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 Robert Yager|
Deputy District Attorney Richard Rosenthal knew he had a major case on his hands when he scheduled his first interview with Rafael Perez. After all, the rogue officer had just agreed to disclose two wrongful shootings in return for a reduced sentence on charges of stealing cocaine from a Rampart Division evidence locker.
But it wasn’t until midway through the session that Rosenthal learned just how big a case he had. “It wasn’t so much a bomb as an atomic explosion,” the veteran prosecutor recalled in a recent interview. “It starts slow and then it builds up.”
The meeting took place September 10, 1999, on the 17th floor of the new MTA headquarters building downtown, a secret location for what was then a secret LAPD task force looking into allegations of misconduct by Perez and a handful of other officers.
Key to the deal was that Perez would confess to shooting and framing unarmed gang member Javier Francisco Ovando, who was then serving a lengthy jail term. Perez had agreed to describe that episode, as well as a fatal raid by the Rampart gang squad at an apartment building on Shatto Place.
That was all Perez was obligated to disclose. “Frankly, if he had just given us Ovando and claimed everything else was copasetic, that would probably have been the end of it,” Rosenthal said.
Of course, that was not the end of it. Two hours into the session, with Perez’s attorney, a court reporter and four task-force detectives on hand, Rosenthal asked Perez, “Are you aware or can you give us, today, any specific information on any other person who has been wrongfully convicted, who’s currently in custody as a result of that?”
Rather than answer directly, Perez paused, then stammered, and finally asked to review the department paperwork generated by scores of arrests. Said Perez, “I am really going to need to see those books.”
At that moment, it dawned on Rosenthal: There were too many cases for Perez to remember. “That was the first indication that there was much more to this than we really expected,” Rosenthal said later. “The shocking part was the allegation that this was common.”
Over the next two years, the city would be shocked as well, as more than 100 criminal convictions were overturned, costing upwards of $50 million in awards paid to settle civil claims, with millions more to come. In addition, the Rampart scandal sparked intervention and the threat of a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, resulting in a consent decree requiring five years of federal oversight of police operations.
Yet, on the occasion of Perez’s release from prison last week, we know little more than his original, voluminous allegations. For all the controversy, litigation and blue-ribbon panels, we have yet to see a definitive account of what happened at Rampart, or an independent inquiry into the cases, or the individual officers Perez accused of misconduct.
Instead, efforts to focus on the cases named by Perez have foundered. The sole trial to arise from Rampart ended with convictions that were thrown out by the trial judge; the several other criminal convictions of Rampart officers derive from pleas entered to head off prosecutions. Likewise, inside the LAPD, internal disciplinary proceedings completed through March resulted in 15 suspensions and 36 findings of not guilty. Nine officers resigned rather than face hearings, and several were fired for lying, but none was found guilty of the egregious acts — planting evidence, unprovoked assaults — alleged by Perez.
To some degree, those tepid results derive from the shadowy nature of the incidents Perez reported — altercations between cops and gang members in some of the city’s roughest barrios. “Witness credibility in these cases is just very problematic,” said Sergeant Ray Garvin, who prosecuted several of the internal LAPD hearings. “The gang members are trying to get their cases overturned or to win judgments against the city, and the officers are trying to save their careers.”
But in equal measure, the failure to locate witnesses or evidence corroborating Perez reflects the success of damage control that kicked into gear almost as soon as the ex-cop began making accusations. In issuing repeated claims that he and his staff had discovered the problems at Rampart, Chief Parks boasts that he assigned 70 investigators to the case. But in practice, those investigators did more to stymie outside inquiries than to develop the cases Perez identified. At the same time, the D.A. and the federal courts barred outsiders from questioning Perez.
“As an attorney right now I just feel so much frustration,” said Jorge Gonzalez, who represents several plaintiffs in Rampart civil suits and for years was president of Police Watch, a group that documents complaints against the police. “The prime witness in this case is being released to head off to who-knows-where, and he has never been interviewed outside of law enforcement.”
“I don’t care how serious the D.A. and the LAPD said they were, you look at the transcripts and they were throwing softballs,” Gonzalez said. “It’s as if they take off their detective hats when they go in there.”