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Features column: A former photographer for the county's Bureau of Investigation talks about the gritty, and haunting, task of documenting L.A.'s underbelly of crime.

     On a recent morning when the Los Angeles sky was as white as a chalk outline, Linda Sanchez unlocked the door to her 6-year-old sedan and let me in. For 78 months, mostly during the Gil Garcetti era, Sanchez worked as a photographer at the Bureau of Investigation for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office.

     Sanchez's job--and per her request, that's not her real name--was to assist prosecutors in making cases against people charged with felonies. She and a colleague would revisit up to 10 crime scenes a day and take photographs or make videotapes of victims, buildings, escape routes and anything else the lawyers thought would help them sell their case to a jury. The photographers also would develop and print the images at their 16th floor lab at the Criminal Courts Building downtown.
     While on the job, Sanchez worked on cases involving drugs, murder, rape, fraud and robbery. She took photos at the county morgue. She shot gang members' tattoos in the small holding cells in courthouses. She documented the morning-after bruises on victims of domestic violence.

     Sanchez photographed the infamous "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" glove in the O.J. Simpson case; she photographed senior citizens who had lost their savings in the Charles Keating case. She worked on a high-profile case involving a music industry impresario of whom she is too intimidated to mention further.

     Today, Sanchez has agreed to take me on a meandering tour of some of the city, crime site by crime site. We start in Silver Lake and pass through Echo Park, Chinatown, downtown, East L.A. and ultimately to South Central, where Sanchez estimates that 50% of her assignments took place.

     "The crime isn't what changes," Sanchez says. "Usually [only] the location."

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     "I took photos of dead people before, but going to the morgue is different, because it smells really bad. And it's amazing because you go into this big room and they have all these naked bodies on some metal tables and the chests are wide open and they are scooping out the blood."

     We're near the intersection of Temple and Alvarado. We're standing on a knoll above a fast-food restaurant. Sanchez is pointing out the outdoor seating area at the eatery where people were shot. We walk past some barbed wire, trying to re-create the perspective of the ambushers. We pace down, past a gang graffiti tag that Sanchez translates. She shakes her head, some of the bad memories coming back. A massacre happened right here in broad daylight, she says.

     Later, Sanchez is driving us through Boyle Heights. She's searching for a butcher shop where a bullet remained lodged in a wall well after a shooting. She fails to find the place, but as we travel around we hit a housing project where she'd been sent on occasion. We also ease through Mariachi Square, where a lone trumpeter holds his horn by his side.

     Somehow, we start discussing the county morgue. Sanchez's work took her there occasionally. The first time was one month into the job. She arrived with an investigator at 9 a.m. A teenager was laid out on a table, his body nude like all the others. The kid had the nickname of a popular Mexican soccer club tattooed on his chest. There was blood on his face and his eyes were open.

     Sanchez had to put some powder on herself and a disposable gown over her clothes. There was an overpowering smell of blood and chemicals. "I showered five times when I came home," she says. "For three days I smelled."

     For every trip into that hell, there were ascents. Each month Sanchez rode in police helicopters to take aerial photos. The district attorney didn't have a chopper, so the D.A.'s photographers went up with the police. One time while she was up high, a freeway chase broke out and Sanchez spent the day playing accidental tourist, flying all the way to Bakersfield. Leaning out the window, she photographed it all.

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     "Well, I couldn't sleep sometimes, you know, thinking, some woman killed her baby. And then you meet her and she's like a lost soul. I mean, you don't know what to think."

     Sanchez can tell horror story after horror story. The 80-plus-year-old grandmothers raped by twenty-somethings. The woman whose face had been almost entirely eaten away by acid; the father of her kids had thrown it on her. Even one particularly gruesome tale about a murdered wife being flushed down a toilet, a piece of flesh at a time.

     We talk some more as we travel. Sanchez says her former colleagues were professional and serious. She points out that she still lives in the city itself, not its suburban outskirts. Prior to the photography gig, Sanchez worked for the welfare department. Before that she was a volunteer translator for the police. She says her experiences have convinced her not to be prejudiced against anyone who looks "dirty or scary"; that from what she's seen, criminals can be both smart and sleek.

     Sanchez also developed some strong feelings about the intersection of sociology and fine art.

     "Photography as an art is a waste of time and paper," she says. "It's a cheap way to disguise the fact that people don't want to go out and face life the way it is. Why do you want to see photos of homeless people, or gang members or poor people? Why don't you just go and visit them? The world would be much better if people would go out. They would understand much more."

     While she's making this point, we arrive outside a school where she says there was once a shooting. It's getting obvious, but I finally ask Sanchez what made her quit the photography job.

     "I would never get used to dealing with the bad side of humans," she says. "Meeting people When they are at their worst, either way--suffering or being mean to each other."

     I ask Sanchez if there was one thing she really liked to shoot. "I wish I didn't have to take any photos," she says. "That would mean everything is fine.