The Intruder

Cindy stood beside me clutch­ing my arm as I flipped the dead­bolt, opened the door, and point­ed my shot­gun at the chest of a black, angel-winged Led Zep­pelin tee shirt worn by a stranger. In his mid-twen­ties, tall, and thin with shoul­der-length blond hair and a hooked nose, he froze in the act of bring­ing a cig­a­rette to his mouth and stared at the busi­ness end of my twelve gauge as though he couldn’t quite fig­ure out what it was.

His look of bewil­der­ment slow­ly mor­phed into a scowl. He dropped the cig­a­rette and moved his hand toward his pants pocket.

Don’t,” I said, lift­ing the shot­gun to aim it at his face.

He froze again and glared at me.

My fin­ger tensed on the trigger.

Nei­ther of us moved. Five sec­onds passed. Ten.

Nat King Cole’s Home

This stand­off occurred in 1976 in the mid­dle of the night at the back door of our apart­ment in Los Ange­les. When I signed on as an attor­ney with Lath­am and Watkins the pre­vi­ous sum­mer, we moved into a small apart­ment in San­ta Mon­i­ca. Six months lat­er, Cindy was preg­nant with our first child and we were search­ing for a big­ger place when a Lath­am lawyer offered us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to take over her lease on the down­stairs unit of a duplex in Han­cock Park.

Estab­lished in the 1920’s, Han­cock Park is a spec­tac­u­lar­ly attrac­tive neigh­bor­hood near down­town LA.  Howard Hugh­es, Nat King Cole, and Mae West built pala­tial estates in the heart of the com­mu­ni­ty in the 30’s and 40’s, and Muham­mad Ali, Anto­nio Ban­deras, and Melanie Grif­fith lived there in the 70’s and 80’s. Cov­er­ing a 1.56 square mile area, the neighborhood’s typ­i­cal home is a large Tudor or Ital­ian Renais­sance-style house set back from a qui­et tree-lined street.

Howard Hugh’s Estate

Upscale duplex­es sit on its west­ern bor­der. The Lath­am lawyer’s two-bed­room unit had a big liv­ing room, din­ing room, and kitchen, and nice­ly land­scaped lit­tle front and back yards. It was locat­ed on South Orange Dri­ve, a half block from the Third Street bus line, which I could take to Latham’s offices on Flower Street, free­ing up our car for Cindy when I was at work. Best of all, the rent was low and locked-in for two years.

We moved in that win­ter; our son was born in Jan­u­ary; and we came to love the place in all respects. Except one. An island of afflu­ence sur­round­ed by eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­tressed neigh­bor­hoods in LA’s urban cen­ter, Han­cock Park expe­ri­enced a high rate of break-ins and bur­glar­ies on a per capi­ta basis, and once in a great while we’d hear about a rob­bery that turned violent.

Muham­mad Ali’s Mansion

I didn’t wor­ry about this much at the time because the odds were still heav­i­ly against some­one break­ing into our apart­ment. Han­cock Park’s ten thou­sand res­i­dents stood only a one in six hun­dred chance of being bur­glar­ized. I men­tion it here because the neighborhood’s rep­u­ta­tion for break-ins crouched in the back of my mind like an ugly lit­tle gar­goyle the night the stranger appeared at our back door, and it was part of the rea­son I con­front­ed him with a shotgun.

My back­ground played a sig­nif­i­cant role, too. I grew up in rur­al Vir­ginia. Most every­one in Sug­ar Hol­low and Brown’s Cove owned guns for hunt­ing wild game. They kept them close and knew how to use them. Bur­glar­ies on a per capi­ta basis in those neigh­bor­hoods were zero. If you were stu­pid enough to break into a house there, you’d be lucky to get out alive.

At two a.m. the night the intrud­er approached our apart­ment, Cindy had just fed our baby and put him in his crib. It was a hot night, and we had the win­dows open. Our bed­room was at the rear of the duplex next to our dri­ve­way.  As we lay awake try­ing to go back to sleep, I heard foot­steps tread­ing soft­ly on con­crete and saw the shad­ow of a tall man pass by our window.

Who’s that?” Cindy whis­pered, alarmed.

Our Duplex

The dri­ve­way was a nar­row lane between our duplex and the one next door. It led to our garage and a small back­yard that was walled in and com­plete­ly closed off from the lots around us. There was no rea­son any­one would walk down our dri­ve­way except to gain access to the back of the house.

I got out of bed and looked out the back win­dow. It was a moon­less night. I could bare­ly see the dark form of a man dressed in black stand­ing at our garage. He seemed to be try­ing to open its locked door.

What’s he doing?” Cindy said.

Break­ing into the garage.”

I pulled on a pair of jeans. The sin­gle-shot twelve gauge I used for hunt­ing in Vir­ginia was propped in the cor­ner of our bed­room clos­et. I grabbed it, retrieved a shell from our dress­er draw­er, and slipped it into the chamber.

Bare­foot­ed and shirt­less, I head­ed into the kitchen where the back door was locat­ed. Through the door’s win­dow I saw the man stand­ing on our stoop. Cindy came up beside me and wrapped her trem­bling hands around my arm.

The door­knob turned, but the dead­bolt held in place. The man twist­ed the knob again and pushed against the door.

React­ing with­out think­ing, I flipped the bolt and opened the door. The shell in my shot­gun was a num­ber five shot, designed for small game. It would inflict seri­ous dam­age to a man only at close range, so I thrust the muz­zle with­in inch­es of his chest. When he moved his hand toward his pock­et, I gave him a warn­ing and shoved the gun in his face.

It seemed like we stared at each oth­er for an eter­ni­ty. Then he raised his hands slow­ly. “I must be at the wrong place,” he said.

He gave me a long hard look, stepped off the stoop, and walked away.

I kept the shot­gun trained on him until he round­ed the cor­ner of the house. Cindy and I rushed out to the liv­ing room. From the front win­dows, we watched him walk out to the street, turn right at the side­walk, pass under a street­lamp, and dis­ap­pear into the night.

I let out a long breath.

We con­sid­ered call­ing the police, but we didn’t have much to report. The man tres­passed but he didn’t break in, and I wasn’t sure how the police would react to my shot­gun. So, we put the ugli­ness of that night behind us and went on with our lives.

About a month lat­er, the LAPD bust­ed a drug deal­er oper­at­ing out of a down­stairs apart­ment at the end of our street. The duplex­es on South Orange Dri­ve are sim­i­lar in archi­tec­ture. Floor plans repeat about every ten struc­tures. The dealer’s duplex resem­bled ours. My guess is our intrud­er was a user who came to “the wrong place,” as he said.

The reac­tion of my acquain­tances to my behav­ior that night is mixed. My gun con­trol friends point out that the man prob­a­bly didn’t plan to harm us and bran­dish­ing a shot­gun could have pro­voked him to react vio­lent­ly. I could have shot him, inten­tion­al­ly in self-defense or acci­den­tal­ly because I was scared. Either way, he would have died by my hand and my life would have been changed for the worse forever.

Rob­bery of Mom with Baby

My gun rights friends say it was rea­son­able to con­clude the man intend­ed to break in and do us harm, and the police couldn’t have respond­ed to a call in time to pro­tect us. They main­tain I had the right to defend my fam­i­ly with lethal force.

Both view­points make sense to me.

Frankly, I don’t know if I did the right thing that night. I didn’t have time to think about my actions back then but reflect­ing on that con­fronta­tion now as I write this post, I’d prob­a­bly do the same thing again under sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances. Right or wrong, with the safe­ty of Cindy and our baby on the line, I’d put my shot­gun on that guy’s chest and hope and pray it would be enough to make him walk away.


Post Script: Sev­er­al recent fol­low-home rob­beries that made nation­al news occurred in Han­cock Park. A home secu­ri­ty cam­era taped the most brazen inci­dent where two men fol­lowed a mom push­ing a baby stroller into her dri­ve­way and robbed her at gunpoint.