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An hour before sunset on July 27, 2017, four Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call from North Laurel Avenue in West Hollywood. The deputies walked through the black metal entry gate and into the open courtyard of a two-story apartment building, where an older white man in an undershirt was standing on the concrete stairs, beckoning urgently. They followed him into his living room — gray walls, a TV showing porn. A young Black man was lying unresponsive on a mattress on the floor, naked except for white socks. Three minutes later, the paramedics from Los Angeles County Fire Engine 8 raced up the stairs carrying their red plastic toolboxes, but the young man was already dead.
The tenant’s name was Edward Buck. He was white-haired with a strong jaw, 62 years old. He described the dead man as his “friend.” About two hours earlier, Buck said, his friend injected meth. A little after that, his friend became “very warm” to the touch. Buck had placed bags of ice on his friend’s skin. He went two doors down and got his neighbor, a man with medical knowledge, he said, to come over and perform CPR. Then he called 911. The deputies looked around the apartment. Buck and the neighbor stayed outside on the walkway. For a moment, Buck leaned his head on the neighbor’s back with a heaviness that suggested exhaustion. The neighbor was crying.
It was almost dark when another man walked through the gate and into the courtyard. He was young, slim and Black. He wore a cap and carried a white bag. The deputies exchanged glances. For years now, tenants at 1234 North Laurel had been calling the county sheriff to complain that young men — many of whom looked disheveled and possibly homeless — were ringing their buzzers at all hours, on their way to see Buck. Once, a tenant called to say that a man who had just left Buck’s place was masturbating on the sidewalk, yelling about syringes. So if Buck was expecting a second visitor tonight, it was not out of character. One deputy peered over the railing. “Store’s closed,” she said. The man loped out through the gate.
An investigator arrived from the county medical examiner’s office. On the floor next to the young man, he noted zip-lock bags swelled with water. A rolling tool cabinet was parked against a wall. Inside were several syringes with brown residue, a scale, lighters, a straw, a glass pipe with burn marks and a clear plastic bag containing a “crystal-like substance.” The top and bottom drawers contained sex toys. The investigator and his assistant wrapped the body in a white sheath. One grabbed the sheath near the head, the other near the feet, and they carried it down the stairs before placing it on a stretcher in the courtyard. Then they went back up to collect evidence, including the dead man’s backpack.
At the medical examiner’s office, the investigator went through the contents. An ID said the man was named Gemmel Moore, age 26. An iPhone was locked with a password, but the investigator took a guess: Moore’s birth year, 1991. The iPhone opened. A text from American Airlines said that he had flown that morning from Houston to LAX. The examiner performed an autopsy; there were no signs of physical trauma. There was, however, a syringe puncture visible on the young man’s left inner forearm. He sent blood and urine samples to toxicology; they came back positive for meth. He took Moore’s fingerprints and ran them through an F.B.I. database, which spit out three marijuana arrests. A picture was forming. “A notebook located in the decedent’s property indicated using intravenous drugs with Edward Buck in the past,” the report noted. The examiner ruled the death an accidental methamphetamine overdose.
He could probably have checked those boxes in his sleep. In the past decade, deaths in Los Angeles County related to meth overdose had increased 707 percent, from 50 in 2007 to 320 the year Moore died. Meth gave you a dopamine rush that was quick and enveloping. The supply was always plentiful. The Sinaloa cartel and its competitors moved the product from Mexico into Southern California, where distributors split up parcels and sent them into the city. The street price in Los Angeles stayed low, under $20 a dose, so meth was accessible to the very poor and homeless. The comedown made you twitchy and miserable; you could get addicted after your first time using. To the average medical examiner or L.A. County sheriff’s deputy in July 2017, the death of Gemmel Moore at the home of an older white john would have seemed like a sad, unremarkable story with familiar components: a sex worker, methamphetamine, bad luck.
The second man died 18 months later. Responding to a 911 call from Buck’s apartment, paramedics found a 55-year-old Black man lying unresponsive on a mattress on the floor, naked except for white briefs, his mouth obscured by a “dark purge” of blood. Buck again told sheriff’s deputies that the dead man was his “friend.” Toxicology showed an overdose of methamphetamine mixed with alcohol. The coroner checked “accident” on his report. Name: Timothy Dean. Date of death: Jan. 7, 2019.
That week, reporters dug up material on Dean. While not a “male prostitute,” as the tabloids labeled Moore, Dean was identified as a porn actor. “Dean was actually known in the gay-porn industry as a dominant top named Hole Hunter,” one website informed readers. A West Hollywood news website called WeHoVille printed some of Dean’s titles: The latest, “Interracial Public Pickups 3,” was released in 2016. One of Buck’s lawyers told The Los Angeles Times that Dean was an “old friend” who “came over intoxicated.”
One death is a tragedy; two deaths are a pattern. As the strange events on North Laurel Avenue captured the attention of the national media, a shocking new detail came to light. It appeared that Buck was not a nobody. He was a Democratic Party “megadonor and political activist” (ABC News); a “prominent political activist” (NBC). He was “high-profile” (The New York Post); he was “high-powered” (Fox). Frustrated by the lack of response from law enforcement, the family of Gemmel Moore filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Buck, the county and the district attorney. Their lawyers tallied several hundred thousand dollars in political contributions that Buck had made to Democratic candidates at all levels of office, from city to federal. They said that Buck was being shielded thanks to his political donations and status. They said that the county does not investigate crimes against Black gay men.
The person with the power to bring a criminal case against Buck was Jackie Lacey, the first Black district attorney of Los Angeles County, and a Democrat. The day before the one-year anniversary of Moore’s death, Lacey announced that her team had completed an investigation and would not file charges. Demonstrators gathered outside 1234 North Laurel. Nothing changed, and they returned a year later. The signs said: “JACKIE LACEY: PROSECUTE ED BUCK.” “This is a national emergency for people who look like us,” said an activist named Jerome Kitchen, who is Black. Weeks passed, and no arrest was made.
On Sept. 11, 2019, at 5:20 in the morning, a man walked into the cashier’s booth at the Shell station on Santa Monica and North Laurel, three blocks from Buck’s apartment. The man was Black and wore jeans and a button-up shirt. His hand kept rising to touch his chest. “I think I’m having a heart attack,” he said. The cashier called 911. The man sat outside on the 12-inch-high retaining wall while he waited, the fluorescent lights revealing a face contorted with pain. A fire truck and an ambulance pulled into the parking lot.
The man had been staying at Buck’s apartment for weeks, coming and going with his own key. He needed somewhere to stay, so they had an arrangement. He did the laundry and grocery shopping. He held the gate open politely for the other tenants. But there was another side to his relationship with Buck. What caused him to overdose, he told sheriff’s deputies, was Buck slamming — injecting — him with a too-high dose of methamphetamine. Then, he said, Buck refused to call for help.
On Sept. 17, deputies streamed through the gate at 1234 North Laurel and leveled a handgun at Buck’s door. It was late afternoon and cool outside. They waited a second, knocked. Buck opened wearing a white undershirt. They turned him around and cuffed him on the landing. Outside, in the street, a photographer shot Buck in the back seat of the cruiser, his head leaning against the window as he was driven downtown.
Under federal law, “distribution of controlled substances resulting in death” carries a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison, and Buck faces two counts. The charges could send him to prison for the rest of his life. But the trial, on the calendar for January 2021, won’t be an easy win for the government. To convict Buck of the most serious charges, U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna must prove a narrow legal point: He must show beyond a reasonable doubt that Buck provided Moore and Dean the specific drugs on which they fatally overdosed. This seems as if it should be simple. It’s not. When Lacey’s office tried exactly the same task on the Moore case, back in 2018, they failed. “The admissible evidence is insufficient,” they explained in a memo, to prove that Buck furnished drugs to Moore, or even that Buck possessed drugs in the first place. Though Lacey’s office found a way to charge Buck in tandem with the feds — he is accused of “operating a drug house” on a separate indictment from the State of California — the federal trial will go first.
Buck has pleaded not guilty to all charges. From his cell in a federal jail last fall, he retained as his lead defense lawyer Christopher Darden, the former deputy district attorney who made O.J. Simpson try on the glove. In a letter that Buck wrote from jail, which Darden shared with me in part, Buck said he was misunderstood: “Someone told me that if somebody proclaims he is not a racist, he probably is. But when I hear the charge directed at me, it is too ludicrous to ignore.” The presence of Darden, the races of the defendant and the victims and the claims of a political snow job all suggest that Buck’s will be the kind of high-current trial that occasionally convulses Los Angeles.
Five days after Gemmel Moore died, the publisher of the online paper WeHo Daily received an email from a woman named LaTisha Nixon. “To whom this may concern,” it began. “I’m the mother of a young man who was found dead last week in the West Hollywood home of powerful political activist Ed Buck.” She attached a PDF with photos she had found on Buck’s Facebook page of him standing next to Hillary Clinton, the former governor Jerry Brown and Representatives Ted Lieu and Adam Schiff. The PDF had more: “My son wasn’t working and had no money when he left Texas,” she wrote. “He didn’t have the money to pay for his flight or buy the meth the coroner says killed him.”
WeHo Daily was on hiatus, so the publisher, Darin Weeks, forwarded the email to a writer at LA Weekly. “Kind of wild,” he wrote. Two days passed, and the writer didn’t respond. Weeks forwarded the lead to the publisher of another local paper, who forwarded it to a writer he knew, Ryan Gierach. Gierach was white and a year shy of 60. He had lived in Los Angeles most of his adult life, but money and mental-health problems caught up with him, and now he was retired, living in San Pedro, a port neighborhood about 30 miles south of West Hollywood, where his public-assistance checks and V.A. health care benefits went further. Gierach liked intrigue, gossip and gin on the rocks.
After he read the email, he called Nixon on her cellphone.
For a few seconds Nixon didn’t speak, the beep of a package scanner in the background. “Excuse me, I was assisting a customer,” she said. She worked as a letter carrier for the Postal Service in Texas.
Gierach said he was a longtime newsman who had been reporting on the city of West Hollywood for a dozen years, so he knew Buck well. In fact, Gierach was understating things; they were former neighbors and close friends. “I’ve got quite a bit of background already,” he said.
Nixon said that Buck was familiar to her, too. In the fall of 2016, her son called her crying and screaming into the phone, saying, “This man shot me up with some stuff, I don’t even know what it is.” She remembered him saying the name Ed Buck. She remembered him saying he tried to file a police report. But the man her son described didn’t match what she found online. “As I’m researching this guy, I’m like, Oh, my God, he just seems like a really nice person,” Nixon said.
“Animal lover,” Gierach said.
“I’ve seen that! I did my research.”
“But there’s another side,” Gierach said.
On Aug. 7, Gierach broke the story in WeHo Times under the headline “Sex, Politics, Meth and Death in West Hollywood.” The article contained most of Nixon’s claims. It also contained an interview with a sex worker named Cameron, to whom Nixon had introduced Gierach. Cameron said that Buck had given him money to slam methamphetamine. Buck seemed to “get off on getting you higher and higher,” Gierach quoted Cameron as saying. Gierach also called Buck “one of California’s most prolific and substantial political donors,” a detail that many readers in Los Angeles were astonished to learn. Most people had never heard of him.
That week, Dennis Romero, the LA Weekly writer, also responded to the tip and got rolling on his own piece about Moore’s death. When Romero spoke to Nixon, he could “sense that she was lost,” overwhelmed by the sheriff’s bureaucracy and the media. Romero had an idea of who could help, someone he knew as an occasional source of tips: Jasmyne Cannick, a well-known political strategist in the Black community in Los Angeles. She was 39 and kept an office at Johnnie Cochran’s old firm on Wilshire Boulevard for her public-affairs work. When Cannick and Nixon got on the phone, they discussed the notebook that the investigator found in Moore’s backpack. Nixon said the notebook was in the possession of a family friend.
Cannick understood that little happens in Los Angeles without media pressure. In mid-August 2017, she posted a piece on her website, JasmyneACannick.com, titled “#BREAKING: Journal Documents How Wealthy Democratic Donor Hooked Young Black Gay Man on Meth Before His Death.” She included photographs of lined notebook paper covered with black handwriting — rounded letters, no punctuation. “Among Moore’s personal belongings collected by his family today from the coroner’s office was a journal,” Cannick wrote. The excerpt said, in part:
I honestly don’t know what to do I’ve become addicted to drugs and the worst one at that, Ed Buck is the one to thank, he gave me my first injection of chrystal meth it was very painful but after all the troubles I became addicted to the pain and fetish/fantasy. …
If it didn’t hurt so bad I’d kill myself but I’ll let Ed Buck do it for now.
Cannick declined to release the physical diary to the media — “Do I need to spend a lot of time proving that I’m right?” she once asked me — and a lawyer for Buck dismissed it as “unverified writing.” (A former West Hollywood sheriff’s deputy told me he sometimes mistrusted evidence that seemed “too good to be true.”) But as news, it was a scoop, and it made Cannick the de facto clearinghouse of information on Buck’s alleged victims. She became the spokeswoman for Moore’s family and later for Timothy Dean’s.
In the absence of criminal charges, Cannick began a kind of shadow investigation to exert pressure on Lacey. A link to the post about the diary made rounds on social media, and other young Black men messaged Cannick, saying that Buck had slammed them with meth, too. Cannick posted their accounts on her website. “I can give you a shot. I can inject you,” one man claimed Buck had told him. Cannick connected these men — whom she called the “witnesses” — with two civil rights lawyers, Hussain Turk and Nana Gyamfi, who brought them in for interviews with the law. But the D.A.’s office said they were unable to verify the men’s accounts, and no charges resulted. Cannick declined to introduce other journalists to the witnesses.
More than anyone else in Los Angeles, it was Cannick who owned the Buck story. It was mainly thanks to Cannick that anyone knew Gemmel Moore’s name. She followed Gierach’s lead: Her first post on Buck included a link to his original article, and she echoed his description of Buck as a Democratic donor. Right-wing media showed an appetite, and Cannick, knowing she was abetting a political machine whose goals she did not share, but wanting to pressure the D.A.’s office, began appearing on Fox News to talk about the case. The anchors exaggerated Cannick’s story, casting Buck as a man of huge importance. Steve Doocy, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Dana Perino and Laura Ingraham spun a story of a “megadonor” sexual deviant who was shielded by blue-city hypocrites. “He was protected,” Ingraham said.
It was a clean, cold narrative. But it wasn’t true.
Ed Buck was not a megadonor. Among California Democrats, he was marginal — and that was being generous. Nationally, he was a nobody. The photographs with Clinton and Ted Lieu, which illustrated countless television spots, were the kind that anyone can get by waiting in line at an event — “even a free event,” as the campaign manager for one of the state’s top-ranking members of Congress told me. Rather than a man of influence, they showed a man who wanted to seem influential. Thousands of Americans whose names you wouldn’t recognize were bigger political donors than Ed Buck — though Buck, from his gray, rent-stabilized apartment on North Laurel Avenue, took pains to make it look otherwise.
West Hollywood is an insulated place. It’s not a neighborhood of Los Angeles. It is a city the size of a neighborhood — population 37,000 — that reaches west from La Brea Avenue to the Beverly Hills border at Doheny Drive. The population rises to 100,000 on weekends, because of the nightclubs. Incorporated in 1984, it was the “first gay city” in America, as the papers called it, not just because it was tolerant but because the City Council was majority openly gay, which was indeed a first. When the council convened, it focused on the issue that had persuaded most residents to vote “yes” on separating from Los Angeles: rent-control laws and better protections for tenants. Los Angeles was a city dominated by real estate power, with laws favorable to landlords. West Hollywood was a city of renters who had always been vulnerable to landlords’ caprices: gay men and lesbians but also Russian Jewish immigrants and retirees on fixed incomes.
Buck came there by way of Phoenix, but he was born in Ohio. In his late teens, he modeled clothing for European fashion rags. In his 30s, he was the face of a campaign to remove the anti-gay governor of Arizona, Evan Mecham, from office. Buck was a regular at Phoenix gay bars — the Sportsman’s Lounge, Casa de Roma — and raised money for AIDS education. In the late 1980s, Buck bought a company in Phoenix that sold driver’s-license data to auto insurers, made a few improvements and flipped it. He claimed he made over a million dollars in profit on the deal. Suddenly flush, he bought a hilltop house in an area that was then called Squaw Peak, furnished it with neon lights and almost nothing else and threw parties that choked the cul-de-sac with cars. It wasn’t much to look at, but the house’s view gave it value; when I visited this summer, you could see for miles from the backyard. The current owner, who works in Phoenix real estate, estimated it would have been worth about $250,000 in 1989. He bought it from Buck for $440,000 in 1999.
It was 1991 when he moved to West Hollywood, the twilight of the worst years of H.I.V. Reagan was gone. In the gay bars, the free condoms came in packages labeled with a double entendre: “For the Man in You.” Buck got into bodybuilding and enhanced his muscles with steroids. He told a friend in Phoenix he was paying $250 a month in rent. He said he was “retired” — at age 37. Whatever profit he had made from the business deal and the house, Buck told friends he invested in the market. If you put $300,000 in an S&P-tracking index fund in 1985, you’d have $3.8 million in 2017 before taxes. Darden told me Buck’s net worth was “Well under $2 million.” In any event, Buck lived on the cheap. By the time of his arrest, his rent-stabilized apartment on North Laurel Avenue cost just $1,031.17 a month; average rent for a West Hollywood two-bedroom was around $4,000. Donations, not real estate, seem to have been his indulgence, a way of buying himself a sheen. Everything else, he lowballed: Apartment 17 was “the grayest, drabbest place you’d ever seen,” as a friend described it, with a table, couch, tool kit with drugs and sex toys and large mirrors on the wall. He drove a 16-year-old Acura.
In the 2000s, Buck made himself known among West Hollywood liberals as one of those retired people who throw themselves into causes. When the West Hollywood City Council convened for its twice-monthly meetings, Buck would come prepared with a monologue about social justice. He’d say, for example, that the sheriff’s weekly police blotter was a “half-truth” because it overreported property crimes and underreported crimes against people. “Missing seems to be the report of a gay man assaulted, the drag queen robbed at gunpoint. Or the woman victimized.” As the city gentrified — the term “WeHo” got popular in the late ’90s — Buck talked about evictions. “Those of us who remain live with a constant threat that we may be next.”
He could never get elected to office — a 2007 City Council bid flopped — but he was good at street-level politics. There was a house on North Laurel Avenue that everyone called Tara, because it looked like the plantation in “Gone With the Wind” — white columns, green shutters. A developer wanted to convert it into a multifamily complex, and a tenant, Allegra Allison, started a campaign to block the developer. Buck was known to her as a neighbor and local activist, and he volunteered to join the fight. “He was rescuing golden retrievers — anyone who rescues golden retrievers has got to be a nice person,” she remembers thinking. In 2010, he helped persuade a City Council candidate to add a fur-sales ban to his platform, then whipped an animal rights constituency behind him. He won, and West Hollywood became the first city in the country to ban the sale of fur. When Buck joined the Stonewall Democratic Club, a group that supports L.G.B.T. and feminist candidates and has significant power in the state, he would show up at the steering-committee meetings having studied the agenda in advance.
In 2013, Buck changed. He stopped speaking at City Council meetings. He would call Jane Wishon, a vice president of Stonewall, to ask her when the monthly meeting was, though the meeting was on the same day every month. In the 2013 and 2015 election cycles, he flung $238,000 in total at Democratic candidates — a little each to a lot of people — when before he’d gone only as high as $43,000, and often much lower. His contributions from 2005 to 2017 totaled $433,500. He went out in public with bandages on his arms. He snapped at you for nothing.
John Duran, a four-time mayor of West Hollywood and a sometime target of Buck’s political attacks, saw him frequently during this period. I asked what explained Buck’s changed behavior. “He became a drug addict,” Duran said flatly. “Ed’s story is one I’ve seen happen to many individuals in West Hollywood, gay men who end up making the attachment of sex to meth, and then meth takes over and consumes their lives. When you saw Ed after 2013, he was agitated, losing weight, being angry and amplified at council meetings. Missing appointments or not showing up. These are all the symptoms of somebody under the influence of meth.”
Buck either thought no one noticed or didn’t care if they did. On the Thursday after Moore’s death, the Stonewall steering committee met as usual, and Buck attended without indicating that anything was amiss. Newspapers had not yet run the story.
A meth addiction can’t be concealed once it advances past a certain point. As Duran said, the physical symptoms are obvious. Everyone close to Buck knew he had become an addict. But Buck’s racial fetishism, theoretically easier to keep behind the bedroom door, was an open secret too. Buck’s interest in Black men went back at least to his early 20s. “Buck always had a penchant for Black guys,” said Charlie Harrison, a sometime restaurateur and real estate agent who was Buck’s close friend in the 1970s and ’80s in Phoenix. “He liked Black guys sexually. There was one guy he spent a lot of time with, but back then it was, as Buck said, mostly ‘meaningful relationships by the hour.’”
Harrison was talking to me because he wanted to balance the media’s portrayal of his friend. “I’m just devastated by this whole thing,” he said. He remembered Buck the AIDS activist, the amateur political player. But when the conversation turned to race, Harrison offered up a story that seemed to accomplish the opposite of what he intended.
In the 1980s, Harrison explained, Gov. Evan Mecham said in a radio interview that he always thought the word “pickaninny” was a term of endearment for Black children. This affront came on the heels of another, the rescinding of a state holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In response, Buck began a successful charge to unseat Mecham via a recall election. On his way to the statehouse to deliver the petitions that would trigger the recall, Buck was asked by the chief of the Capitol Police, who was Black, to use another entrance. “Get out of my way, you [expletive] baboon,” Buck said, according to Harrison. A local reporter published the quotation, telling Buck it was racist. Buck told her, “That’s [expletive] ridiculous. I’ve been to bed with more Black men than you’ve ever shaken hands with.”
I told Harrison it did sound racist. “No one on the planet, except Martin Luther King, put their 100 percent behind fighting bigotry more than Buck,” he said. “It’s equivalent to calling Martin Luther King prejudiced.”
Black men who crossed Buck’s path socially in West Hollywood recalled similar experiences. Ryan Gierach, the journalist who broke the story in WeHo Times, suggested that I talk to his ex-husband, M., who spoke on the condition that I not print his name. He had left Los Angeles for the Midwest, where he had a new job; his new colleagues didn’t know about the drugs in his past.
M. and Gierach lived around the corner from Buck for many years, and M. knew Buck as one of his husband’s political friends, “outspoken, charming, attractive,” and also a drug user with an objectifying streak. “The first time I ever met Buck, we walked into his apartment together, and Buck said to Ryan: ‘That’s a nice-looking Black man you’ve got on your arm.’”
Buck would sometimes offend M., but then he’d smooth things over with cash. He’d give M. “walking-around money” on occasions when he visited the apartment, sometimes several thousand dollars at once. M. knew that Buck would go cruising on Santa Monica Boulevard to find Black men to take home, but this wasn’t in itself a red flag. They were all consenting adults. “When Gemmel died, I genuinely thought it was an accident,” M. said.
But when Dean died, M. felt that something was wrong. He started remembering other incidents, ones that made him feel Buck’s preference for Black men had an ugly, dehumanizing quality to it. Once, out with Buck in West Hollywood, M. pointed to a young Black man and joked, “Ed, that’s your type.”
Buck said: “Yeah, but I like ’em stupid.”
Gemmel Moore grew up in San Bernardino and spent his teenage years in Victorville, a desert city of 122,000 about two hours outside Los Angeles. One of the largest employers is a commercial-freight airport. There’s a gay bar, Ricky’s, that puts on drag shows every weekend; there are jobs at the federal prison. Just before Moore turned 18, he left for Los Angeles. He was curious and shy and attractive. People crushed on him when they met him.
At a party in 2009, Moore met a woman named Gia Banks, a dancer and trans rights activist who, like him, was part of the ballroom scene in South Los Angeles. “He came up to me after a show and said, ‘Will you be my mother?’” Banks told me. We were in an IHOP booth in Baldwin Hills, and she ordered food but didn’t eat; once she started talking about Moore, she interrupted herself only to wipe tears off her face with a napkin. “Gemmel loved the city,” she said. “He loved being with us.”
Ballroom involved walking, or competing, in events across the country. In ballroom, you played with identity by exaggerating latent qualities: Moore, slim and unflamboyant, would dress and walk like a Polo-wearing high-school heartthrob — a category of competition called “schoolboy realness” — and the judges would score him on his verisimilitude. A gym-toned guy in his early 30s who worked 9 to 5 might walk “executive realness” as a corporate boss. If you didn’t have what the judges wanted, they “chopped” you — sent you packing. Moore would spend hours in front of the mirror, making sure that his hair was perfect. “He’s probably the only boy I know that it took him 30 minutes to do his hair,” Banks said.
When you joined the ballroom scene, you chose, and were chosen by, a group that became your family, called a house. Moore joined the family that Banks was already part of, the House of Comme des Garçons. His new family rechristened him Juelz Garçon. Moore didn’t always have money for his own apartment, so he would bounce among the places where his family was staying, or sometimes he would sleep on the street. There was a house on Venice Way, in Inglewood, where Banks’s best friend lived with a handsome Cal State Northridge undergrad, Keith Powell; for a while, Moore lived with them. He would cook dinner, then someone would light a joint and put the TV on. “Law & Order: S.V.U.” was Moore’s favorite.
For money Moore would do sex work. A young Black gay man without a college education could make more money in an hour, via hookup apps like Jack’d and Adam4Adam, than he could in a day at a service job, assuming he could have even gotten one. Paul Scott, a prominent activist in Los Angeles’s queer Black community and a member of the House of Comme des Garçons, spoke to me while eating at Mercado, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Manhattan Beach. “I’m the only Black guy sitting here right now,” he said. “Gemmel’s not going to come through this restaurant and say, ‘You need a bartender?’ He doesn’t see himself here. Gemmel can’t go walk into a company and say, ‘Will you hire me?’ But he can go online and see that 90 people want him. They’ll hire him and send an Uber for him. He goes online, and bam.”
Johns who wanted to get high would message you “PnP?” on the dating apps, for “Party and Play?” Online everyone knew what it signaled — meth. The drug was prevalent in the gay community. It went well with sex because it turned you on and disinhibited you. Guys on meth could have darker fantasies than they usually did, a property that is widely acknowledged but unexplained by the chemistry: “Fantasies of power, fantasies of abuse,” one addiction-medicine physician told me. One study estimated that men who have sex with men are 20 times more likely to use meth than the general population.
In late 2015, Moore told Powell that he was seeing a white john in West Hollywood, who had messaged him on Adam4Adam. “I don’t think he used meth until then,” Powell said. “Me and Gemmel would sleep in the same bed together, and I never saw him twitch or be in withdrawal until the winter of 2016, when he was hanging out with Buck.”
Moore’s pathway to PnP culture was typical. “A lot of the sex workers of color I know were introduced to meth in that way,” Angel Phan, a sex worker in Los Angeles, told me. Phan had become addicted to meth after an older white client gave it to him. He explained that meth put you in danger twice over, from the physical effects and the risk of a bust by the police, while at the same time giving johns an upper hand: A sex worker who went to the cops about an abusive john could himself be arrested for prostitution or possession.
Banks realized her friend was in trouble on Halloween night in 2016. “Halloween is like New Years for the gays,” Banks said. They always planned their costumes a month in advance, picked a party, made plans. But when Moore showed up that night, “He’s was like, ‘What’s popping? What’s going on?’” He had no idea what the plan was. He wasn’t even dressed up. “And that’s when it clicked to me that he was somewhere else.”
That winter, Moore confided in his friend Cory McLean that he was concerned about Buck’s fetish, and McLean urged him to keep a diary. “I was like, ‘You need to write all this stuff down,’” McLean says he told Moore, “because I wanted to expose him.” Friends urged him in the spring of 2017 to go back to Texas. He did, and for a few months, he lived with his family. They mistook his withdrawal symptoms for pneumonia. He was edgy. “Sitting up in the house with his mother,” Paul Scott imagined, “Gemmel is thinking, I know how to make some money. I know how to get up out of here.” On July 20, 2017, Moore took his phone out.
“Hey mr Buck,” he texted. He sent a picture of his waist. “Gemmel your master slave.”
“Or slave master,” Buck wrote.
“I’m starting to miss la.” He sent a picture of a tied-off arm with a syringe in it.
“Be here now,” Buck wrote.
“I’m still in Texas, it be wonderful if you can send for me please ill behave.”
Buck emailed him a plane ticket. “I’m at the airport,” Moore wrote.
Then he was touching down at LAX on the last day of his life. According to the criminal complaint, Buck had a car waiting for him.
“He was like a rabbit to a carrot,” Banks told me in the booth at IHOP, swinging an imaginary hypnotist’s watch in front of my eyes with her bright yellow nails.
In October, I received a text from a sex worker named S. I had been trying to talk to this man for weeks. Being homeless, he communicated mainly via an activist I knew, and then only rarely. Now he gave me an address on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. He had not been one of Cannick’s witnesses and had no plans to testify at any trial; for him, every interaction with law enforcement was a bad one. He likewise saw no reason to talk to me unless I paid him for his time, which I couldn’t. I offered to buy him dinner, but he declined; he said he couldn’t afford to waste the hours. In the end he agreed to talk and got nothing out of our interview but the milkshake I bought him at McDonald’s, which he drank in my car in the parking lot. (I trusted S. because he was able to verify a detail about Buck that had not been published anywhere else.)
S. met Buck one night in 2015, when Buck was out cruising on Santa Monica Boulevard. “This was one of his areas to pick up transitioning Black guys,” he said. He meant transitioning between housing — homeless.
“You like to party, right?” Buck said.
“What’s in it for me?” S. said.
Buck said he’d pay for him to come back to his place, and so S. went. Between 2015 and 2017, he went to Buck’s apartment seven times. “We never had sex. Not once.” Instead Buck wanted to slam him with meth: put the needle in his arm, aspirate the vein and shoot the dose. “He was very focused on administering to me.” In exchange Buck paid around $700 an hour for his time. Every time he shot a dose, though, Buck would offer him $200 to shoot another right behind it. He would say: “Do more.” Not trusting Buck to measure safe doses, S. always came to 1234 North Laurel with his own drugs and would prepare a series of lower-than-usual doses for Buck to shoot him with. That way he could slam one after another without passing out. When Buck would pressure him to take more or to drink a glass of liquid that he suspected was laced, he would get stern with him. “I’m not a pushover,” S. told Buck. “I would see him get upset, but not too upset, because he didn’t want to make me angry.”
Even though meth is often paired with sex, a fetish for injecting someone with drugs is rare. None of the sex workers I talked to for this article had ever heard of it outside of the Buck case. It would have been easy for Buck to administer a high dose to Moore without his knowing. Meth comes as crystalline shards that intravenous users crush into a powder, then mix into water, forming a clear solution. Whatever the reason for the too-heavy dose — accident, hands shaking, sadism — there is no visual difference between that dose and a light one. In a dark room in particular, the only safeguard for the person being slammed would be the care of the person administering.
S. had known Gemmel Moore and believed that the difference between them was that Moore didn’t bring his own drugs. “Gemmel and I were friends,” he said, “and he never handled his own stuff. Never had it with him or even knew how to go about obtaining it. So I’m sure that’s how that scenario played itself out. It would have played itself out with me, too.”
The U.S. attorney, Nicola Hanna, filed his indictment against Buck on Oct. 2, 2019. “Beginning on a date unknown,” it read,
defendant Edward Buck engaged in a pattern of soliciting men to consume drugs that Buck provided. … In these party and play sessions, Buck distributed drugs, including methamphetamine, to his victims, and in some instances, injected them with drugs intravenously in a practice known as “slamming.” Buck exerted power over his victims, often targeting vulnerable individuals who were destitute, homeless and/or struggled with drug addiction, in order to exploit the relative wealth and power imbalance between them.
They charged Buck with five counts: distribution of controlled substances resulting in death, for Moore and Dean, and distribution of a controlled substance for three anonymous victims, including the man who called 911 from the gas station. (They added four additional counts later as other witnesses surfaced.)
A few days after Buck’s arrest, there was a news conference at a government building downtown. Lacey, Hanna and Sheriff Alex Villanueva took turns telling a story. The feds had been involved secretly since June 2019, they explained: Hanna had been working with a task force from the Drug Enforcement Administration that was originally set up for the opioid crisis. The reason Lacey hadn’t filed charges earlier, she claimed, was that California law had tied her hands. It wasn’t a statutory crime here to inject someone with meth, even if they overdosed. That left distribution and possession, crimes for which the prison term corresponded to the amount of drugs you recovered. And the amounts in Buck’s living room were minuscule.
Theories proliferated as to why it took so long for the feds to get involved. “If you were dealing with somebody who passed away who perhaps had more resources, or had powerful people advocating for their rights,” Ty Anis, a former assistant district attorney under Lacey, told me, “I think there would have been more of a push to prosecute.” Jennifer Williams, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District, said it was more about the fine points of the law. “In general the federal government tends to focus on repeat players,” she said. “Like physicians selling prescriptions for cash to large numbers of patients during the opioid crisis. Even looking at a case like Buck’s, where the amounts were so small and there was only the one death, would have been unusual. But then he became a repeat player.”
Not everybody agreed. A few nights after Buck’s arrest, Laura Ingraham invited Jasmyne Cannick on her show, along with a Black conservative commentator named Horace Cooper. “What we see is what looks like the Harvey Weinstein model or the Epstein model,” Cooper said, “where prominent, affluent, influential Democrats in blue cities are literally getting away with murder.” Ingraham agreed.
Could $433,000, meted out over a decade, really buy that kind of impunity? California has the highest G.D.P. of any state in America, and its politics are expensive. From 2001 to 2018, Tom Steyer spent $57 million here. His fellow billionaire Reed Hastings, co-chief executive of Netflix, has donated $47 million over the same period. Below them you have billionaires and tycoons, real estate developers and insurance executives and lawyers — the names that aren’t household but make campaign managers tap “answer” when they show up on an iPhone screen — who max out to multiple candidates every cycle. $433,000 to them might be a quarter’s spending, not a decade’s. If Buck wanted to buy political protection, he couldn’t afford it. He donated to the wrong people, too: He gave nothing to the current sheriff, Alex Villanueva, and just $100 to Lacey.
For Fox, the donor story was political bait. For the white liberals who also embraced it, the donor story did subtler work: It obscured the reality of the race and class of the victims. It was easier to believe that Ed Buck had enormous power than to confront the fact that Gemmel Moore had so little. Without ever donating a cent, you could obtain the most valuable protections in Los Angeles: being white, being housed, having cash around for a lawyer. Always getting the benefit of the doubt. Timothy Dean had been working retail at Saks Off Fifth and playing basketball in an international gay men’s league, but news accounts leapt on his brief stint as a porn actor; Buck, a drug addict with a death on his hands, was a “megadonor,” an “activist.”
I kept thinking of the second young black man who arrived at 1234 North Laurel the night Gemmel Moore died. Here was a potential witness walking straight into the hands of the police. A man who could have eventually been a victim himself. But the sheriff’s deputies didn’t even interview him; they told him “Store’s closed.” What store? The customer was Buck.
While Buck was in jail, his landlord filed to evict him. The proceedings took place in December 2019. Buck’s lawyer on the matter was Seymour Amster, a confident litigator with flowing white hair and a braying laugh. The landlord was represented by the firm of Dennis Block, a high-volume eviction shop with the website www.evict123.com. For a while it looked as if Amster had it. A former tenant at 1234 took the stand and said, “You can’t go to sleep when you’ve got news crews outside of your front window. You cannot answer the phone of your business that is located at your residence, when you have people outside and chanting, ‘Murderer!’” Amster asked whether Buck himself was standing outside the window, whether Buck himself was causing the particular nuisance in this case. “A landlord can utilize a nuisance for an improper purpose to get around the rent control,” he said, with seeming passion. The judge wasn’t having it, and she handed down the eviction in early January.
In Buck’s letter from jail, he talked a lot about West Hollywood, though in the portions Darden shared with me, he didn’t mention Gemmel Moore or Timothy Dean. He talked about his political work: the golden-retriever rescues, the Save Tara campaign. “If anybody would look at my life,” he wrote, “they would see I live my life out loud.” He added: “I grew up in the ’70s: activism, protesting, demonstrating against a war and for civil rights.” After reading me the letter over the phone, Darden told me that he thought the government’s case was weak. “I am disturbed by the notion that people made Ed Buck’s arrest and prosecution a political issue,” he said. “Because when politics get involved, then prosecutions become political prosecutions.”
On Jan. 28, I was in the conference room at the Cochran Firm when Cannick’s phone lit up with a text. A tenant at 1234 North Laurel said Buck’s possessions were being removed from his apartment. Cannick debated what to tweet. She eventually settled on, “Please join me in wishing Ed Buck a Happy G.T.F.O.H. Day,” talking in syllables as she typed. “Hashtag bye-bye.” She hit send.
The reason for my visit was Moore’s diary, which Cannick had agreed to let me view in person. No reporter had been allowed to read it freely. Cannick slid across the table a five-by-seven-inch spiral-bound notebook, scuffed and torn, with a white cover printed with stars. It was open to a page I’d already seen, an entry about Buck that she’d published on her website. “Don’t turn past,” Cannick said.
It was cool in the conference room, and through the windows you could see white Los Angeles in the late-morning sunlight. You could see the Hollywood sign, the Sunset Strip, West Hollywood at the base of the undulating hills. What you couldn’t see was black Los Angeles — Watts, Inglewood, Crenshaw. You couldn’t see Baldwin Hills, where Gia Banks lived.
Banks had told me not to get confused about this story. It wasn’t about one guy and his appetite, she said when we had breakfast. It was about how life in Los Angeles is an emergency for some people and not for others. Someone was always willing to take advantage of someone else’s struggle to survive. “What’s crazy is there’s so many more Ed Bucks out there,” she’d said, and even more people who are vulnerable to them. “You know what I mean? People don’t realize the circumstances they put themselves in, how they jeopardize their sanity just for money. Just to pay a bill. Just to make sure they have food in their stomachs.”
Cannick retrieved the diary and started leafing through it. We were sitting at the corner of the table, and Cannick’s grip was loose and casual, so the inside of the notebook was visible to me in incomplete flashes. I caught glimpses of the text inside. There were phone numbers and added-up amounts of money. There were affirmations that he’d written to himself: Stay focused. Pray. A half-sentence ran along the top of a page. I really need —