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 Ted Soqui
On the night of January 19, 1999, four off-duty L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies had just rolled into Tam’s Restaurant in Lynwood from a Kings hockey game when they were allegedly confronted by an angry customer.
A fight ensued, and the restaurant manager called the Sheriff’s Department. According to the version of events supplied by the Century Station deputies, the customer poked Deputy Ivan Chavez in the chest. Then he began yelling, “What the fuck are you looking at? I don’t give a fuck if you’re a cop or a fireman. I’ve got two strikes and I’ll kick your white ass.”
Chavez allegedly tried to calm the man, but was punched in the stomach. Deputy Gary Gerlach tried to subdue him, but he slipped and fell. The suspect then pushed Chavez into a booth and started beating him in the face. Gerlach and Deputy Guillermo Morales claimed they pulled the man off Chavez. But he punched Gerlach, ran out of Tam’s and vanished into the night.
The elusive suspect has never been found, but the police report identified Chavez and Gerlach as victims of battery on a police officer. Three days later, however, new information surfaced suggesting the deputies, who are no longer on active duty, had concocted a phony story to cover up misconduct that occurred after they’d been drinking. And the real crime victim may have been the customer.
These allegations were referred to the Sheriff’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, igniting a bizarre, two-and-a-half-year legal battle by the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office to get reports about the incident that were written by the off-duty deputies. Ultimately successful, the D.A.’s struggle to get this material led to an important Appeals Court ruling that could ease future public access to police reports.
The alleged beating itself is now under review by the D.A.’s Justice System Integrity Division, which prosecutes criminal misconduct by police. The Weekly has also learned that at least one narcotics case has been dismissed because of this investigation. And the top administrator in the D.A.’s Compton office ordered an internal review of other cases involving these four deputies: Chavez, Gerlach, Morales and Craig Roberts. The results of that review have not been disclosed.
The groundbreaking legal squabble arose after Century Sergeant Victor Lopez ordered the quartet of off-duty deputies to file “supplemental reports,” detailing their roles in the fight. “The story we heard,” says one Sheriff’s Department staff officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “was that the deputies had been drinking. This guy started to bother them. So they took him outside and beat him down to teach him a lesson. Then they told him to ‘get the hell out of Dodge.’”
Despite Lopez’s order, only Morales ever submitted a report to the department. It was read and approved by a supervisor. But even as word got out of an investigation into possible misconduct, Morales was seeking legal advice from Green & Shinee, a law firm representing the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
The law firm told the deputies they should avoid any potential self-incrimination, by sending their reports to the firm rather than to department supervisors. Morales had already withdrawn his paperwork, handing it over to Green & Shinee instead. The other three deputies followed suit. Green & Shinee then refused to turn over the four reports to the internal-affairs unit, claiming attorney-client privilege. It was a legal gambit that stopped the investigation in its tracks. Attorney Richard Shinee did not return the Weekly’s calls for comment on behalf of the deputies.
In response to the legal stonewalling, the D.A.’s Office served a search warrant on the law firm in September 1999. But Green & Shinee agreed to turn over the four supplemental reports only to a specially appointed judge to review the paperwork. He advised Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler, who is handling the case, to give the reports to the prosecution.
In November 1999, a hearing was held before Fidler to determine the fate of these disputed reports. Sheriff’s Captain Kenneth Brazile testified that the reports were crucial to a probe of the bar incident, especially after he learned there was a witness who contradicted the deputies’ version of events. Brazile testified he eventually spoke to the unidentified witness, who said he was “devastated” by what he saw. Brazile also said his concern was heightened when investigators told him the deputies had been drinking.
The D.A.’s presentation included a written Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau interview with Sergeant Norine Plett. In her statement, Plett writes that Sergeant Lopez, the one who ordered the deputies to file supplemental reports, grew “enraged” when he heard Morales had withdrawn his paperwork. Plett quoted Lopez as saying, “This is the last time I try to defend these guys,” or “I’ve gone to the wall one too many times for these guys. I am not looking out for them anymore.”
Judge Fidler denied the deputies’ motion that their reports were privileged and illegally obtained because they were compelled to write them. Citing an earlier state appellate decision, Fidler wrote, “Any record required by law to be kept by an officer, or which he keeps as necessary or convenient to the discharge of his official duty is a public record.”