Monday, May 21, 2007

Beneath the Neon

A friend and sometime-editor of mine (when I freelance for Las Vegas CityLife) has written one of the most unique books to come out of Las Vegas in decades. When Matt O’Brien first told me a few years ago that he was writing about life in the storm drains of Las Vegas, I thought, What? When it rains and water rushes through the drains, nothing can survive in there. Still, he pursued the story. It turned out to be a sound decision. The result is Matt’s five-year, hands-on study of a different kind of Las Vegas underworld -- this one not connected to the Mob. His book, set to be released June 1 (but available now on, is titled Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas. Matt’s interest in the network of storm drains and channels in the Las Vegas valley was piqued after Timmy “T.J.” Weber raped his girlfriend’s daughter and killed his girlfriend and one of her sons, then fled, literally, underground. Weber was caught a few weeks later. He was eventually convicted and now lives in a Nevada state prison. The Weber case was the impetus for Matt’s book. Here's what Publisher's Weekly wrote about Beneath the Neon (Matt's first book and, no doubt, not his last): “Continually contrasting the sparkling casinos above with the dank, cobwebbed catacombs below, the observant O'Brien writes with a noirish flair, but his compassion is also evident as he illuminates the lives of these shadowy subterranean dwellers.” If you're looking for an inside look at a different kind of Vegas story with a narrative style that's a departure from the usual true-crime fare, this book is for you. To read an excerpt, go to Matt’s Web site at You will not be disappointed.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Images Old and New

Winning photo of Iraqi girl, mother and brother. Russell Klika, a photographer I worked with in the early ‘90s, has won First Place in the coveted Military Photographer of the Year contest for a portrait of an Iraqi girl. The award was not a surprise. He'd won his share in San Diego when we worked together at the Vista Press, a daily (and now-closed) newspaper in north San Diego County. In 1992, Russell and I traveled to Los Angeles to cover the L.A. riots. It was an adrenalin-packed, no-sleep assignment in the days following the acquittal of the officers involved in the Rodney King police beating. Klika is one of the best photogs I've ever worked with. He’s up there with Clay Myers, a Best Friends’ magazine and website photographer I worked with on the streets of New Orleans as volunteers rescued pets left behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (also a sleepless, nonstop assignment). Watching veterans work in the field like these two is a sight to see. My job is to simply step out of their way as they do their work. It's equally amazing to see the photos afterward. Combat Photographer and Army Staff Sergeant Russell Klika (left) Russell and I once went on assignment about 250 miles off the San Diego shore. It was in 1992 and it was just after the USS Kitty Hawk had come out of mothballs a new and refurbished ship and returned to her homeport of San Diego. We flew out of Coronado’s North Island in a P-3 radar plane and landed on the Kitty Hawk, missing the first wire and catching the second. The force -- of going from who knows how fast to zero -- threw us forward, because the seats were fixed backward, in a 14-seater with nothing but servicemen aboard, and Russell and me. After we landed, my face must have been ashen, because one of the airmen looked at me, then asked Russell, "Is she OK?" Russell peered at me from his seat, then said, "No." I barely remember deplaning and walking across the tarmac and into the ship, and then to the bridge (basically from where the ship is steered). When we made it onto the bridge, the fleet commander was waiting to give us a tour and brief us on training exercises at sea. As soon as he saw me, the admiral barked at one of his men, “Get her down to sickbay!” (whereupon a medic put a Dramamine patch behind my ear and in no time I was fine). Russell laughs when he says, "I still tell that story." Seeing Russell’s photos again takes me back 15 years to those assignments at Camp Pendleton when Marines returned from deployment in Operation Desert Storm, and, as a pool reporter and Russell as a pool photographer, following then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher around the base for eight hours. Or of the man with a pipe during the L.A. riots threatening a SWAT officer and Russell was the only photographer there to catch the moment. And when we were surrounded in Russell's pickup by angry residents armed with sticks and baseball bats and Russell hit the pedal to run through them and escape. We also went into makeshift migrant camps in the back country of San Diego's North County to interview workers, both of us only able to speak broken Spanish. Russell's images and my stories always seemed to pull together and compliment the other for a decent news package. It’s nice to know he’s back at work capturing those moments, this time as a combat photographer. To see more of Russell's photos, go to: Russell's Homepage

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Book by Courtroom Artist About Rebel Lawyer

My good friend Paulette Frankl, a courtroom artist, has penned a quintessential biography titled LUST FOR JUSTICE about J. Tony Serra, a civil rights attorney who has been named one of the greatest trial lawyers in the country.

I met Paulette during the first Ted Binion murder trial when she sat, day after day, sketching in court, and again during the retrial in the case against Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, when Serra represented Tabish and essentially was responsible for their ultimate acquittals.

It was something to see Serra in action and, about as simplistic as a trial lawyer can be, tear down the prosecution's case. Paulette, who has an artist's studio in Santa Fe, N.M., has captured, in her words and sketchings, Serra both in and out of the courtroom. LUST FOR JUSTICE: J. Tony Serra, A Radical Lawyer in Perilous Times is expected to be published by sometime in 2009. I'll keep you posted.

Other links: Cover Story PauletteFrankl Homepage