Another David Zahniser headline grabber in tomorrow's LA Weekly: When labor leader Miguel Contreras collapsed of a heart attack last year, he wasn't in his car as the quasi-official line read. He was inside a South Los Angeles storefront, Botanica Inca at 647½ West Florence Avenue, where the LAPD later conducted a prostitution sting. He died there rather than at the hospital, but no autopsy was done — perhaps at the insistence of the many politicians who gathered that night in May 2005.
Even if the questions are awkward or unpleasant, they deserve to be asked, if for no other reason than to preserve the record of one of L.A.’s most influential figures at the end of the 20th century. Historians have done the same in the case of Martin Luther King Jr., another powerful figure who spoke on behalf of the downtrodden, seeking to understand the man in totality, by exploring his more private side. And so the question remains, what happened during the final hours of Miguel Contreras’ life? Why is it so hard to track down the woman in the botanica who found him? Who delivered his wallet to the LAPD in the days after his death? And how could his death have triggered a sting operation but not an autopsy?
The issue has been whispered about to such an extent that Supervisor Mike Antonovich, certainly not a politician aligned with the federation, sent a one-sentence letter on October 19 asking if Contreras received an autopsy and if not, why not. This week, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office responded in a one-page letter that it concluded that the 52-year-old union activist had diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension — not to mention two brothers who went through heart surgery themselves. “His cause of death was based on history and external examination, consistent with other Coroner’s cases of similar circumstances,” wrote Dr. Christopher Rogers, the coroner’s chief of forensic medicine. “The history is that he collapsed suddenly while having his fortune read.”
Contreras’ widow, Maria Elena Durazo, provided a one-paragraph statement this week, saying she is content with the official review of her husband’s death. “Our family continues to grieve, which is why we would appreciate the media allowing Miguel to rest in peace, as we are fully satisfied with the information involving his passing.”
Mayor Villaraigosa, the first city official to reach Daniel Freeman's emergency room, refused to talk to Zahniser. The story reconstructs the scene there, a Friday evening during the latter stages of the campaign for mayor. Both Villaraigosa and Jim Hahn were there, as well as dozens of other interested parties. Zahniser says it was then-councilman Martin Ludlow who worked his cellphone frantically to avoid an autopsy.
Zahniser concludes that "the way power is wielded in this town changed dramatically with Contreras’ passing. Now the head of the Federation of Labor is likely to turn to Villaraigosa for counsel — not vice versa. Now the power is not behind the scenes, but loudly situated in City Hall for all to see."
Photo of 647½ Florence Avenue by Rena Kosnett/LA Weekly