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
That April, Coronado received a subpoena to testify at Perez's second trial. He braced himself for his trip to court, there to face the rogue officer who had become his nemesis. The day before the trial was to go forward, Perez pleaded guilty. Once again, Coronado believed his ordeal had ended. Once again he was wrong.
ON MARCH 21 OF LAST YEAR, A MEXICAN immigrant with two drug convictions named Oscar Ochoa was busted for possession of narcotics. While sitting in jail, angry at his arrest and fearful that he would be deported, Ochoa filed a complaint with the LAPD. His arrests had been at the hands of Rafael Perez, Ochoa said. He'd been framed, he said.
It was a smart move. Ochoa had seen in the press how scores of other Rampart convicts had been released from jail and were suing the city; Ochoa would seek the same treatment.
Investigators with the LAPD's Rampart Task Force reviewed Ochoa's claims. Perez was nowhere near the first arrest, in 1996 -- Ochoa later admitted he lied about that one -- but he was there for the second, in July of 1997, along with Armando Coronado. The detectives then took Ochoa's complaint to Perez.
At first, Perez could remember nothing of the case. He was shown a photo of the house where Ochoa was found with a stash of rock cocaine. "It doesn't spark a memory," Perez said. The detectives pressed forward, sharing a description of the arrest report and details from Ochoa's complaint. Perez then began to catch on, agreeing in parts and asserting that Coronado had lied in the police report documenting the arrest.
Richard Rosenthal, a deputy district attorney working with the task force, pointed out that in the past Perez had said Coronado was not one of the lawbreakers at Rampart. Perez agreed. "Coronado was definitely not involved in any criminal activity. He was not in the loop, per se, or anything like that. But on some occasions we did -- he found the need to fabricate some probable cause to establish a case."
That said, Perez warmed to the business of identifying misconduct by Coronado. He said the 1997 Ochoa bust had started with an informant tip, but Coronado embellished the arrest report to include that he and Perez set up a brief surveillance of Ochoa and saw him make a drug sale before moving in. Perez said that was false.
Perez added that he had obtained a written confession from Ochoa by threatening to deport his wife and children if Ochoa did not cooperate.
Perez was asked about another Ochoa allegation, that the arresting officers had stolen money and food stamps from his wife. Perez said it didn't happen. He'd personally robbed other drug suspects, he said, but said he wouldn't dare commit misconduct in front of Coronado, because Coronado would turn him in. "I don't care if I found a thousand dollars, I'm not going to do anything working with Coronado," Perez said.
Based on the forced confession, as well as the allegedly bogus statement of probable cause, the district attorney moved to reverse Ochoa's conviction. His was the 94th case overturned based on Perez's testimony. In July, the LAPD filed charges of misconduct against Coronado. On September 27, Ochoa filed a civil suit seeking damages from the city.
In the charges lodged before a Board of Rights, Coronado was accused of failing to get permission to search the closet where he found Ochoa's stash of cocaine, and of three related crimes: making a false arrest, filing a false report and testifying falsely in court. It was, as Perez recalled later, "pretty much a nothing case," yet in the LAPD's cumbersome internal disciplinary process, it took four months of intermittent hearings, appearances by 13 witnesses and 1,200 pages of transcribed testimony to resolve.
In reaching its verdict, the board held that Ochoa and his wife repeatedly contradicted themselves, that Perez's testimony before the board contradicted statements he'd given police investigators, and that Ochoa had explicitly testified that he did give permission to search. Ironically, the case was clouded by further allegations of misconduct by Perez -- that he stole money and food stamps from Ochoa's wife, and Perez's own testimony that it was he who used threats to force Ochoa to write a confession. Moreover, the board gave substantial weight to the defense argument that Perez had fingered Coronado in retaliation.
CORONADO WAS RESTORED TO ACTIVE duty and returned to work on Monday, October 17. Two days later, he was approached at his desk at Hollenbeck. There he was served with a new set of charges, seven allegations emanating from three other arrests he had made with Rafael Perez.
A new Board of Rights was convened. Hearings began in January and continued through last month. Again, each case was rife with obvious lies and conflicting testimony, and with contentious debates over the credibility of Rafael Perez. And each was complicated by the fact that the most egregious misconduct was committed by Perez himself -- at one of the drug busts, where Perez again said Coronado had fabricated probable cause, Perez himself later grabbed a sizable stash of the contraband and resold it on the street for cash.