James Ellroy: Cracking the Case of Murdered Actor Sal Mineo
Illustration by: Katherine Lam

James Ellroy: Cracking the Case of Murdered Actor Sal Mineo

Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, the best-selling author of 'L.A. Confidential' delves into police files from 1976 and revisits the complicated two-year pursuit of the Oscar-nominated star's killer — told here from the point of view of the detectives who painstakingly worked the case from West Hollywood to Michigan.

For two weeks in the fall of 2017, best-selling author James Ellroy re-investigated the 1976 murder of Sal Mineo, the Oscar-nominated actor from Rebel Without a Cause who died at 37 in the carport outside his West Hollywood apartment. Together with Glynn Martin — a retired 20-year LAPD veteran — Ellroy pored over seven boxes of files at the L.A. Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau that detailed morethan two years of painstaking detective work leading to the arrest and conviction of Lionel Williams. "There was missing material," says Ellroy. "We never saw the crime scene photographs, I put those together from descriptions." And based on his decades of experience writing about crime in fiction (L.A. Confidential) and nonfiction (LAPD '53, co-authored with Martin), Ellroy extrapolated and "stitched together" what was missing to create this immersive version of events, told from the point of view of the detectives on the case.

SHERIFF’S HOMICIDE FILE #079200909-0977-011
Victim: Mineo, Salvatore/WM/37.
8567 Holloway Drive/West Hollywood.
2142 hours/Thursday/2-12-76.

Retrospective file summary and recalled narrative. We, the undersigned detectives attest:

Holloway ran short and cut diagonal, from La Cienega northwest to the Strip. One half mile, tops. Mid-rent apartment cribs and a big Catholic church. Film-biz habitues. Homosexuals and hip kids.

The above-stated address: Apartments. Postwar, stucco, three floors, a south-facing facade. Quick access to an alleyway carport.

An open carport.

The alleyway’s narrow. The Park Wellington Towers are built up flush against it.

Windows overlook the carport. Said carport services the pads directly above it. The Wellington’s a biiiiiig complex. Noise carries. Everything’s crammed in tight-tight.

The squawk goes out. Unit 91 rogers it. Deputies Schwartz and Mullen. They’ve decamped at Winchell’s Doughnuts. It’s a Man Down/ADW call. Schwartz and Mullen haul to the location. They see this:

The victim lies supine. He’s halfway down the alley. Two good Samaritans attend him. The victim’s head points south. His feet point northwest. He’s wearing blue jeans and a blue shirt with red and white flowers.

He’s dark against a dark sky and dark pavement. Add a dark blue jacket and black tennis shoes. Add dark blood. He’s been shivved. There’s a stab wound in his upper left chest.

It’s a bad wound. The blood flow extends 10 feet plus. The wound goes deep. That’s evident. Blood runs east, down the alley.

It vibes abrupt attack. The victim’s ’73 Duster is parked in its space. Scattered items support this snap-judgment: Sunglasses. A red address book. A manila envelope. Car keys. A small paper bag. Inside: a cellophane-wrapped piece of cake.

Ambulance Unit 7 arrives. Upstairs neighbors heard screams and dialed Emergency. Paramedics attempt to resuscitate the victim. It’s no go. He’s stone dead at 2155 hours.

Patrol Unit 92 arrives. Two deputies rope off the crime scene and search for weapons. It’s no go. Unit 93 arrives. Two deputies canvass the pads above the carport. They learn this:

Numerous neighbors heard screams. It’s near-unanimous. The victim screamed, “Oh, God. Someone please help me!”

Two eyeball wits stepped forth. Steve Gustafson/WM/17. Scott Hughes/WM/24. Mr. Gustafson was an upstairs neighbor. Mr. Hughes was a Wellington security guard. Both wits were shook up. Both wits saw a fleeing suspect. Both wits described the man: white, young, 5’10” or 11”. Slender, long hair.

The formal canvass kicked in hard. We hit the upstairs pads and logged earball-witness statements. It was all overlap. The victim’s screams. Fleeing footsteps. A car revving up. Some neighbors cringed and hid. Some neighbors buzzed the fuzz.

Some neighbors ran downstairs and tried to help. Some neighbors trampled and fucked up the crime scene. Note their footprints in the victim’s blood.

Said victim was Sal Mineo. He was a half-assed movie star. He played a tortured punk in that florid lox Rebel Without a Cause.

***

Crime lab and latent print men showed. A sketch man drew the carport and alley. A deputy coroner tagged Mineo DOA and hustled him off to the morgue. Neighbors laid out the victim’s next of kin. Mineo’s mother lived in Harrison, New York. NYPD made the call.

We worked through the night. We canvassed and re-canvassed. Earball consensus held.

"Oh, God. Help me." "Help me, God." "Oh, God — please help me."

Witnesses nailed the aftermath. They heard the murder. They did not see it. A few saw the probable assailant flee.

A young white man runs west to east. No blood trail past Mineo’s seepage. The neighbors’ inadvertent footprints and nothing else.

Unit 93 shuttled witnesses to West Hollywood Station. We sequestered them individually. It squelched possibly contaminated statements. We quizzed the wits. We got near-identical spatials and our first victim dish.

Jackie Helga Bruce/WF/35. Ms. Bruce stated this:

Male traffic at Mineo’s pad. "Young men in and out." "They were gay, he was gay." "They were a lot of, you know, young men around." Witness Frederick Rushlow/WM/29. Mr. Rushlow stated this:

Mineo was just back in town. He’d been up in San Francisco. He was starring in a play there. P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. Said play was in rehearsal here now.

Mineo had an ex-roommate named Courtney Burr. He hadn’t seen Burr in a year. Burr was an actor. Rushlow described him. Burr was 5'8"/150/about 26.

Word leaked. The press grabbed it and created big woo-woo. It made the late TV and radio news. Actor Mineo Dead. Two-time Oscar Nominee Slain Outside Apartment.

Sal’s known associates swung by said apartment. Patrol deputies braced them.

0050 hours/2-13-76. Michael Mason/WM/24. Mr. Mason states this:

He was at the Gallery Room. A barman told him Sal was dead. He was Sal’s "close friend." He’d known Sal for several years. He saw Sal on 2-10-76. Sal’s "current friend" was one Michael Kaplan/WM/25 or 26, 5'7"/130-140. Said friend was an unemployed commercial artist.

0145 hours/2-13-76. Michael Kaplan shows up. We brace him. He recalls this:

A friend called him. The friend saw a newscast and got the word. Sal dead — he just couldn’t believe it.

We bored in. Michael Kaplan revealed this:

He met Sal at the Studio One Club. That was three weeks back. He saw Sal last night, at the Merle Oberon Theatre. Sal’s friend Kristine Clark was with him. They all went to the Cock & Bull Restaurant. They had dinner and left about eightish. Sal dropped Kristine at her place. They made plans to reconvene. He called Sal at 2300. Sal’s answering service picked up.

We roused Kristine Clark and braced her at West Hollywood Station. She confirmed Michael Kaplan’s spiel. We asked her what she thought might have happened. She stated this:

"I know that Sal knows a lot of people. And not all of them are what you would call fine, upstanding citizens."

Miss Clark hemmed-and-hawed then. We threw follow-up probes and got nowhere. She flatlined us. The interview went pfffft.

More KAs swung by Sal’s place.

0400 hours/2-13-76. We interviewed Shaun Cassidy/WM/17. Mr. Cassidy revealed this:

Sal was his friend. He saw him a month ago. He also knew Sal’s friend Courtney Burr. He saw Courtney six months ago. He’d like to help the cops out with this. He was leaving on a worldwide record tour next week.

0730 hours/2-13-76. More canvass work. We hit the Wellington Towers. We logged the not-at-homes and notched seven more earball wits. They ditto’d the wits in Sal’s building. Our consensus cleaved in tight.

We hit the Merle Oberon Theatre. We interviewed director Milton Katselas and co-star Keir Dullea. They vouched Kristine Clark and Michael Kaplan. It buttressed our timeframe.

0905 hours/2-13-76. A candid informant dropped by Sal’s place. We queried a studio publicist, WM/45. The cat revealed this:

He was a gay person. Sal was likewise gay. Sal mostly socialized with gay folks. Sal had money woes. Sal was broke a while back. He was on the upswing now. He’d scrounged theater gigs for the past two years. He’d incurred extensive debts.

The cat gave gooooood lowdown. The cat further revealed this: Sal craved a certain sort of lover. He was obsessively specific. He grokked male Caucasians between 16 and 20. He’d poke boys as young as 14 and as old as 25 "on occasion."

Sal dug small-framed males. He craved bedmates who were not “particularly bright.” He jumped young men who were “extremely bright and did not fulfill his physical requirements” — on occasion.

The cat qualified the above statement. The cat further revealed this:

Sal had a weird sense of humor. He played mind games with his sex objects. He played physical games geared to frustrate bright young men. Sal picked up hitchhikers and had one-night stands with young black men — on occasion. Gay-bar trade, ditto.

Sal used coke and grass. Sal did not geez or sniff horse. Sal was nonviolent. Sal deployed his superior intelligence and defused volatile encounters. The cat spoke to Sal on 2-7-76. He last saw him in Frisco. P.S. Your Cat was onstage there. The cat snitched Sal’s high-risk lifestyle. The cat said Sal had no enemies.

1020 hours/2-13-76. Narco Deputy Joe Horne contacts Sheriff’s Homicide. Deputy Horne reveals this:

Sal Mineo was a heavy coke and weed user. He chased quiff at Lillian’s and the Hub Bar. He habituated West Hollyweird. He frequented the Garden District and the Posh Bagel.

We checked Daily Occurrence Reports for 2-12-76. We looked for possibly connected crimes and possibly related white-male suspects. We went through the DO file at West Hollywood Station. Nothing jumped out and bit us. 502 P.C./drunk driving. Rock-club grief. Female street whores. A strongarm 211 on Harper — near chez Sal. Shit — two male Negro suspects reported.

***

We tossed Sal’s pad. It was bargain-basement furnished. Living room/kitchen-dining room/hallway/bedroom. Lots of books. Lots of movie and play scripts. Mucho paperbacks with lurid all-male covers. Beefcake wall prints. Booze bottles and food in the fridge.

The photo men photo’d it, the print men dusted it. They got Sal’s prints and boocoo smudges and smears. We tossed drawers and found a love letter. The print men dusted it and got Sal’s prints and smears. The text was all schmaltz and money.

Sal laid bread on this cat. Said cat was grateful. He extolled the bohemian nature of their arrangement. Love, art, money. Older patronlovers and young studs on the rise. Graphic nods to Sal’s butch technique. The L.A. opening of P.S. Your Cat. The young stud just couldn’t wait.

***

We cleared Courtney Burr. He was alibied up in New York. We cleared Michael Kaplan and Michael Mason. Women never committed slash-and-run murders. We alibied up Kristine Clark anyway.

The crime-scene print report was a dry hump. We got Sal’s prints on the manila envelope and an un-ID’d print on the cake wrapper. We huddled up our eyewits and developed three suspect sketches. They characterized young white males with long brown hair.

Big fucking deal. It was 1976. Long hair was de rigueur. Sal lived two blocks off the Sunset Strip. It was the longhaired-white-male epicenter of Planet Earth.

The autopsy report came in. Sal died healthy. He was a little guy. He stood 5’6” and weighed 144. Cause of death: massive hemorrhage. One stab wound. Perforated heart. Negative toxicology. No booze or barbiturates in his system. No anal or oral spermatozoa. One ambiguous note.

Needle punctures on and near the buttocks. A cumbersome location. Tough for a skin-popping doper to reach. A friend could have popped him. Sal could be injecting vitamins or virility hormones. He could be booting bogus dick-size-enhancing concoctions.

We cleared Sal’s immediate circle of friends. We habituated his building to see who showed up. Fans and fringe KAs dropped by the pad. They were pest-like but well-behaved. They wanted to catch the vibe and rap with the fuzz.

Sal was a movie star. They wanted to sniff his aura and tattle film-biz skank. Sal fucked this girl and that guy. Sal was in on the JFK hit. There’s the Curse of Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean’s car crash invoked the Curse. That was '55. Sad Sal was Death #2. Natalie Wood would die next.

***

2-17-76. Sal’s New York funeral. Holy Trinity Catholic Church. 250 attend. Fans pitch boohoo. NYPD detectives attend. They surveil the crowd and report back. No incidents/no suspect behavior/no unsavory vibes.

2-23-76. Sal’s L.A. wake. Producer Bill Belasco’s boss Bel-Air spread. 100-odd attend. There’s no grieving fans. Bel-Air is thick with cops and private patrols.

Sheriff’s Homicide attends. We drink and nosh hors d’oeuvres with KAs. It’s chummier than we’re used to. It’s film-biz egalitarian.

Up to a point.

Sal lived a stratified life. He bought Mom and Dad a posh pad in 1956. He was offed outside his cheap apartment. He had his top-shelf friends and his schleppers. The latter crowd swarmed to his wake. Most of the top-shelf folks stayed away. Roddy McDowall was taping a TV show. Bob Wagner and Natalie Wood were out of town.

No suspect behavior/no unsavory vibes.

SHIT.

***

We habituated gay bars. We hit the Hub, the Studio One, the Jaguar, the Falcons' Lair, the Tradesman. We flashed our witness drawings and schmoozed up the lads. We got flat-out No's and lukewarm admissions. It was all Yeah, I’ve seen him/Yeah, he cruised me/But, I took a pass. We got Yeah, he liked pretty stuff, and He was a nice cat.

We rousted fruit hustlers and call boys. They fed us more of the same. A picture emerged. Secret Sal. Circumspect Sal. Sudden-impulse Sal. He’s got superhuman antennae. He’s an actor. He deploys his kissass social skills. He’s sucked up to 10 million casting directors and knows how to get what he wants. He wants his audience to love him. He spots danger before it erupts. He’s mastered the Art of the High-Risk Lifestyle. He gliiiiiiiides through dope deals and dicey assignations —

Up to that night.

***

We went through his address books. His black book was A-list. The page entries were all neatly typed. Sal went continental here. We crossed the pond with him.

Brit-o-phile Sal. He’s pals with or at least has numbers for the following high-ticket limeys: Lindsay Anderson, Harold Pinter, John Schlesinger and his boyfriend. Plus Twiggy, Hayley Mills, Charlotte Rampling. Plus Stanley Baker, Denholm Elliott, Edward "The Jackal" Fox. Plus the high ritz Claridge, Connaught and Dorchester Hotels.

Francophile Sal lists Alain Delon. Europhile Sal lists Roald Dahl, Patricia Neal, Rudolf Nureyev. Star-fucker Sal lists Bette Midler, James Coburn, James Caan, Peter Lawford. Oooooh — there’s Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward!!!!!!

Sal listed talent agents, production companies, film-studio execs. The black book played sacramental crossed with opportunistic. The black book reeked of aspiration. It was not a compendium of murder-case suspects. The red book? — au contraire.

The red book felt sweaty and manhandled. It featured hand-scrawled entries. Here’s Sal at his nitty-gritty best. Gas stations. Pharmacies. Script typists. Pizza-delivery spots. Gay bars. A porno-film producer. Porno-flick theatres in West Hollyweird.

Plus male names and L.A. phone numbers.

We cold-called the men and cited routine police business. We dropped our Mineo-snuff punchline and gauged reactions. Said reactions ran tripartite. We got "I tricked with Sal" 18 times. We got "I’m gay" and "ex-lover" 19 times. We ran a dozen follow-up interviews. We got "Nice-guy Sal" and "He held back his emotions" and "He’d never poke underaged stuff." It was aaaaall credible dish.

Here’s our three-weeks-in progress report. Per Sal Mineo/187 P.C.: We don’t know shit.

***

3-12-76. One more shitwork task completed. Sal’s long-distance phone calls — no leads.

4-15-76. Our Arizona vacation. Tucson PD’s got a burglary suspect. He’s one John Angelo Rossie. He’s got a hand-scrawled notebook. A passage states that he made it with Sal Mineo and later offed him.

Rossie’s a drool case. His notebook reads psychopathic. We brace him and clear him. He was in Phoenix on 2-12-76.

Reactive policework is all repetition. Odds against a hard lead 60,000 to 1. We got 30,000 repetitions of this:

Some gay kid knew some gay kid who knew Sassy Sal. The kid wound up at Sal’s crib and did or did not boff him. They did or did not snort coke or smoke grass. Maybe it wasn’t really Sal. My boyfriend left me and/or kicked me out. I met Sal at the Jaguar or the Tradesman. I was bombed on ludes and/or reds and crème de menthe. You don’t judge me for being gay, do you? No, kid — we’re tenuously past that.

Here’s our three-months-in progress report. Per Sal Mineo/187 P.C.: We don’t know shit.

The job slogged on. Repetition spawns exhaustion and the need to unclench. We bebopped the sin-sational Sunset Strip and boozed at the Classic Cat and Filthy McNasty’s. It was 1976. Bicentennial woo-woo reigned. The Cat featured all-nude surfer chiXXX doing the Dirty Dog and Wah-Watusi. A bar on Santa Monica screened beaver fliXXX allnite. Everybody was fucking and sucking and sniffing cocaine. 1976 repelled us and enticed us and got us all het up to clear the case.

We unclenched with Sal’s film-biz KAs. We boozed and rapped with folks above the carport where Subdivided Sal got whacked. Ruthless purpose defined us. Ruthless judgment urged us on. We were World War II and Korean War guys and shitkickers at heart. We judged Sal Mineo harshly and supersedingly tried to understand him. Sal sent out for pizza and entertained his filmschlepper friends. He was more of them than his A-list friends. The twisted fucker knew that in his heart.

A late brainstorm tweaked us. Check Sal’s answering service. See who called him from New Year’s Eve on.

The switchboard women time-clocked their message slips. They printed out the callers’ names and added brief notes. They worked in switchboard code. "WCB" meant "will call back." "CAH" meant "call at home." "PCU" meant "please call — urgent."

We read through the clips chronologically. It denoted a countdown to death.

Casting directors and agents called. The P.S. Your Cat gang called and left long messages. A great many first-named men called. We matched them to names from Sal’s red address book. We’d annotated the book, cover to cover. We recognized “trick” and “ex-lover” names and worked our way to 2-12-76.

It felt eerie and lonely. The callers felt lonely. Sal felt lonely. We felt lonely like we were love-starved dipshits waiting for some late-night phone call. The last call clocked in at 11:55 p.m. The "Feb. 12, '76" was time-stamped in red. A man invited Sal out for a drink. Sal was 10 minutes dead.

The whole case felt eerie and lonely. Sal worked his juju on us. We packed the torch. We knew we were missing something. Two Sal pals supplied a key insight.

We taped a two-KA phone call. KA No. 1 was a man. KA No. 2 was a woman. The man made the call for Sheriff’s Homicide. The woman’s daughter was an earball witness. We wanted to hypnotize her and attempt to dredge further recollection. The man proxied us here. KA No. 1 said, "I don’t really think it’s gonna be a big scandal number. I have a feeling that somebody freaked out one night and did something crazy."

KA No. 2 said, "I have the same feeling. I don’t think that guy knew Sal at all." KA No. 1 said, "I get the feeling that anybody in the alley at the moment the guy was prowling around would have been a target."

Prophecy. The hinge of fate. The big fuck the-fuzz/you’re-all-wrong moment.

Here’s our clash by night. You gots to dig it. West Hollyweird collides with South-Central.

***

SHERIFF'S HOMICIDE FILE #0792000909-0977-011
Victim: Mineo, Salvatore/WM/37.
8567 Holloway Drive/West Hollywood.
2142 hours/Thursday/2-12-76.

Suspect: Williams, Lionel/NM/19.

Retrospective file summary and recalled narrative. The 1977 inquiry and related court actions. We, the undersigned detectives attest:

It wasn't a white longhair. It was a little black dude with a wide-body afro. Our eyewits nailed the wrong guy. Some white geek ran down the alley after the black dude and missed him by a rat's-snatch-hair margin. The eyewits ID'd him.

Curveball. Dropped ball. Holy fucking shit. We learn this one year, two months, and 14 days in.

4-26-77. 1440 hours. The Criminal Courts Building, downtown. We meet with Deputy DA Clayton Anderson. A young woman contacted a DA's informant. Said informant passed the word. The woman knew Sal Mineo's killer.

Her boyfriend was hot out the door. Michigan extradited him today. He fell behind some bad-check charge. She could talk now.

Teresa Collins/FN/19. She's a pleasant-looking kid. She's terrified and tells us why.

It's her main-squeeze Lionel. It's his evil ways and abusive behavior. His street heists and need to hurt. The events of 2-12-76.

They lived with Lionel's mama then — in a place on West 93rd. Lionel bought a cherry Buick and needed scratch for a payment. The car ran bad and was always in the shop. Lionel had a Dodge Colt loaner that night. He hit Teresa up for bread before he went out. He'd seen a knife at Western Surplus. He intended to buy it and make some money.

Teresa knew what that meant. She went with Lionel on two prior heist runs. She laid the bread on him. Lionel split the pad. He wore all-black threads and soft-sole shoes. Teresa stayed home and watched TV with his mom.

Lionel resurfaced late that evening. He flashed a large knife and stated that he'd "just stabbed a dude." Teresa said something like, "What dude and where?"

Lionel said, "A young-looking white dude in Hollywood."

Teresa said, "Why?"

Lionel said he hid out in a large apartment complex. He intended to rob somebody. The dude parked his car and saw him. He started hollering. Lionel stabbed him. The dude started screaming, "Help me, please!"

Lionel got no money. He freaked and got disorientated. He boogied out of there.

Teresa joined Lionel's mama. They watched TV in her bedroom. Lionel stashed the knife and changed his clothes. He huddled up with Teresa and his mom.

He told Mama to turn the channel. He'd stabbed a dude in Hollywood. It might be on the news. He wanted to see if the dude died. The Mineo snuff was a hot feature story. Mama pitched hysterics. Lionel said he'd been jiving. He made Teresa confirm it. Teresa fed Mama some sleep meds and conked her out.

The Mineo job made the radio news. Lionel and Teresa listened in his loaner sled. Lionel told Teresa that they'd both seen the dude. Remember? — on some TV show. Lionel got reeaaal angry. He got peeved out of nowhere.

Teresa jumped timeframes. She flashed forward to sometime in March '76. Their daughter had been sick. Their son had just been born. They'd named him Ray Junior. "Raymond" was Lionel's middle name.

They still crashed at Mama's house. Mama was out. Teresa and Lionel sat around with her friend, La Sonya Armstrong. La Sonya was 15 or 16. She was still in high school.

They smoked some reefer. Lionel told La Sonya that he'd snuffed Sal Mineo. La Sonya didn't believe him. Teresa confirmed it.

Lionel went off to bed. Teresa and La Sonya hung out in the kitchen. An interval passed. Lionel resurfaced. He brandished the murder knife and behaved in a hopped-up manner. He led Teresa and La Sonya into the den and announced they were going to have a seance.

A little man was running around in his head. The little man was bothering him.

Lionel slammed the knife in the floor. He lit a candle and placed it upside the knife. He made Teresa and La Sonya sit beside him. The three joined hands. Lionel called out to Sal Mineo. He located Sal, post-haste. He divined Sal's wishes and laid them out to Teresa and La Sonya. He said, "Sal Mineo says, 'Everybody, take off your clothes.' " Teresa and La Sonya shared a look. Lionel rapped with the late Sal.

He said, "I'm sorry, man. I'm sorry. I didn't know it was you. I didn't mean to do it."

Lionel justified his evil ass. The repo man was out to repo his Buick when he did it. He needed coin. "Man, I'm really sorry."

Lionel stretched out on the floor and fell asleep. La Sonya started to leave. Lionel roused and asked Teresa where La Sonya was at. Teresa said she'd left. Lionel told Teresa to call her back in and ask if she wanted to have an orgy.

Teresa retrieved La Sonya and advised her to nix the orgy. Lionel went weird-o. He grabbed Teresa by the throat. He said, "It's your fault they're trying to take my car." Teresa broke free. Lionel pulled the knife from the floor. He put the blade up against La Sonya's throat. He said, "I'm going to put you out on the street to make me some money."

Teresa left the room. She heard La Sonya scream and plead with Lionel. It went on for 10 minutes. Teresa returned to the room. La Sonya was stripped to her panties and bra.

Lionel left the house. Teresa restitched La Sonya's torn clothing. Lionel returned and apologized to La Sonya. He asked her not to tell her mother. La Sonya went home. Lionel curled up in a closet and went back to sleep.

***

Teresa Collins was stone credible. She ooooozed verisimilitude. She agreed to a polygraph test pursuant to her rat-out. Said rat-out was horrifying and howlarious. Lionel Williams offs Sal Mineo and ventriloquizes him from the grave. The vicious cocksucker was shameless. He begs forgiveness and enlists Sal as his post-mortem pimp. Nobody could make this shit up.

One roadblock held. The knife was gone. Lionel and Teresa moved, mid-4-'76. Their crib was burglarized on 5-21. The knife was stolen.

We checked Inglewood PD 459 reports. A responding officer noted pry marks on a window louver. These items were taken:

One black-&-white TV. One man's three-piece suit. One AM/FM radio. One piggy bank stuffed with coins.

No knife listed. No suspects apprehended. No subsequent progress reports.

Shit.

4-29-77. We drive Teresa to the Western Surplus at 85th and Western. She picks out a perfect replica knife. We take said knife to Dr. Ronald Taylor at the L.A. Morgue.

Dr. Taylor retained a piece of stab-wound tissue. Sal Mineo's upper chest, flash-frozen. He ran comparison-wound tests on pig-carcass tissue. Human tissue and pig tissue possess similar characteristics. Pig-tissue tests were courtroom-valid.

We scored here. The exemplar knife fit the murder knife dimensionally. It left similar bruising marks and hilt patterns. The serrated edges matched.

5-4-77. Teresa Collins takes the polygraph. The polygrapher states: She's entirely truthful.

5-5-77. We fly to Battle Creek, Michigan. Lionel Williams was ensconced in the Calhoun County Jail.

We brushed up on his Michigan beefs. There were two. Beef No. 1 co-starred Teresa. It was a GTA/VIN-number-switch caper. 10-14-75. A woman reports her '67 Pontiac stolen. Lionel and Teresa get nailed two days later. Teresa legally owns a '67 Pontiac. She's got her legitimate registration stashed in the stolen sled.

The beef gets kicked. There's no indictment. Teresa and Lionel waltz.

Teresa's got family in Calhoun County. Lionel heads back there, solo. It's early 8-76. L.A.'s too hot for him. The Man's on his ass. He needs some frost time back east.

***

We issued an L.A. city-and-countrywide bulletin and marked it URGENT.

It went out to divisional robbery squads. Lionel Williams: seasoned strongarm-robber. Direct all responses to Sheriff's Homicide. This shitbird's good for the Sal Mineo job.

1605 hours/5-11-77. We brace Mary Ann Newsom/FN/28. The interview goes down at Firestone Station.

Teresa Collins put us on to Miss Newsom. Miss Newsom revealed this:

She met Lionel Williams in '72. He hung around her house at 94th and Normandie. Lionel sought trouble and found it. He had four juvie rousts. She opened up her house to him. She hated to see him running the streets.

Lionel met Teresa in '73. All three of them became friends. Lionel was often depressed. It made him go out and hurt people.

He told her an awful story in October '76. He became depressed and started crying. His world was coming to an end. He killed a dude in Hollywood. He didn't say who he killed.

***

Miss Newsom was B-list. She radiated good egg and reluctant snitch. She'd back up Teresa Collins. Teresa was courtroom gold. She'd lay Lionel out like the slimebag dog he was. Yeah — but one obstacle loomed.

She married Lionel. It went down 5-12-76. She might invoke spousal privilege and decline to testify. We'd extradite Lionel. Teresa would visit him. He'd work his sick voodoo and force her to recant. Yeah — but we had this:

The Central Jail visiting rooms were hot-wired. Lionel would trash-talk his jailhouse guests. Inmate-visitor phones were full-time bugged and pertinent trash-talk transcribed. Courtroom-admissible. We might get lucky.

Lionel reposed in Calhoun County. We ran down potential witnesses in Southside L.A. Teresa fed us names. Lionel's homeboys/crime partners/street-running pals. We braced pimps/whores/youth-gang flotsam. We hit dope dens/poolhalls/known-hoodlum spots. We sifted innuendo/fourth-hand tattle/the lore of baaaaaaaaad motherfuckers.

Weeks passed. Months passed. The Mineo job stood one year and five months in. The Michigan cops worked their end. They secured search warrants and planted jail-cell bugs.

They filled up 88 90-minute tape reels. We waded through it. The task was stultifyingly protracted. Lionel blathers, his cellies blather. Lionel does not state "I killed Sal Mineo." We score that on 7/26/77.

Deputy Ronald Peek's got good antennae. He hears Lionel and inmate Philbert Gallard rap. Lionel says he shivved Mineo.

That's goooooood. It corroborates. It's cop-source testimony.

We combed stationhouse reports. It was a down-and-dirty paper chase. We searched for anything relevant. We hit a daily occurrence sheet that we'd seen before.

It tweaked us and enlightened us. It flummoxed us most of all.

The Daily Occurrence sheet was dated 2/12/76. The offense: strongarm robbery. The suspects: two male Negroes. The location: North Harper, West Hollywood. The time: 2155 hours.

1323 North Harper. Tres close to chez Sal. Thirteen minutes post-Mineo squawk.

The suspects hit Richard Roy in his driveway. They beat him to the ground and score chump change. Let's assess coincidence and chart the odds of this:

It's West Hollyweird. It's a consensual cut-loose zone. It's not a hard-crime locale. Two strongarm 211's in one night? One with a murder attached? It's stratospherically unlikely.

We're back at our eyewitness glitch. Our wits ID'd a white man in flight. We ignored the nearby 211 with male-Negro suspects.

We played a hunch and contacted the victim. Richard Roy/WM/45. We flashed mugshots of Lionel Williams. His response: I just don't know/I just can't say.

And there's this:

Lionel worked solo that night. We followed Teresa's lead here. He told her the full story. He did not mention a driver/lookout/cohort.

The Mineo 187. The Roy 211. Thirteen minutes — door-to-door. Lionel kills Sal. Say he's got a crime partner, up on the Strip. He's got the Dodge Colt loaner. He zooms up Alta Loma and grabs him. He's disorientated — but still hot to score. The Roy caper nets zilch. He's done for the night. He goes home to Teresa and Mama and brags. He feels no remorse. Self-pity sets in later. The Roy job would serve to squelch courtroom boo-hoo.

The Roy job posed this question. What tipped Lionel to West Hollyweird?

***

Summer '77 passed. Fall progressed. Tipsters hipped us to Lionel's neighbor, Michael Alley. Dig: Alley allegedly drove Lionel that night.

Tips overlapped. Hot Alley tips overlapped. We braced the DA and secured an immunity waiver. Full immunity — if this cat witnessed the act, but did not participate.

10-26-76. We brace Michael Alley. He’s potential A-list, a la Teresa Collins. We dangle the immunity deal. Mr. Alley reveals this:

He went out with Lionel. It was the night. They picked up Lionel’s loaner car at the dealer and got together later. They got to drinking and cruising. They looked for ladies — but didn’t find none. They headed into Hollywood. Lionel drove. Michael fell asleep.

He woke up and got sick. Lionel pulled to the curb. Michael got out and puked behind the car. He got back into the car. Lionel drove off and stopped near some apartments. He said he had to see somebody about something.

Then Lionel walked off.

Then Michael saw him talking to someone.

Then Michael saw him stab the dude.

Then Michael looked away.

It was garbled/sporadic/incomplete. It was deadpan credible and B-list corroborative

12-8-77. Michael Alley undergoes hypnosis. The doctor tries to dredge details — and fails.

12-13-77. Michael Alley undergoes hypnosis. The doctor tries to dredge details — and fails. '77 faded into '78. The Mineo case was one year and 11 months old.

1-4-78. We formally queried La Sonya Armstrong. Miss Armstrong confirmed Teresa Collins’ statement. She added this: Lionel showed her some dark-colored clothing. They appeared to be blood-stained. Lionel told her that he wore said clothes when he killed the "famous person."

1-4-78. Calhoun County Deputy Ronald Peek confirmed his prior statement. He heard inmate Lionel Williams tell inmate Philbert Gallard that he killed Sal Mineo. Inmate Gallard said, "You’re bullshitting." Inmate Williams said, "I’m serious. I have no reason to bullshit about nothing like that."

1-4-78. The L.A. DA’s Office issues the warrant. Bam! — Lionel Williams, clocked for Murder One.

1-4-78. We track down a major KA. He’s Allwyn Price Williams. He’s not related to Lionel. He’s currently ensconced at the Men’s Central Jail.

1-5-78. Lionel waives extradition. Whew! — he’s L.A.-bound.

1-5-78/1745 hours. We interview Allwyn Williams at CJ. The interview runs rife with contradictions. The bottom-line gist: Lionel Williams told Allwyn Williams that he killed Sal Mineo. Allwyn backs his statement up with graphic stabbing gestures.

1-11-78. Sheriff’s Robbery reports. They’ve put together a strongarm-211 string. There’s 14 counts total. Details vary. Solo-211’s and duo-211’s. Lionel already got popped for Count No. 7. He got released behind jive lack-of-proof.

Count No. 5. Roy, Richard/WM/45. 2-12-76/2155 hours. 1323 Harper — West Hollyweird.

One mile from Holloway Drive. Thirteen minutes post-Mineo.

Lionel Ray Williams. Build his gallows high.

***

Winter '78 progressed. High points accrued.

1-12-78. Lionel arrives at Men’s Central Jail.

1-13-78. Court order granted: Bug Lionel.

4-25-78. LAPD detectives interview one of Lionel’s 211 victims, Peter Kirchen.

They show him photo spreads. The spreads include mugshots of Lionel Williams and James A. Green. Mr. Kirchen cannot ID them. The 211 men broke his windshield with a crowbar and hammer. Glass particles strafed his eyes. He’s had eye trouble since the incident.

Kirchen viewed the photo spread a second time. His vision had improved. He ID’d Lionel and James Green. Lionel swung the hammer. Green swung the crowbar.

4-27-78. Deputy DA Michael Genelin addresses the L.A. County Grand Jury.

5-2-78. The Grand Jury returns indictments. Lionel sustains the above.

5-2-78. James A. Green is indicted for one count of 211 P.C.

5-3-78. Green is arrested. He waives his right to an attorney. He admits the crime.

Him and Lionel were out looking for girls. They were cruising in Lionel’s car and spotted this car up ahead. Lionel got out and asked the driver for directions.

Then they followed the dude down the street and forced him to the curb. They start pounding on his car. The dude threw change out the window. Three or four dollars worth. They picked up the coins and split.

It was the only time he capered with Lionel. He didn’t take part in that Sal Mineo snuff.

***

Pre-trial maneuvers extended. Teresa visited Lionel 13 times and failed to notch the hoped-for admissions. Lionel rapped to boocoo visitors and failed to self-indict. We slogged through tapes. We repeatedly tossed his cell. We seized no contraband. Lionel loved Players magazine. It was a kool-lifestyle rag. Foxy black chicks and pimp fashion spreads. Players was subtitled "For He Who Is."

Lionel was a player. His heist spree and celeb murder imbued him with jailhouse panache. He was a man’s man. He subjugated women and raped the world at large. His gang connections would vouch his prison survival.

Our case was circumstantial. Eyewits saw and/or mis-ID'd a white man. Michael Alley was dicey. He was blotto and barely awake.

Multiple admissions of guilt. We had that. We had Lionel’s 211-string for cause and effect. We had the casual horror of Lionel Williams.

We had and lost Teresa Collins. She invoked spousal privilege and refused to testify. We fed the DA’s Office our paperwork and perceptions. We celebrated the bust and pending trial with Sal’s film-schlepper friends.

They were our friends of the moment.

Pass-through friends that we’d never see again, post-trial and verdict. A dead man bound us up. We shared a common cause that would terminate at adjudication. Cops are like film folk that way. The murder case, the movie. Intense friendships that fizzle at wrapup. Burnout is burnout. Dead men are dead men, and justice runs ambiguous. Judicial vengeance is joyless and provides no relief past exhaustion.

The Mineo case induced mass burnout. It ran deep and left us depleted and strangely insolvent. We couldn’t drink ourselves happy at the Classic Cat and Filthy McNasty’s. We couldn’t yuk at Sal’s antics in Escape From Zahrain and gloat that we’d nailed his killer.

A snappy Hollywood murder would have suited us better. Movie intrigue. A priceless film script or artifact. A bittersweet love affair for Sal. A distraught ex-boyfriend/killer. Soft-focus empathy. Anything but the shallow vileness of Lionel Williams.

The trial ran 1-9 to 2-13-79. Judge Bonnie Lee Martin presided. Michael Genelin represented the State. He was young and most surely a hotshot. Mort Herbert repped Lionel. He was an ex-jazz musician. He came to the law late.

The proceedings ran touch and go. The white-eyewit snafu gored us. Mike Genelin countered it brilliantly and pulled out a save.

Lionel was a light-skinned black man. We thought he always sported that wide-wing afro. We were wrong there. Lionel wore his hair slicked back in February ’76. Genelin produced a 2-26-76 mugshot. It’s Lionel at the time of the Kirchen bust. He’s got slicked-back hair. It was dark in that carport. He could be white, couldn’t he?

The jury voted second-degree/guilty. Lionel fell for Sal, plus 10 robberies.

Lionel got 51 years minimum. He’d waltz well before that. They always did.

***

SHERIFF'S HOMICIDE FILE #079200909-0977-011
Victim: Mineo, Salvatore/WM/37

Retrospective file summary and recalled narrative. We, the undersigned detectives attest:

Time’s this pass-through friend that haunts you and reminds you that time’s all you’ve got. It rained a few hours before Sal died. February’s the best month in L.A. The air’s clear. Rain dilutes the harsh colors you don’t want to see. 1976 felt lonely. There’s a man-down job on Holloway. We heard thunder en route to the crime scene. Sal’s car was still wet. We stood around in our overcoats. A little girl upstairs waved to us.

James Ellroy's new novel, This Storm, will be published June 4 by Alfred A. Knopf.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.