News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 9 to 10 a.m.

The Atavist: 'Stray Bullet' tells the story of a man, his crime and his life behind bars

Listen to story

Download this story 4.0MB

There are currently more than 117,000 men and women living behind bars in California.

Real men and women, like Tony Davis. Tony Davis was 18 years old when he fatally shot a 13-year-old boy in Oakland. How he wound up in prison and how prison changed his life is the subject of a piece journalist Gary Rivlin wrote about for the Atavist, called "Stray Bullet."


The room was the one you’ve seen on television, but dingier and more claustrophobic. It was as small as a prison cell, maybe nine feet by twelve feet—roomy enough for a large metal table, a few battered steel chairs, and little else. The table was scratched with graffiti, and the walls, made of acoustic tiling, were heavily gouged. The metal door looked as if it had been beaten with a sledgehammer. The sweat room, the detectives working the Oakland homicide unit called it.

Brian Thiem looked at the suspect in front of him, an oversize kid with round cheeks and a thick double chin. Tony Davis wore his hair in a scruffy high-top and had gaps notched in his eyebrows. That morning he had been sitting in his ’72 Chevy Impala, letting the old thing warm up, when Detective Thiem had come to arrest him. Thiem had brought four extra cops to help apprehend Tony, but he immediately felt ridiculous for going to the trouble. He could’ve walked up and said, “Tony, I’m the police. You’re under arrest,” and Tony would have gone along.

Now that he had Tony at the station house downtown, Thiem couldn’t believe this 18-year-old was the murderer he’d been looking for. He seemed docile and scared. Thiem had been working homicide for a couple of years—long enough to appreciate that most of the guilty who sat across from him in the sweat room weren’t born killers, just people who’d taken a life in a murderous moment. Even so, he’d later say that Tony might have been the least likely killer he’d ever arrested.

At first, Tony denied everything. Denied knowing about any drive-by shooting, denied owning a gun. But there had been two other kids in the car with him that night in July 1990, nine months earlier, and both had fingered Tony as the shooter. When Thiem confronted him with their stories, Tony changed his, insisting that the shooter had been another kid named Steve.

Thiem left Tony to sweat for a couple of hours, then returned, confronting him with the inconsistencies in his version. “He began crying,” Thiem later wrote in his police log, “asking what was going to happen to him. He then said he would tell [us] the truth.”

Thiem started his tape recorder.