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With the investigation hopelessly stalled, with Chief Parks asserting that his department had located the Rampart scandal and brought it to an end, the question remains: What the hell happened at Rampart? Was Perez lying all along?
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 Perezs 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, didnt 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 Rosenthals 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 thats it, Rosenthal explained.
Perrys 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 didnt 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.