By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
One thing kept the single most ridiculous police operation in the history of Los Angeles and Ventura counties from also being the funniest: An innocent man was killed. Now comes the final somber punch line to the Trail‘s End Ranch case: a bill to taxpayers for $5 million.
You’ve heard similar stories: Police suspect a drug operation, raid someone‘s house; an occupant raises a gun; officers shoot him; no drugs are found.
On the morning of October 2, 1992, Donald Scott died a death like perhaps dozens of others in local police history. However, he was not a poor young man of color but a rich, white man in the fullness of years. He had no record; he did have a young wife and a multimillion-dollar ranch on the other side of the Ventura County line. And unlike the typical drug investigation (we hope), this was a clown show.
Just read the official reports: The investigator mistakes a Carson car registration for Carson City, Nevada. A dumpster-pilfered deposit slip for an offshore bank is by itself introduced as evidence of drug trafficking. So, apparently, is the fact that Scott’s wife drives a 5-year-old BMW and spends $100 bills at local markets. Imagine, spending $100 bills in Malibu. Now there‘s a way to stick out.
Nevertheless, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department exonerated the shooter, a Malibu--Agoura Hills station deputy named Gary Spencer. As it happens, Spencer also was the man behind the so-called investigation, which official departmental reports show as a farrago of bad evidence, wild assumptions, hoked-up grudges and dubious surmises. At no point, according to the LASD‘s own reports, did Spencer have any responsible supervision -- what you might call adult leadership. No one second-guessed the deputy or checked out his wild story of marijuana plants dangling from trees in pots rigged to rise and fall with the sun. The hard-charging Spencer was not even slowed by the Ventura judge he went to for a search warrant -- to whom he untruthfully claimed that a marijuana plant had been seen, via binoculars from an aircraft -- on Spencer’s ranch.
Still, the L.A. County District Attorney‘s Office found no police wrongdoing on the part of Spencer or anyone else in a six-agency federallocal task force that included more than 25 officers and investigators. You might have thought there was more than enough blame to go around. But officially, there wasn’t enough for anyone. At least, not according to Los Angeles County.
But the caper didn‘t pass muster elsewhere. Because the 1992 madcap drug-squad escapade culminated in Ventura County, where there was another district attorney involved: Ventura County’s Michael Bradbury. Although the warrant behind the expedition was furnished by a Ventura County judge -- on the basis of some very questionable information -- no one told Bradbury or the Ventura County sheriff what was going down in their territory.
So he responded to the incident with what is perhaps the most damning critique ever made of the Los Angeles County Sheriff‘s Department. In which Bradbury accused Sheriff Sherman Block’s deputies of plotting to seize Scott‘s ranch in forfeiture proceedings, all for its alleged multimillion-dollar worth. I have never seen a convincing refutation of this contention.
An outraged Sheriff Block responded with his own report. But even as Block’s report defended Spencer‘s actions, by enumerating in detail the preceding investigation, the sheriff’s own summary confirmed the ill-supervised, slipshod, sometimes bestially stupid police work that, in large part, brought about the entire tragedy. And most of all, its two-volume, foot-thick bulk demonstrates that no one assumed proper supervision over this very junior officer. This was the fault of the Sheriff‘s Department. Nearly eight years later, the county admits this by paying $4 million to Scott’s heirs -- his widow and three children. The federal government is responsible for the other $1 million of the settlement totaling $5 million.
As this month‘s County Claims Board report puts it, ”A public entity is responsible for the negligent and wrongful acts of its employees and when the acts are committed in the course and scope of their duties. Additionally, a public entity would be liable for a violation of another’s federally protected civil rights.“
Deputy Spencer -- who the last time I looked had three excessive-force civil cases pending against him, including the Scott death -- is no longer with the department, according to the Sheriff‘s personnel people. The Scott Ranch itself burned off in the 1993 brushfires. But in its own response to this week’s multimillion-dollar settlement, the Sheriff‘s Department -- even under new Sheriff Lee Baca -- still claims the shooting was justified. I guess some things never change.
Pre-empting the Pre-emptors
I wasn’t there. So I am inclined not to say anything about it. But so many people who were there have since said a lot. So what really did happen at the neighborhood councils‘ charter-workshop gathering on the evening of March 21 in Echo Park?
Some witnesses contend that the meeting got somewhat out of control as a dozen or more outspoken outsiders took it over. According to this version, these outsiders obstructed the gathering by objecting to a pre-established plan to divide the group of more than 100 into 14 small workshops. And the hindering of these breakout groups prevented the meeting from accomplishing what it set out to do.