Its no surprise that the national media have weighed in with major stories on L.A.s long-simmering police scandal -- The New Yorker, in its May 21 edition; televisions FrontLine, covering the same material with the same correspondent; and Rolling Stone on June 7.
After all, Rafael Perez is scheduled for release from county custody sometime in the next month, wrapping up two years of revelation and intrigue. It seems high time to take stock of the ex--rogue officer who sparked the scandal, and what it meant to the police department that brought us Rodney King, Daryl Gates and Mark Fuhrman.
What is disappointing is how the correspondents chose to cover it -- which elements of the story are embraced, which are dismissed and which are ignored. Both stories key on profiles of Perez and his partner before Rampart, convicted bank robber and LAPD Officer David Mack, cobbling together some of the more lurid moments to emerge in the case, while glossing over details of broader misconduct at Rampart. The excesses of the war on drugs are shrugged off as old hat, while the prospect of gangsta cops proves positively intoxicating.
Its a trail that leads to Death Row Records and to the murder of rap star Biggie Smalls, a.k.a., The Notorious B.I.G., a slaying Rolling Stone terms L.A.s Most Famous Unsolved Crime.
The problem is, its a trail weve been down before. Neither story adds much to what readers in L.A. already know of Rampart. Weve seen the photo of Mack in his blood-red blazer and matching hat; weve heard about the 1997 robbery of the Bank of America and the high-rolling weekend in Vegas that followed. We read, on the front page of the L.A. Times, in December 1999, the theory that David Mack had a hand in the Biggie Smalls murder.
And then as now, the trail went nowhere. One witness had placed Mack at the scene of the shooting, and police indeed considered him a suspect. But the scene in question was a party following the 1997 Soul Train awards, attended by hundreds of young black hipsters. Macks presence need not have drawn suspicion; there was no evidence tying him -- or Macks friend Amir Muhammad, named in the Times as the suspected gunman -- to the shooting.
That led to embarrassment for the Times, which followed its story with a second front-pager exonerating Muhammad. Wary of a similar snafu, the ever-scrupulous New Yorker ran the allegations in barest form, pointing out simply that Mack was being investigated in connection with the 1997 killing of Biggie Smalls. Rolling Stone writer Randall Sullivan chose to push the story further, citing powerful evidence that police officers were operating within the LAPD both as members of the Bloods gang and as security for gangsta-rap kingpin Suge Knight.
Here Sullivan falls prey to what has emerged as a recurring phenomenon in the life of the scandal: So tantalizing are the stories, and so intense is the competition to get them first, that journalists have repeatedly gotten ahead of the facts.
For months now, Perezs partner at Rampart, Officer Nino Durden, has been talking with authorities, and many believe those interviews will lead to a new federal indictment of Perez, and possibly new information on the purported Death Row connection. Until then, however, and despite the references to powerful evidence, Sullivan can only point to rumor and flimsy, second-hand reports. And when he gets down to details, he gets them wrong.
Sullivan, a onetime L.A. Herald Examiner columnist and winner of a National Magazine Award, develops the gangsta-cop theme by profiling Mack, Perez and a third black LAPD officer, Kevin Gaines.
Gaines was killed in a March 1997 road-rage altercation with an undercover narcotics cop who fired on him when Gaines threatened to cap his ass. Investigators found that Gaines was romantically involved with Sharitha Knight, Suge Knights estranged wife, that Gaines was seen on several occasions at Death Row functions, and that he was living beyond his means.
From this foundation, Sullivan extrapolates. Suge Knight was associated with the Mob Piru set of the Blood street gang, and was suspected of having founded Death Row in part with drug money; Gaines must therefore be a gangsta cop, presumably one running drugs for Knight, part of a growing cadre of black officers whose involvement with Death Row superseded their loyalty to the department.
No ties have been documented between Gaines and Blood gang members, however, or even ties linking Gaines with Mack and Perez. And while Gaines may well have profited by his association with Sharitha Knight -- he bragged of getting work through her -- he was never on the Death Row payroll.