Five years ago this summer 17-year-old Lily Burk stopped at the Southwestern School of Law to pick up some papers for her mother. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. As she approached her parked car on a side street off Wilshire, a career criminal and crack addict named Charlie Samuel, on a day pass from a nearby drug treatment facility, persuaded/intimidated/forced his way behind the wheel and drove off with her inside. A half hour later they were at an ATM in Little Tokyo attempting to withdraw cash. Surveillance cameras showed Lily standing mutely next to her abductor, surrounded by passerby. She did not cry out or attempt to flee. She called her father, a music journalist, then her mother, a law professor, asking for instructions in withdrawing cash using a credit card. Lily gave no indication she was in danger. Only later when she did not return did they find the calls alarming. After walking her up to several ATM’s where she failed to retrieve cash, Charlie returned with Lily to the car and he drove to an empty lot at 458 S. Alameda St.
At 5 pm a mounted policeman encountered Charlie a short distance away in Skid Row, publicly intoxicated. A search revealed a crack pipe, and the keys to Lily’s Volvo. He was taken into custody for possession. No one knew he had any connection to Lily’s disappearance. Or even that a girl named Lily had not come home. At this point even her parents hadn’t started making calls.
At dawn, following a night of agony for her mother and father in Los Feliz, Lily was found in the passenger seat of her car, throat slashed. She bled out a short distance from passerby, in daylight hours, probably within minutes of her last ATM stop. She had dislocated her ankle in her final struggle with her murderer.
Why did she get back in the car has always been the tragic riddle in the middle of a tabloid horror show. How could she be so naive? Did the parents raise her that way? Shame on us for even thinking that. The parents’ suffering is biblical. Who are we to second-guess?
What did the killer have to gain? He didn’t rape her. She was unable to provide cash. He possibly could have slunk safely away with an apology. Left unharmed, she might not even have called the police. Though she was in rehearsals to perform onstage at the Oakwood School in The Boston Marriage, she wasn’t given to histrionics, that much he could deduce. Lily could/might have chalked it up as a lesson learned and undertaken in the future a keener sense of self-preservation and a greater vigilance for creeps.
Charlie knew where to go. Fifth and Alameda, an industrial and lightly policed DMZ between the nouveau-monied world of Urban Radish and Wurstkuche and the blunt facts of the Union Rescue Mission. Venture a few blocks north and one is neck deep in sushi restaurants. A block east and one can purchase a pair of dungarees and a handmade batik blouse for $300. But turn left into the tent city east of downtown….and one enters a state of nature.
In a normal day in in Los Angeles, these worlds overlap only in the geographical margins. One can live in Los Feliz or Santa Monica and have only the most passing interaction with the small army of service economy workers who commute in from Panorama City to tend to your daily wants, nor know their names, nor understand their cosmology. A particular worldly and artistically inclined teenager might maintain a wide circle of social acquaintances across the city, none of whom attend public school. Or at least the sort of public school most Angelenos attend. One can walk Wilshire Blvd, camera in hand, and admire the landmark Art Deco edifice that is the old Bullocks Department store and feel very much the urban explorer, and yet not push in half a block deeper to the SRO hotels, methadone clinics and four-to-a-room immigrant stash houses that lurk beyond. One can be that Right Thinking Person who votes against the Three Strikes Law, or welfare reform, or border enforcement, or quality-of-life policing, and never know the consequences of the blight one piles up in someone else’s neighborhood. Who feels categorical judgements about Good and Evil are for the unsophisticated. Right up until the day your neighbor’s daughter is snatched like Persephone and dragged down into the underworld on Hades chariot.
There they were in the car, Charlie and Lily, in a utilitarian No Man’s Land chosen by him where neither she nor he would be recognized. What was said? What was left unsaid? We know only the denouement was not like its more famous cinematic analogue…which also took place on Alameda Street: