MIDVALE — After a 55-year career in law enforcement, Fred Willoughby has more than his share of stories to tell. Sitting in the family room of his Midvale condo, he sorts through the evidence of a career chasing bad people.
There are the handcuffs that he slapped on the wrists of Sirhan Sirhan, the killer of Robert F. Kennedy. There are boxes of photographs and newspaper/magazine clippings about his battles with street and organized crime, dealing with the hippie and drug movement in California and later Colorado. This was after he survived the violent Civil Rights Era in Los Angeles in the mid-60s.
“When I saw those riots in Ferguson (Missouri), it brought back memories,” says Willoughby, a tall, affable, 77-year-old man with a full head of white hair. “They didn’t know what they were doing. They needed to listen to people who had been through this.”
Raised in Orem, he joined the Los Angeles Police Department in January 1966. As fate would have it, his first assignment included Watts, the black community that turned into a war zone during the infamous riots there a few months earlier. By Willoughby’s estimation he and his fellow officers in the 77th Division averaged 30 felony arrests per month for two years and at least one shooting call per week. Robberies and burglaries occurred routinely.
The Watts riots made Ferguson look like a parade. Long-simmering racial tensions exploded following the arrest of a black motorist by white LAPD cops. The six-day riot resulted in 34 killed, nearly 4,000 arrests, and hundreds of buildings burned or damaged in what was one of the key events of the Civil Rights Era.
Watts continued to seethe for months afterward and Willoughby was in the middle of it. When officers made arrests, they not only had to worry about their suspects, they had to worry about angry crowds gathering and threatening their lives. Willoughby received an education in police work and in the black experience from his black partner, with whom he developed a friendship.
“I remember very clearly that my patrol partner and I were trying to remove two identified robbery suspects from their vehicle when a very hostile crowd of about 500 people quickly formed around us, trying to take our arrestees and our weapons from us,” says Willoughby. “They formed so quickly they had cut us off from our patrol car and radio. We were not only concerned for our lives but the crowd’s as well. We thought it was going to spark another riot.”
During one of the mini-riots in Watts, Willoughby was in the middle of an intersection directing traffic when he heard a loud pop and a bullet whiz by his right ear.
He believes, as many do, that the Ferguson riots were mishandled. Police must get lawbreakers off the street and keep them off the street, and officers should not do anything that incites more riot. When order is restored, he believes an outreach/public relations program between cops and the community is critical.
“Officers should not be wearing SWAT gear and using military equipment,” says Willoughby, referring to Ferguson. “They need to project an image as peace officers, not a guerilla army fighting against the citizens they are trying to protect. They need to cool the situation, not escalate it.”
On the frontlines of L.A., Willoughby, who eventually became a detective, battled the violent black revolutionaries known as the Black Panthers, who were led by Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver, who would write the critically acclaimed “Soul on Ice,” later became a devout Christian and, still later, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
“When Eldridge Cleaver became a Christian, we became great friends,” says Willoughby. “I drove him to and from the very enlightening seminars he taught and church meetings where he spoke. I spent time with him at his residence in Oakland, and he spent time with my family.”
In 1968, Willoughby found himself in the center of another famous incident. He reported to the Rampart police station — a substation of LAPD — late on the night Robert F. Kennedy was shot. Willoughby and his partner were ordered to watch the suspect and “see what we could get out of him.” They spent several hours with Sirhan, but got him to say little. At one point, Sirhan, seeing Willoughby holding a cup of hot chocolate, asked if he could have a sip of it. Willoughby, fearing he might claim he was poisoned or drugged, told him no. Sirhan kicked the cup out of Willoughby’s hand, with the cocoa landing on Sirhan’s face.
“That’s why, in the booking photos, you can see spots on the side of his face,” says Willoughby. “That’s my hot chocolate.”
After hours in a holding room, Willoughby handcuffed Sirhan and drove him to the main office of LAPD in another part of town, escorted by six police cars, with armed police at every intersection. Once there, Willoughby and partner Gene Austin were told to book Sirhan into jail. “He was told to strip down and was searched and he didn’t like that,” recalls Willoughby. “That was the last I saw of him.”
Willoughby still has the cuffs that Sirhan wore.
His career took him back to Utah and then to Denver and Boulder, where he was assigned to clean up rampant street crime and deal with counter-culture revolutionaries that the hippie era spawned.
It was an eventful career and one in which he saw the worst in human behavior. “It taught me tons about human nature and how tender all of our souls really are,” he says. “I have become a firm believer in more rehabilitation than more punishment.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org