Pubdate: Sat, 14 Oct 2000
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Note: LAPD Corruption Report Online: The LAPD's Board of Inquiry, which 
investigated charges of police corruption, has posted its full report on 
the web.


The first trial against police accused of operating as rogue enforcers 
began today as prosecutors described how four members of the Los Angeles 
Police Department's elite anti-gang squad allegedly planted evidence, faked 
confrontations and repeatedly lied to send innocent men to prison.

The officers' defense attorneys countered that their clients were good cops 
and innocent of the charges, and that their main accuser, a disgraced 
former officer convicted as a thief, is "the very face of evil."

The high-profile trial is the first criminal case to be heard resulting 
from the ever-widening investigation of allegations that dozens of officers 
at the LAPD's Rampart Division, in an impoverished neighborhood near 
downtown filled with new immigrants, operated outside the law.

The scandal has led to the overturning of more than 100 convictions and the 
investigation of more than 70 officers. It has tarnished the LAPD and the 
city's civilian leadership and forced the nation's second-largest police 
department to agree to federal oversight of day-to-day operations. But it 
has not produced anything like the public interest and outrage of the 
Rodney G. King beating and its aftermath.

At the very core of the scandal and the trial that started downtown in the 
same courthouse where O.J. Simpson was tried for murder and acquitted are 
accusations by former LAPD officer Rafael Perez.

After Perez was arrested and charged with stealing $1 million in cocaine 
from a police evidence locker, he made a deal with prosecutors. And so 
began the worst scandal in LAPD history.

In exchange for a reduced sentence, Perez offered a trove of sensational 
charges about how he and other officers in the anti-gang squad routinely 
planted guns and drugs on suspects, lied in their reports and before judges 
and juries, and pursued with zeal their squad's commitment to "intimidate 
those who intimidate others" - the gang members who were terrorizing the 
Rampart neighborhood in the mid-1990s.

Perez, who is serving a five-year sentence in the comfort of a special cell 
in the county jail, should be a central witness in the trial against 
officers Michael Buchanan, Brian Liddy, Paul Harper and Edward Ortiz. All 
four remain on the LAPD force, though they have been suspended without pay 
awaiting the result of this trial and other administrative proceedings.

But now it appears uncertain whether Perez will testify. FBI agents are now 
investigating charges by Perez's former girlfriend that Perez killed a 
mother and her son - and possibly a third person - in a drug deal gone bad 
and buried their bodies in a dump south of the border in Tijuana. Federal 
officials traveled to Mexico last week to search for bodies.

It seems hard to imagine how prosecutors will make their case against the 
four LAPD officers without Perez on the witness stand. The officers are 
charged with conspiracy to obstruct or pervert justice, specifically filing 
false police reports and committing perjury. If convicted, they could face 
four years in prison.

"These four men took the law into their own hands," deputy district 
attorney Laura Laesecke told jurors today in opening arguments. "This is 
not a trial about the LAPD," the prosecutor said. "This is also not a trial 
about Rafael Perez."

But to the defense, the trial is only about Perez and a district attorney 
and his prosecutors who the defense described to jurors as overzealous, 
naive and taken in by a cunning, glib, handsome and smooth Perez.

The four officers are charged with participating in what Perez and the 
prosecutors described as dirty arrests. Indeed, Perez himself has estimated 
that as many as three of every four arrests he made while in the anti-gang 
unit were dirty.

The first in this case was the arrest of Alan Lobos, an alleged member of 
the 18th Street gang. According to the officers on trial, Lobos was at a 
gang gathering in April 1996 when police came upon the scene. Lobos was 
said by the defendants to be carrying a gun. But prosecutors maintain they 
are lying and that the gun was planted on Lobos. "Not a single witness saw 
this," prosecutor Laesecke said. Lobos pleaded guilty anyway, she said, 
reasoning that police would be more believable than a gang member. Rafael 
Perez was one of the officers who recovered the allegedly planted gun.

But according to defense attorney Barry Levin, the reason no one witnessed 
Lobos first carrying and then appearing to hide the gun was that no other 
officers beside the defendants were at the scene.

"The only person making the accusation is former LAPD officer Rafael 
Perez," Levin told jurors. "Without his lies, there is no case. If you have 
a reasonable doubt about Rafael Perez, you must acquit."

Levin and the other defense attorneys hammered away on Perez, pointing out 
that he had failed four polygraph tests.

Other witnesses, however, may testify they did not see Lobos with a weapon. 
But at least some of those witnesses will be friends and members of the 
gang, witnesses that are often deemed highly suspect by Los Angeles juries.

A second alleged dirty arrest was one in which two officers charged another 
two gang members, in this case members of the Temple Street posse, with 
attempted assault against a police officer with a deadly weapon for trying 
to run them down with a pickup truck.

Again, the prosecutors said the charged officers are lying.

However, defense attorneys showed the jurors a photograph of one of the 
officers with scraped knees and a sprained ankle on a hospital gurney after 
the incident.

Defense attorney Harland W. Braun accused the district attorney's office of 
a "textbook case of prosecutorial incompetence." He said the prosecutors, 
in their zeal, had made a "deal with the devil" in their dealings with Perez.

As for the final alleged dirty arrest, it is against Braun's client, 
Officer Buchanan, who prosecutors charge did not witness an arrest as he 
claimed because he was on vacation. Braun counters that Buchanan was at 
work and that it was a bureaucratic snafu. "This is all they have?" he 
asked. "This entire case is a crime by Rafael Perez."

If prosecutors fail to make their cases against these four officers, which 
are believed to be their strongest, it may be doubtful that any other LAPD 
officers face criminal charges.

The LAPD and the city, however, are almost certainly headed toward civil 
court, to defend themselves against a string of civil rights violation 
lawsuits that could expose Los Angeles taxpayers to hundreds of millions of 
dollars in damages.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart