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
For three weeks this spring, at the behest of District Attorney Steve Cooley, the county grand jury took extensive testimony from a clutch of top police officials in an effort to at last get to the bottom of the Rampart scandal.
But rather than produce a definitive report on LAPD mismanagement, the grand jury was engulfed in a scandal of its own. When the county panel‘s term expired at the end of June, it declined to issue any statement regarding Rampart, and refused to release a report Cooley’s staff composed about the secret testimony. Instead, the grand-jury foreman vowed in a letter to the D.A. that transcripts of the Rampart testimony ”are to remain sealed in perpetuity.“
It then developed that the transcripts had actually disappeared, apparently stolen from within the closeted chambers of the grand jury itself. No locks were broken and no windows shattered: It had all the appearances of an inside job, a plot either to protect the LAPD, or to besmirch the work of the grand jury itself. In the ensuing investigation, grand jurors began pointing fingers at each other as potential culprits. When Sheriff‘s investigators brought in a polygraph examiner, the jurors began to sweat.
Now one juror, Burbank resident and retired Postal Service worker James B. Avery, has been jailed in lieu of $1 million bail, accused of stalking by fellow juror Tammi Sue Sharp. But Avery’s lawyer said the charges are ”bullshit,“ the product of a feud between two friends who had a falling out. Attorney Don L. Slayton said in an interview that his client told him Sharp turned against him because she believed that Avery had identified her as a possible suspect in the case of the missing tapes. ”She was told that he was the one who said she stole the transcript,“ Slayton said he learned from Avery.
Sheriff‘s deputies dispute that version and hold Sharp to be more credible. Sergeant Bill Conley said he believes Avery to be a jilted suitor who wouldn’t take no for an answer. ”When Mr. Avery began to aggressively pursue a sexual relationship, she declined, and that is when things began to get weird.“
So: Either there are two curious embarrassments that the judges who supervise the county grand jury must now sort out, or one that boiled to the surface twice. And while it‘s tempting to dismiss the imbroglio as little more than an adult version of the board game Clue, the meltdown has broad implications for local government. The grand-jury system itself is in the throes of reform, having recently been divided into two branches -- civil and criminal -- with the institution of a training regimen for incoming jurors. More important, the collapse of the Rampart inquiry leaves unanswered the pivotal question of what role the LAPD brass played in fostering misconduct at the troubled station house.
Steve Cooley decided within months of winning office as the reform candidate for district attorney that the civil grand jury, with its cloak of secrecy and its investigative mission, would serve nicely as the public agency that would at last get to the bottom of the Rampart scandal.
Cooley made a formal request in February, appearing before the county panel to urge a full-blown inquiry into what the LAPD brass knew and when they knew it. ”Were there LAPD managers who should have been held responsible and accountable for the activities of Rampart rogue officers?“ Cooley asked.
The grand jury accepted the assignment and, for three weeks beginning March 14, took testimony from a series of witnesses, including former LAPD Chiefs Willie Williams and Daryl Gates. Cooley himself appeared five times, as well as Deputy District Attorney William Hodgman, then in charge of the D.A.’s ad hoc Rampart section, which has since been disbanded. The testimony was coordinated by Lael Rubin, retained as a special counsel to D.A. Cooley. aAfter the final round of testimony was taken, grand-jury foreperson John L. Lewis asked Rubin and deputy D.A. Juan Mejia to prepare a report based on the weeks of hearings. That report was submitted May 7.
Its contents remain secret, as are all proceedings before the grand jury, and staff at the District Attorney‘s Office declined this week to discuss their own findings. But the report was apparently controversial, because Lewis announced the following week that the grand jury would take no position on Rampart. Cooley appeared in person in May to appeal that decision, but his entreaty was rebuffed.
Cooley kept coming back. On May 29, he wrote to Lewis asking permission to release the RubinMejia report on behalf of his own office and not the grand jury, but there was no reply. On June 12, Cooley made the same request in person; this time Lewis promised a response in writing.
The answer came June 18, but it made no reference to the RubinMejia report. Instead, Lewis wrote that the grand jury had declined the ”request to release transcripts of the special Rampart investigation conducted by the District Attorney and heard by this jury.“
That elicited still another letter from Cooley, reminding Lewis there was no request to release transcripts, but rather to release the report based on the secret testimony.
In hindsight, however, the June 18 letter from foreperson Lewis seems designed more to cover up the mess at the grand jury than to thwart Cooley’s plans. Because by June 18, the transcripts of the Rampart hearings had already disappeared. And investigators from the Sheriff‘s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau were asking how that had happened when juror Sharp accused fellow juror Avery of stalking her.
According to a receipt released by the District Attorney’s Office, the 11-volume hearing transcript was delivered to the Grand Jury Offices on May 20. Just when it disappeared is unclear, as court officials declined to discuss any details of proceedings involving the grand jury.
But Candelario Arriola, a former aide to Mayor Sam Yorty and a member of the 2001 grand jury, said in an interview the documents were found missing soon after they were received. ”They just disappeared. Nobody knows where they went to,“ Arriola said. ”The foreman kept them in his desk drawer. He left them there one night, and the next morning they were gone.“
Sheriff‘s investigators declined to discuss their inquiry into the case, but according to a crime report, Tammi Sharp was interviewed as early as June 5. She made her first official complaint against Avery June 7, reporting an altercation in a courthouse hallway and filing for a restraining order. Sharp, who is 37, had befriended the 63-year-old Avery when both served previous terms on the 1999 grand jury, and the two had visited socially, each in the company of their spouses, on several occasions.
This time around, they shared membership on two committees. One was Speakers and Events, newly created to ”coordinate educational experiences“ like field trips to tour the harbor and attend a Sheriff’s Academy graduation. The second, on which Avery sat as co-chair, was Jails, which monitored conditions in the L.A. system pursuant to a mandate in the state penal code. Avery would soon get to learn first-hand the accuracy of the committee‘s findings.
Avery said in an interview last week he had no idea what happened to the transcripts, and declined to make any statement regarding Sharp. Contacted at her home in Bellflower, Sharp also declined comment.
Sharp told investigators that Avery’s friendship with her turned to obsession early this year. Avery‘s attorney disputed that account, asserting that Sharp filed her complaint in retaliation because she suspected Avery had named her as a culprit in the transcript caper.
That was not apparent in the next incident alleged against Avery, however, as reported by juror Arriola, who witnessed the altercation. On June 12, after the grand jury had concluded business for the day, Avery was suffering from a heart ailment and needed a dose of medication. When Arriola stepped in to assist, Avery said Sharp was holding his medicine. The two went looking for her, and soon spotted Sharp in the parking lot. Arriola left the pair talking, but an argument ensued. When Arriola was driving away, he said he saw Avery slap Sharp three times in the face.
Sharp filed a criminal complaint the next day, and Avery was arrested June 21 on charges of stalking and battery. Avery made bail two days later, but according to a Sheriff’s report, promptly resumed making calls and sending gifts to Sharp. Sharp also made calls to Avery, but said they were only to ensure that he was home in Burbank and at a safe distance.
Based on the renewed contacts, Avery was arrested again June 26 and held on $1 million bail. But Sharp‘s problems continued: On June 27, Sharp alleged she was cornered in Cerritos by two beefy men who identified themselves as police officers, handcuffed her and knocked her to the ground, leaving bruises on her buttocks. Sharp claimed the ostensible cops told her, ”This is about Jim Avery.“
Asked how he could resolve contrasting, fantastic accounts, Sergeant Conley said that Avery proved less credible during an in-person interview, in part because Avery continued to profess love for Tammi Sharp. Said Conley, ”If I were sitting in jail facing felony charges, by that point I’d consider the relationship to be on the rocks.“
Sergeant Conley added that he had no role in the investigation into the missing transcripts. But juror Arriola said his experience with the 2001 grand jury had left him disillusioned with the entire process.
”It was just a big waste of money,“ Arriola said. ”The level of discussions we had there reminded me of the seventh grade.“