Anatomy of a Cover-Up: The Hollywood Head

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HerveyIt was the most conspicuous head disposal in living memory.

It’s been four weeks since a decapitated human head was found beside a well-traveled hiking trail leading to the iconic Hollywood Sign. The head was in a plastic bag underneath a bush, virtually right next door to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's Hollywood Hills home.

It was there for no more than a few hours, investigators believe, before a golden retriever belonging to a top Hollywood publicist nosed it out and plopped it down for all to see.

It was a moment many have dreaded, when the vicious drug war raging in Mexico finally spilled over into Anytown USA.  Being just a hundred or so miles north of the country that’s the world capital of severed heads was enough to make some think of names—Los Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel— that Americans have so far only had to read about in newspapers.
But the moment passed without notice. The police agency in charge of the case, the LAPD, went all out to discourage speculation that the head was the grisly work of a Mexican drug cartel.

Head had 'no idea' it might be discovered

Commander Andrew SmithOn the four week anniversary of the discovery, authorities have nothing to report on efforts to solve the crime. A phone call to the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division revealed only that “the investigation is ongoing.”  

A detective who identified himself as being assigned to the case answered a question about the frequency of decapitation in Southern California by saying he had "no clue" how many decapitations Southern California experiences annually.

Has beheading become an indigenous phenomenon in L.A. just since I left?

Still, however rare it may be, it was completely safe to say that the head was no — repeat not — a message left in the heart of America's dream factory by any Mexican drug cartel..

The reason, according to LAPD Commander Andrew Smith, was simple. "The head was never meant to be found.”


Severed Head Disposal 101

pitt"The remains may have been disturbed by animals at some point” Smith stated. “But we believe that everything was hidden off the trail. Whoever put it there did not want it to be found.”

If true, it instantly became the most inept severed head disposal in recent history. Disposing of a decapitated human head by leaving it next door to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s house is clearly not a winning criminal strategy.

People sell maps to the stars on almost every corner leading into the Hollywood Hills. Picking a neighborhood less flush with A-list movie stars would have been the way to go. 

Moreover Pitt already had a history with severed heads, Entertainment Tonight reported breathlessly, going back to when he starred in the movie Se7en.


Maya Rudolph & the Hollywood Head

 
Maya RudolphFinally, if it is even remotely possible for the first dog to stumble onto where-ever you've decided to drop the head will belong to a top Hollywood publicist… you're asking for trouble.

The dog that found the head, Ollie, a golden retriever, belonged to a good friend of SNL and Bridesmaid’s star Maya Rudolph, who told her story on Conan.
 
When Ollie dragged a plastic bag with the head of Hervey Medellin out from under a bush, it signaled more than just a dashed bit of bad luck. It was beyond incompetent.

However, if on the other hand, you wanted the head to be found,  the placement was brilliant. The celebrity connection quickly turned the story into a three-ring media circus.

But, LAPD Commander Andrew Smith emphasized to reporters, that's not what happened. "Whoever put it there did not want it to be found.”

“Without identifying the victim, and without identifying who he was associated with, it could be anything,” Smith stated.

 “There is no indication that this was a serial case; there’s no indication that there’s more than one victim here.  What we have, by all appearances, is a single victim.”


A freshly-carved head, visible to all

MITZI Was the severed head just a case of a criminal scratching his head at his hide-out, wishing, in retrospect, he’d buried the head somewhere where it would have been less noticeable?

Probably not. For starters, LAPD Commander Andrew Smith’s statement was contradicted by an LAPD officer who was physically present at the crime scene on the night of the discovery.

The remains had not been there long enough to have been disturbed by animals.

“The head appears to be rather new," stated LAPD Sgt Mitzi Fierro, as the coroner prepared to remove the head later that night.  “There aren’t any signs of decomposition yet.”

More importantly, there had been no attempt to conceal the crime.  The head was clearly visible from the hiking trail.

“It was not far off the trail,” Fierro told reporters.  “It was visible to passers-by. They were able to see it without walking off the trail.”


"Its not that kind of severed head"

eNT t'NITEIt is safe to say this was one of the more conspicuous head disposals in recent memory.  The head couldn’t have more publicity if it had bounced out of an open trunk into the fast lane of the Hollywood Freeway at rush hour.

It was all over the news. 

The LAPD sent a spokesman to shape the wild imaginings of an unruly crowd of reporters from the international media.  But he did it by saying things which were not—in point of fact—true. 
 
Still, it worked. No one questioned him closely. No one demanded proof. Police had no motive, and no suspects, didn’t know where Medellin had been the last three weeks of his life,  nor where he was murdered.
 
But what he did know, with an apparent rock-solid conviction, was that the head was never meant to be found.
Getting ready for the real drug war
 Nancy GraceMexican Drug Cartels regularly use the placement of severed heads to make statements. And leaving a decapitated human head next door Angelina Jolie’s house is certainly one way of making a statement.

Even Nancy Grace could see that.

 “It appears to many crime scene analysts, including myself,” she said on her show on Headline News, “that  its as if the perpetrator wanted the severed human head to be found. It was not left in a dumpster to be sent to be crushed and put into a landfill. It was not in some remote area. It was right there on a hiking trail.”

"You're right," replied a correspondent from the scene. 

"There are people around here all the time, hiking walking sight-seeing. Almost every day someone says to me, "how do I get to the Hollywood Sign?"

"It seems this person had nothing to fear, and nothing to hide."

Well said.
 
The severed head was intentionally-visible, and placed at a spot almost guaranteed to provide maximum media exposure. Right out in the open in the middle of the day and in front of everybody… somebody sent a message to somebody else.
  
And this is how something big—the intrusion of Mexican drug cartels—was concealed in a news story that received saturation coverage around the globe for three days in a row.
 

Daniel Hopsicker

Daniel Hopsicker is an investigative journalist and the author of two books on transnational crime, Welcome to Terrorland and Barry & the Boys.