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The Marked Man 

He survived a police campaign of 25 traffic tickets, four bogus arrests and a beating. All that came after he sued the LAPD for harrasment. Now, Carlos Oliva Menjivar sits in jail, awaiting trial in a case that isn’t so black and white

Wednesday, Jun 5 2002
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Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

CARLOS OLIVA MENJIVAR GOES BY THE street name "Pelon." Loosely translated, it means "Baldy," but seven months in county jail have left him with a bristling thatch of jet-black hair. Still, you can't miss his gang affiliation tattooed on his forehead. Just below the hairline on the right side of his face is a number 1; on the left side, an 8.

Oliva fell in with the 18th Street gang when he was 10, around the time most kids are entering fifth grade. The decision marked his life in every possible way. It made him a target for rival gang members, a threat that culminated in a 1991 shooting that paralyzed him from the waist down. Four years later, the Rampart CRASH unit dumped Oliva from his wheelchair, stripped him of his baggy clothes and beat him in a random act of street justice.

He filed a formal complaint against the officers, but LAPD brass ignored it. Two years ago, after the confessions of Rafael Perez confirmed his account, Oliva took his story public, making headlines and filing a federal lawsuit against the police. Yet his new high profile provoked a new round of persecution.

Since August 2000, he's been the target of constant harassment by cops from several different LAPD divisions, harassment documented in an impressive sheaf of traffic tickets and court papers. He has been stopped on the street for repeated interrogations, issued traffic citations for every conceivable violation -- 25 in less than a year -- and been charged three times with resisting arrest, once after four officers manhandled him in his wheelchair, repeatedly slamming his head against a metal door frame. Most of the tickets and all of the misdemeanors were thrown out of court.

"All the cops know me now," said the 26-year-old Oliva during a brief interview in the steel-and-glass confines of the visiting room at the county jail. "They get high fives when they bring me into the station."

The most serious fabricated charge police lodged against him was an assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer. Oliva said no such assault took place, and last February the district attorney agreed, opening an investigation into possible misconduct by the arresting officers.

The police campaign against him ended last October 3, when a witness to a gang shooting picked him out of a police lineup and accused him of driving one of two cars involved in a chase that left one man with a bullet wound in the foot. Today he resides in the county jail, awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder.

With his arrest and jail time, with his tattoos and his lifelong roots in the immigrant barrio of Pico-Union, Oliva personifies the civic dilemma that came to be known as the Rampart scandal. To some, he's just the sort of hardcore gang-member the cops are paid to keep behind bars. For others, his clean criminal record, despite several documented efforts to frame him, makes him a compelling example of the deeply rooted official misconduct Perez described.

Yet if Oliva's story sounds familiar, the time frame sets it apart. Even as city officials affixed their signatures in September 2000 to a consent decree that installed federal monitors to oversee the LAPD, cops on the beat escalated their campaign to put Oliva behind bars. And the officers who sought to frame him on trumped-up charges last year hailed from the Newton Division, not the notorious Rampart. In its breadth and in its particulars, his story adds a new chapter to the LAPD's deepest scandal.

In turn, the twists in his tale could determine the course of the final act in the city's Rampart drama -- and the final cost to the city. His is one of more than 90 civil lawsuits still awaiting trial in federal district court. All those cases have been bundled up and are before District Court Judge Gary Feess, who has spent much of the past year marshaling demands by plaintiff lawyers for internal police documents and efforts by the City Attorney's Office to fend them off. Because of the scope of Oliva's allegations -- his lawsuit alleges misconduct on the part of half a dozen officers, and complicity by much of the command staff, including ex­Police Chief Bernard Parks -- his case has moved to the front of the pack. Says his attorney, Greg Yates: "This is the paradigm case."

THE MOST BLATANT ATTEMPT BY THE LAPD to frame Oliva occurred on March 31, 2001. The facts were grave enough that it was referred to the district attorney's Judicial System Integrity Division. D.A. spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said last week the case remains under investigation.

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