Pubdate: Fri, 24 Nov 2000
Source: LA Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2000, Los Angeles Weekly, Inc.
Contact:  P.O. Box 4315, L.A., CA 90078
Fax: 323 465-3220
Author: Charles Rappleye
Bookmark: L.A. Rampart Scandal -


The Real Rampart Scandal Is Citywide

The guilty verdicts against Rampart officers last week were immediately 
hailed as confirmation that there was indeed a scandal at the LAPD.

In fact, the jury verdicts showed that there are two Rampart scandals. One 
centers closely on Rafael Perez, the admitted rogue cop whose sensational 
confessions launched the scandal in the first place; the other is much 
broader, and goes beyond the dimensions of the compact inner-city Rampart 
Division. The two are quite distinct, and the differences are critical to 
the continuing, and so far fruitless, efforts to reform the city's police 

The Perez scandal -- as it probably should be known -- is by far the more 
sensational, involving drug dealing, extortion and home-invasion robberies. 
Perez is the only officer accused of forcing drug suspects into the service 
of his own narcotics racket, and the only one, aside from his partner, 
accused of shooting an unarmed suspect, who was cornered in an abandoned 

The second scandal involves the more mundane, more widespread practice at 
the LAPD of bending the rules of legal process, or flagrantly violating 
them, to make arrests and mete out punishment to suspected lawbreakers. 
These crimes are more subtle, more difficult to prove and more politically 
ambiguous. But they are the ones that government officials and police 
watchdogs must address if they are to achieve real reform at the LAPD.

The distinction between the two scandals was drawn into sharp relief by the 
remarkable manner in which the Rampart criminal trial unfolded. The case 
involved three incidents of misconduct selected from among dozens that 
Perez had described in interviews, each chosen because there was 
substantial circumstantial evidence to support Perez's allegations. Perez 
was considered essential -- he would narrate the case, walking the jury 
through the process by which officers at the CRASH anti-gang unit would 
fabricate crime scenarios and then file the bogus cases with the district 

But Perez, burdened with his own personal scandal, proved too hot for the 
courtroom. On the eve of trial, Perez was accused by a former girlfriend 
named Sonia Flores of committing several homicides. Faced with the prospect 
of cross-examination on these new charges, Perez announced through his 
attorney that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to answer, 
rendering moot any other testimony he might offer.

Flores later admitted she had made up her account of the Perez homicides, 
but don't expect to see him called to the witness stand anytime soon. Even 
before Flores' accusations, Perez had failed five lie-detector tests 
administered by the LAPD, and had refused to divulge any material relating 
to his good friend David Mack, a fellow rogue cop doing time for a 1997 
bank robbery. Defense attorneys vowed to attack Perez on every inconsistency.

Still, the sudden loss of Perez seemed to leave the prosecution adrift. At 
times the case seemed almost random; witnesses were introduced in no 
particular order, speaking to any one of the three alleged false arrests. 
Asked at one point during a break in proceedings whom she planned to call 
for her next witness, lead prosecutor Laura Laesecke said she wasn't sure. 
"It's fluid," she said as she shuffled through her notes. "It's a work in 

The low point came midway through the trial, when Judge Jacqueline Connor 
ruled that prosecutors had failed to bring sufficient evidence on one of 
the incidents even to allow the jury to consider it, and that event was 
dropped from the case.

By the end, however, the prosecution was able to string together a 
compelling chain of circumstantial evidence that contradicted the official 
version of the two remaining arrests. In their closing arguments, Laesecke 
and Anne Ingalls, head of the D.A.'s Rampart task force, pressed the jury 
to rely on their common sense in deciding whether the officers' version of 
events stood up against the official record and the testimony of witnesses 
at the scene.

Based on those criteria, the jury found three of four officers guilty of 
fabricating charges in one of the two incidents examined at trial. And 
based on those criteria, the district attorney can now consider bringing 
cases far afield from the Rampart Division.

Perez himself laid out the scenario early on during his interviews with 
LAPD investigators. "I would say that 90 percent of the officers that work 
CRASH -- and not just Rampart CRASH -- falsify a lot of information. They 
put cases on people. And I know that's not a good thing to hear. I know 
that's very broad . . . I'm not proud of this, or, you know, it hurts me to 
say it. But there's a lot of crooked stuff going on at the LAPD."

Perez offered little actual evidence of such misconduct outside Rampart, 
but reform advocates -- including the monitor appointed under the federal 
consent decree -- have plenty of leads to work with. Already in the past 
year, officers from the LAPD's Southeast, 77th Street and Central divisions 
have been indicted, fired or forced to retire owing to alleged misconduct. 
Even if the first Rampart verdict ends up being dismissed because of juror 
misconduct, investigators don't need to wait on Rafael Perez to develop 
cases, perhaps dozens of them, in those and other high-crime areas of the city.

But if the Rampart trial showed that prosecutors can bring successful cases 
against cops, it also showed how difficult it will be to muster and 
maintain the political will such efforts will require. For just as the 
convictions of three officers stripped the police of their moral stature, 
so did the close exposure strip the cops' quarry of any chance they might 
enjoy public sympathy.

Police critics have been wondering since the Rampart story broke why this 
scandal had so little hold on public opinion. What the criminal trial 
established was that Rampart does not lend itself to easy moral 
pronouncements. In the war on street gangs in Los Angeles, there are no 
heroes, and there are few innocent victims.

That case was made clear as the jury heard the story of Raul Munoz, one of 
two gang members for whose arrest Sergeants Ed Ortiz and Brian Liddy and 
Officer Michael Buchanan were convicted of conspiracy. Ortiz and Liddy were 
also convicted of perjury and Buchanan of filing a false report. In that 
episode, Munoz, a member of the Temple Street gang, was arrested on charges 
that he ran Buchanan and Liddy down with a pickup truck while fleeing the 
scene of a police raid.

The circumstances of the arrest were detailed from the witness stand. It 
was July of 1996, and Temple Street was facing a crisis. The gang had been 
feuding with the Mexican Mafia over who would collect the "rent," or 
rake-off of illegal profits from the hustlers near MacArthur Park who 
trafficked in fake papers for undocumented immigrants. A "rent collector" 
named Lizard had been dispatched to Temple Street turf to collect the 
Mexican Mafia's due. While sitting down with Temple Street members outside 
a McDonald's restaurant, Lizard was murdered.

The Mexican Mafia answered by putting a "green light" on the entire gang, 
meaning that any Temple Streeter who had the bad fortune to land in the 
state prison system was a target for retaliation. Scared and confused, 
Temple Street called a summit to plot its reaction. The whole gang would be 
there, an easy target for its enemies, so they agreed to meet outside their 
home turf, in an alley in Los Feliz, a couple of blocks from the Vista 
movie house.

That night saw more than 40 Temple Street members come together, including 
Munoz, then 23 years old. A gang veteran who went by the street moniker 
"Prieto," Spanish for "shady," Munoz had been born in El Salvador but grew 
up in Reseda and fell in with Temple Street boys who were bused to school 
in his neighborhood. When he was 16, Munoz made his bones with the gang 
when he gunned down a member of a rival gang in front of a local high school.

Munoz arrived at the Temple Street meeting with a girlfriend. He was on 
parole at the time, and his mere presence at a gang gathering violated the 
terms of his deal. Soon after his arrival, Munoz left with another gang 
member to go and retrieve a gun. Returning to the meeting, he kept the gun 
with him; as a convicted felon, holding that gun represented another 
felony. At trial, defense attorney Paul DePasquale emphasized, "You knew 
you were breaking the law with that gun in your lap?"

Munoz replied, "I broke it since I arrived."

About that time a police helicopter bore down on the meeting, illuminating 
the scene with its Night-Sun spotlight as a combined squad of Rampart and 
Northeast division CRASH units closed in on the ground. "Everyone 
scattered," Munoz recalled on the stand. "I didn't care where I was going, 
I just wanted to get outta there." As for the gun, Munoz said, "I had to 
get rid of it somehow."

Munoz jumped into his truck with a fellow gang member named "Joker," and 
the two sped down the alley past the converging officers. This is where 
Liddy and Buchanan said they were run down. According to Munoz and several 
other witnesses at the scene, however, nobody got hit and the truck 
proceeded to the end of the alley, where its path was blocked by a 

Swerving to avoid a crash, Munoz stalled out the truck. He and Joker fled 
on foot, Munoz dodging between several uniformed officers with his gun 
tucked under his shirt, "in a football position." Halfway down the block, 
with cops behind him and cops in front, he tossed the gun in a bush. 
Moments later he was confronted by an officer with a shotgun and dropped to 
the pavement. That, Munoz said, was his first encounter with Liddy -- when 
the CRASH officer caught up with him, he kicked Munoz hard between the 
legs, and informed him, "You're in deep shit."

The jury found that Munoz never struck two officers with his truck, that 
the charges were fabricated, and that Ed Ortiz, the sergeant in charge that 
night, knew of the ruse when he signed off on the arrest report.

But the fact remains that, on the basis of his own testimony, Munoz is at 
least a two-strike felon who maintained his gang ties until he was deported 
to El Salvador, where he resides to this day. He's the sort of repeat 
offender that made street crime the top domestic political issue of the 
past decade. While he may have been mistreated by officers from a gang 
squad that flouted the rules of criminal procedure, Munoz will never be a 
poster boy for police reform.

In her final argument, prosecutor Anne Ingalls was able to persuade the 
jury that, while all citizens want to see the police rid the city of 
criminal street gangs, "Let's get them fair and square." It was enough to 
bring a verdict against three officers after a four-week trial, but 
something less than the sense of outrage kindled by the videotaped beating 
of Rodney King, outrage that led to the formation of the Christopher 
Commission and the ouster of Daryl Gates.

By contrast, the leading public figure in the Rampart scandal will remain 
Rafael Perez, an antihero who will get media attention but never 
exoneration. The question for the city and for the LAPD is, What will 
become of the second Rampart scandal? Who will move to rein in the cowboy 
officers like Liddy and Buchanan and Ortiz, who staff the specialized units 
across the city?

The first Rampart criminal trial made clear that the answer will be a test 
of leadership, not a measure of civic will. With the federal consent decree 
and a spate of recent critiques, the apparatus for reform is already in 
place, but the future of reform at the LAPD must come at the direction of a 
handful of political figures, including the mayor and the district 
attorney. To get there, they won't have the luxury of riding a crest of 
public outrage. They'll have to muster that determination on their own.
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