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
Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
ARMANDO CORONADO WAS A RISING star in the navy-blue firmament of the LAPD. A former Marine and a fluent Spanish-speaker, Coronado had a flair for undercover work that helped him become a leader at the narcotics-enforcement section of the Rampart Division -- "Our number-one, best-producing officer," as one supervisor described him.
In his four years as a street cop and narcotics investigator, Coronado had never had a complaint lodged against him. In the evenings, he took classes in public administration, working toward a degree that would help him advance up the ladder at the department. Coronado's record was spotless, and his future with the LAPD seemed assured.
All of that began to change when Rampart CRASH Officers Rafael Perez and Nino Durden were transferred to the narcotics detail in June 1997. Almost from the outset, Coronado clashed with them, Perez in particular. Within weeks, he had told his supervisors that Perez flouted department rules about handling narcotics and cash. As the summer unfolded, he repeated those complaints, including at least twice when suspects reported to him that Perez and Durden had ripped them off.
But Coronado's efforts to rein in Perez and Durden only backfired. Rather than spark investigations into possible rogue officers, Coronado was ostracized by his supervisors and his fellow officers, derided as a "square" and a "company man."
In the years since, of course, Coronado's concerns were borne out by the confessions of Perez and Durden and their revelations of the entire Rampart scandal. Of all the cops who worked with Perez at Rampart, Armando Coronado is the only one who can say that he blew the whistle, the first officer to identify Perez's misconduct and alert his supervisors to the problem. As one department commander put it, "Hindsight being what it is, had the department responded to Coronado's concerns earlier, perhaps problems could have been avoided for Rampart."
Yet as the scandal grew, Coronado's troubles only mounted. In 1998, after he transferred out of Rampart, Coronado found himself the target of his own narcotics investigation. It turned out that, on three separate occasions, Perez had used Coronado's name to sign out quantities of cocaine from an LAPD evidence locker.
Coronado cooperated with investigators and helped to finger Perez, thereby clearing himself of suspicion. But soon after, Coronado was under investigation again, this time named by Perez as one of the rogue officers at Rampart. Over the past year, Coronado has been suspended twice and tried before two internal Boards of Rights on 11 counts of misconduct stemming from four separate incidents.
Coronado and his attorneys say Perez was retaliating against the officer who first reported him. His supervisor at Rampart, Detective George Lusby, agreed, declaring at one disciplinary hearing that "When I found out Coronado was at a Board of Rights, my first opinion was that Perez was getting even with him."
Last month, the second of those boards found Coronado innocent of all charges. But in the meantime, at 32 years of age, Coronado's career and his self-esteem are in a shambles. "He's an evil person," Coronado said of Perez during testimony before a disciplinary board. "He's trying to ruin my life, which he probably already has."
Coronado's travails at the hands of the department provide an ironic subplot to Rampart, the story of how one cop who dared challenge Perez was himself dragged into the quagmire. At the same time, Coronado's case provides new insight into one of the central questions posed by the Rampart scandal: How was it possible for Perez and Durden to carry out what amounts to a two-man crime wave while carrying the badge of the LAPD?
The answer lies in a 38-page diary Coronado compiled in the course of his defense, a remarkable document detailing his encounters with Perez and how his supervisors ignored his complaints. Buttressed by the corroborating testimony of several of his fellow officers, Coronado's Rampart memoir provides a rare glimpse inside the culture of the LAPD, a macho, locker-room atmosphere where arrests and drug seizures were prized above all else. There, Perez's routine violations of procedure and due process were ignored, while his continuing crime spree went undetected.
That insight was lost, however, on the brass at the LAPD. Rather than examine the culture of the department -- how its paramilitary team concept can foster the same outrages the police are charged with preventing -- Chief Bernard Parks reacted to Rampart with a grim campaign of punishment. For the department to show it could police itself, heads had to roll. Armando Coronado was simply collateral damage.
BY THE TIME OF HIS TRANSFER TO THE Rampart narcotics division, Perez had already become something of a legend inside the LAPD. Detective William McGee, one of the supervisors at Rampart narcotics, recalled during one Board of Rights that "We got [Perez] because he was such a great cop." Paul Pesqueira, then the commander in charge of narcotics operations citywide, said that Perez's supervisors regarded him as "the greatest officer in the world."
The arrival of such a celebrated street cop sparked a natural rivalry with Coronado, until then the unit's leading officer. As Perez himself put it later, "I sort of took the limelight away from him."