Journalism Awards & Prizes

WitnessLA Wins 1st Prize for Crime Reporting at SoCal Journalism Awards

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Sunday night, at the the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, The Los Angeles Press Club handed out the 64th Southern California Journalism Awards.

The tradition of these yearly awards was launched in the 1900s, and has worked ever after to “support, promote, and defend quality journalism in Southern California.”

This year, WitnessLA only entered in one category, which was Crime Reporting for print and/or digital news outlets.

We were delighted to be a finalist in the category, but didn’t expect to go farther, given the competition. Yet, before Sunday night’s festivities were over we were surprised and honored to learn that we’d won first place.

Specifically, WitnessLA won the award for our November 29, 2022 story, “Why The Death Of The LASD K-9 Named Spike Still Matters.

“Tough, hard hitting reporting,” the judges wrote of our entry. “Interest never wanes in this solid piece.”

For those who’ve not read the story, here’s a summary.

More than two years ago, on Oct 29, 2020, a K-9 dog who worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department died after being left on a hot day inside a department-owned 2013 Chevy Tahoe under circumstances that, at the time we began our reporting, were still unclear.

The dog, whose name was Spike, was a six-year-old black Labrador Retriever who, at the time of his death, was assigned to the Arson Explosives Detail (AED), within the department’s Special Enforcement Bureau, which also includes SWAT, Aero Bureau’s search and rescue,  and other specialized units of the LASD.

Like all the other K-9s working for the LA County Sheriff Department, Spike was sworn in as a deputy of the LASD by the Los Angeles County Sheriff, at which time the black Lab was given his own department badge.  

Spike had been on the job for two-and-a-half years by the time he found himself in an overheated Chevy Tahoe.  This meant his swearing in would have likely been performed by former Sheriff Jim McDonnell, not the department’s extravagantly controversial and recently-voted-out sheriff, Alex Villanueva—who at the time that Spike received his badge had yet to be elected.

Since K-9 dogs are quite literally sworn department members, when they die, either in the line of duty or post retirement, their death is announced and honored with an Officer Down notice, and sometimes more.  Perplexingly, that was not the case with Spike.  Sheriff Villanueva never acknowledged the dog’s death at all.

More importantly, the circumstances of Spike’s death were never investigated, although Villanueva would insist otherwise when the news of the K-9’s death became public two years after the fact.

When WitnessLA decided to launch our own probe of the matter, we found that K-9 Spike’s death pointed beyond itself to a whole host of toxic issues inside the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, and strongly suggested the case needed to be reopened.

“Bottom line, the department needs to reopen this investigation,” said former Assistant Sheriff Olmsted.  “It’s essential. We owe it to our K-9s.  We owe it to our people.” 

WitnessLA published our story on November 29, 2022, just after the election of the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s new leader, Robert Luna, and shortly before Luna was sworn in.  

Since then, there have been rumors that Sheriff Luna intends to re-open the investigation of K-9 Spike’s death.  Yet, they remain rumors.

We are now approximately six months into LA County Sheriff Luna’s term in office. And, while the new sheriff appears to be working hard to root out the many toxic elements infecting the complex department he leads, change is slow.

As luck would have it, however, we’ll soon have a follow-up on the original story of the death of K-9 Spike.

So, watch this space.


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