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
|Courtesy The Koplin Gallery|
LAST SEPTEMBER GARY WIGODSKY, an earnest, sometimes smoldering defense lawyer, arrived on the 15th floor of the Criminal Courts Building downtown with a sheaf of six new cases under his arm. Close to a hundred convictions had already been thrown out as part of the spiraling Rampart scandal; Wigodsky's cases could lead to dismissal of hundreds more.
Though former rogue cop Rafael Perez described widespread officer misconduct during weeks of confessional interviews, the D.A. had set aside only those cases where Perez himself was a witness. Now, Wigodsky was challenging the arrests made by Perez's partner, Nino Durden, who had pleaded guilty to several crimes. Overturning those convictions could lead to new scrutiny of arrests by more than 80 other officers.
Key to his strategy: a subpoena Wigodsky served on the U.S. attorney requesting any incriminating statements made by Durden. But Mary Carter Andrues, the cheerful but tight-lipped assistant U.S. attorney who handles Rampart-related court appearances for the Justice Department, fought the request on grounds that Durden's statements were part of an ongoing criminal investigation. At the hearing, Superior Court Judge William Fahey agreed, and Wigodsky was fuming.
Outside the courtroom, Wigodsky cornered Andrues and pressed for an explanation. "I said to her, 'Look, aren't we on the same side here? We're both trying to get to the bottom of what happened here, we're both interested in identifying problem officers.'" Andrues rebuffed him without saying a word. "Her response was pretty icy," he recalled in an interview. "She was looking at me like, 'Are you kidding?'"
That courthouse confrontation sums up three years of fractured, halting inquiry into Rafael Perez's startling confessions. Instead of tearing open the veil of silence and secrecy shrouding the conduct of LAPD officers in the field, Perez's allegations of illegal and sometimes simply outrageous conduct remain officially unresolved.
For Wigodsky, the continuing air of uncertainty is the biggest disappointment of the entire police scandal. Wigodsky may know more about what happened there than anyone else in Los Angeles: At the Alternate Public Defender's Office, which provides court-appointed lawyers to stand in for the public defender in multiple-defendant cases, he leads a 20-lawyer squad devoted solely to Rampart cases. And the more he knows, the stronger his conviction that Perez told the truth, that misconduct was widespread and routine at the LAPD. "What everybody needs to understand is that most of Perez's allegations were corroborated — the specific instances," Wigodsky said.
Winston Kevin McKesson has a parallel understanding of Rampart, but arrived there from the opposite direction. As the attorney who represented Perez, McKesson sat through all of the meetings with investigators, and conferred extensively with the disgraced officer during his months in county jail. And where Wigodsky found clients and witnesses to back up Perez's accusations, McKesson tested them against his personal experience growing up in South Los Angeles. In that context, Perez's stories had a familiar ring. On the city's south side, McKesson said, "Nobody seriously thinks that this is not going on."
YET IN THE OFFICIAL RECORD, MOST OF the specific illegal acts Perez alleged against his fellow officers — planted evidence, false testimony, intimidation of citizens who witness officer misconduct — remain unresolved. And the larger allegation of widespread misconduct in special units across the department has never been investigated.
Even the leaders of two independent commissions appointed to investigate the scandal — one by the Police Commission and a second by the Police Protective League — concede they failed to reach a conclusion as to the nature and extent of misconduct at Rampart. In a recent interview, the head of the Police Commission panel, Richard Drooyan, said flatly, "We did not investigate criminal behavior by police officers." And in the report he authored for the Protective League, Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of constitutional law at USC, addressed the question head on. The department's internal investigation "simply did not assess the magnitude of the problem within the LAPD." Chemerinsky elaborated in an opinion piece published last year: "The true extent of the Rampart scandal still is not known, and it increasingly appears that it never will be."
The reasons for the stubborn ambiguity are various. First and foremost, few officers stepped forward to corroborate Perez's story, and since his targets were usually gang members with criminal records or associations, their statements were easily disregarded. Such credibility problems undermined the one criminal case against Rampart officers that reached trial; on the sole count where jurors found three officers guilty, the judge threw the verdict out.
"One of the things we learn from this job is, it's hard to know," said Jeffrey Eglash, the LAPD's inspector general. "These occurrences, they take place in the shadows. It's rare that there's a video camera rolling. And it's relatively rare that there are witnesses out there to attest to something who have no baggage, who have no credibility issues."
The largest single investigation into Perez's allegations was staged by the LAPD itself. But a detailed summary of the findings made by the Rampart Task Force, which at its peak involved more than 500 officers, sits, stalled and unread, on the desk of Commander Dan Koenig, head of the department's Administrative Group.