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
But if the Rampart trial showed that prosecutors can bring successful cases against cops, it also showed how difficult it will be to muster and maintain the political will such efforts will require. For just as the convictions of three officers stripped the police of their moral stature, so did the close exposure strip the cops‘ quarry of any chance they might enjoy public sympathy.
Police critics have been wondering since the Rampart story broke why this scandal had so little hold on public opinion. What the criminal trial established was that Rampart does not lend itself to easy moral pronouncements. In the war on street gangs in Los Angeles, there are no heroes, and there are few innocent victims.
That case was made clear as the jury heard the story of Raul Munoz, one of two gang members for whose arrest Sergeants Ed Ortiz and Brian Liddy and Officer Michael Buchanan were convicted of conspiracy. Ortiz and Liddy were also convicted of perjury and Buchanan of filing a false report. In that episode, Munoz, a member of the Temple Street gang, was arrested on charges that he ran Buchanan and Liddy down with a pickup truck while fleeing the scene of a police raid.
The circumstances of the arrest were detailed from the witness stand. It was July of 1996, and Temple Street was facing a crisis. The gang had been feuding with the Mexican Mafia over who would collect the ”rent,“ or rake-off of illegal profits from the hustlers near MacArthur Park who trafficked in fake papers for undocumented immigrants. A ”rent collector“ named Lizard had been dispatched to Temple Street turf to collect the Mexican Mafia’s due. While sitting down with Temple Street members outside a McDonald‘s restaurant, Lizard was murdered.
The Mexican Mafia answered by putting a ”green light“ on the entire gang, meaning that any Temple Streeter who had the bad fortune to land in the state prison system was a target for retaliation. Scared and confused, Temple Street called a summit to plot its reaction. The whole gang would be there, an easy target for its enemies, so they agreed to meet outside their home turf, in an alley in Los Feliz, a couple of blocks from the Vista movie house.
That night saw more than 40 Temple Street members come together, including Munoz, then 23 years old. A gang veteran who went by the street moniker ”Prieto,“ Spanish for ”shady,“ Munoz had been born in El Salvador but grew up in Reseda and fell in with Temple Street boys who were bused to school in his neighborhood. When he was 16, Munoz made his bones with the gang when he gunned down a member of a rival gang in front of a local high school.
Munoz arrived at the Temple Street meeting with a girlfriend. He was on parole at the time, and his mere presence at a gang gathering violated the terms of his deal. Soon after his arrival, Munoz left with another gang member to go and retrieve a gun. Returning to the meeting, he kept the gun with him; as a convicted felon, holding that gun represented another felony. At trial, defense attorney Paul DePasquale emphasized, ”You knew you were breaking the law with that gun in your lap?“
Munoz replied, ”I broke it since I arrived.“
About that time a police helicopter bore down on the meeting, illuminating the scene with its Night-Sun spotlight as a combined squad of Rampart and Northeast division CRASH units closed in on the ground. ”Everyone scattered,“ Munoz recalled on the stand. ”I didn’t care where I was going, I just wanted to get outta there.“ As for the gun, Munoz said, ”I had to get rid of it somehow.“
Munoz jumped into his truck with a fellow gang member named ”Joker,“ and the two sped down the alley past the converging officers. This is where Liddy and Buchanan said they were run down. According to Munoz and several other witnesses at the scene, however, nobody got hit and the truck proceeded to the end of the alley, where its path was blocked by a black-and-white.
Swerving to avoid a crash, Munoz stalled out the truck. He and Joker fled on foot, Munoz dodging between several uniformed officers with his gun tucked under his shirt, ”in a football position.“ Halfway down the block, with cops behind him and cops in front, he tossed the gun in a bush. Moments later he was confronted by an officer with a shotgun and dropped to the pavement. That, Munoz said, was his first encounter with Liddy -- when the CRASH officer caught up with him, he kicked Munoz hard between the legs, and informed him, ”You‘re in deep shit.“
The jury found that Munoz never struck two officers with his truck, that the charges were fabricated, and that Ed Ortiz, the sergeant in charge that night, knew of the ruse when he signed off on the arrest report.
But the fact remains that, on the basis of his own testimony, Munoz is at least a two-strike felon who maintained his gang ties until he was deported to El Salvador, where he resides to this day. He’s the sort of repeat offender that made street crime the top domestic political issue of the past decade. While he may have been mistreated by officers from a gang squad that flouted the rules of criminal procedure, Munoz will never be a poster boy for police reform.