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
It was among the bloodiest confrontations to arise in the LAPD Rampart Division’s War on Crime -- a Halloween 1996 shooting that left one young Latino man dead and put another in a wheelchair.
The injured survivor always maintained his innocence, but after spending 20 months in jail -- much of that in the county hospital ward -- he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and was released on credit for the time he‘d already served.
Now, Angel Cruz is seeking to have his conviction overturned. It’s a complicated case, marred by a disputed confession, a paucity of witnesses and the sudden, explosive nature of the incident itself. Those facts worked against Cruz in the months after the Rampart scandal came to light, as he was left off the roster of more than 100 convictions overturned at the request of the district attorney, based primarily on the confessions of rogue cop--turned--informant Rafael Perez.
But in arguments made in Superior Court last week, Deputy Public Defender Roberto Longoria sought access to records and background information on more than 60 other Rampart cops involved in Cruz‘s arrest. Longoria, who declined comment on the case, is assigned to the Public Integrity Assurance Section of the Public Defender’s Office, formed to review hundreds of arrests that were passed over by the D.A.‘s review of Rampart. So far, those efforts have been hampered by the monopoly held by the district attorney and the LAPD on putting officers under oath to explain their actions in the field.
D.A. Steve Cooley announced at a news conference last month that he’d closed the book on Rampart. But cases like Angel Cruz‘s could prove that reading premature, as defense attorneys seek to expand the story by examining the conduct of other cops in cases Perez only mentioned in passing.
The encounter that landed Angel Cruz in a wheelchair took place in the space of less than 30 seconds, in the crush of holiday traffic on the corner of Alvarado Street and Beverly Boulevard, north of MacArthur Park.
Cruz, then 22 years old, was in the passenger seat of a bandit taxicab, a white Chevy, driven by a friend named Thomas Saravia, 20. Another friend, Juan Cruz, 24, no relation to Angel, was sitting in back. The trio was headed to a pool hall.
As Saravia was approaching a red light, he pulled up next to a green Toyota Corolla. It was a rental car with no unusual insignia, but on that night it had been pressed into service. Inside were three cops assigned to the Rampart vice squad.
Jose Mireles, Nelson Fong and Gilbert Silva were dressed in plainclothes -- jeans, shirts and light jackets -- and trolling the boulevards, looking for prostitutes. Fong and, briefly, Mireles had previously worked Rampart CRASH; Mireles, a nine-year veteran of the force, was behind the wheel.
Mireles testified later that he was surprised to see the taxi pull to a stop next to him, as there were two or three empty car lengths ahead of them. Then he focused on Angel Cruz, staring back at him from the passenger seat. They were about five feet apart. It was a warm night. Both had their windows rolled down.
A verbal exchange escalated quickly; both parties say the other initiated it. ”I was about to greet them,“ Mireles said in court testimony, ”when they suddenly said to me, ’Motherfucker, what‘s your problem?’
“My answer to him was like a question, like, ‘Motherfucker what?’”
Angel Cruz, interviewed by two LAPD detectives and an interpreter as he lay on a hospital bed, said Mireles spoke first. “They said, ‘What the fuck are you looking at?’ They said it.”
“It wasn‘t the other way around?” Cruz was asked. “You didn’t say that first?”
“No . . . I go, ‘What’s up, bro, what‘s happening?’” a
It‘s hard to make much of Cruz’s comments at the hospital -- he was still under heavy medication, and portions of the statement are patently nonsensical. Besides, it doesn‘t much matter who said what to whom at the outset of what looks like a typical road-rage incident. But then the shooting started.
According to Mireles, Cruz got a “menacing look” in his eye. “His look told me that he was going to kill me.
”I was within four to six feet, and got a clear view of his face. And he told me, by his face, that he was going to do something to me.“ Mireles continued, ”I saw his hands go down to his waistband, actually the motion to his waistband. And as I’m looking at his -- he was looking forward, but as he‘s reaching down, he’s starting to turn his torso toward me.“ Then, Mireles said, he saw Cruz raise a blue-steel, semiautomatic pistol.
By that time, Mireles said, he was already reaching for his own pistol. As Cruz leveled his weapon, Mireles shouted ”Gun!“ and opened fire. The two other officers joined in, and all three raked the bandit cab with more than 30 rounds from their service revolvers. There was no time, Mireles testified, to identify himself as a police officer.