IT'S BEEN SIX YEARS SINCE BLANCA PRUDHOMME LOST HER son Erik to a gang shooting on a gritty stretch of Pico Boulevard near the Harbor Freeway downtown. She buried her boy back in her native Guatemala, then returned to her home in South-Central to mourn and to wonder: Did the Rampart gang squad play a role in the death of her son?
Prudhomme got a partial answer in December, when the District Attorney's Office issued the first public statement by authorities on the death of Erik Vega, 16 years old and a recent recruit of the 18th Street gang. Vega had been taken into custody during a routine drug arrest, driven from the scene and released close to the border of rival gang territory, officers said. He was found dead roughly 15 minutes after his arrest, the victim of gunshot wounds.
The Vega case is one of 82 cases in which the D.A. declined to press charges against officers in complaints stemming from the Rampart scandal. But the report raised as many questions as it answered, and this week Prudhomme filed a federal lawsuit "to bring out the truth about my son's death."
The wrongful-death suit rests on new allegations contained in five sworn declarations from Vega's mother, sister and gang members. They say that Vega was subjected to a series of beatings, threats and illegal detentions by the Rampart CRASH unit in the months before his death.
While the D.A.'s Office declined to bring charges, the report criticized the two officers who arrested Vega, asserting that Mike Montoya and Mario Rios "intentionally withheld information from the homicide detectives, internal-affairs investigators, and their chain of command." The new declarations raise questions about whether the circle of silence encompassed the same detectives, investigators and supervisors from whom the two officers withheld information.
On paper, at least, on the day of his murder, Vega simply disappeared. Of the eight officers on hand at the time he was taken into custody, none made any reference to him in their reports or in the field logs each officer compiles at the end of a shift. Moreover, despite specific allegations made by Prudhomme the day after the slaying, the homicide detective assigned to the case never questioned the officers at the scene. Nor did the two Rampart sergeants who mounted an internal inquiry into the mother's complaint ask any officers what happened that night.
One key element makes Vega's death stand out among the scores of Rampart allegations: It never involved Rafael Perez, the corrupt officer whose confessions, made as part of a plea bargain on charges of stealing cocaine, sparked the scandal in late 1999. Some observers hold that Perez invented the scandal to minimize his own misconduct, but this case cannot be blamed on Perez: He was not on hand the day Vega died, and he never mentioned the case to Rampart investigators.
In fact, the impetus for the Vega investigation came from Beverly Hills attorney Greg Yates. A personal-injury specialist, Yates became involved in Rampart by representing gang members seeking compensation for time served in jail on trumped-up charges. Yates said several of his clients pressed him to look into the circumstances surrounding Vega's death. "They were really disturbed by what happened there." Yates alerted the Rampart Task Force in early 2000.
Task-force investigators interviewed police officers a year later and obtained sketchy statements from Montoya and Rios, which were forwarded to the D.A. But those were "compelled" statements given to department investigators and Deputy D.A. Laura Laesecke said they cannot be used for any prosecution. And, as in so many Rampart cases, official inquiries into the case went nowhere.
Now Blanca Prudhomme has vowed to "bring everything out in the open. That is the only justice my son can have now, and he deserves it."
In the summer of 1996, Erik Vega was drifting away from the home he shared with his mom and older sister, and into the orbit of the 18th Street gang, which counted an estimated 2,000 members in the Rampart Division. In July he got his first tattoo, the number "18" on his left shoulder. Vega fell in with 18th Street's Red Shield clique, named after a Salvation Army youth center on 11th Street between Union Avenue and the Harbor Freeway.
That summer, Vega and his friends frequented South Lake Street, a stretch of once-stately homes fallen into disrepair, the property lines marked with ominous barricades of spiked steel fencing. One favorite hangout was a hulking apartment building at the corner of Lake and 12th Street. The owner had called police in February to ask for help clearing the gang members out, but sweeps by officers had little effect, and the building was sold, then closed down and boarded up. Gang members continued to break in and use the trashed, vacant apartments.