Pubdate: Thu, 23 Sep 1999
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 1999 Los Angeles Times.
Contact:  (213) 237-4712
Author: Anne-Marie O'connor, Times Staff Writer


Probe: El Monte officers seized the cash the night Mario Paz was killed.
Relatives want it back, but police say source must be cleared.

El Monte Police Department officials are reportedly demanding an interview
with the widow of Mario Paz--a grandfather of 14 who was shot to death in
his Compton bedroom by an El Monte officer during a SWAT team raid--before
police will return up to $11,000 seized as suspected drug proceeds, lawyers
for the family said Wednesday.

Attorneys for the survivors of Mario Paz said El Monte police want Maria
Luisa Paz, 51, to recount her version of the night in August that an El
Monte SWAT team shot the locks off the doors of her home, burst into the
bedroom and shot her husband to death in front of her. Police said the
officer, who shot Paz twice in the back, feared for his life.

Attorney Cameron Stewart, who is filing a claim for damages--the legal
prelude to a lawsuit--against the cities of El Monte and Compton on behalf
of the Paz family, said the police demand for access to Paz "borders on

Stewart said an El Monte investigator said "the only way we're going to
release the money is if Maria Paz submits to an interview."

Armando Paz, 35, one of the seven Paz children, was livid.

"My mother has nothing to explain to anyone," he said. "[The police] are
the ones who owe us an explanation."

El Monte Assistant Police Chief Bill Ankeny said the interview is "not
necessarily" a condition of returning the money. But El Monte police
investigators do want to speak to Paz's widow as part of their
investigation into the money's legitimacy and do not want to return the
money until they complete their investigation, Ankeny said.

"Her attorney knows that it's not a condition that she submit to an
interview," Ankeny said. "Whenever we take money from somebody, we take it
to investigate its legitimacy. There's a number of avenues that we can
take, and this is just one of them. [The Paz lawyers] have their methods
they can go through, we have our methods of investigation," he said.

"If it's their money, they will get it back--if the money is legitimate,"
Ankeny said.

Maria Luisa Paz and six others were sleeping at home the night of the Aug.
9 raid, which was mounted in pursuit of a drug case against a man who had
lived next door years ago.

The family submitted to hours of police interrogations, without lawyers
present, after the incident.

There were no arrests or charges in the raid, which was part of an ongoing
narcotics investigation against a suspect, Marcos Beltran Lizarraga, who
had bailed out of jail that morning. Police found no drugs at the Paz home
but seized several weapons that the family said were for personal protection.

Police were led to the Paz home when its address came up on Beltran's cell
phone bill and DMV registration. The Paz family denies links to Beltran and
says their former neighbor took advantage of Mario Paz by occasionally
using his address.

Atty. Stewart said her law firm offered to give the El Monte police copies
of receipts showing that the cash found in the Paz home was withdrawn from
a Tijuana bank the day of the raid. The family says the money is their life
savings and part of a settlement from on-the-job injuries Mario Paz
sustained when he fell off a cement mixer in the 1980s. The family has
extensive paperwork on the claim.  "They have no information that ties this
money to any criminal wrongdoing, so they should return it immediately,"
Stewart said.

Stewart said the request for an interview with Paz's widow came from El
Monte Police Officer George Mendoza, a narcotics detective who obtained the
"high-risk" nighttime search warrant of the Paz home after El Monte police
found $75,000 Aug. 7 at a Chino home where Beltran was and 400 pounds of
marijuana and three loaded assault rifles in a subsequent search of the
home of Paul Lizarraga, a warrant affidavit said. The affidavit said police
believed Beltran was using the Paz address to store marijuana and cash.

Stewart said David Lynn, the law firm's chief investigator on the case,
asked for the return of the Paz money a month ago and was told by Mendoza
that "the only way we're going to release the money is if Maria Paz submits
to an interview."

Lynn asked Mendoza to put it in writing, but on Monday, Mendoza declined,
saying he had been instructed not to by the El Monte city attorney's
office, Stewart said.

Mendoza said he could not comment and referred a reporter to El Monte
Assistant Police Chief Ankeny.

Said Maria Derain, the adult daughter of Mario Paz: "This is like
extortion. But they've taken more than that from us already, something we
can't replace."

There are other problems associated with the cash, which was seized as
suspected drug money, though the raid has still failed to yield any arrests
or charges.

The police declaration of the seizure lists $10,000 in cash. The family
says it was more--just over $11,000--and attorneys say they will present
evidence of that sum in their demand for its return.

El Monte contract City Atty. Jimmy Gutierrez said he was not ready to comment.

"We're still fact-gathering," Gutierrez said. "There are legal consequences
to what we might say. We're not stonewalling."

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