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Excerpt: Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers
Novelist Michael Connelly started out writing hard-hitting articles about detectives who worked the homicide beat in L.A. and Florida. Crime Beat gathers some of his most arresting coverage.- June 19, 2006
Come see Sebastian Junger and others talk about their transition from writing articles to books in mediabistro's June 28 panel discussion, "From Journo to Big Book."
Part II: The Killers
AMERICA'S MOST WANTED
TARZANA MAN HELD IN MURDER OF HIS MISSING FATHER
Los Angeles Times
December 4, 1987
A 21-year-old Tarzana man was arrested Thursday on suspicion of murdering his father, a wealthy Japanese businessman who has been missing for seven months, Los Angeles police said.
Toru Sakai was being held without bail in the North Hollywood Division jail, Lt. Dan Cooke said.
Sakai's father, Takashi (Glenn) Sakai, 54, has not been seen since the day before he was reported missing April 21.
"Based on evidence we have obtained, we believe he was killed," Cooke said.
Police declined to disclose what evidence either indicates that the man is dead or links his son to the killing.
Toru Sakai was arrested when police officers conducted a search of family financial records at the Braewood Drive home he shares with his mother, Sanae Sakai.
Police said the suspect's parents had been estranged for about three years. The couple were in a legal battle over their finances and impending divorce at the time Takashi Sakai disappeared.
Sanae Sakai, 50, who operates a real-estate business out of the hillside home, was also arrested during the 7:15 a.m. search, but "during the all-day investigation, the investigators felt she should be released," Cooke said. He refused to elaborate.
Police said Takashi Sakai, founder of the Pacific Partners investment firm in Beverly Hills and a consultant to many other investment firms, was last seen leaving his office April 20.
Police declined to say where he was living at the time. He was reported missing the next day by a girlfriend.
Three days later, his car was found at Los Angeles International Airport, but authorities found no record of his having taken a flight.
Cooke said detectives then began gathering evidence of foul play.
Robert Brasch, president of World Trade Bank, of which Pacific Partners is a subsidiary, said Thursday that Takashi Sakai was a well-respected businessman and entrepreneur who had been involved in helping Japanese companies invest in businesses in the United States.
Note: After three days in jail Toru Sakai was released from jail when police and prosecutors determined they did not have enough evidence at that point to hold him on a murder charge. He then disappeared.
SAKAI FOUGHT KILLERS
Los Angeles Times
May 24, 1988
Takashi (Glenn) Sakai, 54, a wealthy international businessman who lived in Tarzana, was killed inside the home but not before a bloody and unexpected fight in which he almost was able to escape, Gregory Meier testified.
"I was behind the door," Meier said. "He took a couple of steps in, and I came up behind him. I was successful in hitting him in the neck, but he didn't go down. For some reason I thought I would be able to knock him out—like in the movies. But it doesn't work that way. He ran for the door.
"I helped Toru bring him back inside," Meier said. "We kept trying to knock him out."
It was only after the elder Sakai had been struck repeatedly with a steel bar and handcuffed that his son stabbed him to death in the house's basement, Meier testified.
Meier, 21, a friend of Toru Sakai's since they were members of the same high school tennis team, has been granted immunity in the case. Sakai, also 21, has been charged with murder but is still being sought by authorities. His mother, Sanae Sakai, 51, has been charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact.
Meier revealed the details of the April 20, 1987, slaying during a preliminary hearing on the charge against Sanae Sakai. After Meier and other witnesses testified, she was ordered by Judge David M. Horwitz to stand trial in the case.
The body of Takashi Sakai, founder of Pacific Partners, an affiliate of the World Trade Bank in Beverly Hills, was found buried in Malibu Canyon in early February, about 10 months after his slaying.
According to Meier and authorities, Toru Sakai carried out the killing because his parents were embroiled in a bitter divorce and he feared that he and his mother, with whom he lived in the family's Tarzana home, would face financial difficulties.
"He told me, basically, that he hated his father and he didn't know what else to do," Meier said.
Discussed the Slaying
Meier said that on three occasions in early 1987 he and Toru Sakai discussed the killing. But Meier said he wanted no part of the plan. Meier said he finally agreed to help his friend in early April 1987, when Toru said he had paid another friend $1,000 to do the job but the friend failed to follow through.
"I didn't volunteer," Meier said. "He persuaded me. He told me he would help me out when I needed him."
Meier said the plan was to lure Takashi Sakai to the empty Beverly Hills home at 718 Crescent Drive that Sanae Sakai was managing for a Japanese investor. Once there, Sakai would be kidnapped and taken to Malibu Canyon and then killed and buried, he testified.
In early April, the two friends dug a grave in a secluded spot off Malibu Canyon Road, Meier testified. Then on April 20, Meier said he went to the Beverly Hills home and waited while Toru met his father at a nearby hotel to ask the elder Sakai to come with him to the home.
When he arrived at the house, Takashi Sakai was attacked, subdued after a struggle at the front door and then thrown down the basement stairs, Meier said.
"He was moaning and yelling for help at the bottom of the stairs," Meier said.
Change in Plan
After that, Toru Sakai decided to change the plan and carry out the killing in the basement, Meier said.
"He brought out a knife and asked me to go down and finish off his father," Meier said.
Meier said he refused and then watched Toru take the knife down to the basement. When Meier later went down, he saw the older Sakai had been stabbed to death. He said the body was then wrapped in trash bags, rolled in the blood-soaked rug from the house's entrance hall and loaded into Toru's Porsche. The two then took the body to Malibu Canyon for burial, Meier said.
Meier said he and Toru spent the next two days getting rid of evidence. He said they dropped Takashi Sakai's car at Los Angeles International Airport, took the murder weapon and the piece of carpet from the entrance hall of the Beverly Hills house to a landfill in Glendale and painted over blood-spattered walls in the house.
"We put several coats in the basement," he said.
Meier testified that he later received $1,400 from Toru Sakai for his part in the killing.
A carpet salesman and an installer also testified Monday that two days after the killing, Sanae Sakai had purchased carpet and had it installed in the entrance of the Beverly Hills house. The witnesses said the new carpet was a small piece that closely matched the color of the surrounding carpet in the house.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lonnie A. Felker said Sanae Sakai's quick replacement of the rug was part of the evidence that showed she knew of the killing and was aiding her son. Sanae Sakai has denied she had anything to do with her husband's killing.
Tough choices in deal for crucial testimony
Los Angeles Times
June 1, 1988
Police were able to break open the Takashi Sakai murder case because one of the men who took part in the killing made a mistake: He left a fingerprint on a parking lot ticket when he left the dead man's car at Los Angeles International Airport.
But the man who left the fingerprint, 21-year-old Greg Meier, will not face a day in jail for his role in the murder, although he admitted that he helped ambush the wealthy Japanese businessman, club him with a steel pipe and bury the body after Sakai had been stabbed to death.
Using the fingerprint as the key piece of evidence gathered in a 10-month investigation of Sakai's disappearance, authorities in February persuaded Meier to tell what happened to the missing Tarzana man and lead them to his body.
In exchange for that help and for agreeing to testify about the murder, Meier was granted immunity from prosecution. He is now expected to be the key witness in the prosecution of his best friend, Toru Sakai, 21, who is charged with murder and conspiracy in the fatal stabbing of his father.
Meier is also expected to play an important role as a witness in the prosecution of the dead man's widow, Sanae Sakai, who is charged with being an accessory to murder.
The granting of immunity to Meier points out the frustrations authorities faced in solving what they called an almost-perfect crime.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lonnie A. Felker, who will prosecute the Sakais, is not happy that Meier will avoid prosecution but said there was little choice. Evidence gathered against Meier might not have been sufficient to convict him of participating in the murder, Felker said, but the information he provided after receiving immunity was critical in bringing charges against the man believed to be the actual killer, Toru Sakai.
"Unfortunately, we had to let someone go without any jail time," Felker said. "There was nothing else we could do.
"It was a choice between everybody going free and seeing just one go free. We didn't want the person who actually inflicted the fatal blows to Takashi Sakai to walk away. Toru was the one we wanted."
But the prosecution of Toru Sakai will have to wait until he is found by police. His whereabouts have been unknown since he fled from the family home in Tarzana while Meier was cooperating with authorities. Meanwhile, his mother has pleaded innocent in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Takashi (Glenn) Sakai, 54, a founder of Pacific Partners, an affiliate of World Trade Bank in Beverly Hills, disappeared April 20, 1987. Police from the outset believed he was the victim of foul play. They said it was hard to believe Sakai would leave behind a successful career as an adviser to Japanese businesses seeking to invest in the United States.
Investigators soon learned that Sakai was in the midst of a divorce and that there were bitter feelings with his son and 51-year-old wife, a one-time Japanese beauty contest winner and a descendant of one of the top five families of Japan's pre-1945 nobility.
Two days after the disappearance, Sakai's Mercedes- Benz was found parked at Los Angeles International Airport. Police found no signs that he had taken a flight from the airport and only one clue to what happened to him: the fingerprint on the airport parking ticket stub that had been left in the car.
During the next several months, the investigation moved slowly. Sakai's body had not been found, and police had no match for the fingerprint.
Then, in November, the operator of a private mailbox company in Hollywood where Takashi Sakai had kept a box told Los Angeles police that a young man had come in, presented the key and requested access to it. The man left when he was turned down because he was not Sakai, but the business operator wrote down the license plate number of the car he was driving.
Detectives Jerry Le Frois and Jay Rush traced the car to Greg Meier of San Marino.
According to authorities, Meier and Toru Sakai were close friends who had met at San Marino High School when they played tennis together. Both were known as quiet youths who did not participate in many school activities. Tennis and a shared interest in becoming musicians made the basis of their friendship.
Beneath his senior photo in the 1983 Titanian yearbook, Toru Sakai skipped the inspirational messages most students chose and placed a bleakly pessimistic quote attributed to Mick Jagger:
"There've been good times; there've been bad times; I've had my share of hard times too, but I lost my faith in the world..."
Beneath Meier's photo, the caption he chose read, "If you don't get life, life will get you."
The friendship lasted well after high school and the Sakai family's move from San Marino to Tarzana. The two briefly attended UCLA together and later worked occasionally doing renovation and maintenance work on homes that Sanae Sakai managed for Japanese investors.
After tracing the license number to Meier, investigators asked him to come to police headquarters to answer questions and be fingerprinted. Meier complied and was released. There was not enough evidence to charge him with a crime.
By early February, however, police had matched one of Meier's fingerprints to the print on the parking stub.
Investigators took Meier into custody on Feb. 9, this time telling him that the fingerprint and other evidence added up to probable cause to charge him, Felker said.
"We confronted him," the prosecutor recalled. "He indicated he might be able to help us."
Meier consulted an attorney and then offered to tell what happened in exchange for immunity. Felker said that with no body, no crime scene, no motive for Meier to kill Sakai and little other evidence beyond the fingerprint, authorities had no choice.
"We concurred—it was the only way to go," said Lt. Ron Lewis, who supervised the Los Angeles police investigation of the case. "I can't imagine that any law enforcement officer would be too happy about an individual being allowed to walk away, but you have to take in the total picture. Certainly it bothers me, but it was our only option."
Before granting immunity, Felker said, authorities determined through investigation and discussions with Meier and his attorney that Meier had not been the one who stabbed Takashi Sakai to death.
"We assured ourselves that he was not the actual killer, and we assured ourselves that he did not initiate the thought of the killing," Felker said. "We gave him immunity because he was not the person who inflicted the fatal injuries."
The day after immunity was granted, Meier led a team of investigators to Malibu Canyon and pointed out the spot where Takashi Sakai had been buried 10 months earlier. He also provided details of the murder that had frustrated investigators for just as long.
Those details were revealed publicly for the first time last week when Meier testified at Sanae Sakai's prelimi- nary hearing. His audience included more than two dozen Japanese journalists, there because the standing of the Sakai family and the alleged patricide, a rarity in Japan, have drawn the interest of the Japanese community here and across the Pacific.
Speaking calmly, but often exhaling nervously into the microphone, Meier said that Toru Sakai talked on and off of wanting to kill his father for three months in early 1987. He said the talks often occurred while the two friends cruised in Toru's Porsche over the Santa Monica Mountains or dined and drank in Westwood restaurants near UCLA.
According to Meier and authorities, Toru Sakai wanted to kill his father because his parents were embroiled in a bitter divorce and he feared that he and his mother would face financial difficulties.
"He told me, basically, that he hated his father, and he didn't know what else to do," Meier testified.
On April 20, 1987, according to Meier, Toru lured his father to a vacant home in Beverly Hills that Sanae Sakai managed for an investor. Meier said he was standing behind the front door with a steel pipe in his hand when the older Sakai walked in.
"He took a couple steps in, and I came up behind him," Meier said. "I was successful in hitting him in the neck, but he didn't go down. For some reason, I thought I would be able to knock him out—like in the movies. But it doesn't work that way."
There was a bloody struggle and Takashi Sakai was struck several more times by his son and Meier before being subdued, handcuffed and pushed down the basement stairs, prosecutors said.
"He was moaning and yelling for help at the bottom of the stairs," said Meier, who testified that Toru Sakai then asked him to kill his father.
"He went over to a bag and pulled out a big knife," Meier said. "He asked me to go down and finish him off."
Meier said he refused, so Toru Sakai went down and killed the elder Sakai. The two friends then wrapped the body in a rug, Meier testified, and loaded it into Toru's Porsche. They drove to Malibu Canyon, he said, and buried the body before returning to the Beverly Hills house the next day to get rid of evidence and paint over the blood-spattered walls.
Meier told investigators that when he drove the dead man's car to Los Angeles International Airport the day after the murder, he wore gloves so that there would be no fingerprints left in the car. But when he had to reach out the window to take the parking stub, he took the gloves off so that he would not look suspicious. After he got the stub, he put the gloves back on and rubbed the stub to erase any fingerprints, he said.
"But the oil from one of his fingers had already been absorbed into the paper," Felker said. "The print stayed there. It was the one thing" that connected him with Takashi Sakai's disappearance.
Several months later, when Meier confessed his role in the murder to authorities, he added one other grim detail to an already gruesome case, Felker said.
Meier told investigators that he and Toru Sakai returned to Malibu Canyon about two months after the murder and partially dug up Takashi Sakai's body. Toru Sakai used a pair of shears to cut a finger off the body so he could remove a gold ring. Then the body was reburied.
A year later, Felker said, the case has placed authorities in the uncomfortable situation of having to choose for whom justice would be served.
"Our only concern is that at the end of this thing justice is done for as many people as possible," Felker said. "On a professional level, I do not feel badly about it because I am doing what needs to be done to make sure justice is done.
"On a personal level, I feel badly that everyone that is involved cannot be prosecuted. It is a terrible thing to see some person who is involved just walk away."
Although Meier faces no criminal charges in the Sakai case, he does face his own guilt, the prosecutor noted.
"I don't really know how to judge how much he feels remorse," Felker said. "I know he feels badly about it. He has told me about it several times. The murder wasn't reality to him until it happened. He was so deeply involved then that he had to stay involved."
Meier could not be reached for comment. But during his testimony last week, he momentarily faltered while being questioned about the murder.
"This is tough," he said. "It's tough, emotionally."
SUSPECT REMAINS AT LARGE
ALMOST 2 YEARS AFTER
HIS FATHER'S SLAYING
Toru Sakai was held in 1987 after his father's death, but was released for lack of evidence.
Now police say they have a case, but the suspect is gone.
Los Angeles Times
November 6, 1989
On Dec. 3, 1987, Los Angeles police had Toru Sakai right where they wanted him: in a North Hollywood jail cell, under arrest on suspicion of his father's murder.
But the one thing they didn't have at the time was the body of his father, Takashi Sakai, a wealthy Japanese businessman who had lived in Tarzana. Without the body or any other conclusive evidence that a murder had occurred, Toru Sakai, then 21, was released uncharged after two days in jail.
The police never got another chance to arrest the diminutive former UCLA student. By the time investigators found the victim's body and the evidence they needed to charge his son with the slaying, Toru Sakai had vanished.
Today, after nearly two years of sifting through more than 500 leads and traveling as far as Washington in one direction and Tokyo in the other, investigators say they have no clue as to Toru Sakai's exact whereabouts. They say one of Los Angeles' most notable crimes in recent years remains at an unusual standstill. It has been solved, police say. But the suspect remains free.
"We are still looking for Toru, we still get clues," said Detective Jay Rush. "But he is in the wind...
"It is frustrating when you know who killed someone and why, but you can't catch him. It is more frustrating than an unsolved case."
The Takashi Sakai case was unsolved for most of 1987. The 54-year-old founder of the Beverly Hills–based Pacific Partners, a subsidiary of World Trade Bank, disappeared after leaving his office April 20, 1987.
At first the case was handled as a missing person investigation, but detectives quickly suspected foul play. They regarded the sudden disappearance of Sakai, who used the name Glenn in the United States, as unusual, because he was in the middle of a major business deal. His Mercedes- Benz was found at Los Angeles International Airport, but a fingerprint found on the parking stub was not his.
Because Sakai, a former president of the Little Tokyo Chamber of Commerce, was well known and influential in international business circles, authorities theorized he might have been kidnapped. The missing person case was turned over to the Robbery-Homicide Division, which handles kidnappings.
After finding no evidence of an abduction, Detectives Rush and Jerry Le Frois turned their attention to Sakai's family. In the previous year the missing man had moved out of his family's hillside home in Tarzana and was divorcing his wife, Sanae Sakai, a descendant of Japanese nobility and former beauty pageant queen. At the time of his disappearance, he was living in the Hollywood Hills.
Investigators said the marriage was not ending amicably, and Toru Sakai had sided with his mother in a bitter dispute with his father over money. The detectives believed that dispute was the motivation behind the elder Sakai's disappearance.
"Glenn Sakai had told people that if anything ever happened to him, his wife and son would be at fault," Le Frois said.
But the investigators lacked evidence. The break in the case didn't come until November 1987, when a man with Glenn Sakai's key to a private mail deposit box in Hollywood attempted to collect mail from the box. The man was turned away because he was not Sakai, but the operator of the mail drop got the license plate number from his car.
The tag number was traced to Gregory Meier, a former classmate and tennis partner of Toru Sakai. Meier told police he had gotten the mailbox key from Toru, and that led to Toru's arrest on Dec. 3, 1987, on suspicion of murder. But with no body, no crime scene and little other evidence, no charges were filed and he was released.
However, two months later, after police had matched Meier's fingerprint to the LAX ticket stub, Meier agreed to cooperate in exchange for immunity. He said Glenn Sakai was stabbed to death by his son after being lured to an unoccupied Beverly Hills mansion, which was managed for its absentee owner by Sanae Sakai. Meier, who said he took part in the attack but did not inflict the fatal wounds, led police to the executive's grave in Malibu Canyon.
On Feb. 10, 1988, police once again went to the Sakai house to arrest Toru, but he was gone. They arrested Sanae Sakai, and she was charged as an accessory to murder after the fact. Authorities said she helped her son cover up the crime.
The charge against Sanae Sakai was dropped, and she has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the crime or of her son's whereabouts.
The only trace of Toru Sakai police believe may be credible was an anonymous call in early 1988 from a woman who knew unpublished details about the Sakai family and the case and told investigators that Toru had left the country by crossing the Canadian border to Vancouver.
But authorities say that if the suspect did leave the country, it was without his passport, which had been confiscated when he was arrested in 1987. Still, authorities believe Sakai might have been able to get to Japan from Vancouver. Clues phoned to detectives from the Japanese community in Los Angeles as recently as a month ago place the fugitive in Japan, Le Frois said. "We assume he could have gotten a passport and gotten to Japan," the detective said.
Toru Sakai was born in Japan, but he left with his family for California when he was 1 year old. Investigators said he spoke Japanese poorly and as a teen-ager had had plastic surgery to westernize his eyes—factors that might make him noticeable in Japan.
However, there has never been a confirmed sighting of Sakai in Japan or anywhere else, authorities said. The lack of viable clues to his whereabouts is unusual. Investigators say fugitives often are tracked by their mistakes; using credit cards or passports, telephone records, giving a real Social Security number or leaving fingerprints while using false names.
"Usually there is some kind of a trail," said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Lonnie A. Felker, who filed the murder charge against Toru Sakai. "But on this one there is no trail. Japan is a possibility. But so is Canada. He could still be here. We don't know."
Detectives went to Tokyo and provided law enforcement officials with details of the case, which was highly publicized there because of the stature of the Sakai family and rarity of patricide in Japan.
Investigators also went to Washington to take telephone calls from tipsters after details of the case, photos of Toru Sakai and mention of his love for tennis and his use of the name Chris were aired twice on the television show America's Most Wanted. The exposure from the program, which was also translated and televised in Japan, brought hundreds of tips. They led to at least nine different states and Japan, but none led to the real Toru Sakai.
A tip that came from Palm Springs seemed the most promising. The caller said an Asian man was living in a secluded condominium in the desert community. The man went by the name Chris, didn't seem to work and often played tennis at the complex.
"Everything fit," Le Frois said. Photos were sent to Palm Springs police, who checked out the tip. The report back was that there was a very close resemblance. It could be Toru Sakai.
Palm Springs police moved in and detained the man after pulling him out of a condominium swimming pool. In the meantime, Rush and Le Frois headed to Palm Springs with a copy of their suspect's fingerprints. They knew as soon as they got there they had the wrong man. The man pulled from the pool was too tall. Then the fingerprint check confirmed he wasn't Toru Sakai.
"It's just cold," Le Frois said of their suspect's trail.
Authorities say the search for Toru Sakai remains active and that the detectives meet regularly with Felker, the deputy district attorney, to update the status of the case. But for the most part, they acknowledge that they are still waiting for the call that leads them to the suspected killer, or for him to make a mistake.
"He could make a mistake," Rush said. "He could get arrested for something else and a fingerprint could be taken...
"He is out there somewhere," the detective added wistfully. "And he is probably looking over his shoulder... He better be looking over his shoulder for me."
Note: Toru Sakai has never been captured. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Michael Connelly is a former journalist who has won every major prize for crime fiction. He lives in Florida.
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