Moses Yakanak, having long since traded his Alaskan homeland for the view from a fast freight, spent the first week of December mastering such chores at the Union Rescue Mission. He had come here, according to a friend, after squandering a summer’s wages from the salmon canneries of Washington. What he hadn’t used for a three-week hellbender, he had lost at cards. Now he was broke and looking for a regular spot on the 130-man mission work force, a position qualifying him for dinners of fried chicken and homemade apple pie.
But on the evening of December 7th, one week after Jackson’s murder, Yakanak didn’t report until eight o’clock, three hours late and barely able to totter, his manner and breath fouled by booze. The mission turned him away. Yakanak cursed his dismay through the downtown streets. A buddy would later remember that a shabbily dressed longhair seemed to be escorting Yakanak, guiding him clear of uncaring motorists and assisting him to bed on the dirty bricks of a nearby alley.
Yakanak was found there at 2:30 the next morning by another derelict who stumbled away from the bloody corpse, gesturing wildly and yelling, “Murder! Murder! God help us!”
Three days later, on the afternoon of December 10th, Arthur Dahlstedt, face cluttered with untamed beard, left the mission for a short walk. Dahlstedt, who claimed he grew up in eight different foster homes and was baptized in each one, had recently rediscovered Christ at the mission. But he never returned for a ninth baptism. About 1:30 a.m. a friend noticed Dahlstedt’s feet poking from under a blanket in an open doorway at the vacant Montana Hotel on Fifth Street. Dahlstedt’s head, like Jackson’s and Yakanak’s, lay in a puddle of blood.
From the days of Rome in its decline to Paris just before the revolution, the problem of civilization has been to [control] the unemployables… Most of those on the road are vicious and dangerous. —1935, Harry Carr, Los Angeles Times columnist
The myth is that hobos are at war with civilization. The fact is they don’t care about it. If they once had a stake in society, they have lost it. Skid Row is a life apart, with its own conventions and values and its own special tolerances. On a typical day along Fifth Street all manner of outcasts are represented: white, black, brown, longhair, shorthair, no hair. “These men are so aware of their own shortcomings,” says a chaplain at the Union Rescue Mission, “they don’t have an ego big-enough to go putting down others.”
In some parts of Los Angeles, where unemployment statistics rival those of the Great Depression, men take up guns so they can buy clothes for their kids, pay the landlord, keep their wives from walking streets. But hobos don’t require such draconian solutions; a 60 bottle can be bought with a half-hour of panhandling. Violence on Skid Row stays at a minimum — with two exceptions: drunks who brawl and thugs (usually outsiders) who prey on winos the first of each month.
The men of Skid Row are vulnerable to almost any physical abuse. They are usually mellowed out, trusting and friendly to strangers. They carry no weapons. Their bodies are pitiful specimens; tattered clothes cover undernourished bellies, flaccid muscles, lepidote skin, harsh scars from the batterings of the road. They are easy marks for bullies or muggers — or a killer.
Robert Perez, a short, scrawny man with an arthritic condition, arrived in Los Angeles for the winter solstice apparently unaware that a psychopath had infiltrated Skid Row. On previous visits he had learned that the library grounds, bordered by six-foot-tall shrubs, were a popular sanctuary from the night winds. This time he found the grounds nearly deserted, however, as they had been since Robert Jackson’s murder three weeks before. Perez must have ignored this curious solitude the night of December 21st as he curled up under the eugenia bushes. By ten o’clock the next morning homicide detectives were drawing chalk marks around Perez’s body, 50 feet from where Jackson had been killed.
Jackson, Yakanak, Dahlstedt and Perez had all died from overpowering slashes across their throats, deep lateral cuts that severed their jugulars and scraped their spinal cords. The killer, whom police called the Slasher, was a man with powerful arms, someone who apparently moved facilely among the denizens of Fifth Street.