McNulty recalls the Cary Grant case that made the Tinseltown P.I.’s career. 2,623 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
On May 31, 2015, McNulty watched the bulldozers and wrecking balls smash and grind Hollywood Park into dust. It was being torn down to make way for a new multi-billion dollar football stadium. Ironically, it had neither been a park nor in Hollywood. It was a race track. And for decades horse racing was the only legal form of gambling in California. By the mid-1980s, Hollywood Park had become one of the most popular horse racing venues in the world. But now, as McNulty watched its destruction, he recalled how it had helped put the then 25-year-old’s newly-established detective agency on tinseltown’s radar. In later years, newspaper columnists would refer to McNulty as “The Hollywood Eye.” But back then he was just another Hollywood gumshoe looking for a few well-heeled clients.
“A friend of mine is in need of a good private eye,” McNulty’s Pal, comedian Lenny Hazeltine, said over the phone. “I couldn’t think of one so I gave him your name.”
“I appreciate that,” McNulty said. “Who is it?”
“You’ll know him when you see him,” Lenny laughed and hung up.
Ten minutes later, the door to McNulty’s office opened and in walked Cary Grant.
Yeah, that Cary Grant, the legendary actor and leading man from all those old movies on TCM. He was 81 when he walked into McNulty’s office, a bit thicker but still handsome with a full head of perfectly-barbered white hair and chicly-attired in a crisp white shirt, blue blazer and grey slacks.
“Lenny tells me you’re a detective,” Grant said after the introductions. “Are you a good one?”
“Better than most,” McNulty admitted matter-of-factly, explaining how he’d been a former cop with both the LAPD and Southern Pacific Railroad before becoming a private eye. “So how can I help you, Mister Grant?”
“You no doubt know about jockey Eddie Lomitas,” Grant said.
Who didn’t? It was one of the most shocking and unusual finishes in horse racing history. But, surprisingly, it had happened once before, some sixty-two years earlier at New York’s Belmont Park. Still, no one who was at Hollywood Park on that day in 1985 would ever forget it. Not because the horse, a long shot named Hals-a-Poppin’, won in a photo finish. But because the jockey, like the one in 1923, had crossed the finish line in what Lenny Hazeltine had famously joked was “a perpetual state of dead.”
According to the coroner’s report, Eddie Lomitas had died somewhere on the track’s backstretch from what was officially ruled “undetermined” causes. But somehow Eddie, like jockey Frank Hayes in 1923, had miraculously remained in the saddle while Hals-a-Poppin’ thundered down the homestretch in a thrilling and heart-pounding nose-to-nose dash for the finish line.
“The poor bastard finished dead first,” Lenny had chuckled to McNulty during lunch the following day. “Paid 20 to 1.”
The two men were tucked into what would become McNulty’s usual corner booth at Musso & Frank’s, an old time upscale eatery a few blocks from McNulty’s old office in the Taft Building on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
“Wait a minute,” McNulty interrupted. “If the jockey was dead, wouldn’t he be disqualified?”
“Not according to the rules,” Lenny replied. “A horse will only be disqualified if it finishes without the jockey in irons.”
“Irons?” McNulty laughed. “Sounds like they put the jockeys in shackles.”
“That’s what they call the stirrups,” Lenny clarified. “Although, come to think of it, I have lost a bundle on horses that ran like they were shackled.”
“Along with a few that ended up on the flaps of envelopes,” McNulty cracked.
“Funny line, kid,” Lenny nodded. “In fact, I’m gonna steal it and use it in my act.”
True to his word, Lenny did steal it and, what’s more, usually got a big laugh in a routine about how inept he was at playing the ponies. But, Lenny being Lenny, he found other ways to compensate his friends. And, in McNulty’s case, it was the introduction to Cary Grant.
McNulty wasn’t surprised that Cary Grant would have an interest in the tragedy since he was a prominent member of Hollywood Park’s board of directors. In fact, The actor was such a regular at Hollywood Park that, after he died, they named their new clubhouse the Cary Grant Pavilion.
“I know the coroner ruled the cause of death as ‘undetermined,’” the junior detective reminded him.
“That’s just it,” Grant said. “While the circumstances were indeed unusual, I don’t believe his death was from ‘undetermined’ causes.” Then, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper, he added: “Mister McNulty, I believe that Eddie Lomitas was… murdered.”
Murdered. The word hung there.
“That’s quite a leap,” McNulty said finally. “‘Undetermined’ means the coroner found no evidence of foul play. So what makes you think he was murdered?”
“I knew Eddie. I liked him immensely. But like most of us he had his faults and vices.”
“Let me guess,” McNulty smiled. “Wine, women and dough.”
“The eternal trifecta,” Grant nodded. He reached inside his blazer and removed a folded sheet of paper. “This is a list of possible suspects.” He handed it across the desk. “You can start here.”
“Seems a little premature,” McNulty said. “Considering there’s no evidence that he was, in fact, murdered.”
“I don’t know how it was done,” Grant replied with a heavy sigh. “But I’m confident that whoever did it is on that list.”
The M.E.’s office at the Los Angeles County Morgue was McNulty’s first stop. It was a slim possibility, but if his client was right and Eddie had been murdered, it wouldn’t be the first time the coroner had missed something.
“What are you going to do with it?” the morgue assistant asked after handing over a copy of Eddie Lomitas’ autopsy report and pocketing McNulty’s C-note.
“Get a second opinion,” McNulty replied.
Next was a visit to the “Gooch.”
“I wish you’d stop calling me that. It’s not dignified,” Dr. Thomas Noguchi, L.A. County’s former chief coroner, groused when McNulty greeted him in his pathology lab. Among the more notable autopsies he’d performed were Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi, Janis Joplin, William Holden, Natalie Wood and Robert Kennedy.
“It’s more dignified than ‘Death’s Doorman,’” McNulty said, provoking a laugh from the doctor.
“Don’t tell me. You need a favor.”
“What I need is an expert pathologist to give this a second look,” McNulty said. “Wouldn’t happen to know one, would you?”
“Who is it?” Noguchi said, tapping the coroner’s report.
“The jockey who died in mid-race. I need to know if he could’ve been murdered.”
Noguchi skimmed quickly through the report. “Can’t tell much from this,” he said finally. “I’ll need tissue samples and photos of the body to make an intelligent assessment.”
McNulty left knowing that if anything pointed to Eddie Lomitas being murdered, the Gooch would find it.
McNulty’s next stop was the Hollywood Park Turf Club which had been established in 1938 by a coterie of Hollywood celebrities and big shots. The private eye was pretty sure that’s where he’d find the first suspect on Cary Grant’s list. “You will also need this,” Grant had said, handing him a VIP guest card. “It will give you complete access to the entire facility.”
McNulty eased his car through a small knot of sign-carrying PETA protesters who were blocking the entrance to Hollywood Park’s main parking lot. They were loudly objecting to the treatment of the thoroughbreds and horse racing in general. Several eggs splattered across McNulty’s windshield as he drove through the gate. Once inside, he wheeled up to the valet parking stand in front of the Hollywood Turf Club. Post time for the first race was two hours away, which would give McNulty time to find and question the first name on Cary Grant’s list of suspects.
“Can I help you?” asked a gruff raspy voice. McNulty saw a tall husky man emerge from a side office. He wore a maroon blazer with the Hollywood Park logo on the breast pocket.
“Frank Cotner,” the man said, extending his hand. “Chief of Security.”
Judging from the size of him, McNulty figured as much. Probably ex-law enforcement, too.
“I’m looking for Walt Glendon, the owner and trainer of Hals-a-Poppin’.” He showed Cotner his VIP card. “Know where I can find him? It’s about Eddie Lomitas.”
“What about him? He’s dead. End of story,” Cotner said callously.
“Hey, don’t take it so hard.”
“Okay, smart guy,” Cotner glowered, “Just who the fuck are you?”
McNulty identified himself and explained that he’d been asked to look into the jockey’s death by one of the board members, whom he pointedly did not name, claiming client confidentiality.
“I was assured this would give me complete access and cooperation,” he added, flashing the VIP card again. “And I’d hate to have to report that the chief of security wasn’t all that cooperative.”
“Not sure what you expect to find,” Cotner said, his demeanor suddenly softening. “From what I heard, Eddie just dropped dead.”
“Or maybe that’s what someone wants us to think.”
“Wait, are you saying Eddie was murdered?”
“Don’t know for sure,” McNulty admitted. “But you didn’t seem to like him.”
“Lotsa people didn’t like him,” Cotner said defensively. “He was a spiteful little prick with a big chip on his shoulder. Always belly-aching about one thing or another. So, yeah, I didn’t like him — but not enough to kill him. You might want to talk to Walt Glendon,”
This is where I came in, McNulty thought.
Cotner personally escorted McNulty to the shedrow where the trainers traditionally stabled their thoroughbreds during racing meets. On the way, they snaked through a few dozen diehard railbirds crowding the trackside fence. Many had been there since the early morning workouts when the exercise riders would gallop the day’s entries around the track. Nearly all brandished stopwatches to clock the “bullets” – horses with the fastest times – and make their bets accordingly.
They found Glendon, a burly man with a tanned leathery face, sitting atop a paddock fence and watching a girl in her mid-twenties, lead a sleek chestnut-colored thoroughbred around the enclosure on a long tether.
“Keep a tight hold on that ‘shank,’ Glendon called out to the girl. “Hals-a-Poppin’s a winner now. Don’t want him running off!”
“Someone here to see you, Walt,” Cotner said as they approached the paddock. “It’s about Eddie.”
“What about him?”
“He died on your mount,” McNulty replied. “Got some people to wondering.”
“Whether you had something to do with it.”
Balling his hands into fists, Glendon angrily jumped down from the fence and unleashed a vicious right cross. But McNulty opened his coat, revealing the Sig Sauer automatic holstered on his hip. Glendon’s blow froze in mid-swing.
“Yeah, it does tend to make folks think twice,” McNulty grinned.
“Everything okay, Walt?” asked the girl in the paddock.
“Nothing I can’t handle, Maggie,” Glendon told her. “You can take the horse back to his stall.”
The girl, auburn-haired with a sprinkle of freckles on her cheeks, eyed McNulty coldly as she led the steed from the paddock toward the stable.
“Pretty girl,” McNulty remarked. “Who is she?”
“Maggie Culver,” Cotner said. “She’s one of our ‘hot-walkers.’ Cools the horses down after a workout. Her father’s the track vet.”
Maggie Culver wasn’t on the suspect list, McNulty noted. But her father was.
“What’s all this horseshit about Eddie’s death?” Glendon demanded. “Last I heard they didn’t know how he died.”
“We’re taking a second look,” McNulty said. “In the meantime, I’m talking to people who might’ve wanted him dead.”
“Then maybe you should be talking to those damn protesters outside,” Glendon groused. “They’d like nothing better than to see horse racing banned altogether!”
“But they didn’t threaten to kill him,” McNulty smiled. “You did.”
The P.I. was referring to an altercation between Glendon and Lomitas that had occurred a month earlier at the Turf Club bar. Eddie was drunk and even more belligerent than usual after riding two mounts into the winner’s circle earlier that afternoon, and putting two others on the board. One had placed and the other had shown, making it a good payday for Eddie. As it happened, the “show” horse that day was Hals-a-Poppin’ and Eddie was loudly spouting off how it was his own skills as a jockey, and not Glendon’s talents as a trainer, that accounted for the thoroughbred’s marked improvement.
“You ask me, they should put Walt out to pasture, not his horse,” Eddie slurred. When he saw Glendon at the other end of the bar, he staggered toward him. “Face it, Walt, you’ve lost your touch.”
“Go sleep it off, Eddie,” Glendon said, his jaw muscles flexing. “Then go fuck yourself.”
“Don’t have to, Walt,” Eddie laughed, “Not when your coked-out wife will do it willingly for a line.”
Glendon suddenly leaped from the bar stool and hurled Eddie into a nearby cocktail table. Then, fuming, Glendon stood over the dazed jockey and hissed, “Talk about my wife again, I’ll kill you.”
“That was quite a ruckus,” Cotner said, chuckling at the memory. “A few board members nearly blew out their pacemakers.”
“My wife, Shelley, is an addict,” Glendon explained. “She’s been in and out of rehab more times than I can count. But that doesn’t give Eddie, or anyone else, the right to piss on her like that.”
McNulty admired Glendon’s standing up for his wife. But his physical assault on Lomitas made him the prime suspect if the jockey’s death proved to be murder.
“With so much bad blood between you,” McNulty wondered aloud, “how did Eddie come to be riding your entry when he died?”
“Bad luck,” Glendon sighed. “Not just for Eddie, but for Julio Alvarado, the jockey I’d picked to replace him.”
He explained how, in an earlier race that day, Alvarado had been thrown from another horse when it bucked suddenly in the starting gate. The jockey was slammed against the metal frame and broke his arm. With Alvarado unable to ride, a replacement jockey had to be found before Hals-a-Poppin’ ran in the seventh race. Without a replacement, Glendon would have to scratch the horse.
“So why not scratch him?” McNulty asked.
“Two reasons,” Glendon replied. “First, the workout times that morning were the fastest they’d ever been and the horse was eager to run. I felt he had a good chance to win.”
“And the second reason?”
“When Eddie heard I needed a jockey, he came to see me. He said he felt bad about what happened between us and apologized. He admitted he was out of line and to make amends he said he’d take Julio’s place.”
A silent alarm began to ring in McNulty’s head.
“How long before the race did this happen?” he asked.
“Two hours, give or take. Why?”
“How many people knew Eddie would be in the saddle for that race?”
“Hard to say,” Glendon answered. “The stewards, some track officials and most of the jockeys.” His brow furrowed. “Maybe two dozen, give or take.”
Instead of narrowing the list of suspects down, it had just gotten longer.
A week later, McNulty was dictating his notes into a recorder when his office phone rang. It was the Gooch.
“I know how Eddie Lomitas died,” Dr. Noguchi announced. “It was asphyxia. He suffocated.”
“C’mon, doc, how does a jockey suffocate in the middle of a horse race?”
“You’re the detective,” the Gooch reminded him. “You tell me.”
McNulty’s instincts shifted into overdrive. There was only one logical explanation: Eddie Lomitas had definitely been murdered.
Part Two tomorrow