Pubdate: Thu, 17 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: Bobbi Murray


Coaching, Coddling And Discouraging Witnesses And Suspects Appears Routine
For One Highly Decorated Former Pasadena Gang Cop

Editor's Note: I first met Phillip White when I doubled briefly as a
court-appointed investigator. White was implicated in a shooting a few
months prior, which by all accounts, boiled down to a possibly gang-related
pot heist in Northwest Pasadena.

By the time I became involved with the case, White was well on his way to
trial. By then, most of the legwork -- shagging down possible witnesses,
interviewing other witnesses and sorting through the facts -- had already
been done by someone else. Things seemed to be fairly cut and dried. I mean,
was the scenario developed by the prosecution in this case -- that White
served as a lookout while a known pot dealer was help up and shot -- all
that far-fetched?

I was far from convinced of White's innocence, that is until I became aware
of the involvement of former Pasadena gang Detective Dana Orent. All of that
will be explained in the following story.

What this introduction is intended to do is explain my involvement in this
story, and why it is running in a newspaper that I now edit. Let me begin by
saying that, as an investigator, I did basically the same things that I do
as a reporter; interview people, find and review records, sit in on court
appearances and sometimes hold the hands of family members of both victims
and defendants.

At that time, though, it was my belief that my direct involvement
compromised my objectivity as a journalist, therefore I begged off what
conceivably could be the story of the year.

Sure, I could have written a first-person account, but that. too, wasn't
what this story screamed out for. This required a dispassionate third party
to analyze the facts, as a journalist sees them.

Enter Bobbi Murray, one of the best freelance news reporters in Los Angeles
whose work regularly appears in Los Angeles Magazine and the L.A. Weekly.

With no coaching from me, Bobbi tore into this story, finding out more stuff
than I ever imagined, and making me both embarrassed for not doing a better
job and sort of glad that I didn't choose private investigation as a
fulltime career.

Whatever my shortcomings, Bobbi did an outstanding job investigating, not
only the White case, but several others in which Detective Orent played
pivotal roles. Without any further delay, here is the story Bobbi filed for
the Pasadena Weekly. - Kevin Uhrich

Not much is clear when it comes to the shooting of Ricardo Viera Jr.

One incontrovertible fact is that one night in March 1998, 20-year-old Viera
responded to a knock on the door of the converted-garage apartment in back
of his parents' house on North Raymond Avenue and opened the door to find
two men, one pointing a gun. He shot Viera in the chest.

Viera survived the assault after a friend of his father's took him to
Huntington Memorial Hospital, where he was interviewed over the course of
several days by investigators from the Pasadena Police Department.

That's where the story gets murky.

So muddled, in fact, are the so-called facts behind the shooting of young
Viera that some people think his testimony may have helped put away someone
who was not even involved with the crime.

Michael Dowden was convicted of attempted murder in the assault.

Phillip Lamont White is in a Susanville prison serving 35 years to life as
an accessory -- even though Viera's first three reports to police included
only two suspects, neither of them White.

Viera's next-door neighbor testified at trial that he had happened to look
out the window as the shooting incident unfolded, and had seen only two men
- -- not a third, who would be White standing lookout.

And Viera's story initially put only two men at the scene, neither matching
the 6-foot 8-inch White's description.

That story soon changed to three suspects, one of them White, complete with
an identifying gang tattoo on his hand, after Viera was interviewed a fourth
time -- while heavily medicated -- by former Pasadena gang detective Dana

Orent was honored last year by Chief Bernard K. Melekian with the Chief's
Special Award for putting together cases that resulted in convictions of 11
purported gang members, including Viera's assailant.

But a look through a pile of police reports on the case suggests that the
dramatic change in Viera's story coincided with Orent's apparent discovery
that Viera had approximately a half-pound of marijuana in his apartment on
the night of the shooting, stored in a duffel bag, a bag which emerged
briefly during the police investigation and then mysteriously disappeared,
presumably stolen by Viera's assailants.

Police, according to court and police records, also booked into evidence
plastic sandwich bags and a scale taken from Viera's room -- the
accouterments of a drug dealer. And even though Viera insisted he only
"traded" weed, there was enough there to make a witness, or a potential
suspect, nervous enough to tell police what they wanted to hear.

The duffel bag was not recovered in two subsequent searches of White's
mother's apartment in East Pasadena, according to police and court
documents. That was somewhat different from Orent's own report, which noted
that they actually had found the bag the first time, but that it had "no
evidentiary value."

In an interview with the Weekly in June, Viera, the shooting victim in
White's case, maintained his testimony was truthful, as was Orent's.

"Detective Orent only wanted to get the truth," Viera said through the
screen door of his parents' home.

Another Story

Viera has no arrest record, but he did open the door to doubts about his own
veracity during cross examination by Deputy Public Defender Grady Russell,
who represented the other suspect in he shooting, Dowden.

Russell first established that Viera had no job and got by with help from
his parents, who live in the front part of the house in the 500 block of
North Raymond, a well-known hotbed of drug dealing activity.

The attorney also elicited that Viera received cash for marijuana, but Viera
called it trading. "So now you are telling this jury panel that you don't
sell marijuana. So when you say you don't sell marijuana, is that the truth
or is that a lie?" Russell asked.

Viera said that it was the truth.

"So when you spoke to Officer Orent and told him you did in fact sell
marijuana, is that the truth or is that a lie?" Russell asked.

"That's the truth, in a way," returned Viera.

"So if I say that you sell marijuana, is that both the truth and a lie?"
asked the public defender.

"Yes," said Viera.

"And when you told Orent that you sell from time to time ... that is both
the truth and a lie?" Russell pressed.

"Yes," Viera replied.

Russell then went on to catch Viera in contradictions about his familiarity
with the 9mm handgun that he had slipped into his waistband before answering
the door the night he was shot. It was really his father's gun but, Viera
said, he practiced with it at a shooting range.

He insisted he was doing nothing wrong, but felt that he had to protect
himself. It was never fully explained in court why he felt threatened.

Perhaps most interesting about the White case was the introduction of
testimony by another reputed marijuana peddler related to a similar armed
robbery involving pot several months earlier -- a theft that had never been
reported to police, but was nevertheless used against both Dowden and White
in their respective trials.

One of Viera's friends was the victim and Viera himself had been present.

Orent was the investigator who pulled the unreported crime out of mothballs
and used it to establish the "link" between the accused shooter -- the
now-imprisoned, appeal-pending Dowden -- and the purported accomplice,

The supposed third person is still at large. Of course, because Dowden's
case is pending appeal, he could not testify in White's behalf during that
trial in Alhambra Superior Court. Running over due process

The White case and the shifting testimony of questionable witnesses raises
fresh questions about Orent, who some Pasadena citizens view as either a
gang-busting credit to the force, or a cowboy who bends the rules until they

While Orent is lauded for his bare-knuckled approach to putting bad guys
behind bars, the officer's critics -- defense lawyers, a court-appointed
investigator and family members of those arrested by Orent -- say the Viera
case is typical of Orent's modus operandi: Work witnesses who have a lot to
lose if they don't cooperate and do favors for those who are helpful.

Chief Melekian declined to comment on Orent-related cases and deferred calls
to another member of his command staff. 

Lt. Keith Jones says Orent's award speaks for itself. As for the officer's
critics, he says, "I don't want to get into playing tit-for-tat with people
making accusations. Rumors are just that -- rumors." 

Orent also has not returned calls. He was transferred from the gang detail
earlier this year in what the department told the Pasadena Star-News was a
routine rotation. 

That rotation occurred shortly after the collapse of the case against Kevin
Tillet, a three-striker who faced life in prison for two counts of being an
ex-convict in possession of a gun. 

Paul Catalano, Tillet's attorney, said in a recent phone interview that it
became obvious during the trial that the witness, who barely spoke English,
told the court through an interpreter that he would not have identified
Tillet if Orent, who was investigating the case, had not pointed out Tillet
in a collection of six photos, known as a "six-pack." 

The judge declared a mistrial and Tillet, instead of getting life, got a
one-year sentence, less 273 days for time served. He is now pursuing a suit
against the city, alleging civil rights violations. 

Court-appointed investigator Stephen Thornton says Orent's overeager
approach in the Tillet case is typical, and that Orent has scared witnesses
off from speaking with Thornton. 

The department has refused to comment on Orent or any of the cases he's
worked on in his years as one of Pasadena's top gang officers. 

Department policy does not allow officers to comment on cases in which they
are involved. 

Gang-related homicides in Pasadena dropped from 13 in 1995 to zero last
year, with one so far this year, a fact that some might attribute to current
police tactics. 

But controversy continues to dog the officer as cases like White's go to

Orent and the department's gang unit "has done a lot of good," says
Thornton. "They've gotten guys off the street that should be off the street
- -- the problem is how they do it, running roughshod over due process." 

Move Over, LAPD 

Attorney Marilynn Van Damm, who represented White, says that she suspects
Orent's influence in dissuading two witnesses from testifying on White's
behalf. One of those potential witnesses, Tim "Fat Tim" McCray, said he was
working with White and two other friends producing a rap music album on the
night of the Viera shooting. 

But despite a subpoena, McCray never took the stand. 

"I was told by his uncle that Orent came by and said that, if you testify,
you're going to jail," Van Damm says of McCray, on probation at the time. 

And another defense attorney, John E. Sweeney, complains about coercive
tactics he says that Orent used on two witnesses key to convicting Sweeney's
client, Larry Scott, now in Los Angeles County jail awaiting sentencing on a
murder charge. 

Scott was convicted in a September, 1997, shooting at Orange Grove Boulevard
and Madison Avenue in Pasadena that left Damien Thomas dead and his friend,
Ronald Hopkins, wounded. 

There were two assailants involved, Sweeney says; investigators found two
different calibers of slugs at the shooting site. Hopkins told police both
at the scene and later at the hospital that he didn't know who shot him and
said the same thing to a longtime friend later, according to Sweeney. 

Hopkins eventually testified at Scott's preliminary hearing that he saw
Scott at the scene of the shooting, but he later recanted. 

Hopkins said he heard on the street that Scott had something to do with the
shooting, and told two police detectives as much a week after the assault,
but no witnesses were able to identify Scott -- save for Hopkins -- as
having been at the scene, including one, Willie Brown, who lives nearby and
has drug-related prison record. 

"Then," relates Sweeney, "Lo and behold, this Willie Brown is arrested for
drug possession. He puts out the word that he wants to make a deal and Orent
and [then Deputy District Attorney] Tony Viera (no relation to Ricky) show
up. Brown makes a statement on the back of a photo of Larry Scott -- Dana
Orent writes on the back, 'I'm 80% sure that Larry Scott was in the car' and
asks Willie Brown to sign it. Willie Brown is given a sweetheart deal where
he gets out of jail." 

The shooting victim, Hopkins, an ex-felon, also evidently made himself a
deal -- he testified at the preliminary hearing that Scott was involved in
the attack after a raid on Hopkins home by Pasadena police and found
weapons, a charge that would have sent Hopkins back to prison. 

The case was tried three times; the jury was split on the first trial 8-4,
the second, 6-6. 

A third witness, Shannon Brown, didn't testify until the third trial, where
she said that she called Scott's girlfriend, also a friend of hers, after
the shooting. According to Brown's testimony, her friend hung up with an
abrupt "I gotta get off the phone, Charlie and Larry just came in with a
gun." Charlie, Charles Bell, was also convicted during that trial. 

Sweeney said that Brown, an in-law of Hopkin's who claims that Scott shot
her husband in the face, "was champing at the bit to fabricate a story about
Larry," and had been interviewed numerous times, but, "She never made the
statement until three weeks before the [final] trial -- and she made it to
Dana Orent -- Orent took the statement." 

Three witnesses making false statements, Sweeney says, and "In each case
Dana Orent had something to do with it ... Dana Orent's fingerprints are
throughout this investigation." 

And there are other cases that suggest a pattern. 

The Weekly has acquired deposition summaries gathered by the defense in
another pending criminal case, statements that will become part of the
record when they go to court, in which witnesses claim that, as in the
Tillet case, Orent coached them when identifying suspects. 

Department spokesman Lt. Jones repeated his claim that he couldn't respond
to the allegations without more facts; the Weekly received the documents on
condition that names be protected because of pending legal action. 

According to the documents, in one case, the witness says Orent shook his
head when the witness pointed to one photo and told him to look at "Number

In another account, a witness convicted of attempted murder said in a
deposition that Orent and an Altadena Sheriff's Station deputy, who worked
with the Pasadena detective in the interdepartmental anti-gang operation,
took the witness out of custody so he could have sex with his girlfriend in
return for testimony against a suspect in a case Orent was investigating. 

The witness also reportedly understood that his sentence would be reduced, a
promise that was never honored. 

And yet another witness in an upcoming case, arrested for check fraud but
supposedly able to implicate a suspect in five homicides, was taken out of
custody and out to dinner by Orent and a colleague, according to a sworn
statement from people with whom the witness had shared an apartment. 

Like Rafael Perez, the disgraced officer who testified about his own
misconduct and that of other officers in the LAPD corruption scandal in
return for a reduced sentence for stealing cocaine from an LAPD evidence
room, the witnesses who say that Orent led them in their statements all have
rap sheets and feel they have something to gain by lying. 

Say The Magic Words 

The magic words, says White attorney Van Damm, are "gang member" -- once
they can be linked to a suspect, she says, the conviction usually goes
fairly swiftly, as it did in her client's case. 

It's a dangerous trend at a time when the Los Angeles County computer system
has some 112,000 names in a "gang" data base -- 62,000 of them identified by
officers from the now-discredited LAPD anti-gang unit, often for associating
with known gang members. 

White's legal problems were further compounded by the location of his trial.
He was arrested in Pasadena, but his trial was transferred to Alhambra. 

Because less than 1% of that community's population is African-American, and
equally low numbers of blacks reside in neighboring San Gabriel, Monterey
Park and Rosemead, not a single black person was on either of two panels of
70 people called to serve as jurors. 

The NAACP's Pasadena branch has received two complaints against Orent;
Phillip White's mother, Patricia Taylor, filed one with police to protest
the way her house was searched for the alleged duffel bag full of weed from
the Viera shooting. 

The home was torn up and her door was broken down during two searches in
which Orent participated. 

Orent affirmed during trial, according to the transcripts, that it was
department policy to videotape those types of searches. But, he said, there
was no video of the Taylor search -- he suspected that it had been taped

"I would have opened the door if they had knocked," said Taylor.
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