Murder & Old Lace

Killing for Life Insurance Proceeds

© 2017, Barry Zalma

CHAPTER I

In 2002 I was an investigator for Stone Mountain Life Insurance Company. I’d done this work since I left the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps in 1967 because I knew if I stayed I would be shipped to Vietnam where intelligence agents were required to wear civilian clothes and drive U.S. Army Jeeps.

Since I did not wish to be a prime target for the Viet Cong, with a large bull’s-eye painted on my chest, I did not reenlist. My first job out of the military was as a trainee investigator for Stone Mountain. I have worked for Stone Mountain ever since and am now considered their senior claims investigator.

It’s a good life. No single investigation is the same as the next. I meet new individuals every working day. Sometimes my investigations are easy and payment is made promptly. Sometimes they are difficult and my talent as an investigator is often challenged. The challenging cases are the ones that make my work worthwhile. Since I am the senior investigator, I receive more of the challenging cases than my colleagues.

I first met Nadia Gogolivesky in February 2017, a year before I was scheduled to retire. Nadia, a handsome 65-year-old woman, was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy issued to her fiancée, 68-year-old Luis Alvarado. Since Alvarado had a $1 million policy with a double indemnity feature and since he had died, the week before, after being run over by a hit-and-run driver while crossing Main Street in downtown Los Angeles at 3:00 a.m., the claims manager assigned me to interview Ms. Gogolivesky and conduct a thorough investigation of the death before handing her two million dollars.

The claims manager was concerned because the policy had only been in effect for three months and the location of the accident seemed out of character for the person whose application Stone Mountain Life had used to decide whether or not to insure his life.

When I met Nadia in 2010 the gray roots were just becoming visible at the part of her dyed brown hair. She had the body and face of a 40-year-old and greeted me at her door with a smile and a deep contralto voice that had the slight rasp of a long-time cigarette smoker which habit was confirmed by yellow-brown stains on her thumb and index finger of her right hand.

She dressed in a vintage, but expensive designer business suit, that came from a high-end thrift store, with a skirt reaching just below the knee and with hand tatted lace on the collar. The suit was completed with a blue silk blouse, open two buttons to show off a thin silver chain around her neck with a grey, fresh water pearl hanging from the chain just above the second button.

Nadia had granted me an appointment at 4:15 p.m. on the first Tuesday after the death. I arrived at 4:10, as was my habit, and was invited into her home, a modest two-bedroom ranch house in Westchester far enough from the LAX flight plan to make the takeoffs and landings almost unheard.

I sat on a sofa that was probably purchased in the 1950’s and still had its original upholstery. She sat on a similarly ancient wing back chair opposite me, her hands folded demurely on her lap.

“Good morning, Sam.”

“Good morning.” I replied.

“What do you need to know from me?”

“First, are you Nadia Gogolivesky?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have a driver’s license or passport to establish your identity?”

“Of course, please wait a moment.”  She rose from the wing back chair, went into one of the bedrooms, and returned with a U.S. passport and a California Drivers’ License in her hand. I inspected both, wrote in my notebook the numbers of each while she stood beside me. I returned the two documents to her.

“Thank you.” I said, watching her return to her wing back chair and sit, with grace, back into her position with hands crossed on her lap and feet, wearing low heeled practical shoes that, although clearly comfortable, did not weaken the impression of the business suit, crossed at the ankle.

“I understand the need, young man. Do you need anything else?”

“Yes, I need to ask you a few questions as part of the thorough investigation my employer always conducts when there is an accidental death.”

“I will answer any question you wish to ask.”

“When did you first meet Luis Alvarado?”

“March 15, 2010 – the Ides of March.”

“What was the occasion?”

“I had gone to Culver City with my friend Maddie Magogassasanian to shop at their Farmers Market for fresh vegetables. Luis was there selling pure orange blossom honey. He gave me a sample and I bought a bottle.”

“Had you met him before that day?”

“No. But the honey was delicious and I returned a week later and bought some more. He was a nice, soft-spoken man, and asked me if I would like to have a beer with him at Rocco’s since he was set for his break.”

“Did you agree?”

“Oh, yes. At my age I don’t get invited to anything by a handsome man. Of course I agreed.”

“Then what happened?”

“We exchanged numbers and he called me the next day.”

“Did you date?”

“Sam, I’m a little old to ‘date.’ We saw a great deal of each other. It took a few years and he eventually asked me to marry him since he was living in a hotel in Downtown Los Angeles and I owned this old house. We decided we could join our resources and live the rest of our lives together. It wasn’t a romance like these new young people have but it made sense.”

“Did you accept his offer?”

“Yes.” she sighed. “I was honored that he liked me enough so that I would no longer be an old maid living alone on a small pension from the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

“Had you set a wedding date?”

Nadia pulled a kerchief from her long sleeve, dabbed it at her eyes, and blew her nose. “We had decided to go to the little chapel in Sherman Oaks to be married on July 4.”

“Were you present when he purchased the life insurance policy?”

“Yes. He was not that comfortable with written English. He spoke it well but was not great reading and writing. I went to the agency to help him.”

“Was anyone else there when you applied?”

“The agent, Ms. Fogarty, and my friend Maddie.”

“Did Ms. Fogarty ask the questions on the application?”

“Yes.”

“Who answered the questions?”

“Luis answered all the questions after I helped him understand the questions.”

“After the application was completed did Ms. Fogarty present the application to Luis to sign?”

“Yes, but he simply passed it to me, since he didn’t read English.” Nadia replied, her voice cracking once, wiping her eyes and blowing her nose, making it seem clear that she had not yet put aside her grief. “I read each of the answers, concluded it was accurate, and passed it back to Luis to sign.”

“Did you read each question and answer?”

“Yes, and I was convinced that Ms. Fogarty was very careful since she recorded all of Luis’ answers accurately.”

“Did Luis have any relatives?”

“None that he ever told me about.”

“Who paid the premium?”

“Luis paid the first installment with cash.”

“Why cash?”

“He didn’t have a checking account.”

“Who paid the second installment?”

“Luis. He gave me the cash when he visited and asked me to write a check.”

“Thank you, Ms. Gogolivesky. I have some additional investigation to complete and should be able to report to my superiors who can respond to your claim promptly.”

Nadia gave me the simple background I needed to begin my investigation. I gave her my card which had my office and cell phone numbers and my e-mail address so she could reach me at any time and explained that I should be communicating with her in the next 15 to 30 days.

CHAPTER 2

After leaving Nadia I made an appointment to meet with Ms. Celestine Fogarty at her office in Century City, only four miles from Nadia’s house. Ms. Fogarty offered to meet with me as soon as I arrived.

Fogarty Insurance was located the twin tower buildings in Century City. I left my car with the valet, gave my I.D. to the security personnel on the ground floor, and was given a pass to the 14th floor. Fogarty Insurance had a small, 1,000 square foot office on the 14th floor broken into a reception area and two small offices.

Ms. Fogarty, a woman of her word, greeted me at the door and led me to a comfortable chair across from her desk. This was my third visit to her in the last five years and I was pleased to see that she had changed little. A small woman, only five-foot-two inches tall, dressed comfortably in slacks and a blue cashmere sweater, four inch heels raised her height to my chin. She had a head of curly ginger colored hair cut into short ringlets, a fine Scottish pink complexion complemented by hundreds of freckles. She obviously spent hours a day in the gym and cut a fine figure that could not have weighed more than 100 pounds.

“Good to see you again, Sam.” She said as she sat at her desk and directed me to a comfortable side chair. “Just put those documents on the other chair and be comfortable. Can I get you some coffee?”

“No thanks, Celestine, I’ve given it up.” I replied. “A glass of cold water would be nice.”

As she called her assistant to bring her coffee and a glass of ice water for me, I looked carefully at her desk piled with applications and policies. Celestine represented, as an agent, Stone Mountain and fifteen other insurance companies whose logos appeared on her desk and on the wall behind her desk.”

“To what do I owe this honor, Sam.”

“The insured of one of your recent policies was killed in a hit and run accident.”

“Which one?”

“Luis Alvarado.”

“Sad. He seemed like a very nice man.”

“Tell me how he came to you?”

“His fiancée said she found me on Yelp as a life insurance agent near her home.”

“Did you go to him or did he come here?”

“The fiancée insisted on meeting here.”

“Could you describe her?”

“Much to my surprise she seemed to be between 60 and 65-years-old and he seemed to be about the same age.”

“How were they dressed?”

“Casually in what appeared to be well-worn clothing.”

“Did you go through the application process with Mr. Alvarado?”

“Sam, you know it is my habit to ask every question on the life insurance application form that Stone Mountain provides to me.”

“Did Luis Alvarado appear to understand your questions?”

“Yes, but once in a while his fiancée, Nadia, would explain the question and help me understand his responses since he spoke with a thick Mexican or El Salvadorian accent.”

“What did you think about the fiancée, Nadia?”

“She seemed to know the process and after we finished the application questions she took the form from me, read over it cautiously for about ten minutes while Luis and I sat silently and then approved it and asked Luis to sign it.”

“What about the premium?”

“I used your computer system to price a term policy for a man Luis’ age, and told them it would be an annual premium of $3200 for the first year of coverage.”

“Nadia was surprised at the cost and asked me if I can finance the premium. I told her Luis could finance the premium by paying ten installments of $320 plus interest.”

“Did you take the first payment?”

“Yes.”

“Who paid?”

“Nadia.” Celestine responded, looked away from me and up to her ceiling as if she was trying to picture the transaction. “Yes, she paid, and I was surprised to find that she paid me in cash, with sixteen $20 bills. Luis just sat there as the money was counted and smiled with a mouth full of brown stained teeth. He said nothing, not even ‘goodbye’ as they left.”

“What happened next?”

“I deposited the funds into my trust account, passed the application to Stone Mountain electronically, deducted my commission and mailed the remainder of the premium to Stone Mountain.”

“Did they eventually issue a policy?”

“You know they did, Sam. Your company never makes me wait more than thirty days for a policy.

“When did the policy arrive at your office?”

“Two months ago.”

“Did you deliver it to Luis?”

“I followed his instructions and mailed the policy to him at Nadia’s Westchester address.”

“Did you ever see Luis Alvarado again?”

“No.”

“Did you ever see Nadia, again?”

“Yes, one month ago when she brought the second payment on the premium and last week, when she came to the office to give me notice of her claim.”

“Anything unusual in either of those meetings?”

“Only that she paid in cash again, three $100 bills and one $20. And then, last week she told me Luis had died and asked that I submit a claim to Stone Mountain.”

“Were both people new clients to you?”

“Yes, I had never seen either of them before they came to my office and I knew no person who knew them. They were total strangers.”

“What was your impression of Nadia when she came into the office to report the death of Luis?”

“I found her to be strangely calm and businesslike. She showed no emotion.”

“Thank you, Celestine, you have been a great help.” I said as I was rising to leave. “Could you please have a copy of your entire file made and send it to my office?”

“Of course, I was wondering if you forgot to ask.”

“Never, but being in the presence of such a beautiful lass like you I was thinking it would be nice if I was about thirty years younger and lost my train of thought in your large green eyes.”

“Sam, you are such a flirt. Get out of here and I’ll have the files on your desk tomorrow morning. Since the policy was only in effect for 90 days the file will be small.”

“Thank, Celestine. I will be in touch.”

CHAPTER 3

A competent and thorough investigation, much to the surprise of watchers of television detective shows, requires collection of all relevant and some irrelevant documents. A review of those documents will invariably lead to further avenues of investigation.

Therefore, after leaving Celestine I telephoned the office and asked them to make a complete copy of the underwriting file so I could review it when I arrived and asked my assistant to order a copy of the police report concerning the accident that killed Luis Alvarado; file a report in the all claims database searching for Luis, Nadia and her friend, Maddie.

I then drove to Downtown Los Angeles to view the accident scene. Luis was in a crosswalk near a used clothing store crossing toward a Mexican fast food restaurant at 3:00 a.m. Since the area filled with multiple low-cost hotels that rent rooms by the hour and by the month, it did not seem the type of place where a person with a one million dollar policy would live. People who live in the area get most, if not all, of the income from the public. The area had been cleaned by the police and there was no evidence of the accident remaining at the location.

To assist my manager I took photo’s of the scene. I then stopped in at each of the businesses on both sides of the block only to learn that none of the businesses were open at 3:00 in the morning. No one had seen the accident. No one knew that there was a hit-and-run in their area. No one knew Luis. Good work completed with no useful information obtained.

I drove a mile to Parker Center, the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department and was lucky enough to find Detective Robert Arroyo available to meet with me. After explaining my position and the need for investigation we sat in the LAPD break-room over his coffee and my green tea to discuss his investigation.

“Luis Alvarado had a life insurance policy that may pay $2 million, you say, Sam.”

“Yes. A $1 million policy with a double indemnity feature for an accidental death.”

“How did someone who lived in a beat up hotel on Main Street afford the premium?”

“I was told he had a job at the Culver City Farmers Market.”

“What was the premium?”

“$320 a month.”

“I saw his pay stubs. He didn’t make $320 a month.”

“How was he killed?”

“He was hit by a car, knocked to the ground, run over, and then the car backed up and ran over him again according to the Medical Examiner.”

“Did anyone see the incident?”

“No one. You could shoot a canon down L.A. Street at three in the morning and hit nothing more than a 32-ounce soda cup.”

“Any video cameras in the area?”

“Many, but they are turned off at night.”

“Did the ME have any information that could identify the car?”

“Some blue paint scrapings that could have come from any Japanese or Korean made sedan or SUV.”

“Nothing more?”

“His I.D., a fake green card, a Social Security card with his name but that matched a person living in Omaha, Nebraska, and $12.46 in his pants.”

“Any criminal record?”

“None that I could find.”

“Any hits on his fingerprints?”

“Nope.”

“Did you speak to his fiancée?”

“No.”

“Did you find any relatives?”

“No.”

“Does the coroner still have the body?”

“Yes. No one has claimed it.”

I thanked the officer knowing that no additional investigation would be done nor could it be done by the LAPD with no leads. I returned to my office at the corner of Sixth and Vermont in Los Angeles and met with my manager in the corner office that his title of Vice President – Claims authorized him to occupy.

“What can my favorite claims investigator tell me about the $2 million claim?” Cyrus Mobley asked, leaning back in his desk chair with his hands folded comfortably over his copious belly.

“Not much, Cy.” I replied. “The Alvarado policy, his fiancée, and the facts are all suspicious but I have found nothing that I could claim are evidence.”

“Should I call counsel?”

“I don’t know if it could help but a lawyer would be more impressive than the word of an insurance investigator.”

“I will, anyway, after you tell me what you found.”

I gave Mr. Mobley a brief recitation of all of the facts I had gathered from my contact with the beneficiary, her friend, the agent, and the police officer as well as a summary of the documents I had gathered and reviewed.

“Sit back, drink your coffee, be silent and listen and learn.” Cy said, then placed his desk phone in speaker mode so I could listen, and telephoned his favor insurance coverage lawyer, Jim Claphorn of Claphorn, Goniff, and Abogado, in Los Angeles. They were lawyers I knew well and had, on behalf of my employer retained many times to help us suspicious claims. Jim was 75-years-old and had a clear, analytical mind with an encyclopedic knowledge of California Insurance law.

“How the Hell are you, Jim?” I heard Mobley start the conversation as if he was just calling in a Pizza order rather than seeking the advice of a high priced and competent lawyer.

“Just lovely, Cy. What can I do for you?”

“Agree to lunch next Tuesday if you’ll pick me up.”

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do, Cy, but I will be in San Francisco arguing a case for you in the Court of Appeal – remember the August Mikaelian claim?”

“Of course I remember and that’s why I asked, so I wouldn’t have to buy you lunch.”

“Now that we’re clear, why did you call?”

“We have a suspicious claim on a life policy we wrote three months ago. The insured – whose residence was in Westchester – was hit by a car crossing Los Angeles Street at three in the morning. The beneficiary is his 65-year-old fiancée. It just doesn’t pass the smell test, Jim.”

“I can see why you are suspicious. Has you best investigator, Sam come up with any evidence that can be used to show the policy was a sham?”

“Not a thing other than it smells. Everything seems to check out. It just doesn’t make sense and my gut tells me that this is a fraud.”

“Cy, no matter how copious and well-formed is your 65-inch gut, it isn’t evidence. Unless Sam comes up with some evidence indicating a fraud I can do nothing and, as much as I like taking your money, you should probably pay the claim.”

“Thanks for nothing, Jim.” Mobley slammed the receiver back into its cradle and scowled at me. His look, if eyes were knives, had cut me into pieces like a dish of hash brown potatoes.

“Well, Sam, what can you do that you haven’t done?”

“I could go back in time to the scene of the accident but I seem to have misplaced my company time machine. I could go back to interview the fiancée again, but I don’t know what it would accomplish.”

“Increase the reserve to $2 million, prepare a receipt and release for the sole beneficiary, order a draft from accounting for $2 million made payable to the fiancée and take the check to her. When she signs the receipt, you can hand her the draft, close your file and we can go on to the next case.”

I did as instructed and made an old lady in Westchester a fairly wealthy woman. She claimed she would rather have Luis than the money but that she would take the money on his behalf, gave me a hug and kissed me on both cheeks.

I returned to the office and closed the file with payment in full made to the beneficiary.

For the next ten months I worked on mundane life insurance and disability claims until I reached retirement. Cy threw me a nice goodbye party and gave me a fishing rod to keep me busy after I left the employ of Stone Mountain Insurance.

Chapter 4

Retired, I tried fishing. I tried art. I tried playing bridge at the senior center. None made me feel as good as I did when I was working. I was only 65-years-old and in good physical and mental condition. I was bored. To a man who had worked 50 weeks a year for more than 40 years, sitting around watching the History channel on t.v. was not enough.

I visited an old friend who operated an independent adjusting and private investigation firm. Les Bingham offered me a way out of boredom. He had plenty of young, competent and hard-working investigators on staff but they lacked experience. I was given a job investigating life and disability claims for many different insurance companies as long as I was available to consult with the young investigators. The work was easy, I was allowed to control my calendar, and carried a light claims load. The small pay I received coupled with my retirement pay kept me well fed and happy. Once a week I would meet with the staff investigators and answer questions.

After six months with Bingham Investigations the staff and I became comfortable with each other and the weekly exchanges became interesting and educational for both of us.

In March, 2018 eight investigators and I met in Bingham’s conference room. The discussions ranged from fire, theft and business interruption claims to a life insurance claim. We spent an hour dealing with the property claim until Billy LeBlanc, a 25-year-old investigator with four years of experience brought up a problem with one of my favorite type of cases, life insurance.

“Sam,” Billy asked. “I’m working on a life claim for Fireman’s New World Life that confuses me.”

“How is that, Billy?” I responded.

“Well, the beneficiary is almost 70-years-old, 10 years younger than the decedent who was hit by a car and killed in an alley in downtown Los Angeles.”

“Why is that unusual?”

“The dead man was described as the beneficiary’s fiancée.”

“What is the name of the beneficiary?”

“Maddie Magogassasanian.”

“Where does she live?”

“Westchester, near LAX. Why do you ask?”

“There’s something familiar about what you describe. Have you interviewed the beneficiary yet?”

“Nope. I have an appointment to meet with her tomorrow.”

“Do you mind if I tag along?”

“Of course not, I would be honored.”

“What information do you have that makes you think the case is ‘strange’?”

“Well, the decedent, Wyatt Earnest, lived in a hotel on Main Street, near Skid Row. He did not have a job. He is not a blood relation to the beneficiary, and they just don’t seem the type to be engaged. I know, I’ve heard about Cougar relationships but this just doesn’t seem to fit.”

“What did you learn about the cause of death?”

“I spoke with the detectives. They have no evidence and just think this was a basic hit and run accident.”

“Are they investigating?”

“Nothing more than the scene investigation. There were no witnesses and no physical evidence other than the body. The only thing strange is that he seemed to have been hit once, run over, and then the car backed up and ran over him again. The detective thinks the driver was young and panicked.”

“Has an autopsy been performed?”

“No, and with the tread marks on the body it is pretty clear what was the cause of death. LA County is short of funds and just won’t do an autopsy when the cause is obvious.”

“Any drugs or alcohol involved?”

“Can’t be sure. There was an empty bottle of rye whiskey in a paper bag in the alley near the body but, in that area it is something that would normally be found in an alley.”

“How long was the policy in effect?”

“That is another red flag and why I was concerned – it had only been in effect for two weeks.”

“Okay, that’s enough for a thorough investigation. I’ll meet you here at 8:00 tomorrow morning so we can plan the statement you are going to take from the beneficiary before we head out. Just to be sure that we get everything I think it best that you have a certified shorthand reporter meet us there to take down everything said in the room.”

Chapter 5

Billy LeBlanc and I met at 8:00 the next morning.

Billy had searched the Insurance Service Office’s (ISO) All Claims Database and several life insurance databases on the decedent and his fiancée and found nothing of interest.

“Billy, in this modern world, isn’t it almost impossible to have no record on some database?”

“Yes.”

“So, why did you find nothing on these two people?”

“I don’t know. It could be they are simple people who never used a computer. It could be that the identity we were provided is not real. It could be that I did a bad job searching. I just don’t know.”

“Okay, Billy, that gives us a lead that we can use to investigate further and to direct our interview with the fiancée.”

“How?”

“Contact our friends at LAPD, Beverly Hills PD, Culver City PD, Torrance PD and Santa Monica PD and ask them to give you information on hit and run accidents killing homeless or old men.”

“I’ll get whatever they are willing to give me.”

“Also, check all the local newspapers, the local PATCH reports, and anything you can find on Google, Bing, Yahoo and Ask about the recent hit and run deaths of homeless or just old men.”

After sending Billy off to his computer I made contact with the beneficiary and made an appointment to interview her the next day. I then traveled to the insurer’s offices to meet with the underwriter who agreed to insure Wyatt Earnest for the benefit of Maddie Magogassasanian.

The underwriter, George Actuarial, was typical of the breed: five foot three inches tall, bald with a thin comb-over, tri-focal glasses, a pencil thin mustache, a Searsucker suit with a dark blue bow tie. He had five pens and a pencil tucked into a pocket protector in his shirt pocket and the only divergence from character was a pair of bright yellow socks tucked into size 6 penny loafers. His appearance belied 40 years of devoted and skillful activity as a respected life insurance underwriter who has held the designation Certified Life Underwriter (CLU) for more than 30 years.

“George, old friend” I greeted him. “Could you give me some of your time about the underwriting of the policy for the recently departed Wyatt Earnest.”

“Sure, let me pull the file and you can have the rest of the afternoon, Sam.”

George went to a shelf of files near his cubby and pulled out a thin manila folder with the policy numbers in bright colors on the side.

“Do you remember the application?” I asked.

“Of course, it’s somewhat unusual to get an application for a multimillion dollar policy on a 70-year-old single man. What do you need to know, Sam?”

“Who was Wyatt?”

“The application shows him to be a 70-year-old owner of a chain of Pizza stores running from San Diego to Fresno. The business reportedly grossed $5 million a year and was under the sole control of Mr. Earnest. He has no living relatives and the beneficiary is his fiancée, a woman called Maddie Magogassasanian. She is the operator of the Tea Shop at the Huntington Museum in San Marino and lives in Westchester.”

“Did either have any health problems?”

“No. According to the application they were both in excellent health and our traveling physician checked Mr. Earnest out and he appears to be one of those people who qualify as a 70-year-old who is the new 30.”

“Interesting. Did you do any checking to determine if the representations on the application were true other than having the doctor visit Mr. Earnest, George?”

“No. You know that our company believes in the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, expect that the insured will tell us the truth, and rely on the insured’s word in making a decision. It is our company policy that we are entitled to determine for our self what risks we will accept, and therefore to know all the facts relative to the applicant’s physical condition. We believe we have the unquestioned right to select those whom we will insure and rely upon him who would be insured for such information as we desire as a basis for our determination to the end that a wise discrimination may be exercised in selecting its risks.”

“You are talented, George, citing a California appellate decision from memory.”

“It’s the only one I know.”

“So, the application showed he was a good risk. Who was the agent?”

“You know him, Sam, Levon Sogominian in Glendale who seems to write every person of Armenian decent in Glendale or anyone related to a person of Armenian decent in Southern California. He is a straight arrow with a very small loss ratio. We have yet to not make a profit on the business he has placed with us.”

“Thanks, George. I’ll keep you posted as my investigation into the hit-and-run death of Mr. Earnest.”

“Keep well, Sam, and next time we must go to the TGI Friday’s next door for a beer.”

“I’ll go, George, if you can find a place more quiet than TGI Friday’s.”

CHAPTER 6

I met Maddie Magogassasanian at her California ranch style home in Westchester. It was well maintained, seemed to have been modified from its 1950’s original to include vinyl windows, had photovoltaic panels on the roof, a mission tile roof and painted in muted colors. The front yard was covered in low-water use grasses and succulents. It was a friendly, classic, Southern California middle class house.

I rang the doorbell and was almost immediately greeted at the door by a handsome woman of about 60-years of age with dyed brown hair with gray showing at the roots, dark red lipstick, plucked and well-formed eyebrows, dressed in DKNY blue jeans and a T-shirt loudly announcing its brand. She invited me in with a raspy voice one expects from a long-time cigarette smoker, invited me into her living room, and sat me down on a comfortable wing-back chair.

After controlling two dry coughs, Magogassasanian asked: “Can I get you some coffee, sir?”

“No thanks, I had four cups before coming here. I could, as a result, use your restroom, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course not, down the hall and the second door on the left.”

I walked down the hall, slowly, noting photographs of family hung on the hallway walls. I used the facility for the purpose it was designed noting it was clean, designed for guests, and so pristine it appeared it had not been used for its intended purpose for months. I returned to the living room and found she was sipping on a large coffee mug decorated with M & M’s. I sat back on the leather recliner chair and introduced the purpose of my visit:

“Ms. Magogassasanian, I represent the insurance company that insured the life of Mr. Earnest who passed away recently. He listed you as the beneficiary of his policy. The insurer is required by law to conduct a thorough investigation of every claim made in the state of California before it makes a decision on the claim. Part of that thorough investigation requires that I meet with, and interview you. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, Sam. You don’t mind me calling you Sam, do you?”

“Of course not, as long as you allow me to call you ‘Maddie’.”

“It shall be Sam and Maddie, then.”

“When did you first meet Wyatt Earnest?”

“About three years ago.”

“Where did you meet him?”

“At my church.”

“Where is that?”

“St John Armenian Church on North Vine Street in Hollywood.”

“Was Wyatt Armenian?”

“No, he was there offering the priest and the congregation special coupons for pizza which, when used would give the church a $1 donation for each purchase with a coupon. The priest asked me to work with Wyatt – because I happened to be there and because I had done volunteer work for the church in the past.”

“What did you do about his offer.”

“First, I went to one of his pizza stores, in Hollywood, bought a pizza using a coupon, to make sure the pizzas he made had sufficient quality to ask the members of our congregation to use the coupons.”

“Was the pizza any good?”

“It was a Chicago style deep dish pizza and it was delicious.”

“Was Wyatt there?”

“No. I didn’t want to be influenced.”

“When did you meet him after that first meeting at the church?”

“After I tasted the pizza, I telephoned the priest, told him it was delicious and that it would be something appropriate to advise the congregation that coupons were available and that one dollar of every purchase of the discounted pizza would be donated to the church. He agreed and set up a meeting between me, Mr. Earnest and father Levon for the next week.”

“Did the meeting take place?” I asked.

“Yes. We met for about 30 minutes. I asked Wyatt if he had done so with other churches. He told me he had done so with St. Basil’s Catholic Church downtown and the Wilshire Jewish Temple, Wyatt gave me 5,000 coupons offering our members $4 off any pizza at any of his stores. I thanked him and told him I would start handing them out at the service coming up the next Sunday if the priest at St. Basil’s and the Rabbi at the Wilshire Temple confirmed that the coupons helped their finances. He actually thanked me.”

“Did you call St. Basils?”

“I did. Father O’Mally told me that he received the coupons six months before and Wyatt had donated $2,000 to the church as a result.”

“Did you call the Wilshire Temple.”

“I did, and Rabbi Cohen told me that the congregation loved the pizza and after six months he received monthly checks from Wyatt for $1,000 or more for six months until the coupons ran out.”

“I explained that to the father Levon and we started handing out the coupons that Sunday. Armenians love pizza and by the time the coupons ran out Wyatt had donated $7,000 to the church.”

“How did you get the money?”

“Wyatt would meet with me and father Levon every Monday and deliver a check.”

“Did you have any other contact with him?”

“He was about five years older than me. After delivering the third check while the two of us went to a nearby Dennys for coffee. He was a handsome, kindly man and I was a lonely widow, so I agreed.”

“How many times did you meet after that?”

“Coffee turned to lunch, lunch turned to dinner, and dinner turned to a weekend in Big Bear. We became very close. He asked me to marry him six months after we met. I agreed without hesitation.”

“Did you and he ever discuss insurance?”

“Never. All we ever talked about was pizza and each other. He was a widower and his children were grown and away on their own. He almost never saw them since they all lived somewhere other than California. My one daughter lives in Wyoming. We were both lonely and enjoyed being together.”

“Did you set a date for the wedding?”

“No, we were shopping for venues on weekends but never found one to our liking. We didn’t really need the license since we were living together after the fourth month and he would spend two or three nights at my house and I would spend three or four nights at the Cecil Hotel downtown where he lived.”

“Did you ever discuss his finances?”

“No. I didn’t care if he had a dime. My first husband left me enough to live alone comfortably. I didn’t care about his money, only his pizza and his companionship. He was also an attentive and vigorous lover for a man his age.”

“Did Wyatt ever tell you that he had purchased a life insurance policy?”

“No. I was shocked when you called and told me there was one.”

“Did you ever meet with his insurance agent, Levon Sogominian in Glendale?”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“Thank you very much, Maddie. I’ll be in touch.”

“Thank you, Sam, it was nice to meet you, and if you need any more information please feel free to call.”
“I will, Maddie. Thank you again.”

CHAPTER 7

From Westchester I drove to Glendale to speak with Levon Sogominian. I had never met him before but had seen several claims where he was the agent.

Sogominian’s office was located in a strip mall north of the 134 Freeway on Brand Avenue in Glendale. It was about 2,000 square feet of open space with clerk-typists in a bull-pen type situation and a 500 square foot office with a large picture window looking out on the parking lot and the 7/11 store on the dog leg portion of the strip mall.

Levon was, like most salesmen personable and greeted me with a broad smile, a hearty handshake, and attempted bear hug that I resisted politely. He was a big man who seemed perpetually happy with a smile that seemed to permanently place laugh lines at each of his eyes and at the corners of his lips. He was large, six feet tall four inches and about 280 pounds of a less than athletic body stuffed into a $3,000 Armani pinstriped blue suit, a custom made highly starched Egyptian cotton shirt with an “LS” monogram on each cuff and a yellow silk tie and yellow silk pocket kerchief. His collar had a US flag pin above and an Armenian flag pin below. The outfit was topped off with a pair of highly shined Bruno Magli Alligator skin boots. He greeted me into his office, sat me in a leather side chair, and as if we were close friends since childhood, offered me coffee, tea, or Armenian brandy that he insisted on calling “Cognac”.

I, wishing to keep my mind clear, refused all and asked for a glass of water. Shortly thereafter an employee entered with two bottles of Perrier and a glass half full of ice. When she left I poured the Perrier into the glass, took a sip of the bitter carbonated water, looked at Levon, and sat silent for two minutes.

Unable to resist, Levon leaned forward on his chair, making the birthmark on his bald head that looked like a red map of Idaho, and asked: “Sam Hazan, interesting name. Are you Armenian?”

“No.”

“Then you must be Jewish.”

“Levon, I never talk religion when I am working.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to offend.”

“No offense. I just find it is impossible to conduct a thorough insurance investigation if religion is brought into the subject matter.”

“Okay, so how can I help you, Sam.”

“I’m investigating the death of Wyatt Earnest – you are listed as the agent who sold him a life insurance policy three months before his death.”

“Yes, I heard, a nice man. Why did he die?”

“He was run over by a hit-and-run driver who, after hitting him, backed up to run over him a second time.”

“Shocking and a terrible way to die.”

“How long did you know Mr. Earnest, Levon,” I asked.

“I met him for the first time three months ago.”

“Why did he come to you, he wasn’t Armenian and didn’t live or have an office in Glendale.”

“He was referred to me by Maddie?”

“Maddie?”

“Yes, Maddie Magogassasanian, she brought him here to sign the application for insurance.”

“Did you know Maddie before Wyatt Earnest?”

“Oh, yes, she had purchased two life insurance policies on her dearly departed husband, a life insurance policy on her life, a Homeonwers policy and an umbrella liability policy, all based on my recommendation.”

“A good customer.”

“Yes, very loyal, although most people of Armenian decent will try to work with others of Armenian decent.”

“Understood. Did you personally meet with Wyatt to prepare an application.”

“Yes. Maddie and Wyatt sat in my office – he was sitting on the same chair you are sitting on now.”

“How did the application get filled out?”

“I sat at my desk here and asked Wyatt each and every question on the application?”

“Did he answer each question?”

“No. Most of the answers came from Maddie. He seemed a bit shy.”

“After the application was completed did you ask him to sign the application?”

“Did he sign the application in your presence?”

“Yes.”

“Did he represent to you that he had read and answered each and every question on the application truthfully and to the best of his knowledge.”

“He did.

“Some of the questions ask for details like date and place of birth, drivers’ license number and social security number.  Did you see any evidence that his statements were accurate?”

“Of course, I even took his drivers’ license and social security card and made a copy for my file. Here, look at this copy.”

Levon handed me a color photocopy of the drivers’ license and social security card. It looked like the official documents created by the state and the Social Security Administration.

“What about the other questions – did Wyatt answer them?”

“He and Maddie worked together to get me complete answers on the business and health questions. He seemed to be very shy for a man who owned a chain of pizza restaurants.”

“Could I have a copy of the original application and the sheet with the license on it?”

“Of course,” Levon said, reaching behind him to place the two documents in a multi-function computer printer and printed out a color copy of the two documents. “Here you are. Is there anything further I can do for you?”

“No thanks, Levon” I replied, “you have provided me with everything I need.”

CHAPTER 8

Life insurance agents are usually more interested in selling a policy and collecting the commission since it is front loaded and can be even more than the initial premium payment. They want long living clients because they also get a commission when each annual payment is made. A successful salesman, after a few years, is collecting commissions without effort from people he sold policies to many years before.

Levon, seemed to me to be one of those who took the long view, and tried to underwrite the policies he sold to people who would pay the premium for many years rather than try to live off the initial commission. He carefully went over the application for insurance with the insured and, if he was telling me the truth, worked to get answers from the applicant that he and the applicant believed was true.

The meeting with Levon did give me concern when he told me that although the applicant was present most of the answers came from Maddie, not the applicant. It was my experience that when a person other than the applicant answers the agent’s questions there were only two reasons: a lack of English fluency or two someone was attempting fraud. I didn’t know which but the need for additional and thorough investigation became necessary because red flags of fraud were beginning to wave in my face.

It was time, therefore, to meet with the beneficiary, Maddie Magogassasanian again. She agreed to meet with me at 10:00 a.m. the next morning.

From Glendale I drove down Highway 2 to the 101 and parked near the Coroner’s office. I was able to find the coroner who worked on the decedent, Wyatt Earnest. Over the years I had interviewed Dr. Wilhelm Bonecutter many times. Fortunately, although I arrived without an appointment, I found Dr. Wil sitting in the Coroner’s break room munching on a toasted bagel with cream cheese.

“Hi, Wil.” I greeted him. “No lox on your bagel today?”

“Never, Sam. Lox gives me gas and I don’t want to offend my clients.”

“Funny, all your clients are dead so they can’t be offended.”

“The last time I had lox one of my clients sat up. He was still dead but he scared me when he sat up since he had more gas than me.”

“I’m glad I missed that day,” I responded. “I’ll buy you another bagel and a cup of coffee if you have time to help me while you munch.”

“For you, and a bagel, Sam, I am at your service.”

I sat beside him, passed a bagel and cream cheese and a large cup of black coffee, spread cream cheese on my onion bagel, and asked: “You worked on a hit-and-run victim, Wyatt Earnest, didn’t you Wil?”

“Yes. Unusual hit-and-run.”

“Why unusual?” I asked.

Will took a huge bite out of his water bagel, sucked down a quarter of the cup of coffee I brought for him, slouched badly in his chair while running his hand through his shock of curly white hair, took a deep breath and said:

“Whoever hit him wanted to make sure he was dead. First he was knocked down and run over and then the driver backed up and ran him over again.”

“You were able to see that from an autopsy?”

“Easy, the marks of tire treads were obvious on his neck and shoulders and then again from his waist to his ankles.”

“Then, you are telling me this wasn’t a hit-and-run?”

“Absolutely. I have recorded this as a murder. There was nothing accidental about it.”

The death certificate I had originally obtained merely said death by pedestrian v. automobile, not murder. Usually such results from a deputy coroner are not public and go directly to a police officer or prosecutor. I was, probably for the first time in my life, unable to speak. To cover my shock I took two bites from my onion bagel and completed my cup of coffee before asking more.

“Wil,” I asked “what can you tell me about the victim other than he was killed by someone intentionally.”

“He was a fairly interesting man who was not in perfect health at the time of his death. His liver was almost useless because of a lifetime of alcohol abuse, his lungs were almost black from smoking cigarettes and breathing Los Angeles smog, his kidneys were inflamed, he was constipated (probably hadn’t moved his bowels in four days), and the arteries leading to his heart were 70% occluded. For a 70-year-old man he had the body of a 102-year-old.”

“Could any of these conditions have been recently acquired?”

“Not a chance, most were due to long term abuse. He probably would not have lived two or three years longer with those conditions, had he not been run over.”

“Thanks, Wil, you’ve been a great help.” I said, rising and shaking his hand. “Will the insurance company I work for be able to receive a copy of your report.”

“Probably not until the police complete their investigation. The investigating officer told me they had no leads except a little bit of blue paint that attached to his clothing, possibly from the car that hit him.”

“Who’s the investigating officer?”

“You know him, Sam. Lee Sakurichi at Parker Center.”

I did know, Lee. He and I attended Dorsey High in L.A., both attended USC with liberal arts degrees, and both became police officers, he with LAPD and me with the L.A. County Sheriffs’ Department. When they assigned me to guard the County Jail I resigned and went to work as a life insurance investigator while Lee stayed with the force and was now a lead homicide detective. He loved being a police officer and distrusted most private investigators.

Since I was already downtown I decided to walk to Parker Center to see if Lee was in the office. Much to my surprise he was at his desk as I, wearing my visitor’s badge, approached his desk. As I approached, I sang, totally off key: “I’m a Dorsey Don from Dorsey town” our high school fight song.

Lee looked up from the paperwork he was scanning, his eyes wide open in surprise, and sang the next verse. He stood, grasped my right hand and arm, shaking them vigorously. He pointed to a side chair and we both sat down comfortably.

“Sam, you look awful,” Lee said. “Where the Hell have you been for the last three years?”

“Working as a private investigator, making more than the Sheriff would ever have paid me.”

“Helping keep people out of jail, Sam.”

“The opposite is true, I work for life insurance companies who believe they may be the victim of an attempted life insurance fraud.”

“Hell,” Lee responded. “Those insurance companies always want to take in premium but don’t want to pay claims.”

“Lee, you’ve been listening to propaganda. In reality, life insurers pay almost 97% of all claims presented immediately and pay most of the remainder after completing a thorough investigation.”

“Really?”

“Really. But sometimes there is a case where we just can’t pay. That’s why I’m here. I think I have a case that should not be paid that you are involved with.”

“What?”

“You are working a hit-and-run homicide of a man named Wyatt Earnest, aren’t you?”

“Your sources are better than they were the last time I saw you.”

“Since I left the Sheriff’s Department I had to learn how to interact with all types of people, officers, and other governmental agencies. Without that information I could not do my job to determine if a claim is false or fraudulent.”

“Well, then, how can I help my fellow Dorsey Don?”

“Do you have any suspects?”

“None. He was killed at 3:00 a.m. in downtown. No one saw anything. The report of finding the body was made by a Street Sweeping crew who found him while making their 6:00 a.m. rounds to clean along the street’s curb.”

“Was there any physical evidence?”

“Not much. The only thing we found was a piece from a broken tail-light on a 1999 Nissan pick-up truck which could have been there at the site for six months.”

“Any suspects?”

“Nothing.”

“Did you search his residence?”

“Of course.”

“What did you find?”

“He lived in a room at the Cecil hotel, downtown, that he rented by the week. He had little effects in the room other than two pairs of jeans and three T-shirts, well-worn work boots, and a heavy winter coat. No writing, no documents, almost like he lived somewhere else.”

“Have you spoken with the beneficiary of his life insurance policy?”

“Life insurance – I had no idea he had any life insurance.”

“He had a two-million plus double indemnity life policy with my client, Fireman’s New World Life.”

“Well, well, his personal affairs had no indication of the life policy.”

“I have an appointment to meet with the beneficiary, tomorrow. She was listed as a fiancée.”

“Who,” Lee asked, incredulously, “would marry a beat up old man who needed public assistance to live at the Cecil?”

“I don’t know, Lee, but Fireman’s was told he was the owner chain of Pizza stores running from San Diego to Fresno. The business reportedly grossed $5 million a year and was under the sole control of Mr. Earnest.”

“If true, he was a very eccentric individual who defrauded the county of Los Angeles for his housing. Can I come with you to meet with your beneficiary?”

“No, Lee, I can’t. I’m not with a police agency any more. I can give you her name and address as long as you promise not to visit with her until after I meet with her at 10:00 tomorrow. Heck, why don’t we meet for lunch at La Golandrina on Olvera Street at 1:00 tomorrow afternoon and I’ll tell you everything I learned as required by the California Insurance Code.”

“Okay, Sam.” Lee responded, reluctantly. “I understand your problem and will let you buy me a plate of carnitas and the best homemade tortillas in California.”

CHAPTER 9

I arrived early and parked in front of the modest California ranch home on a street in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles watching, as every two minutes, a plane took off and landed at nearby Los Angeles International Airport. The house was far enough away from LAX that, although the jet engines could be heard, they were not offensive.

The house and its neighborhood was a small community of what realtors call “pride of ownership” houses. The house I parked across was painted a dull olive drab with window frames and trim painted a deep brown. The roof was covered in composition shingle pitched at 20 degrees and interrupted only by a single chimney. The entrance door was solid wood with a small window in the top third. In front of the entrance door was a steel screen security door. Each window was protected by steel security bars emulated by one half of the houses on the block.

Westchester is not a high crime area but there is enough crime to cause concern to the homeowners and those without steel bars had small signs from various alarm companies warning that the home was protected by an alarm company.

The front garden was just a well-trimmed, weed filled, grass with a few bedding plants of impatiens, begonias and azaleas adding a little color between a few succulents. A wisteria vine crawled up the corner and over the small porch that provided some protection from the sun or rain as the front entrance is approached.

This was the home of Maddie Magogassasanian, the beneficiary. I had spent two hours the night before, after leaving my friend Lee, preparing so that my follow-up questions to her would flow with ease from my mind. I sat, waiting for the time of my appointment, listening to the local news on KNX radio, and going over in my mind the questions I wanted to ask.

When the time arrived, I stepped out of my car, pushed the button on the transponder key and listened for the quick chirp of the alarm as I walked across the street and knocked on the door. I stood patiently for a little more than 30 seconds when the door opened.

The person I believed to be Maddie Magogassasanian opened the door and looked at me through the screen door as if I was a Mormon missionary that she had no interest in speaking to at any time in her life. “Why are you back?”

“I called you yesterday for an appointment about the insurance policy purchased by Mr. Earnest. I have a few more questions.”

“Certainly, come in, please.”

I entered the home and sat in a leather recliner chair in the living room. Ms. Magogassasanian sat across from me on the sofa, sitting with one leg crossed over the other. She was wearing Puma running shoes, a long black dress that reached four inches below her knee and a knit cardigan sweater. She appeared calm and ready to assist me in my investigation, but for some reason, seemed to concentrate her view about three inches over my left shoulder.

I sat quietly for a full minute before asking my first question. “Maddie, where did Mr. Earnest live?”

“At the Cecil hotel, downtown.”

“Did you ever go home with him?”

“Oh, no. Our love was totally platonic. I did visit his rooms once before we went out to dinner.”

“Did he ever visit you here in Westchester?”

“Once or twice, after church, he would drive me home and have a cup of tea and chocolate chip cookies. We would talk about the sermon and then he would leave.”

“What kind of car did he drive?”

“It was blue. It wasn’t new. I have no idea what brand.”

“When did you first learn that Wyatt had purchased a life insurance policy that named you as a beneficiary?”

“About three months ago. He said he had no family and I, in our meetings at church, had made me his best friend. I told him it was not necessary but he insisted.”

“Did you know that he lived at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles?”

“No. I didn’t know where he lived.”

“What did you know about his business?”

“Only that he told me he owned and operated a small chain of Sicilian Pizza Parlors.”

“Did he ever give you a pizza from one of his parlors?”

“No. My doctor won’t let me eat pizza. He says I have gastroenteritis.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Maddie.” I replied with honest concern for her health. “So, you really didn’t know Wyatt that well.”

“We would meet every Sunday at church. We would talk and visit. We were not close friends.”

“Did you do anything to help him buy the life insurance policy?”

“Me? No. I didn’t even know he bought it until three months ago when he told me he had done so over tea and gave me the name of his agent in case something happened to him. It was an Armenian name. I can’t remember it now, but he was who I called when I learned at church that Wyatt had been killed in an automobile accident.”

“How were you able to call him?”

“Wyatt had left me his card?”

“Did you ever go to the Armenian agent’s office?”

“No.”

“Did you ever see the Armenian agent?”

“No.”

I left Maddie Magogassasanian’s modest home and drove to Highway 10 east to downtown Los Angeles where I had agreed to meet Lee Sakurichi at my favorite downtown restaurant hidden in the middle of the tourist trap known as Olvera Street, one of the first streets occupied by the immigrants who founded the city of Los Angeles more than 300 years before.

CHAPTER 10

Lee and I sat in the corner, near the fireplace, of restaurant La Golondrina. Chips and salsa were immediately delivered along with two bottles of Negra Modelo beer as we ordered a plate of carnitas and home made flour tortillas that, when delivered, looked more like a thin cake with a flavor recognized by anyone with Mexican heritage or who had grown up in Los Angeles. Although the restaurant was in the middle of a tourist mecca selling inexpensive Mexican leather goods, Mexican wrestler masks, jewelry, and Mexican candies called and sweet bread pastries called “pan dulce.”

Sipping at the dark beer we both wondered if the meeting would do anything more than get them a lunch that would carry them through the evening.

“I have a real problem about this case, Lee?”

“What’s the problem?”

“Someone is lying to me.”

“Why are you so sure?”

“Maddie, the beneficiary, said she had no involvement in the purchase of the insurance. She was convincing and showed no signs of prevarication.”

“So.”

“The agent who sold the policy to Wyatt Earnest, Levon Sogominian, told me she came to the office with Wyatt, helped him fill out the application, and paid the first premium.”

“Now I see your problem,” Lee said, as steaming plates of Carnitas, rice, beans and a small side of guacamole, was delivered to the table. “I will think about it as I eat.” Lee responded and dug a fork into the pork and rice with vigor, only slowing to take a sip of Negra Modelo, and munching on a tortilla.

I did the same, so silence reigned between us for about ten minutes. Neither of us wanted to interrupt the meal with conversation. Wiping the last of the meal off his plate with a tortilla, Lee took a last bite, smiled, leaned back in his chair, wiped his upper lip with a napkin, and covering his mouth made a small, gentlemanly burp.

“Sam, you are right, this is now my favorite Mexican restaurant, if not my favorite restaurant of all time.”

“I’m glad you liked it.” I responded, cleaning the last of the guacamole from my plate with the last tortilla and chewing the last bite with a Cheshire Cat grin on my face, resting my hands on my belly as I leaned back in my chair. “I still need the help of the LAPD.”

“Did you record your conversations with Maddie and the agent?”

“Of course.”

“Get me a copy of the recordings and a transcript and I will reopen my file.”

“It shall be done. The recordings and the transcripts will be attached to your e-mail within the hour.”

“Thanks,” Lee responded. “This is more than an insurance claim. The Coroner said that the death of Wyatt Earnest was not due to an accident. We just had no motive and no suspects other than a blue car’s paint chips found on his clothing which were added when the driver backed over him after the first strike to make sure he was dead.”

“You know, Lee, this case is similar to one I handled a few years ago when I worked for Stone Mountain Life Insurance Company.”

“How?”

“An old man with no assets purchased a large life insurance policy, made a sixty-year-old woman beneficiary – she was stated to be his fiancée – and he died in a serious pedestrian vs. auto accident where he was run over in Skid Row, downtown L.A.”

Lee looked at me with crossed eyes over a large tortilla filled with pico de gallo and guacamole; took a large bite; looked down at his plate while he chewed carefully, only to take another bite in silence. He scooped some refried beans and the last of his Carnitas into what was left of his tortilla, finished a final bite and chewed while looking up at the 150-year-old bare ceiling trusses as if seeking to look through them to heaven, swallowed, took a deep draught on his beer, sighed heavily. “Sam,” he finally said, “are you telling me you think there are serial killers out there, killing old men in hit-and-run accidents?”

“Two don’t make a serial killer, Lee. I just need help understanding why someone lied to me.”

“You are right, two don’t make a serial killer – eight does.”

“Eight.” I gasped.

“I’ve seen six other old guys, mostly residents of Skid Row, who have been killed in the last two years in hit-and-run situations. Since no one called for the bodies and no one seemed to care the cases were just closed. I couldn’t find any evidence that their deaths were intentional. Are there any records you can check to determine if they had life insurance.”

“Life companies don’t communicate with each other. They may report death claims, however, to the all claims data base. Get me a list of names and I’ll try a computer-based search.”

“That I will do, Sam.” Lee said as he finished his beer and the last of the Carnitas. I finished shortly thereafter, and we separated with Lee walking to Parker Center and I through the vendor’s booths along all sides of Olvera Street, stopping to purchase a small plaque for the office that said “PiPi Room.”

CHAPTER 11

I searched the All Claims database the next morning for each of the names Lee had e-mailed to me. Each had a claim presented against a life insurance policy naming Nadia Gogolivesky or Maddie Magogassasanian as the sole beneficiary. That information led Lee and a team of L.A.P.D. officers to investigate each insurance claim and the two women.

The women were eventually arrested and prosecuted in the Superior Court of the State of California. The prosecution’s case included secretly recorded conversations between Gogolivesky and Magogassasanian when they were in jail. Gogolivesky and Magogassasanian were recorded, in one conversation, saying:

“You did all these insurances extra. That’s what raised the suspicion. You can’t do that. Stupidity. You’re going to go to jail, honey. They going to lock you up.”

Both Gogolivesky and Magogassasanian were convicted in Los Angeles, California, of conspiracy to murder eight people, including Luis Alvarado and Wyatt Earnest. The murder of Wyatt Earnest resulted in a first-degree murder conviction. Gogolivesky was convicted of the first-degree murder of Alvarado. The original jury reached a deadlock over the final two counts against Gogolivesky, but after an alternate juror was placed in lieu of a juror who became ill the trial judge ordered the jury to recommence deliberations, both women were convicted and sentenced to consecutive life terms in California prison, without the possibility of parole.

When the women first met – 20 years ago at a Santa Monica health spa – Magogassasanian appeared taken with Gogolivesky. The women moved Alvarado into an apartment, then started applying for life insurance policies on him. They jointly took out four policies, each as 50% beneficiaries in addition to the individual policies they bought from my client. Gogolivesky also took out three more policies on her own while Magogassasanian only took out a single individual policy on Earnest.

The two women pocketed nearly $6,000,000 in insurance benefits on Alvarado alone and $4,000,000 in insurance benefits on Earnest. They also recovered a total of $5,000,000 on the other six old men they killed.

Prosecutors presented grainy surveillance camera recordings showing a silver station wagon turn into the alley, stopped for several minutes, then reverse and drive off. About the same time, someone using Magogassasanian’s automobile club membership called for a tow truck from the gas station at the end of the alley for the same type of vehicle. Even after their arrest the two women continued to quarrel over money. Lee left the women alone in a white-walled room with a video camera running.

“Why did you make the extra insurances?” Magogassasanian angrily asked Gogolivesky on the videotape. The record of multiple life insurance policies on individuals who were unemployed and unemployable, the interviews I took of Magogassasanian, Gogolivesky, and the records the police obtained of their bank deposits brought about their convictions. The evidence Lee gathered after our lunch at La Golondrina was so damning that I was never called as a witness.

Every time we meet, because of the case, Lee always buys lunch at La Golondrina while the two women are serving life sentences in a California prison. They were caught because of their greed. Had they only killed two they would have lived quite well on the life insurance proceeds. Two evil women whose greed and willingness to kill without mercy found themselves permanent residents of the gray-bar hotel – a California state penitentiary.

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