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.
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.“
In his argument to the court, Public Defender Longoria sought to frame the question more narrowly. One plausible scenario, he said, was that Cruz had indeed threatened the cops with a dummy gun. But another scenario, in which the gun was planted and the cops were lying, was equally plausible.
Longoria said he just wanted the authority to investigate, to see which was the truth.