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Lucky to Be Alive 

A couple's devastating encounter with Lee Baca's COPS HIT deputies

Thursday, Apr 11 2013
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Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, says the Mendez-Garcia shooting is "definitely" cause for alarm. Under Baca, nearly all deputies must first serve in L.A. County's troubled jails, which Eliasberg says teaches young deputies a "force-first mentality." He believes deputies bring their jail-bred machismo to street patrols, creating unwarranted incidents such as the Angel Mendez tragedy.

Tom Parker, former head of the FBI's Los Angeles office, who read an internal affairs report by Baca's department and a report by the Los Angeles County District Attorney, questions almost every aspect of the Mendez shooting, calling it "a mess from the get-go." Baca's report, he says, was "kind of a whitewash ... which is very typical of the Sheriff's Department" in 2010 and 2011.

Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore says talk of deputies running amok is "absolutely not true" and defends Baca's internal investigation as thorough. "Where's the cover-up?" a defiant Whitmore asks.

click to flip through (4) PHOTO COURTESY OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT - Angel Mendez's plywood shack, tucked behind a forlorn tree and piles of debris
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT
  • Angel Mendez's plywood shack, tucked behind a forlorn tree and piles of debris
     
 

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Michael Gennaco, chief attorney at the county's Office of Independent Review, who acts as a Sheriff's watchdog, says there were no signs of a cover-up and no red flags went up for him. He "concurred" that the shooting was not out of policy. If something comes up as a result of the Mendez lawsuit, Gennaco says, "I may want to re-examine."

Deputy DA Rosa Alarcon, of the District Attorney's Justice System Integrity Division, tells the Weekly she's comfortable with Conley's explanation that Mendez pointed his rifle-like BB gun at him and the deputy squeezed off 10 gunshots in self-defense. Pederson, who fired five rounds from her 9mm Beretta, says she was coming to her partner's aid.

"We thought it was a very straightforward case," Alarcon says. "The statements [by the deputies] were very consistent. So there were no red flags."

But Gerald Ryckman, a partner on the case with David Drexler, Mendez's attorney, says neither the district attorney nor Baca's internal affairs team conducted a thorough bullet-trajectory investigation to test Mendez's contention that Conley shot his arm as he reached down to place the BB gun on the floor.

"No one did the science," he says. "That speaks volumes about what was really going on here."

Garcia and Mendez declined to discuss their harrowing experience. But Ryckman says, "They shoot Mr. Mendez and what happens? They start a massive cover-up machine. It's shocking."

One recent day, a petite woman with missing teeth and darkly tanned skin is holding a yard sale in front of Paula Hughes' home on 18th Street West in Lancaster. Hughes is out of town in Las Vegas, but the woman, who doesn't give her name, is watching Hughes' home for her in this working-class high desert neighborhood.

She remembers hearing about the shooting of Angel Mendez and Jennifer Garcia in the shack in the backyard but doesn't want to say much more than that — other than to describe L.A. County Sheriff's deputies in Lancaster as "kind of aggressive." Says the woman, "They come off as if everyone's a punk."Across the street, Bridget Coss, an affable, smiling blonde who lives in a well-maintained ranch house with her husband, clearly remembers Oct. 1, 2010. "The cops had the street blocked off," she says, "so I couldn't get in with my groceries. I wasn't happy about that."

Until the Mendez incident, Coss says, the street was quiet — and she had no idea that Mendez and Garcia lived in desperate conditions behind Hughes' home. "How was the officer supposed to know [Mendez] had a BB gun?" Coss asks. "I think they were just doing their jobs."

The Antelope Valley has proved to be an unusually thorny problem for Sheriff's deputies just doing their jobs.

On March 27, an L.A. County jury found that another of Baca's deputies, Scott Sorrow, used excessive force. Sorrow shot 15-year-old William Fetters in the back in 2009 after ordering Fetters to drop a toy gun on the ground in Palmdale. The jury awarded the teenager $1.1 million.

The year Mendez was gunned down, Special Counsel Merrick Bobb, a county-paid watchdog over the Sheriff's Department, found that deputies engaged in "overzealous use" of "obstruction" charges to justify arresting black people in Lancaster. While African Americans make up 19 percent of Lancaster's population, 64 percent of those accused of obstruction were black. Bobb wrote of being "troubled" by that.

The next year, 2011, was a controversial one for the Sheriff's Department in the area. The Weekly reported that nuisance-abatement teams set up by County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, and frequently led by Sheriff's deputies, were aggressively policing the back-country homes of residents — often the elderly or minorities — to ferret out building code or land use violations. Arriving armed, the teams created an intense backlash by truckers, retirees and others among the region's independent desert rats.

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