C.R.U.S.H. (Part I)

Five months ago, two black homicide detectives got fed up with the Police Department's inaction on black-on-black murders. Thus was born the Crime Response Unit to Stop Homicide (CRUSH): six cops with the grit and guile to tackle the toughest cases in the

Officer Paul Lozada. The 10-year veteran is practicing his reach. He sticks his Beretta in a holster in the back of his pants and makes a few practice grabs for it. Satisfied that he has easy access to the weapon, he sits, flips down his shades, and hunkers in for the meeting. Lozada is a former gang member who was kicked out of just about every high school in the city for fighting. He's a black-belt karate champion. "I've been 10 years a cop but a gangster my whole life," he says. Fond of pimp shades, leather jackets, and roomy plaid shirts, Lozada looks more criminal than cop, a perfect pose for a plainclothes officer seeking street cred. Cool on the outside, he can pop into the excitement of police work at any second, volunteering to take the wheel for a hot chase into oncoming traffic. He likes to kiss one bullet for good luck before putting it in the clip for his gun.

E.R. Balinton. The former deputy sheriff picks under his fingernails with a rather large knife. Six years in the department, he worked another nine in the jails and at Juvenile Hall. Nash, as he's called, played for the Cincinnati Bengals in the '70s, but he was let go after one season. He describes his football career in a high, squeaky voice: "Itsy, bitsy, witsy, liddle, teeny, weeny, eeny, meeny." Nash is the moralist, frequently scolding crack addicts for smoking while pregnant. "Give the kid a chance," is one of his favorite lines. While the rest of the team don't mind talking about themselves, Nash keeps things pretty close to the vest. "We have a foreigner in our midst," he says of me one day.

At the head of the table is the legendary Hendrix, the towering Texan with the textbook no-bullshit attitude. To smile would probably hurt the man. He's been a detective for so long, 30 years to be exact, that he can convince the hardest con that it's in his best interest to confess all. "If Nap was here, he'd have this guy sucking his dick in a minute," Lozada says one day referring to a suspect.

Hendrix is team leader. He gives the men assignments every day: Pick up this witness, work this informant. Most days, though, the CRUSH team makes it up as they go, following their instincts.

By today, Nov. 6, I've been tagging along with CRUSH for almost seven days. Besides the 33 unsolved murders, they've picked up several other cases.

The most nagging new case involves an Oct. 26 shooting in Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin. Two drug dealers engaged in a gunfight. One of the dealers, Reggie Gordon, grabbed an innocent bystander, a homeless woman, and used her as a shield. She caught a bullet in the head and one in the chest and died the same day. The suspected shooter's name is Demoin Stroman. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.

Stroman is getting under CRUSH's skin. He has already given the team the slip once. The night of the killing, McMillan and Bolte tracked him to his girlfriend's house in Pittsburg, but Stroman vanished in a car chase. "He rolled out of the car and jumped a fence," Mac says.

But the main topic today is Jerry Banks, who's been accused of murdering Ronnie Hodges, a small-time hood from Potrero Hill who made a living robbing drug dealers.

Earlier in the day, as McMillan prepared for the noon meeting, he told Hodges' story. "I knew the guy," he said walking down the hallway to the homicide detail office. "He was destined to get it. He's been ripping off drug dealers for a while. The guy who we think shot him is someone Ronnie may have shot at a few days before."

Police say Banks and Hodges rumbled on Nov. 4 at a touch football game at the Potrero Hill recreation center, where O.J. Simpson used to play. The dispute ended blocks away when Banks chased Hodges into the Four Way Market on 23rd Street. Firing six shots, Banks hit Hodges once in the back, piercing his heart. Within a half-hour of the killing, an informant called in to the SFPD, asked for McMillan, and put the finger on Banks.

Hendrix tells the CRUSH unit that the videocassette from the store's security camera has conveniently disappeared and the owner is playing like he didn't see anything. All police have to go on is the word of the snitch and a palm print on some broken glass in the store. The detective adds that he's working Banks' mother, trying to get her to convince her son to surrender.

Bolte recalls the last time he saw Hodges alive. He had busted him on a robbery beef involving a cellular phone. "I told him the robberies were going to catch up with him," Bolte tells the crew. "He said, 'I don't give a fuck, I've been shot six times.' "

rugs are at the heart of most of the 33 murders. Suspects and witnesses are often dealers or addicts, or the victim is involved in the drug business in some way. Since the drug trade in the city travels between the southeast and the Tenderloin, the TL is a natural place for CRUSH to work cases. And there's really only one way to work a cold case: roust people.

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