited. It was only after this that Lisa became a nuisance client.

Lisa Trammel was thirty-five years old. She was the married mother of a nine-year-old boy named Tyler and their house was on Melba in Woodland Hills. At the time she and her husband Jeffery bought the house in 2004 Lisa taught social studies at Grant High while Jeffery sold BMWs at the dealership in Calabasas.

Their three-bedroom house carried a $750,000 mortgage against an appraised value of $900,000. The market was strong then and mortgages were plentiful and easy. They used an independent mortgage broker who shopped their file around and got them into a low-interest loan that carried a balloon payment at the five year mark. The loan was then folded into an investment block of mortgages and re-assigned twice before finding its permanent home at WestLand Financial, a subsidiary of WestLand National, the Los Angeles-based bank headquartered in Sherman Oaks.

All was well and good for the family of three until Jeff Trammel decided he didn’t want to be a husband and father anymore. A few months before the $750,000 note on the house was due, Jeff took off, leaving his BMW M3 demo in the parking lot at Union Station and Lisa holding the balloon.

Down to a single income and a child to care for, Lisa looked at the reality of her situation and made choices. By now the economy had stalled out like a plane lumbering into the sky without enough air speed. On her teacher’s income there was no institution that was going to refinance the balloon. She stopped making payments on the loan and ignored all communications from the bank. When the note came due, the property went into foreclosure and that was when I came into the picture. I sent Jeff and Lisa a letter, not realizing Jeff was no longer in the picture.

Lisa answered it.

I define a nuisance client as a client who does not understand the bounds of our relationship, even after I clearly and sometimes repeatedly delineate them. Lisa came to me with her first notice of foreclosure. I took the case and told her to sit back and wait while I went to work. But Lisa couldn’t sit back. She couldn’t wait. She called me every day. After I filed a lawsuit putting the foreclosure before a judge, she showed up at court for routine filings and continuances. She had to be there and she had to know every move I made, see every letter I sent and be summarized on every call I received. She often called me and yelled when she perceived that I was not giving her case my fullest attention. I began to understand why her husband had hightailed it. He had to get away from her.
I began to wonder about Lisa’s mental health and suspected a bipolar affliction. The incessant calls and activities were cyclical. There were weeks when I heard nothing punctuated by weeks where she would call daily and repeatedly until she got me on the line.

Three months into the case she told me she had lost her job with the L.A. County School District because of unexcused absences. It was then that she talked about seeking damages from the bank that was foreclosing on her home. A sense of entitlement moved into the discourse. The bank was responsible for everything, the abandonment by her husband, the loss of her job, the taking of her home.

I made a mistake in revealing to her some of my case intelligence and strategy. I did it to appease her, to get her off the line. Our examination of the loan record had turned up inconsistencies and issues in the mortgage’s repeated reassignment to various holding companies. There were indications of fraud that I thought I could use to swing leverage to Lisa’s side when it came to negotiating an out.

But the information only galvanized Lisa’s belief in her victimization at the hands of the bank. Never did she consider or discuss the fact that she had signed for a loan and was obliged to repay it. She looked only at the bank as the reason for her woes.

The first thing she did was register a web site. She used www.californiaforeclosurefighters.com to launch an organization called Foreclosure Litigants Against Greed. It worked better as an acronym – FLAG –and allowed her to make use of the American flag on her protest signs. The message being that fighting foreclosure was as American as apple pie.

She then took to marching in front of WestLand’s corporate headquarters on Ventura Boulevard. Sometimes by herself, sometimes with her young son, and sometimes with people she had attracted to the cause. She carried signs that decried the bank’s involvement in illegal foreclosures and in putting families out of their homes and onto the streets.

Lisa was quick to alert local media outlets to her activities. She got on TV repeatedly and was always ready with the sound bite that gave voice to people in her situation as victims of the foreclosure epidemic, not garden variety deadbeats. I had noticed that on Channel 5 she had even become part of the stock footage thrown up on the screen whenever there was an update on nationwide foreclosure issues or statistics. California was the third leading state in the country for foreclosures and Los Angeles was the hotbed. As these facts were reported, there would be Lisa and her group on the screen carrying their signs – DON’T TAKE MY HOME! STOP ILLEGAL FORECLOSURE NOW!
Alleging that her protests were illegal formations that impeded traffic and endangered pedestrians, WestLand sought and received a restraining order that kept Lisa one hundred yards from any bank facility and its employees. Undaunted, Lisa took her signs and her fellow protesters to the county courthouse where foreclosures were fought every day.

Mitchell Bondurant was a senior vice-president at WestLand. He headed up the mortgage loan division. His name was on the loan documents relating to Lisa Trammel’s house. As such his name was on all of my filings. I had also written him a letter, outlining what I described as indications of fraudulent practices by the foreclosure mill WestLand had contracted to carry out the dirty work of taking the homes and other properties of their default customers.

Lisa was entitled to copies of all documents arising from her case. She was copied on the letter and everything else. Despite being the human face of the effort to take her home away, Bondurant remained above the fray, hiding behind the bank’s legal team. He never responded to my letter and I never met him. I had no knowledge that Lisa Trammel had ever met or spoken with him either. But now he was dead and the police had Lisa in custody.
We exited the 101 at Van Nuys Boulevard and headed north. The civic center was a plaza surrounded by two courthouses, a library, City Hall North and the Valley Bureau police complex, which included the Van Nuys Division. Various other government agencies and buildings were clustered around the main grouping. Parking was always a problem but it wasn’t my worry. I pulled my phone and called my investigator, Dennis Wojciechowski.

“Cisco, it’s me, you close?”

In his early years Wojciechowski rode with the Road Saints but there was already a member named Dennis. Nobody could pronounce Wojciechowski’s last name so they called him Cisco because of his long mustache. The mustache was now gone but the name had stuck.

“Already here. I’ll meet you on the bench by the front stairs to the PD.”

“I’ll be there in five. Have you talked to anyone yet? I’ve got nothing.”

“Yeah, your old pal Kurlen’s running lead on this. The victim, Mitchell Bondurant, was found in the parking garage at WestLand’s headquarters on Ventura about nine this morning. He was on the ground between two cars. Not clear how long he was down but he was dead on scene.”

“Do we know the cause yet?”

“There it gets a little hinky. At first they put out that he’d been shot because an employee who was on another level of the garage told responding police she had heard two popping sounds, like shots. But when they examined the body on the scene it looked like he had been beaten to death. Hit with something.”

“Was Lisa Trammel arrested there?”

“No, from what I understand, she was picked up at her home in Woodland Hills. I still have some calls out but that’s about the extent of what I’ve got so far. Sorry, Mick.”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll know everything soon enough. Is Kurlen at the scene or with the suspect?”

“I was told he and his partner picked up Trammel and took her in. The partner’s a female named Cynthia Longstreth. She’s a D-one. I’ve never heard of her.”

I had never heard of her either but since she was a detective one, my guess was that she was new to the homicide beat and paired with the veteran Kurlen, a D-3, to get some seasoning. I looked out the window. We were passing a BMW dealership and it made me think of the missing husband who had sold Beemers before pulling the plug on the marriage and disappearing. I wondered if Jeff Trammel would show up now that his wife was up for murder. Would he take custody of the son he had abandoned?

“You want me to get Valenzuela over here?” Cisco asked. “He’s only a block away.”

Fernando Valenzuela was a bail bondsman I used on Valley cases. But I knew he wouldn’t be needed this time.

“I’d wait on that. If they’ve tagged her with murder she isn’t going to make bail.”

“Right, yeah.”

“Do you know if a DA’s been assigned yet?”

I was thinking about my ex-wife who worked for the district attorney’s office in Van Nuys. She might be a useful source of back channel information – unless she had been put on the case. Then there would be a conflict of interest issue. It had happened before. Maggie McPherson wouldn’t like that.

“I’ve got nothing on that.”

I considered what little we knew and what might be the best way to proceed. My feeling was that once the police understood what they had in this case – a murder that could draw wide attention to one of the great financial catastrophes of the time – they would quickly go to lockdown, putting a lid on all sources of information. The time to make moves was now.

“Cisco, I changed my mind. Don’t wait for me. Go over to the scene and see what you can find out. Talk to people before they get locked down.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I’ll handle the PD and I’ll call if I need anything.”

“Got it. Good luck.”

“You too.”

I closed the phone and looked at the back of my driver’s head.

“Rojas, turn right at Delano and take me up Sylmar.”

“No problem.”

“I don’t know how long I’ll be. I want you to drop me and then go back up Van Nuys Boulevard and find a body shop. See if they can get the paint off the back of the car.”

Rojas looked at me in the rearview mirror.

“What paint?”