It was one of those times when 31-year-old Deputy District Attorney Allan J. Preckel knew he was doing something really significant, and he reminded himself that the importance of a cop-killer trial would make a Clarence Darrow sweat.
It was by far his biggest case as a prosecutor. At the defense table sat two gang-bangers from Lomita in southeastern San Diego — Jesus “Chavo” Cecena, 17, and Jose “Indio” Arteaga, 20 — accused of murdering a San Diego policeman during an ordinary traffic stop in the nighttime depths of Nov. 4, 1978.
Preckel was there to demand justice for the shooting death of Archie Buggs, 30, a Vietnam vet and a respected four-year patrol officer. And though Preckel knew professional detachment was the ideal, on this one he felt anger because of what he had learned about Buggs.
Pamela Buggs-Jones, 56, of San Diego is Buggs’ cousin and speaks for his remaining family members, who find the subject too painful. She well remembers her older cousin visiting and playing with the younger kids and giving them treats. “He was a beautiful guy with a beautiful heart,” she says.
Buggs entered the Army after graduating from Morse High School, then returned home after four years to take care of his father, who was dying of prostate cancer. Thenceforth, he was “the man of the house” and cared for his mother and three sisters, she says.
His mother, Lizzy, is now deep into Alzheimer’s, and his oldest sister, Norma Jean, is deceased.
He was a devout Christian who taught children’s Bible study, Buggs-Jones says.
“Archie was very loving. He was not a person that was biased toward anyone. He always greeted everyone with a handshake and a beautiful smile.”
At the end of the conversation, she added a statement that stunned me at the despair of it. “He was due to be married two weeks from the night he was killed.”
Preckel, 68, now a retired Superior Court judge living in Poway, is a precise man, a master of detail who can recall the Buggs case clearly. That’s the result of keeping files on all of his big cases and of the importance of the Buggs case to his career. And to that we can add an outrage that still simmers.
He says Cecena was driving his mother’s car without a driver’s license. Arteaga was his passenger. At 1 a.m. Nov. 4, Buggs stopped Cecena for speeding on Skyline Drive. What happened then drove stupidity to new heights, but evil does not have to be smart to do its work.
Preckel refers back to the police investigation for the facts:
“Archie made contact with the driver, Cecena, and then stood on the curb at the front of the patrol vehicle to write a citation. Cecena came out of the driver’s door with a revolver and fired repeatedly over the vehicle roof at Archie. The bullets were in a tight pattern and went through an opening in his protective vest. He then went over to Archie, lying in the gutter, shot him in the head and sped off with Arteaga.”
Buggs’ gun showed that he got off three shots before collapsing, but without effect.
“They fled to Cecena’s 15-year-old girlfriend’s home, where Cecena made statements to her and her mother that, ‘I shot a cop.’ Cecena showed the mother the revolver and its six expended casings. The gun was later recovered in the backyard.
“Police did a grid search of the area and found the parked vehicle, with blood on the driver’s door handle. Cecena and Arteaga were arrested at the girlfriend’s home within several hours of the murder.”
At trial, Preckel’s main concern was not proving guilt — that was obvious — but gaining a conviction for first-degree murder rather than second-degree. Under sentencing guidelines at the time, the lesser conviction would create the possibility of both defendants serving a few years, rather than life.
Preckel got his first-degree convictions and life sentences for both. He thinks the clincher was being able to show that the final head shot into Buggs was a cold, calculated executioner’s bullet.
Cecena, now 54, has again petitioned for parole. His hearing is scheduled for Aug. 28 at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. He almost made it last year but for Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto of the parole board’s recommendation.
While in jail awaiting trial, Cecena, who fancied himself a romantic knight of the barrio, wrote lines of doggerel that reveal the mind of a teenage cop killer:
Just a cruz down the street in the neighborhood
Protecting friends & relatives from all the
trigger happy hoods. ...
Then one day a happy trigger cop tried a play
And tried to blow ole Chavo away.
But with Indio for his back it was a costly play. ...
He pulled them over [on a] November night
Not knowing that theyed put up a fight.
At first it started with who stoll the car
But no reply was given, at least not so far. ...
Murderer was on the cop’s mind
When he fired three times.
He shouldn’t have missed
For he was shooting at two of the best. ...
Now Chavo & Indio are doing time in the pen
For trying to protect their life and all. ...
They will return to the barrio once more.
To cruz those streets as hard as core.
So homeboys and homegirls you play it cool
And always remember Chavo & Indio love you.
Archie Buggs would have been just another San Diego cop to you if you lived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and never left town. But if you lived in America in the 1970s, you would have smiled at the idea of a black man as “just another cop.” Given the times, any black cop was special.
John Russell knew it. He was a young black man nourishing the beginning of a ’tude when his motorcycle was stopped at Fourth and Broadway streets downtown for an infraction. The cop who stopped him was Buggs.
Russell remembers, “I’d grown up in Compton and lived through the riots. I’d been stopped many times, but never by a black cop. Archie treated me decently and gave me good advice while he was writing the ticket. After he drove away, I looked at it, and on the top, it said, ‘Traffic warning.’ I whispered, ‘Thank you.’”
Russell tooled away on his ’cycle with a warning, but what he really left with was the feeling that a black cop could “represent” with a badge and a gun, and be a good person and stand for something. It opened a window in Russell’s mind to a broader future. Role Modeling 101.
Russell, now 60, went on to become a career officer with the San Diego Police Department, and it was all good except for one night …
The night was that same Nov. 4, and while on patrol with his partner, Russell saw in the distance on Skyline Boulevard a forest of flashing red and blue lights. He pulled up and walked to the edge of a group of angry, stunned police. He saw a body lying in the gutter. It was Archie Buggs.
“I looked at my partner and saw tears in his eyes. I then realized there were tears in mine, too.”
No one knows more about Archie Buggs the cop — and maybe the man — than Jesse Navarro. He is community affairs director for the district attorney. However, he was a San Diego police officer the same years as Buggs, and was his patrol partner.
“We worked mostly the evening or graveyard shift. Back then, that part of town had a lot of gang activity — shootings and stabbings and fights.
“Archie was not a big man, about 5’8”, but he wouldn’t back away. He was never an instigator. Archie would try to talk people down. He would try to negotiate. But we’d still have to fight someone at least a couple of times a week.”
More important to Navarro’s memory is the gentle, joking man that he says Buggs was.
“My good buddy was going to get married, and he was so happy and so excited about it. Archie was also a very good mentor for kids. He and I, we used to go to schools and tell kids that police were not the enemy, and not to be afraid of police officers.”
Navarro and Buggs would often park one squad car and patrol together. On the night of Nov. 4, about midnight, Navarro was delayed by a supervisor who wanted to talk with him. Buggs said he would go ahead and would catch up with him.
After his conference, Navarro was dealing with a public drunk when the radio broke in with the warning of shots fired on Skyline Drive.
Navarro wasn’t too concerned because “I knew that Archie would be somewhere around there. But it wasn’t unusual. That would happen a lot.”
However, the message changed to “All units, Code 3,” which means everyone respond. As Navarro headed out, his apprehension began to grow.
At this point in the telling, Navarro has to pause several times to collect himself. Just discussing it rips a scab off the memory.
As he neared the 7100 block of Skyline Drive, the radio message grew more tense. “Officer down, Code 3, 11-99 (emergency).”
Navarro was driving 100 miles per hour when he finally saw Buggs’ squad car with lights still flashing.
“I got there. Barely stopped my car and ran up, and he was lying on the side of the road next to the sidewalk. I went over and touched him and said, ‘Archie! Archie! I’m here!’ He had been shot in the head. I saw he was dead. A few seconds later, many more officers arrived and they had to pull me away from his body.”
Navarro stood over Buggs’ body for hours until the medical examiner released it for removal from the scene. Then, his partner was taken away from him.
In the community of Paradise Hills, there is an elementary school named for Confederate general and slave owner Robert E. Lee. Probably back in the ’50s when that name was adopted, it seemed like a good idea. Today, however, it is a much better idea to send “Marse Bob,” as his soldiers called him, back to “Ole Virginny.”
For an elementary school a continent away in a minority neighborhood to honor the name of a slave owner and fighter for that awful institution is bizarre and beyond.
I am not an advocate of historical “censorship,” but come on ...
The San Diego Black Police Officers Association picked up on the issue and suggested renaming the school for Archie Buggs. The association will be making its case before the San Diego Unified school board at its next meeting.
Ben Kelso, association president, makes the point that Buggs is a local fallen hero who is memorialized nowhere else, that the name change would be a strong statement to the kids of Paradise Hills. It would say that the qualities and principles that teachers encourage them to adopt were believed in and practiced by a man who “was one of them.” Maybe some, like John Russell, will one day want to be like Archie Buggs.
Kelso didn’t know Buggs, but he says affectionate stories abound in the halls of the San Diego Police Department about how “Code 3 Archie” would try to respond to every call, especially if lights and sirens were called for.
The black officers have no desire to kindle a debate about the Civil War or the merits of Gen. Lee. I’m sure many would be happy to argue about both, but this isn’t the time for that.
Were he alive today, Archie Buggs would be a 67-year-old retired officer with exciting cop stories for grandchildren, reasonable exaggerations allowed. He would be respected by society and enjoying the fruits of a career well served.
Though he is beyond our reach to say thank you, his good name remains, and that we can honor.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is email@example.com