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
Defense attorneys for the police answer with an emphatic yes. The late Barry Levin, attorney for former Rampart Sergeant Edward Ortiz and himself a former cop, made the argument before a superior court jury last October. “Perez lied to the prosecutors, and he lied to the court,” Levin said. “Perez knew he needed immunity . . . so he concocted a pipe dream of a scandal on the backs of these fine officers.”
But that argument is refuted by the man who struck the deal. Speaking in his downtown office the week before his transfer to Van Nuys, Richard Rosenthal described the circumstances that led to Perez’s confession.
Rosenthal first tried Perez on drug charges in December 1998. When the jury failed to reach a verdict, the D.A. re-filed the case, and in April 1999, a grand jury answered with a new indictment. The following month, Rosenthal offered to deal with Perez attorney Winston Kevin McKesson. McKesson, in turn, made a proffer: In return for a reduced sentence, Perez would divulge all he knew about a single case of misconduct by the Rampart gang squad. “One instance of unlawful use-of-force involving three officers and a sergeant,” Rosenthal said —which turned out to be the fatal police raid on a gang wake at Shatto Place.
Rosenthal agreed to deal, but his terms included the standard stipulation, that Perez could still be prosecuted for any instances of homicide or infliction of great bodily injury. What Rosenthal, and apparently McKesson, didn’t realize was that Perez had been involved in just such a case — the shooting, with his partner Nino Durden, of Javier Ovando.
When the lawyer took Rosenthal’s terms back to Perez, they met only silence, a clear indication there was a problem. “McKesson backed off,” Rosenthal said, and the deal languished until the new trial got under way in September.
The day that trial convened, Rosenthal said, two remarkable events took place. The first happened when L.A. Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry stepped in “out of the blue,” as Rosenthal put it, and offered Perez a seven-year sentence in return for a guilty plea, regardless of whether he cooperated. Which meant, assuming half-time credit for good behavior, that “By cooperating he got one year off his prison term, and that’s it,” Rosenthal explained.
Perry’s offer left Rosenthal little with which to entice the accused officer, other than the chance to avoid the anguish of another trial. For Perez and his attorney, the decision to cooperate on other investigations was a virtual toss-up. But Rosenthal had another surprise in store. At noon of the first day, with jury selection under way, McKesson approached the prosecutor, draped an arm over his shoulder and asked if they might again discuss the deal. This time, the topic was Ovando.
Over the lunch break, McKesson sketched in the details. Perez had not followed through on the original deal offer, the lawyer explained, because there was, in fact, an incident of “great bodily injury.” The victim, a member of the 18th Street gang, was unarmed when he was cornered by Perez and Durden in an abandoned apartment. The officers shot him three times, then planted a gun on him. Later, they testified falsely that Javier Ovando had pulled a gun on them, and finally, they saw him sentenced to 23 years.
Rosenthal said he decided immediately to grant Perez immunity and pursue a habeas corpus filing in order to spring Ovando from prison. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see this was an explosive case,” Rosenthal said.
And it was more than enough, Rosenthal said, to earn Perez a deal for a five-year sentence, especially after Judge Perry had reduced the maximum term to seven. “If he gave us Ovando and Shatto Place, that would have been it.”
In fact, Rosenthal said, he was careful not to encourage Perez to give up more than he actually knew: “I tried to structure the deal in a manner that he would not have the motivation to frame other officers.
“That was what was remarkable to me later,” added Rosenthal. “When Perez started talking about all this, and he became kind of a pariah and the most hated police officer in the state . . . he only got one year off [his jail term] in order to do this. That actually inured to his credibility. Why in the world would he go through this if he didn’t have to? And he didn’t.”
Also INURING TO Perez’s credibility is the LAPD’S long record of tolerating misconduct. Even the cops at Rampart, speaking privately, will acknowledge that former Officer Brian Hewitt, fired in 1998 after a long career for his role in a station-house beating, was, as they put it, “an asshole.”
And then there are the cases that continue to arise but which continue to be dismissed as anomalies. Officer Ruben Palomares, named by Perez in yet another fatal Rampart shooting which, he said, was covered up, was arrested this June in a federal Drug Enforcement Agency sting in San Diego County. A federal prosecutor in that case said at a bail hearing that Palomares had been using his authority as a police officer to commit crimes for more than two years.