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Pattern and Practice 

A 1980 interrogation-room shooting bears similarities to current LAPD scandal

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
Courtesy Irma Madera

Nineteen years ago, LAPD Detective Steven R. Miller shot a handcuffed suspect in the chest during an interview in the police interrogation room.

Miller says it was an accident. The suspect, Jose Luis Frutis, says the enraged detective helped frame him for murder.

Three weeks ago, the allegations contained in Frutis’ motion for a new trial languished with little interest from the authorities. Now there is renewed interest in the case, fueled by allegations from admitted rogue Officer Rafael A. Perez of bad shootings, planted evidence and routine abuse in the Rampart Division CRASH anti-gang unit.

Frutis, a Boyle Heights resident and member of the Third Street Gang, has filed declarations from a fellow inmate whose fingerprints were found in the getaway car, and who claims he committed the killing for which Frutis was convicted.

Undisputed in the case is the fact that, while he was handcuffed and in an LAPD interrogation room, Frutis was shot in the chest and critically wounded.

Now, in the wake of the Perez misconduct allegations, the District Attorney’s Office is preparing to reopen the Frutis case.

in court documents, Frutis contends that he was shot without provocation, when an interrogating detective became enraged that Frutis could not name a suspect in the murder case for which Frutis himself was later convicted. The questioning was conducted by two detectives: Miller, who left the force in 1982, and his partner, Albert Gonzales, who remains a detective at the LAPD’s Central Division. Both at the time were assigned to the CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) detail — the same unit at the center of the current police-misconduct scandal.

Gonzales, when contacted at work Tuesday, said he could not discuss the case. Efforts to reach Miller were unsuccessful.

The December 26, 1980, interview took place in a windowless room inside the Central bureau headquarters, at Sixth and Wall streets. According to both Frutis and the police, he was handcuffed to the chair during the entire 60-minute encounter.

As Frutis recounted in a 1986 deposition, Detective Miller leafed through a book of photos to see if Frutis would identify any as potential suspects. Frutis demurred, and Miller escalated his demands, finally declaring, "If you don’t tell me who killed this guy, I’m going to kill you." Frutis answered that he had no information and that he’d take a polygraph exam to show that he wasn’t lying. According to Frutis, Miller then slammed the book onto a table, reached into his coat, pulled out a handgun and shot Frutis in the chest.

The bullet entered three inches above his heart, exited through his left arm and embedded itself in a wooden baseboard.

Miller later testified under oath that he shot Frutis by accident. But Miller corroborated much of the rest of Frutis’ account, acknowledging that Frutis did nothing to provoke a shooting.

Miller and Gonzales gave their sworn statements on the case in depositions taken in 1986 in connection with a civil suit filed by Frutis.

According to Miller’s testimony, he was passing the gun, which he said had been holstered to that point, to his partner so as to set Frutis more at ease, then lost his grip on the weapon and fired it by accident. Subsequent tests by the LAPD established that Miller’s .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver required 7 and a half pounds of pressure on the trigger to discharge.

Gonzales, by his own account as well as Miller’s and Frutis’, sat silently until the shooting took place. Gonzales testified that he and Miller were working a "good-cop, bad-cop" routine, with Miller "being the tough guy." In contrast to Miller, Gonzales said, Frutis "became upset" a couple of times during the interview, and just before the shooting, Frutis "turned away from my partner as a display of being arrogant." Gonzales confirmed that Frutis was handcuffed the entire time.

As to the shooting, Gonzales said he did not realize Miller was attempting to pass his weapon to him. Gonzales said he heard Miller say his name and saw a hand movement, but never saw the gun. Gonzales testified, "To the best of my recollection, the gun went off within six to 10 inches from my ear."

After the shooting, according to Frutis, he quickly passed out from his injuries, but not before he heard Gonzales state to Miller, "You killed him."

The in-custody shooting of Jose Luis Frutis received the customary departmental review — not unlike the process in place today.

First on the scene were several officers and detectives who responded to the sound of a gunshot inside the building; Miller and Gonzales each said they could not recall any names. Gonzales said he was contacted soon after that by a Sergeant Kennerson — the commanding officer that day. In his deposition, Gonzales was asked, "Did [Kennerson] ask you at that point for any details to the shooting as to how it occurred or what had happened?" Gonzales answered, "No. I just informed him that there had been a gun fired and that’s all he asked."

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