July 20, 1996, dawned as a day of mourning at 676 South Shatto Place, a crowded immigrant tenement just south of Wilshire Boulevard. Two residents of the building, both members of the 18th Street Gang, had been shot dead the night before, victims of a turf-war drive-by. A makeshift shrine was erected on the sidewalk; a crowd of tenants gathered to recite prayers in a fourth-floor apartment.
By the end of that night, the parents, siblings and neighbors of Shatto Place had another body to mourn, this time killed during a raid by the Rampart Station CRASH unit. Two other residents were wounded by police gunfire in a night of mayhem that is still shrouded in mystery.
Police officers said then that their targets, members of 18th Street like the victims the night before, were armed and dangerous. None of the suspects returned fire, however, and witnesses said they were unarmed; but in the official reviews and court proceedings that followed, nobody listened.
Now everybodys listening.
The first new light to be shed on the case came in September, in the first reports from an official investigation into police misconduct at Rampart. Renegade officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez had named Shatto Place as the scene of a dirty shooting, but no further details were released.
In the weeks since, several officers on the scene that night have been suspended and a grand jury convened to look into possible misconduct. But attorneys for the family of the man killed at Shatto Place, and for another man wounded by police fire, contend that law-enforcement officials are seeking to control the damage and protect the chain of command. They hope to make that charge stick in a lawsuit filed last week in federal court alleging civil rights violations by the officers who shot and killed Juan Manuel Saldaña, and a systematic coverup by the LAPD brass. Either there was a Keystone Cop on top signing every piece of paper put in front of him, or its a coverup of everything thats been going on, attorney Antonio Rodriguez said at a news conference announcing the suit.
The official version of what happened that night is detailed in an officer-involved-shooting review filed with the Police Commission by Chief Willie Williams in January 1997. Williams found the shootings in policy, and pronounced himself pleased by the officers efforts to apprehend violent gang criminals and prevent further injuries.
According to the review, officers were dispatched to Shatto Place based on an unsourced report that gang members in the building were planning to retaliate for the deadly drive-by the night before. Officers reported that three gang members, Saldaña, Oscar Peralta and an S. Montufar, were seen brandishing weapons. Four officers, clad in body armor and with weapons drawn, entered the building from the rear; two headed for the top floor, where they encountered Saldana; two other officers confronted Peralta in the front lobby. Montufar surrendered without incident, but the other suspects fled and both were shot, the report states; Peralta was injured, and Saldaña was struck once during two initial volleys of police fire and then, still clutching his weapon, was slain by a single shot when he encountered another officer.
The attorneys for Saldañas family say the police story falls apart right there, and that anyone reviewing the record should have seen that, based on the autopsy conducted by the county coroner. That autopsy finds that Saldaña sustained two fatal shots, each piercing his torso from above. The first shots fired in the official version came from above, but neither of the two subsequent rounds did, the lawyers point out, and the presence of two fatal wounds renders the police account impossible.
Both rounds were found to be lethal, and that says a lot, said Jorge Gonzalez, another of the attorneys representing the Saldaña family. While nobody can say yet just what did happen at Shatto Place that night, Gonzalez contends that, in light of the autopsy, the police version is a clear fabrication: Saldaña couldnt have taken one of those wounds and been able to run around like they say he did. They should have seen that just from reading the reports.
They might also have listened to the other witnesses that night, several of whom reported seeing the accused gang members fleeing the police, and none of whom saw a gun.
One witness with a particularly good vantage was Salvador Ochoa, a native of El Salvador and a Shatto Place resident with two small children. Ochoa was descending the stairs that night with his kids in tow when Officer Michael Montoya burst into the front door in pursuit of Peralta, trained a shotgun up into the gloom of the stairwell and let go a blast. Ochoa caught several pellets of buckshot, but managed to shield his son and daughter with his back. Ochoas injury was reported in the official report, but his children werent mentioned. Nor was his version of the nights events.