Last December, the Los Angeles Times ran a pair of photos of the iconic rap group N.W.A. with stories on a new book chronicling its cultural impact. In the photos, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren pose, fists raised, thick gold chains glinting, their expressions stern beneath their ball caps.
Those lasting images of the provocative group were captured in 1989 by La Cañada High School graduate Doug Burrows, a passionate photojournalist who was born with a life-threatening cleft lip and cleft palate that required 30 surgeries, and who emerged from those challenges with a can-do spirit that helped establish him as a top young talent in his field.
Twenty-five years ago this month, Burrows was killed when the Toyota Celica he was driving on a quiet side street in downtown L.A was broadsided by an 18-wheeler that ran a red light. He was 29.
The tragic event upended his family’s lives, sent shockwaves through the photographic community and resulted in an agonizing 15-year manhunt for the driver who caused the fiery, fatal wreck and then fled.
Burrows’ life is chronicled in a new book, “Justice for Doug,” written by his father, John Burrows, who also recorded details of the hunt for the driver, a convicted drug dealer named Rogelio Pereira, who had fled to Mexico.
“The first part is about Doug’s problems and overcoming them,” said John Burrows, who in 1980 moved his family from Iowa to La Cañada Flintridge, where he still lives. “The second part is catching the guy. I had a lot of material, things accumulated over the years, and of course it’s a question of what you pull out and what you use and how you put it together, and I think I put it together fairly well.”
“It’s quite the tale,” said Matt Burrows, now a lawyer for a virtual reality startup. “On a personal level, it’s a great accomplishment to actually have completed it; he worked on it for a very long time and multiple drafts. It was also a bit of a walk down memory lane, and on some level, it’s an autobiography of my dad’s life.
“From his viewpoint, justice was served. That doesn’t change the outcome, but I think the book is an accomplishment and it’s a tribute to Doug.”
Doug, who was known affectionately as “Ace,” was born into a family of journalists. His father, who became a successful banker, grew up working at the family-owned weekly newspaper, the Belle Plaine Union, in Iowa. Both of John’s grandfathers and his father were journalists. It made sense, John said, that Doug exhibited the innate curiosity that drew him to the profession and, as Matt recalled, inspired him to bring his police scanner to the dinner table with him.
“He liked to bring out the best in people,” said John of his middle son, who graduated from Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design. “He liked to find an angle that maybe somebody else wouldn’t use in taking a picture; he enjoyed the challenge in doing that. Doug had the ability to get along with people, to say the right things.”
John Burrows credits that ability to lineage and to Doug’s personal struggles, which gave him a perspective that allowed him to pursue his passion fearlessly and without judgment.
In the book, John wrote: “Most parents envision their children as academic giants or superstar athletes; for us, we just hoped our baby lived.”
And in a later chapter about Doug’s work photographing members of the Hang Out Boys gang, he adds: “Doug had learned to overcome fear during his many surgeries, and spent a few hours pining away each recovery watching movies, and in those plots he always favored the little guy. He had developed compassion for the underdog and could relate to their efforts. … He met with them, not to be judgmental, but to take their pictures and tell a story about a sector of our society.”
Matt credits his parents, including their mother, Barbara, for nurturing Doug’s positive disposition.
“He could’ve easily gone into a corner and closed down, but he fundamentally knew that he was loved and that’s what gave him this sense of empathy,” said Matt, the youngest of three sons. His oldest brother, Scott, lost his battle with cancer in 2015.
“Doug’s motto was, ‘Every day of your life, have a great day,’ because he knew, being a photographer the way he was, he could be going into a dangerous environment that could be the last day.”
Doug developed a reputation for being first on the scene, starting with his tenure as a teenager working for the La Cañada Valley Sun. He went on to cover the L.A. Riots (his 1992 photo of Rodney King was used last year in retrospectives by the L.A. Times and KCET-TV). He was the first to arrive when the First Interstate Bank Building burned in 1988 and, then, when two Compton police officers were shot in 1993. He spent time photographing gangs, traveled to Iraq to cover the Gulf War in 1991 and also captured and sold images of movie stars, athletes, politicians — just about everything.
“To this day, my friends from high school will tell me, ‘Your brother used to photograph me on the football team. I’m glad your brother took my photograph,’” Matt said.
When the 18-wheel truck hauling an empty trailer sped through a red light and smashed into Burrows’ car on May 1, 1993, pushing the red Toyota 147 feet down the street, crushing it and causing both vehicles to catch fire, Doug had just left 9th Street School, where he’d dropped off empty film canisters for the students to use for art projects.
Later that day, his parents received a visit from a L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy, who, Burrows wrote, “curtly stated, ‘Your son has been killed in an accident,’ and in his own apologetic way, stated matter-of-factly, ‘I was ordered to deliver the message to the parents.’”
“We tried to console each other,” John wrote, “but the helplessness was so palpable we couldn’t.”
Their son, who’d had more than 300 photographs published in major publications including Time, Life, Vanity Fair, and the L.A. Times, for which he was a dependable freelancer, had just been selected as the president-elect of the Los Angeles Chapter of Magazine Photographers. He also had just closed escrow on his first home the day before his death.
Suddenly, he was gone.
Witnesses pointed police toward Pereira as the truck’s driver. But after he was arraigned on charges of felony hit-and-run causing death, he fled to Mexico, where he would evade authorities until 2007.
The case remained active, but John understood investigators were burdened with new cases. So every year around May 1, he would call the LAPD’s Central Traffic Division to inquire about progress in Doug’s case.
He also sought to increase public awareness by distributing flyers in Mexican border towns. He hired a private investigator and arranged for profiles on “America’s Most Wanted” and “Prime Suspect.” And whenever John learned that a high-ranking law-enforcement official would be making a local public appearance, he would attend and approach the official, share Doug’s story and ask whether he or she could help catch Pereira.
It became, as John wrote, his “overriding goal to see that he was caught, tried and convicted for his criminal actions, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Finally, after a 14-plus-year search, authorities located Pereira and discovered he was on parole and wanted by the California Department of Corrections and the Yuma County Sheriff’s Department.
A felony arrest warrant was issued, and Pereira was captured in June 2007 in Mexicali, where he was working as a motorcycle repairman. He was extradited to the United States in July.
Just before trial was to begin in July 2008, Pereira, then 56, pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter and felony hit and run. He was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Drew Edwards in Los Angeles Superior Court to 11 years, eight months in prison, eligible for parole after 85% of that time was served, although he served only five years due to legal technicalities.
“Was that adequate punishment to provide peace of mind for my family?” John wrote in his book’s epilogue. “What would Doug’s attitude be? I found the answer in looking at Doug’s pictures — particularly those of the Hang Out Boys. He knew of their sins, but yet saw the good in them and how they cared for one another. He would recognize there was good in everyone, including Rogelio Pereira.”