Mrs. Maura Mekenas-Parga does not tip-toe her words. Her thoughts are as unbending as a carpenter’s plumb bob. She sheds BS like a locust does its shell.
Let’s start with the name that begins this story: It’s her voter registration name. It would fit an elementary principal, but not a ground-level veteran cop of 53 who’s been reading Mirandas to bad guys for 32 years. So let’s call her Detective Mo Parga, as all others at the San Diego Police Department do.
Mo is a big woman, but not girth big. She’s big in the way that comes with Lithuanian stock, tall and big-boned. A street thug might overcome her, but he might limp away minus an ear or a jewel.
She was a Lakeside kid from a big family who couldn’t see college on the horizon, and certainly did not take secretarial courses in high school. What she had going was a likable brashness that football-loving, beer-drinking guys embrace as one of their own.
Mo was born to be a cop or a bull rider, but the rodeo job was too tame.
Adventures rise from Mo’s memory like corn growing in speeded-up film.
“Some things don’t leave you, like my first dead body as a baby cop,” she says.
As a what cop?
“You know, like beginning,” she says. “I’m having my first dead body, which is one of the things you dread. I'm by myself and the man is sitting on the couch and he has his arm up like this” — she spreads her arm as over the back of a couch — “and he has just died right there, natural-like. Nice, easy case. I’m trying to get his stats and stuff, so I sit next to him and I just talk to him like he’s alive, and I do my report.”
(Mo is not boring, but maybe you’ve already guessed that.)
She’s also no marshmallow. She’ll not hesitate to jump on a perp pile if one of her buddies needs help. Sometimes, she’s on the bottom of the pile.
She once made a bad guy wince for a long time whenever he thought of her.
She and her partner had discovered a bag of rock cocaine in a southeastern San Diego raid in 1987. Her partner was jumped by one of the thugs, so she shoved the rock cocaine down her shirt and started whaling on the guy who was atop her partner. She chose a baton because they did not yet have Tasers, and Mace tended to smear her mascara.
She gave the bad guy a ruptured spleen. But she paid a price, too, because her action resulted in a police-brutality accusation against her.
Unrepentant, she says, “I ended up on the front counter for three months. They said I was too aggressive, that I needed to chill out.”
Her reward came when her partner later told her she saved his life. That made her think, “OK, so I have to answer phones for three months. I’ll pay that price.”
Mo is married to retired SDPD narcotics sergeant Mike Parga. They live on a small spread outside El Cajon that they share with three horses and no kids. She’s an avid horsewoman who was once a member of the department’s now-disbanded horse patrol. Her goal is to see it restored, especially for street protests and events where crowd control is difficult.
She said the reason the mounted patrol was abandoned was the cost of maintaining a stable of horses: vet bills, feed, tack, insurance, the costs go on and on, making horses perhaps the most expensive animal to own other than a black rhinoceros or raccoon-fighting beagle.
Mo is proposing to form a unit consisting of horse owners in the department who would use their own animals when called upon, like at soccer matches.
“Lord knows what's going to happen when we build a soccer stadium. I worked a few of those soccer games at Qualcomm. It gets brutal out in the parking lot. There's some major fights. These soccer people up from Mexico are passionate!
“It was scary, and there was a language barrier, and everybody’s been drinking. I thought, ‘If we ever get professional soccer here, we’re in trouble.’”
Mo agrees that horses are really dumb animals, but so what? So are some people. In the wild, all horses had to do was eat grass and outrun mountain lions. Not too bad if grass is your thing and you can run really fast.
In her three decades as a cop, Mo’s assignments introduced her to guys she wouldn’t take home to mother: patrol, narcotics, horse patrol, burglary, gangs, homicide, robbery and vice. What has she not done? Oh, yes, administration. But that would have been fun to watch the red tape fly.
Her main job in homicide was missing persons, which included suicides and every unexplained death in the city.
Another side of Mo emerges when asked about the sadness that must inevitably surface in her work. She tells of a “little old lady, about 82,” in Clairemont about five years ago who took her own life.
“She had just opened up her mail, and had been turned down for another loan. You could see where she had all the loan documents. Everything was denied, denied, denied.
“She had taken some yogurt and some pills and mixed them together. Then she went and laid down next to her (late) husband’s picture. On the table were all these denied loans. She didn’t have any money.”
As she relives the story, Mo — tough Mo — stops and reaches for a tissue. Her eyes redden and well up. “I don’t talk about this stuff,” she half-apologizes as she dabs at her eyes. “I’ve seen so much sadness.”
Mo paid her dues on patrol, where she felt right at home in the irreverent atmosphere that prevailed a quarter-century ago.
A favorite activity was “booby-trapping” the squad cars of buddies. Any officer would approach his car and often find an unwelcome surprise. Perhaps there was glue or honey smeared on a door handle, or dog poop placed on the radiator.
On one shift, Mo blissfully left the parking lot and reached for her car’s heater. When she turned it on, she received a blast of Mace that had been sprayed into the ventilation system.
“God, then I got mascara running down my face, and — you got to laugh — it’s like, ‘OK, I'm going to get these (SOBs).’”
Another time, jokesters in her unit found a decomposing dead cat and stuffed it under her front car seat.
“So, I’m driving all night, and I'm going, ‘Man, it … stinks in here.’ All night I’ve got the windows down, all night. It was just rancid, and I smelled like crap. Even my prisoners complained.
“Finally, at the end of the night I’m clearing out my gear and I check underneath my seat. I get a hand full of fur, and I'm like, ‘Ahh!’ I screamed, and they’re watching as I’m pulling this dead cat out. ‘Oh, god!’
She smiles at the memory. “They told me I was chosen because I was an animal lover. It was a good joke.”
One of her personal favorites was to arrive at a scene where squad cars were parked. If the cars were left running, she would go around and lock the doors so when the officers returned they’d be locked out. (Squad car keys were interchangeable.)
What’s the most dramatic thing that has ever happened on the job?
“Well, I had a man shot and killed on top of me. Is that dramatic enough?”
It’s got potential.
“This was 1988,” she begins, “down on Logan Avenue. I see a guy selling crack out front. I put it out over the radio for my team, and they come up behind me. I chase the guy into an apartment. There are several people inside.
“So we get him up against the wall, and I’m doing the frisk, patting him down. He’s high on PCP. He’s all sweaty and slimy, and we start to fight in the corner of this apartment.
“He’s hitting, and I'm trying to grab his hands, trying to get him under control. He grabs one of the officer’s flashlights and gets me down. He’s trying to bash my head in.
“My partner, he puts his gun sideways and shoots the guy six times. Then I kick him off of me, and I crawl out. It’s dark. I have burn marks on my face (from the discharge).”
This is probably a dumb question: Were you in shock?
“Oh, yeah. Oh, hell yeah.”
Have you ever shot at anyone?
“No, but I’ve come close, plenty of hot stops. I try to talk to people, though. People want to fight, I say, ‘You know what? We can fight, and you can probably kick my ass, but my buddies are going to show up and you’ll go to jail.’ That usually works.”
How about embarrassment?
“Well, I rolled up to this park in southeast and my partner — I was still a rookie — was Donna Williams. Do you remember Donna? Donna was murdered by her son. She was a child-abuse detective. Big red lipstick, big red glasses, just a hoot.
“So we roll up in the park, and there’s this car, it’s all blacked out, and it’s steamed up, and so we’re like, ‘OK, they’re either smoking dope or they’re having sex.’ We need to see if a minor’s involved.
“So I go, ‘OK, I’ll go to the passenger side, you go to the driver side.’ We open the doors and hit them with the light, because if they're smoking dope you want to see where they dump the dope, right?
“Well, it’s a guy and he’s on top of this girl and he's just going to town. She looks young, so I grab her by the arm and I go, ‘Come on, get out of the car and stand here.’
“And I pull her out of the car, but she ain’t got any legs. She’s got two little stumps. And she’s like, ‘I can’t stand up. I don’t have any legs, you dumb white woman.’
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry. It’s OK, as long as you’re 18.’”
“Donna laughed, the girl laughed and I ended up laughing. It was embarrassing.”
Currently, Mo is part of the vice squad and also works cold case homicides. She continues to campaign for a horse patrol with characteristic ardor (and, uh, gentle persuasion). She says her persistence irritates some superiors, but their annoyance does not lift her foot from the accelerator.
Mo smiles angelically. “I can be tenacious.”
Mo is almost a lovable figure at SDPD. But if told that, she’d be horrified (or pretend to be). I ask about fitting in with male peers. What works best for a woman?
“Pretty simple,” she says. “Code 7 (meal break). You have coffee, you talk about stuff. You don’t get offended if they happen to say something bad about their wife. You’re on an even plane.
“You’re one of the guys. The guys stop for a beer in the parking lot leaving the station. You stop and have a beer with them. And you shoot the ---- with them, and you build a rapport and you’ve got a team.”
If you told Mo she was a fighter for feminist causes, she’d probably look at you blankly. But after thinking it over, she might say yes, because she’s never backed away from a fight.
Next Monday: Murderer David Westerfield meets Mo Parga.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net