Pubdate: Wed, 26 Apr 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-4712
Author: Matt Lait, Scott Glover, Times Staff Writers
Note: Times staff writer Ted Rohrlich contributed to this story.
Bookmark: MAP's shortcut to Rampart items:


*LAPD: Examination of saliva on rock cocaine allegedly spit out by suspects
contradicts policemen's testimony in arrests in Rampart, two other

Bolstering allegations of widespread misconduct and corruption within the
Los Angeles Police Department, DNA analysis in four different drug cases
contradicts the testimony of officers who claimed they witnessed suspects
spit rock cocaine out of their mouths.

The previously unpublicized cases, which involved arrests made in three LAPD
divisions--Rampart, Southwest and Hollenbeck--strongly suggest that the
officers filed false reports and perjured themselves in court in an effort
to frame innocent people, according to interviews, court files and
confidential documents obtained by The Times.

Three of the four cases have already been dismissed. The fourth is pending.
At least two other cases have been thrown out of court because the officers
involved were regarded as having credibility problems stemming from their
part in cases in which the results of DNA tests have disproved their

Prosecutors assigned to the district attorney's task force on police
corruption are conducting a criminal investigation of at least two of the
officers involved in the alleged frame-ups, according to internal district
attorney's documents.

Hiding rock cocaine in one's mouth is a common practice among drug dealers
and drug users, according to law enforcement experts. Sources close to the
corruption investigation said investigators are concerned that some officers
are using their knowledge of that practice to fabricate purported
observations of suspects disposing of evidence and then to falsely arrest
people. The falsity of such arrests can be established by DNA tests, which
ought to detect a connection between a suspect and the saliva residue on any
object they spat out, according to experts.

If the officers are not intentionally lying about their observations,
sources say, then they are guilty of sloppy police work and committing
inexcusable mistakes that could send defendants to prison for many years.

"These types of allegation are extremely troubling and will be thoroughly
investigated," said LAPD spokesman Cmdr. David J. Kalish.

All of the officers involved in these six cases remain on active duty and
either could not be reached for comment or did not return phone calls.

2 Officers in Rampart Division

Four of the cases in question involved either David Vinton or Scott Voeltz,
both of whom were assigned to the Rampart Division. The first case to come
under fire resulted from the then-partners' arrest of Raul Pacheco and
Antonio Nunez on July 30, 1998.

Vinton testified in court that he and Voeltz were in an observation post on
the fourth or fifth floor of an apartment building when they watched Pacheco
and Nunez sell drugs to an unidentified customer. The customer handed money
to Pacheco, Vinton testified. Pacheco motioned to Nunez, who cupped his
hands over his mouth and spit something out, the officer alleged. Nunez
handed the object to the buyer, who promptly walked away.

Vinton said the partners ran down the stairs and across the street to arrest
Nunez and Pacheco. The officers recovered $154 from Pacheco. Nunez, Vinton
said, spit a dozen pieces of crack cocaine onto the sidewalk.

When the case went to trial, Deputy Public Defender Marie Girolamo requested
funds to have the drugs tested for the presence of DNA. The result: Nunez
was scientifically excluded as a person who ever had the drugs in his mouth.

A Superior Court judge dismissed the case Nov. 24, 1998.

A source in the district attorney's office said Vinton, who was insistent
about his identification of Nunez during the preliminary hearing in the
case, was mistaken. Pacheco, the source said, eventually admitted to having
the drugs in his mouth.

The D.A.'s source said prosecutors were deeply troubled by Vinton's
willingness to make a positive ID that could have sent someone to prison
when clearly he was not certain.

"It was extremely reckless," the prosecutorial source said. "His attitude
was so bad that quite frankly it was as if he were lying."

Members of an LAPD internal disciplinary board found that the officers had
made "an honest mistake" and issued them both written reprimands.

Another DNA test resulted in the dismissal of a second Vinton and Voeltz
case, this one involving a Dec. 7, 1998, arrest. Again, the partners were
watching drug sales from an observation post in the upper floors of an
apartment building when they witnessed a drug transaction involving three
men. Voeltz wrote in his report that the alleged seller, later identified as
Miguel Monge, was hiding cocaine in his mouth before spitting it into his
hand and then passing it to the buyer.

When the alleged buyers were pulled over and arrested by officers on the
ground minutes later, the officers recovered two rocks of cocaine from the
floorboard of the car--drugs that Monge had allegedly passed from his mouth
to the driver of the car.

A DNA test revealed that the rocks were coated with saliva from two
people--neither of whom was Monge. The case against him was dismissed.

According to district attorney's documents, the DNA test did not
conclusively show that the drugs were never in Monge's mouth because the
saliva from the two others could have washed his away. But the documents
obtained by The Times also show the buyers in the case later told
prosecutors that Monge was not the man who sold them drugs.

Two more cases--one involved Vinton, the other Voeltz--were dismissed
without the drugs ever being tested for DNA.

Such was the case with Vinton's arrest of Darla Diaz on Aug. 14, 1998.
Vinton testified that he was on patrol with a reserve officer in the 200
block of South Mariposa Avenue when Diaz approached his police car. "I was
parked in the middle of the street. She walked up to the passenger side door
and spit it [rock cocaine] out right next to the door on the street."

The case was dismissed three months later when prosecutors told the judge
they were unable to proceed.

That decision, according to sources and documents, was made after Vinton was
called into the office of Sally Thomas, director of central operations in
the district attorney's office.

"Dismissed due to attitude and problems of credibility with Officer Vinton,"
stated a confidential D.A.'s document obtained by The Times. "Vinton . . .
told [Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas] that she and the LAPD were doing things the
old way and didn't understand the way things had to be done to catch these

Thomas, sources said, reported Vinton to Rampart Division Capt. Robert B.
Hansohn, saying that she had serious concerns about whether the officer
should remain on the streets. Weeks later, a source said, the officer was
back on patrol.

Drug charges against David Hinestroza were dismissed in the middle of jury
deliberations after his public defender, Marie Geelan, told the prosecutor
that her key witness, Voeltz, had credibility problems as a result of the
Nunez case a month earlier.

Although the rock cocaine, which Voeltz claimed he saw Hinestroza spit from
his mouth, was never tested for DNA, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lia Martin said she
no longer was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Hinestroza was

On top of the information about the Nunez case, Martin noted that Voeltz's
partner was unable to corroborate key elements of Voeltz's testimony.
Additionally, Martin said she was swayed by the fact that Hinestroza
demanded to go to trial on the matter, even though he was eligible for a
deferred judgment that would have effectively prevented the incident from
going on his record.

The most recent dismissal due to DNA testing appears to have occurred in
September of last year. In that case, a judge dismissed drug possession
charges against Anthony Lewis, who was arrested by Southwest Division
officers in April 1999.

According to the police report by Officer Clifford Byerly, he and his
partner pulled over a car to write the driver a citation for being
doubled-parked when Byerly noticed that the passenger had something in his
mouth that appeared to be rock cocaine. Byerly wrote in a probable cause
declaration that when he asked the passenger--Lewis--what was in his mouth,
Lewis took off running. Byerly said he chased Lewis until the defendant lost
his balance and ran into a fence in the 4500 block of Van Ness Avenue. He
said he then watched Lewis spit what turned out to be a rock of cocaine from
his mouth.

Judge Ordered DNA Testing

Peter Swarth, the defense attorney in the case, after being denied the funds
for DNA testing by a court commissioner, persuaded Superior Court Judge
Shari Silver to order the test.

Lewis told the judge he was so confident of his innocence that he would
agree to plead guilty and wait in jail pending the results of the test.

He was soon vindicated, Swarth asserts. The DNA test results indicated there
was no saliva present on the drugs. The DNA material that was present, the
test showed, excluded Lewis.

One district attorney's source questioned the reliability of the test in the
Lewis case, saying that the fact that no saliva was present does not prove
that the drug was not in Lewis' mouth. In some cases, particularly when
people are under the influence, they can be severely dehydrated and saliva
would not be present in sufficient amounts to be detected. The source said
there also could be problems with obtaining an accurate reading on such a
minuscule amount of cocaine as constituted the evidence in this case.

Swarth said he had no doubt that the officer was lying, and wrote a report
to his superiors alleging as much.

"All these guys learn to lie on the little stuff," said Swarth, who has
since left the public defender's office. "Then they get emboldened by the

In some cases as reported by the LAPD, it is as if defendants are fish,
jumping into the boat.

Oscar Manuel Ramos, according to police, strolled into the LAPD's Hollenbeck
Division one day and started to chat with officers. One of the officers
noticed that Ramos had something in his mouth. They asked him to spit it out
and it turned out to be cocaine. But according to defense attorneys, a DNA
analysis has since shown that the rock was not in Ramos' mouth, as the
officers claimed.

Ramos' case still is pending in Superior Court.
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