Pubdate: Tue, 01 Aug 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-4712
Author: SCOTT GLOVER and MATT LAIT, Times Staff Writers


Rampart: Nino Durden Pleads Not Guilty To An Attempted Murder Charge, While 
Humberto Tovar Faces Probable Firing After A Noncriminal Proceeding.

As one Rampart Division police officer pleaded not guilty to an attempted 
murder charge Monday, an LAPD disciplinary panel recommended that another 
be fired for his alleged role in the framing of a man on drug charges four 
years ago.

Both Nino Durden, who faces criminal charges, and Humberto Tovar, who 
confronts dismissal, were onetime partners of disgraced ex-officer Rafael 
Perez, the man at the center of the unfolding LAPD corruption scandal.

Tovar, whose recommended termination is all but certain to be approved by 
Chief Bernard C. Parks, would become the first officer to be fired from the 
LAPD as a result of charges leveled by Perez.

Meanwhile, Durden--handcuffed and dressed in a blue county jail 
jumpsuit--entered his plea in the case in which Perez has accused him of 
shooting an unarmed gang member at point-blank range, then planting a gun 
on the young man in an attempt to justify it.

The developments Monday reflect the two-track approach that authorities 
have pursued since the scandal broke in September to build both 
administrative and criminal cases against officers based on allegations by 
Perez, who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter 
sentence on his drug theft convictions.

To date, five officers have been arrested and criminally charged in 
connection with the scandal. More than a dozen face internal charges of 
misconduct. About 70 officers remain under investigation for a variety of 
alleged crimes and misconduct.

While several officers have resigned as a result of Perez's allegations, 
Tovar is the first to have an LAPD tribunal recommend dismissal.

At his disciplinary hearing, Tovar was accused by Perez of helping to frame 
Toby Semick, a suspected gang member, on drug charges during an arrest on 
March 23, 1996.

To the two LAPD captains and one civilian who unanimously found Tovar 
guilty, the case against the officer boiled down to a question of 
credibility: Who was telling the truth, Tovar or Perez?

"The board recognized that ex-officer Perez is a convicted felon and, quite 
simply, a despicable human being," said Capt. Ron Seban, who chaired the 
board. "These facts, however, don't necessarily mean that he is devoid of 
any credibility."

Seban said he and his colleagues were unable to find a plausible motive for 
Perez to lie about Tovar's involvement in the arrest, noting that the two 
officers expressed admiration for one another during their respective 
testimony and that there was no evidence of animosity between them. He also 
pointed out that Perez's plea deal does not preclude him from being 
prosecuted for perjury if he lies on the witness stand. Finally, in 
analyzing Tovar's credibility, board members were troubled by several 
aspects of the officer's testimony, Seban said.

For example, Tovar said he failed to call for backup during Semick's arrest 
because he was "confused and couldn't get to the radio."

"As an officer assigned to a specialized unit, working gang suppression, it 
is almost automatic, in the board's eyes, to call for backup and/or 
assistance when your partner is in foot pursuit of a suspected armed gang 
member," Seban said. "Ex-officer Perez's testimony that Rampart CRASH 
hardly ever called for a backup because they didn't want patrol to discover 
their criminal conduct was a much more plausible explanation to this board."

Shortly before the panel announced Tovar's penalty Monday, the officer 
addressed the board's members and continued to maintain his innocence.

"The reality is that I am not guilty of any of the things I was accused of 
doing in this case," Tovar said. "Rafael Perez feels like the Los Angeles 
Police Department ruined his life of crime, and now he is trying to ruin 
the Los Angeles Police Department. I know his lying has destroyed my life. 
I am sure he is laughing right now, at me and at the department."

Richard Macias, Tovar's attorney, conceded that the guilty findings against 
his client demanded a stiff punishment, but said Tovar's job should be spared.

"Even in the worst possible light, he has been a great police officer, 
except, supposedly, for a couple months when he had the misfortune to work 
with Rafael Perez," Macias said. "I would submit that a suspension for six 
months, without pay, would be in order. . . . It would be a total 
miscarriage of justice for him to be terminated."

Board members, however, were not swayed.

"Your actions and failure to act have made you a liability to this city," 
said Capt. Jim McDonnell.

While Tovar's case left him the prospect of having to find other work, 
Durden faces the possibility of many years behind bars if convicted.

In court Monday, Durden stared alternately at the floor and at a wall, 
never turning to look at about a dozen supporters gathered in a rear corner 
of the courtroom.

Bill Seki, one of his lawyers, argued for a reduction of Durden's $680,000 
bail that has kept the suspended officer behind bars since his arrest Friday.

Seki said Durden has known he was under investigation for nearly a year. 
"If he was going to be a flight risk he would have taken off a long time 
ago, but he's here," Seki told Judge Larry P. Fidler.

Fidler denied Seki's request, but agreed to take the matter up again 
Thursday, pending further study.

In addition to attempted murder, Durden is charged with five other 
offenses, including an on-duty armed robbery.

By far the most serious accusation against him stems from the Oct. 12, 
1996, shooting of Javier Francisco Ovando, a 19-year-old gang member.

Perez, who was Durden's partner on the night of the shooting, says Ovando 
was unarmed when he and Durden shot him, leaving the young man wheelchair 
bound. At a brief news conference after Durden's court appearance, the Rev. 
William J. Johnson defended the accused officer.

"He is a good person," Johnson said. "He's got a lot of family support. His 
family is praying for him."

Meanwhile on Monday, four other officers accused of crimes in connection 
with the scandal were given a trial date of Sept. 27.

Sgts. Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy and Officers Paul Harper and Michael 
Buchanan face various charges in connection with the alleged framing of 
gang members in the LAPD's Rampart Division.
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