An entire block of Bellflower Boulevard, between Somerset and Jefferson, has become a parking lot for police and fire vehicles. There are at least two dozen of them—patrol cars, SUVs, fire engines and an armored Bearcat assault truck. Four helicopters are hovering above the intersection. At Somerset, a line of TV-news vans form a wall across the street.
Adrian Pineda pulls up around 10 p.m. He stops briefly at the intersection, looks at the flashing lights and chaos arrayed before him, then coolly turns down an adjacent alley and parks his black Honda against a fence. “We need to get the shot the channels’ guys can’t get,” he says.
After clipping a small police radio to his black Kevlar vest, Pineda gets out. It’s nice outside—not humid, but not yet cold. He retrieves his Canon XA35 Camcorder and tripod from the back of the Honda, beeps the car and heads down the alley. There are several small apartment buildings, most with gated driveways. Eventually, Pineda finds an unguarded entrance, then darts inside, toward the street.
Residents are everywhere on the sidewalk, many filming the scene on their smartphones. In front of him, deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB, that department’s version of a SWAT team) are spilling out of a Bearcat. Each grips a military-style rifle while running to a midcentury, motel-style, apartment building across the street.
Pineda immediately starts filming. Moments later, his radio squawks to life. The LASD Command Post wants a section of sidewalk across from the apartment building cleared because “media is filming there.” Pineda grabs his camera and moves down the street a few yards to another group of residents standing behind some yellow caution tape and sets up the tripod again. Soon, a guy walks up, pulls out his phone and snaps a photo of Pineda.
It happens all the time, Pineda says. “They think we’re big people.”
Next, an LASD deputy approaches him. “We’re going to push this line back,” she tells him.
“Can I keep the camera up?” he asks.
“Take it down,” she says flatly.
Pineda grabs the camera and heads back to the alley. A car pulls even with him almost immediately.
“The cops were looking for you,” the driver says. “They were going to arrest you. We told them you were across the street.”
Pineda considers what the guy is saying, then shrugs. “Nah, it’s all good,” he says. “We’re fine.”
Nearby, Pineda spots an old dresser next to some trash cans. He drags it a few feet to a chain-link gate, then mounts his tripod on top of it. Looking in the camera viewscreen, he realizes he can see straight into the apartment building surrounded by sheriff’s personnel. He can see the room the SEB officers are using as a staging area, and he can see down the hallway to the suspect’s room.
“This could be the story of the night,” he says.
* * *
Pineda, who is 26 but looks 16, runs OC Hawk. The Fullerton resident started the local TV-news stringer outfit in 2012. Back then, it was just him, but today, six freelancers work for OC Hawk in OC, Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire. They sell footage to all the Southern California TV affiliates, as well as the Orange County Register. OC Hawk comes from a nickname Pineda’s family gave him as a child. “They were always saying I could see and hear stuff they couldn’t see,” he says.
He’s been fascinated with law enforcement since he was a kid and joined the police explorers in Fullerton as a teen. That’s where he learned police radio codes and communication procedures. After aging out of the explorers, he continued listening to the scanner and sometimes even showed up at a call just to see what was going on. One time he did this, he ran into a stringer who advised him to buy a camera and start putting his knowledge to work.
Pineda’s wife, to whom he’s been married since 2015, isn’t completely pleased with how he makes his living. “When I started, she didn’t like it,” he says. “She thought it was dangerous.” She also didn’t like him working every night, so he agreed to do so only four nights per week. He brought her along a few times to show her what it was like. Seeing him work helped, but she doesn’t go on calls anymore. “She thinks it’s too violent and too sad,” he says.
His in-laws are a different story. They love going on ride-alongs with him. They were with him on Feb. 6, when a plane went down in Yorba Linda, and his father-in-law accompanied him as he filmed the crash site. His 14-year-old sister-in-law also loves going out. “She’s seen so many things, and she takes it like a champ,” he says.
On the night of Aug. 15, Pineda agreed to let me tag along with him as he worked. He picked me up in front of the Fullerton police station. Before we left, he had me put on a Kevlar vest, then donned one himself (mine was just plain black, but his had the words “MEDIA” and “OC HAWK” printed on the front, alongside a small “Blue Lives Matter” flag; “MEDIA” was also on the back). The vest didn’t restrict my movements, but I also never forgot its tight embrace.
The cockpit of Pineda’s Honda is decked out with scanners and radios. His smartphone is mounted on the dash so he can use GPS navigation. He used to focus on Orange County, but in June, the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) upgraded its 800 MHz communications system to an encrypted network. Many cried foul—there’s no reason why fire channels should be secret—and the OCFA reversed itself a few days later. But it’s taking months to reset all the radios, which means Pineda is still largely deaf to emergency transmissions in OC (all police departments in the county encrypt their radio communications). He can still get some intelligence from various social-media networks, but until OCFA channels start openly broadcasting again, he’s switched his focus to the Los Angeles area.
Ironically, within moments of pulling away from the police station, Pineda got word of a car fire in Newport Coast. A simple car fire is rarely news, but a brushfire is. Still, Pineda was hesitant to turn the car south—Newport Coast was far away, and the odds of it being a news-leading conflagration by the time we got there were slim. Not long after, Pineda got a note on social media saying the fire was contained, so he pointed the Honda again toward LA.
While driving on the 5, Pineda learned the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was gathering at a Nipsey Hussle event. He also heard there was a house fire in Orange. Neither seemed to promise the sort of color he needed. Then his radio crackled with the news that the LASD had cordoned off a block of Bellflower Boulevard because of some sort of hostage situation. That, Pineda said, was news, and soon we were headed to the 91.
The life of a TV-news stringer is lonely. When they’re not on the move, chasing after compelling shots no one else can get, they’re on the phone, chasing after compensation. It’s not unusual to spend hours on your feet or crouched behind a wall, just waiting. They subsist on footage of car crashes, shootings, protests, wildfires, dolphin rescues (anything that provides exciting and dramatic visuals), but live for what they call the “story of the night”—the big event that leads late-night and early-morning newscasts.
Once, Pineda responded to a robbery at a La Mirada 7-Eleven. The robber was still inside when Pineda arrived, and police had surrounded the store. Pineda said he hopped a wall to get a good vantage point, then hunkered down behind some bushes for four-plus hours. “I was behind the SWAT team, on a little hill,” Pineda recalls.
Eventually the suspect came outside, but when he did, he started shooting. Pineda, dressed in just regular street clothes, dove into the shrubbery and hoped for the best. “It was one of the scariest things I went through,” he says. “After that, I started wearing Kevlar every night.”
Pineda waited two days before telling his wife what happened. She wasn’t happy.
Later, he showed me footage one of his stringers shot on Aug. 12 in Riverside. It’s of the gun battle that killed CHP Officer Andre Moye Jr. and wounded two other officers. Taken from just behind a patrol car, it’s harrowing and graphic, like something from a war zone. You see Moye’s body lying on the pavement and officers clutching high-powered rifles while crouching down as they move from car to car. You see dust kicked up by the suspect’s rifle, and cops dragging a wounded officer, clearly in pain, into the back of a patrol car. After the suspect is eventually killed by officers, you see his body on the pavement, too. The footage ends with a police helicopter landing on the road where the gun battle took place, and then officers carrying Moye to it, his radio mic hanging loose and dragging on the ground.
I asked Pineda what, if anything, he thought his stringer may have missed. “Safety,” he replies after a pause. Though the stringer wasn’t wearing Kevlar during the battle, Pineda said he bought a vest very soon after.
* * *
For reasons that aren’t yet clear, on Aug. 9, Roger Hillygus, 52, allegedly took his mother, Susan Hillygus, 80, from a Reno nursing home, then drove to Southern California. She has Alzheimer’s disease and is unable to speak. Eventually, Reno police were tipped off that the mother and son were in Bellflower. That’s how the LASD came to barricading the apartment Hillyguses were in on the night of Aug. 15.
Getting shots of the SEB deploying in the Bellflower barricade was only the beginning of what Pineda had to do. Stringers don’t just sell footage to TV-news stations—they sell whole stories, with a beginning, middle and end. Now that he had the beginning of a story (the setting up of the barricade), he needs to wait for the rest. He needs to film the resolution. Sure, a violent end, complete with flash-bang grenades, sniper fire and explosions makes for great footage, but it certainly isn’t required.
An end is an end. And to film that end, Pineda must wait.
It’s now around 10:50 p.m., and the TV news choppers are pulling out, leaving just the sheriff’s department copter in place. Pineda’s missed his chance to get the story on the 11 p.m. news, but he has about five hours before the morning-news deadlines.
By midnight, my feet are starting to hurt. Nothing much is happening at the barricade. Pineda switches off his camera to conserve its battery life. Using the Movie Maker app on his phone, he edits the earlier footage he shot, watermarks it with the OC Hawk logo and sends it to a bunch of local news stations. After that, there isn’t much to do except listen in on the LASD transmissions and hope something happens soon.
Occasionally, someone (possibly at the sheriff’s department command post) gets on the radio to ask if the SEB has eyes on the suspect. “Hold on,” a voice says, then returns a few moments later to report the suspect is lying on the bed or something like that. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that even if we can’t see them from our spot, there are snipers in the area, and they see a great deal more than we can.
Eventually, the circling sheriff’s helicopter runs low on gas and takes off, returning an eerie quiet to the neighborhood. A woman walks out of her apartment in front of us, a tiny dog running alongside her feet. She goes up to the sidewalk and looks at the mayhem before her. Moments later, a deputy meets up with her, says something, then departs. The woman then returns to her apartment, her little dog still trotting beside her.
Then, a little after midnight, the sheriff’s department suddenly switches channels on us. “They want it more private,” Pineda says as he tries to acquire the channel they’re now talking on. But he can’t make it work, which means we are left standing alone in a very dark alley with no idea what authorities will do next.
* * *
Television news is “the most common place for Americans to get their news,” according to the Pew Research Center. While local TV news remains more popular than their network and cable counterparts, audience share has plummeted over the past decade. “Since 2007, the average audience for late-night newscasts has declined 31 percent, while the morning audience declined 12 percent and early-evening audience fell 19 percent,” Pew reported in 2017. A decade earlier, Pew found that 12.3 million people watched the morning news, 25.7 million watched the early-evening news and 29.3 million watched the late-evening news. By 2017, those numbers had dropped to 10.8 million, 20.7 million and 20.3 million, respectively.
“There has been a slow but steady loss of audience, especially among younger demographics,” stated an April 5, 2018, Knight Foundation report on the TV-news industry. “And yet, television news is produced in much the same way that it has been for 60 or more years, even as audience habits have changed dramatically. The future of local television as a vital source of news and information likely depends on the medium’s ability to transcend media fragmentation.” The nonprofit Knight Foundation, which studies and invests in journalism, ultimately recommended the industry ditch its “obsession with crime, carnage and mayhem” to save itself, but you can turn on the news tonight to see how seriously the stations took the advice.
OC Hawk’s world was glamorized in a 2014 movie (Nightcrawler) and a 2017 Netflix reality series (Shot In the Dark). The former is a fast-paced but ultimately ridiculous story of a creepy stringer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who builds his company by lying, manipulation, having sex with a news producer (Rene Russo), finking on criminals and, eventually, getting his only employee murdered. But Shot In the Dark is different.
It profiles three major stringer companies in Los Angeles: OnScene TV, LoudLabs and RMGNews. Many of the stringers who work for those companies are former paparazzi. They prowl the freeways of Southern California at night, advised by police scanners, social media and their own instincts. They never meet the TV news producers who buy their footage. The companies pilfer one another’s stringers, who are constantly on the lookout for the others.
The only time I really saw Pineda nervous during the Bellflower barricade stakeout was when he realized a competing stringer was parked 100 yards from his position in the alleyway. “I hope he doesn’t come over here,” Pineda said quietly as we watched the guy pull his own camera and tripod out of his car, then disappear into apartments that didn’t appear to offer the same kind of vantage that Pineda had already secured.
But there was one time when Pineda was happy to see a competitor. On April 9, Pineda was in Los Angeles when his police radio crackled with word of a shooting. He was already nearby, so he rolled on it. When he got near the location, he started looking for what he calls “commotion”—the telltale signs of recent crime and carnage. But he didn’t see anything. As he got farther down the block, he saw a couple of guys standing on the sidewalk over someone who appeared to be lying down.
Pineda parked, then walked over.
“He’s shot!” one of the guys yelled to him. “He’s shot!”
When he arrives at a scene before first responders, Pineda says, he doesn’t like to film. “I always tell myself not to film,” he explains, “to first try to help, then start filming when the first responders arrive.”
But in this case, there didn’t seem to be anyone to help. The guy on the ground, Pineda remembers, looked very dead. A river of blood had poured out of him, pooling near his right arm. There were no cops or medics anywhere. Then he saw a familiar car—it was Scott Lane, the owner of LoudLabs, who is both one of Pineda’s biggest competitors and one of the stars of Shot In the Dark.
“He drove by and didn’t seem to see me, but I flashed a light on him to get him to stop,” Pineda says. Even if Lane were competition, Pineda didn’t like standing alone next to a still-bleeding body.
Lane did stop, and he filmed what he saw, which he later posted to his YouTube channel (warning: the video is graphic).
“It’s not too often we get there before first responders,” Lane said in an Aug. 19 email, after I asked him what he could tell me about the incident. “I could tell he was a little hesitant on what to do and how to handle the situation. He was just happy to see a familiar face.”
Pineda says it took two or three minutes for paramedics to arrive: “It felt like an eternity.”
* * *
Eternity. That’s what it feels like standing in the chilly alley, peering through the fence, looking for movement across the street. Occasionally, a sheriff’s deputy walks down the street in front of us, and we keep still, but they never do anything. They either can’t see us (unlikely) or don’t care that we’re there.
Around 12:30 a.m., a deputy gets on the bullhorn. “We need you to come out of that room,” the cop says to Roger Hillygus, before adding about his mother, “We know she takes medication.”
The copter has returned, and the combination of the bullhorn and the whirlybird spurs nearby dogs to start barking. Pineda tries again to get the new sheriff’s radio channel working, but everything is still silent for us.
Hillygus does nothing.
A few minutes later, a woman gives it a try. Over the bullhorn, she repeats a phone number for Hillygus to call. “We need you to call the number,” she says over and over. “Please do the right thing. Come out.”
But Hillygus still does nothing.
“I can’t leave,” Pineda says, shaking his head. “If it were domestic violence, I would have left by now.”
But the kidnapping angle, and the fact that Hillygus came here from another state, makes staying a priority. He’s trapped, too.
An hour later, Pineda catches a lucky break: The LASD channel we were monitoring earlier suddenly squawks to life. Someone is having trouble getting the new radio frequency to work and wants updates on the barricade situation. While not nearly as informative as the real-time info we were getting earlier, it’s an improvement.
Then, at 1:30 a.m., SEB officers carrying shields pour out of the apartment. It looks like the breach we were waiting for. Pineda switches on the camera, and we watch the SEB officers through its viewscreen. They sneak up to Hillygus’ room, then stop. They stand there for a moment before retreating to their previous position.
A few minutes later, the radio crackles to life. The suspect and his mother are apparently “sleeping” next to each other on the bed, says the voice, who adds, “It appears the male is [inaudible].”
Pineda and I look at each other. “What did he say?” he asks.
“No clue,” I say.
Whatever it was, 10 minutes later, the SEB rush Hillygus’ room—this time going in.
“They have the mother!” Pineda gasps as two officers carry her to their position. Then they bring out the son, though they walk him down the building’s far stairwell, ruining Pineda’s shot.
We slowly open the unlocked gate in front of us, then creep forward to the street. When it’s clear the cops no longer care we’re there, Pineda races up and down the block for the next 20 minutes, trying to get shots of the mother being carried down the stairs, her getting wheeled into the ambulance and her son sitting in the back of the patrol car. Pineda’s footage of the younger Hillygus doesn’t turn out great—you can really only see his ear and the back of his neck—but it was the best he could do. “I would have had the perfect shot if they brought him down the stairs,” Pineda says, but that didn’t matter now.
* * *
Back in Pineda’s Honda, he’s finishing an email to the stations when a Fox 11 producer calls. “Just wondering when you’re going to send us the finale to that barricade,” he says.
“Finishing it right now,” Pineda responds.
Incredibly, Pineda won’t know if any stations, including Fox 11, use his footage until it’s broadcast. For that reason, he sets DVRs to record all local morning news shows after he goes out, then watches the broadcasts after he wakes up to see if anyone used any of his stuff. If they do, he screenshots the video with his phone and sends an invoice.
“Have you ever been screwed over?” I ask.
“Yes,” Pineda says.
Payment can take anywhere from two weeks to two months, depending on the station. For the Bellflower barricade, four LA stations and one Reno station use his footage. The total net came to $945—not bad for a night’s work.
Of course, the next night he goes out might be better—or worse. Luck plays a role, sure, but a lot of Pineda’s success depends on what he does each night.
“You can’t just wait for the story,” he says. “You have to go out and find it.”
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.