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
In the shooting report compiled by department investigators, Mireles and Nelson Fong say they stopped in midbarrage long enough to note that Cruz was working the slide on his weapon, and then resumed firing.
Both officers also acknowledged that, in the entire incident, not a single shot came from the taxicab. In that they agreed with Cruz, who said he never had a weapon. ”How can I put a gun to the police officer?“ Cruz asked his interrogators. ”That‘s crazy.“
”You didn’t know they were police, did you?“ Cruz was asked. ”They were undercover.“
”Yeah, they looked like cops,“ Cruz answered. ”They come in three. Like you. You look like police. You too!“
The officers stopped shooting less than a minute after they started. In the silence that followed, they watched as the Chevy rolled slowly across the intersection -- ”I was amazed,“ Mireles testified, ”because of all that Halloween traffic, he didn‘t hit any car at all“ -- struck a wall and came to a stop.
The officers parked, re-loaded their weapons, called for backup and then approached the taxicab. The driver, Thomas Saravia, was dead, and Angel Cruz was bleeding from half a dozen gunshot wounds to his torso. Juan Cruz, the passenger in the back seat, was uninjured.
Scores of officers arrived from the Rampart station, including some who would soon become notorious -- CRASH officers Rafael Perez and his partner Nino Durden, as well as Ethan Cohan, since indicted on assault charges, and Michael Buchanan, whose conviction for making a false report is under appeal.
None of the occupants of the taxi was identified as a gang member, though Angel Cruz had a prior conviction for possession of a weapon. Durden handcuffed Juan Cruz and took him to the station for questioning. According to Durden, Juan Cruz admitted that one of the other passengers initiated the verbal altercation, and that Angel Cruz had reached for a gun. Durden repeated that testimony at a court hearing the following year.
Later that night, however, Juan Cruz was interviewed by two detectives, and emphatically denied Durden’s story. When he was asked what happened after the verbal exchange with the officers, Cruz replied, ”The cops pulled out the guns and started shooting us. It was fast. Five seconds, you know?“
A detective pressed the issue. ”Did Angel have a gun?“
”No, I don‘t remember that. He didn’t pull the guns,“ Cruz said. ”That‘s why I want to meet this officer you guys got. He’s an officer, he‘s supposed to protect us, not to kill.“
In fact, police say they did find a gun, on the floorboard in front of the passenger-side seat of the taxicab. But it was a fake, a steel replica gun that had sliding-bolt action but could not be fired. The weapon was retrieved by an LAPD criminologist who arrived at the scene at 10:30 p.m., two hours after the shooting took place.
Even without the presence of problem police officers, the neutered weapon made for a tricky case. The district attorney charged Angel Cruz with attempted murder, contending that the fatal shooting of Thomas Saravia was precipitated by Angel’s attempt to rob the plainclothes officers, or at least to scare them, by brandishing the dummy gun.
Facing a life sentence, Angel Cruz maintained his innocence. After a preliminary hearing, the case was scheduled for trial, but at the last minute the district attorney withdrew, then refiled the case. This time the D.A. offered to settle the case based on time served -- a ”phenomenal offer,“ according to the prosecutor, which the defense attorney took as tacit admission that the prosecution had problems with the case -- but a conviction would mean a second strike on his record, and Cruz refused the deal.
At a second preliminary hearing, in July of 1998, Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus expressed puzzlement at the D.A.‘s position. ”How could one do an attempted murder if the gun doesn’t work?“ Marcus asked at one point. Yet after two days of testimony, the judge agreed to set the case for trial. Then, on August 3, as he approached two full years in county custody, Cruz accepted the prosecution offer and pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, a felony strike.
He was freed the following day, but it was a fateful decision. That same month, Rafael Perez was arrested on charges of stealing cocaine from a department evidence locker. A search of his home turned up a stash of replica guns, which investigators presumed were stored for use in framing suspects. And in the following year, Perez made his revelations of misconduct at Rampart, including the maiming and framing of gang member Javier Ovando just three weeks before the Halloween shooting of 1996.
For scores of gang members he personally arrested, Perez‘s confession meant overturned convictions and millions of dollars in civil-court judgments. Angel Cruz and others like him, however, have watched from the sidelines, their guilty pleas untouched because Perez made no comment on their cases.
In papers filed with the court, D.A. Cooley has made it clear he wants it to stay that way. He dismisses Cruz’s claim as an ”attempt to bootstrap the Rampart revelations that began with Rafael Perez‘s statements into a general principle that would invalidate any Rampart-related conviction.“