Michael Taylor believed in second chances — he was living proof that they come along.
Before the early 1990s, the Los Angeles resident had been an addict, a dealer, eventually homeless. But one day he decided to turn his life around, and achieved the miracle — sobered up, straightened out and found his legitimate passions: community activism and radio. He became a reporter and later an occasional host of public affairs programming on Pacifica station KPFK.
So he was a felt presence among Los Angeles' South-Central community of leftists and grassroots organizers at the time of his cold-blooded murder over nothing more than a low-power radio transmitter, in April 1996. He had been close to launching South Central's first micro-radio station, which would air the radical voices he believed were no longer welcome at KPFK.
As operator of an unlicensed station, the 45-year-old Taylor was working in broadcast territory far beyond the fringes of public radio, an underground where conflicts would be difficult and unmediated, and where his choice of associates would prove deadly. The "Los Angeles Liberation Radio" partners included Andrew Lancaster (a.k.a. Hodari Lumumba), now sentenced to death for the kidnapping, torture and shooting death of Taylor. Also convicted were Shawn Alexander and Jornay Rodriguez, who testified against Lancaster and received lesser sentences. Taylor's friends see connections between the crime and the elderly Mzee Shambulia, another of Taylor's micro-radio partners, but he was never arrested.
Friends and acquaintances say Taylor was a caring man with a generous warmth and mellow style. Pacifica national programmer Gail Christian recalled that Taylor once showed up at her Washington, D.C. house. The formerly homeless broadcaster was in town for some radio training and, typical of his easy-going ways, wasn't worried that he lacked lodging arrangements. "He was a guy with a big smile who knew it was going to work out." She recalled that he didn't smoke, and refused a beer.
Friends also note that Taylor had a real knack for personal relating, a quality no doubt appreciated in Pacifica's often-contentious environs. "He was such a heartfelt guy," says KPFK News Director Frank Stolze. "No matter the cultural and class difference with you, he was never nasty and always personable, while at the same time able to tell you the differences he had with you."
Perhaps the characteristics most pertinent to his ultimate fate were Taylor's desire to help the impoverished, especially the homeless, and his political radicalization.
Once Taylor finished KPFK's 15-month apprentice program for women and minorities, he joined the newsroom. He not only reported on the homeless, but also featured them as guests when hosting the station's Bridging the Gap public affairs show. Taylor also covered police abuse, and became avidly interested in the death penalty case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former radio journalist and now prison writer convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. When Jamal's case came up for another court hearing, Taylor's friends helped him pay for a trip to Philly to cover the story. He produced a piece of four or five minutes, but, more significantly, the experience "got him fired up about doing revolutionary radio," says Stolze.
On a tape compilation of Taylor's radio work, one hears him suggesting that authorities framed Abu-Jamal to douse the threat of the former Black Panther's journalism and persona: "Anytime you stand up and speak out against this system they will tear you down. ... Each of us is responsible for what happens to Mumia ... to any individual who stands up and speaks against the system ... this racist, corrupt filthy system. This system is no good, has never been any good and won't get any better until you try to get up and do something about it." Taylor was nonviolent in "demeanor and as a person," but wouldn't rule out violence as a means to social change, said Bob Marston shortly after Taylor's death. Marston worked with Taylor at KPFK and was the technical expert in the micro-radio group.
As Taylor became more committed to radical politics, he believed KPFK was becoming less so. Like its four sister stations in the Pacifica network, KPFK was under orders to boost ratings by 100 percent at least. KPFK was probably the station Pacifica national most wanted to turn around — more than once, anti-Semitic comments made on Afrocentric talkathons had attracted criticism from members of Congress.
The changes being instituted by General Manager Mark Schubb — especially the cancellation of several Afrocentric programs — dismayed Taylor. "They were running the radical programmers out," says Marston, and Taylor "saw his work cut and censored and channelled." Taylor walked away from KPFK when station managers came down on him after his guest — future micro-radio partner, Mzee Shambulia — made an anti-Semitic comment on the air.
"I think [Taylor] probably was too radical for some forces here," says Stolze. "But sometimes he misinterpreted people coming down on him as a challenge to his politics."
After his break with KPFK, Taylor focused on his dream of starting a micro-radio station, building a collective of men from KPFK and from a local shelter where he worked. According to L.A. Weekly articles by David Cogan: a woman who'd been one of Taylor's radio guests and ran a L.A. homeless shelter hired Taylor to work as a part-time p.r. specialist. Cogan writes: "Taylor took a passionate interest in the lives of the men drifting in and out of the shelter, often remaining after hours to sit in on support groups, informally counsel residents and locate outside services for people in need. In group discussions, Taylor retold his own story as a fable for others. If I could turn my life around, he assured them, you can, too." Cogan believes Taylor wanted to bring two of his new partners, Shambulia and Lancaster, both ex-cons, along the same path he had traveled.
In early meetings, Shambulia was anxious to convince the broadcasters of his political convictions, Marston says. "Mzee talked a good line. Michael was taken in by him — here's someone we can do business with, who's down with us and on our wavelength."
But others intuitively distrusted the shelter contingent. "These were scary people," says one friend. Shambulia, for example, alienated an entire convention of micro-radio broadcasters in San Jose with his talk of armed revolution, according to leading micro-radio broadcaster Stephen Dunifer, who sold Taylor and Marston their transmitter kit. Dunifer said shortly after Taylor's death that Shambulia — who he then would refer to only as "Mr. A" — had a "pseudo-revolutionary line" and "all the hallmarks of a provocateur."
Says Taylor's close friend Miguel Sanchez: "I told Michael. . . either Mzee's a lunatic or an informant, it doesn't matter which is true, because the results of his behavior will be the same."
Did Taylor share the bad vibes about his partners? Says friend Karen Pomer, who met Taylor at a convening meeting of the Los Angeles Coalition to Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal: "He hung out in the streets a long time — I don't know why he didn't judge people in the way most people do." He was a trusting, "open and loving" man with a "certain naivete that was kind of endearing. It made people want to protect him."
Also important is the fact that Shambulia financed the station, or at least promised to. According to Sanchez it was clear to Taylor that some of the old man's talk was "bullshit" — such as his early contention he had a deal cooking with a bigtime black-owned Hollywood studio. But Shambulia did eventually come through with some money to pay for studio equipment, according to reports. "I think Michael felt he was in a desperate situation," says Pomer. "He really wanted to go on the air."
Marston says Taylor felt frustrated that L.A.'s progressive community wasn't more forthcoming with financial support. It led him reluctantly to consider supporting Los Angeles Liberation Radio with commercials. Shambulia was apparently pushing for advertising, something anathema to the anti-corporate ethic of the micro-radio movement. Taylor initially resisted, but came to think the station would have no other means of support, says Marston. Still, it appears the issue was a serious point of contention between Taylor and Shambulia. Where Taylor was simply looking to provide basic income and support the station, Shambulia had more of a profit motive, says Marston. The issue was not an easy one for Taylor: "We had long conversations about it," says Sanchez.
Shambulia and Taylor also disagreed about the nature of programming, according to Marston. Where Taylor wanted content that addressed African-American, Chicano and other groups' interests, Shambulia wanted to do strictly black programming. Earlier on, Marston suggested the station launch the same day as Chicano micro-stations he was assisting, to present a "unified force." But Shambulia nixed the idea, wanting to be first, he says.
It's murky what specific issue or happening eventually drove Taylor to break with Shambulia. Marston says it was just an accumulation of cause for distrust. Taylor's friends wonder, based on court testimony, if there was a theft of studio equipment, apparently owned by Shambulia, for which Taylor was unjustly blamed.
Whatever the cause, it seems clear Taylor backed out of the partnership with Shambulia a week or two before his murder. "He said he would get alternative backing," Marston says.
At one point Taylor phoned Marston to say he'd received a threat over the phone, that "things were going to get rough, if they didn't get their equipment."
At a party a short time before he would be abducted, Taylor weighed the seriousness of the threats with Sanchez. "It's an unfortunate thing," says the still-anguished Sanchez, "that it was discussed, maybe he would be shot. But he didn't think so. He thought people would fuck with his car or beat him up, that kind of thing. And he also was not getting much sleep, not eating. ... [He was] in a stressed-out situation towards the last week of his life, not thinking clearly. I did not think that they would take his life."
Sanchez still ruminates about the events: "It's a painful question — what could have been done to change that event. ... Well, he could have stayed somewhere else for a while ... He could have moved out of town." He says Taylor had moved from an apartment to Sanchez's old group house, and thought he would be safe in a home filled with people.
Going to the police was out of the question — "sleeping with the enemy," says Sanchez. And when three men later abducted Taylor from his home, his housemates weren't in a position to take action. "His housemates knew nothing," says Sanchez. "They knew a little bit, maybe, that he was working on a radio station. They did however call me, when Michael didn't come home after 24 hours."
The account of the killing is based on Cogan's reports of police testimony: Lancaster, Alexander, and Rodriguez arrived at Taylor's group home; one remained in a car outside. Taylor received many visitors, so housemates unquestioningly sent the strangers up to his room. A short time later, Taylor descended the stairs, sandwiched between the two men. He briefly gave one of his housemates a strange look. Two of the men drove off in a brown Nova, while Taylor followed in his yellow Volkswagen bug, one of the men at his side. About five miles away, they pulled into a desolate site near railroad tracks. Lancaster was armed with a gun and a gray bottle of Liquid Plumr. He repeatedly questioned Taylor about the radio equipment, splashing the drain acid in his face when he didn't like the answers.
Eventually nearby residents heard gunshots and phoned police, who arrived at the scene to find only Taylor, dead. He was bound and gagged, shot in the chest, shoulder, neck and face.
Police matched the fingerprints on the Liquid Plumr bottle left at the murder site to Lancaster. And Shawn Alexander was arrested after police caught him driving Taylor's Volkswagen, repainted. It had broken down near police headquarters.
What about Shambulia? Taylor told his close friend Sanchez that if something were to happen to him, it would be Shambulia's doing, Sanchez says. And police testified, according to Cogan and Sanchez, that Alexander told them Shambulia offered $1,000 to execute Taylor.
Lancaster's death sentence is a 'slap in the face' to Taylor's memory, says a friend, Karen Pomer. 'He was fighting the death penalty. That was his life's work.... Michael would not want someone killed in his name.'
Police wouldn't discuss the case with Current, but Cogan quotes a detective saying they simply weren't able to build a case against Shambulia. Lancaster's lawyer Ron Rothman and prosecuting attorney Eleanor Hunter did not returned repeated phone calls.
Shambulia was later arrested for a parole violation, according to Cogan. He served a year in prison and his whereabouts today aren't known.
In July, a jury handed Lancaster a death sentence. Friends say the sentence is bitter closure because Taylor was an active opponent of capital punishment.
Pomer says she asked defense attorneys to put her on the stand to plead for Lancaster's life and play a tape of Taylor's radio work for the jury. "In the last year of his life he was fighting the death penalty. That was his life's work," she says. "I felt really strongly that this is a slap in the face to Michael's memory. . . Michael had a second chance at life. . . and I think he was the kind of person who wanted to give someone else a second chance." But the judge would not allow Pomer's tape or testimony.
The penalty phase of the trial was tense because Taylor's family favored a capital sentence, Pomer says. The Los Angeles Times quoted a brother, Reginald Taylor, saying that "Michael was against the death penalty for those he believed were wrongly accused."
If there is another opportunity, Pomer says, she will plead for Lancaster's life. "It's not an easy thing. ... Here you are wanting to stand up for someone who murdered a person that you love. In some ways you feel conflicted. In other ways, it's clear, Michael would not want someone killed in his name."
It's perhaps another cruel fact that no one picked up Taylor's dream of micro-radio in troubled and volatile South Central Los Angeles. Shambulia managed to put a station on the air shortly after Taylor's murder, reportedly using a transmitter he had gotten at an army surplus store. (Marston says the transmitter he and Taylor were to use is stored away.) Shambulia chose the worst call letters imaginable: KLLR. The station had technical difficulties, and was on the air less than a month.
For now, the case is no longer in the news — not that it was heavily covered. KPFK and the L.A. Weekly gave the only substantive attention to it, though the L.A. Times published several news stories. "I feel frustrated in terms of the way the press and the media handled it," says Marston. "They didn't do justice to it. [Michael] did all this work and basically died a forgotten soldier."
Three arrested in connection with Taylor's murder, 1996.
The FCC initially fought against the pirate radio movement, winning a court order against leader Stephen Dunifer in 1996, but the commission later opened up new FM frequencies for low-power noncommercial stations.
The ascendant movement within Pacifica that Taylor rejected was overthrown by activists several years later.
The California Supreme Court upholds the death penalty for Andrew Lancaster in the case, the Los Angeles Metropolitan News-Enterprise reported, May 2007.