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Another Fine Mess

One moment last week in the ninth-floor hallway of the Superior Court building downtown brought all the crosscurrents and strange alliances of the first criminal case involving Rampart cops into sharp highlight.

It came on the third day of trial, after LAPD Officer Raquel Duarte Argomaniz was called by the prosecution and testified for more than an hour on the events leading to an alleged false arrest.

During an afternoon break, Argomaniz encountered Sergeant Brian Liddy, one of four officers on trial. She stepped up and offered him a kiss hello.

Lead prosecutor Laura Laesecke seized on that buss when Argomaniz returned to the witness stand. Laesecke first demanded that the officer confirm that it had happened, and then suggested what it might mean. ”Have you ever heard of the code of silence?“ she asked.

When Argomaniz seemed uncertain, Laesecke pressed the point. ”What does it mean?“ ”Not being forthcoming,“ Argomaniz answered. ”Not talking about the bad acts of other officers?“ ”Yes,“ the officer answered.

It may have been the first time Laesecke, a prosecutor with the D.A.’s hardcore gang unit, had ever challenged the veracity of her own police witness. But this was the world of Rampart as defined by rogue cop Rafael Perez, where officers are the crooks and gang members the victims, and everyone in the picture has plenty of reason to lie.

The first trial of cops facing accusations leveled by Perez promised from the outset to be a tricky assignment. The charges themselves seem penny-ante, considering the kind of abuse Perez has alleged, but D.A. Gil Garcetti said he brought this case first because the statute of limitations on these particular offenses was about to expire.

The case is complex, involving four officers involved in three allegedly bogus arrests on different dates in 1996. In one incident, a gang member was allegedly framed for striking two officers with his truck while fleeing a police raid. In a second, Perez said, officers planted a gun when the CRASH unit broke up a gang party. The third arose when Officer Michael Buchanan testified as a witness to a Perez gun bust that took place on a day Buchanan was on vacation. Prosecutors say his testimony was a fiction. Buchanan says he simply neglected to report for duty.

Sergeant Edward Ortiz was the supervisor in all three cases; the initial defendants in each arrest have had their convictions overturned on the strength of Perez‘s confessions.

Prosecutors got a taste of the special problems inherent in bringing criminal charges against police officers as early as last April, when D.A.’s investigators asked the LAPD to help search the homes of the accused officers. According to court papers, the lieutenant running the criminal section of the LAPD‘s Rampart Task Force first agreed to join in, but then announced that he and all the detectives on the task force had decided to oppose any search warrant.

In the months since, according to Brian Shirn of the D.A.’s special prosecution team, ”The Rampart investigation has demonstrated how difficult it is for a law-enforcement agency to police itself.“ In a declaration filed with the court, Shirn said the LAPD has ”failed to conduct a full investigation, . . . failed to provide full discovery even after a court order, and even warned a suspect officer of search warrants to be served at several officers‘ homes.“

The prosecution suffered another setback just days before the trial was set to open, losing its star witness when Rafael Perez was accused by a former girlfriend of having committed several murders. Through his attorney, Perez said that if pressed in court he would invoke the Fifth Amendment rather than answer questions about the alleged slayings. That would in turn compromise the right of the defense to cross-examine a prosecution witness; legal experts say the judge then would be required to either strike Perez’s testimony or declare a mistrial.

Last week, prosecutors lost a second key witness when Greg Yates, attorney for gang member Alan Lobos, said his client would also invoke the Fifth Amendment rather than answer questions on yet another homicide. Lobos contends that he was framed by the CRASH unit, but in their opening statement, defense attorneys said he invented the story to obscure his connection to a gang shooting.

For all the problems prosecutors say they‘ve had collecting evidence and presenting witnesses, Superior Court Judge Jacqueline A. Connor has afforded them little sympathy. Connor refused to permit the presentation of five witnesses to one of the alleged frame-ups, asserting that they were introduced too close to the trial date. She’s consistently upheld defense objections and ruled against the prosecution.

Here again, the prosecution may have run into a case of institutional bias. Connor is a former prosecutor herself with a reputation for meting out tough sentences to gang members, and her husband, James Bascue, also a Superior Court judge, worked closely with LAPD CRASH as head of the D.A.‘s hardcore gang unit.

Prosecutors Laesecke and Ann Ingalls are pressing forward with a case built from scant evidence, the Police Department’s own records, and the observations of hostile or tainted witnesses. For example, while Raul Munoz, the gang member accused of striking two officers with his pickup truck, denies committing that assault, he admits he was violating parole and carrying a gun that night -- crimes for which he was never charged. Further he admitted that, years before the alleged assault, he pulled the trigger in a gang shooting.

Defense attorneys, led by former LAPD Officer Barry Levin, have attacked the credibility of witnesses like Munoz. And the police witnesses have been uniformly reluctant. Last week, Laesecke suggested to former CRASH Officer Mark Richardson, now assigned to Metro, ”Let‘s be honest here, you don’t want to testify against your fellow officers.“ Richardson agreed. ”I don‘t think this is right,“ he said simply.

Yet, in the course of more than a week of testimony, the jury has been presented plenty of grist to mull. Consider the incident that has received the most attention at trial so far, an arrest that took place when Rafael Perez was leading the CRASH campaign against the Temple Street Gang.

In July of 1996, Perez got a tip on plans for a Temple Street meeting. He and Officer Argomaniz staked out a darkened parking lot, and when more than 40 gang members showed up, Rampart and Northeast Division CRASH dispatched a raiding party of more than 25 officers.

Temple Street veteran Munoz was among those on hand, armed with a .357 Magnum provided at the gathering by a fellow gang member. When a police helicopter buzzed the location, Munoz fled down an alley in a pickup truck until his path was blocked by a squad car. Then, according to Munoz, he jumped from the truck, holding the gun under his shirt, and sprinted up the street. Officer Brian Liddy gave chase.

Halfway up the block, Munoz said, he tossed the weapon into a bush; a few paces later, he was confronted by an officer wielding a shotgun, and surrendered. Moments later, Munoz testified, Officer Liddy arrived and, finding Munoz prone on the ground, kicked him between the legs, hard enough that Munoz lost control of his bladder and bowels. A short time later, while he was handcuffed, Munoz said, Liddy pressed him for information on a gang member wanted in a homicide. When Munoz refused to cooperate, Liddy arrested him.

It was only later, Munoz testified, that he learned he was charged with striking Liddy and fellow Officer Buchanan with his truck while fleeing the scene. Munoz maintained his innocence, but nobody listened -- not his attorney, not his parole officer. After pleading guilty and serving most of a three-year sentence, Munoz was deported to El Salvador, where he resides to this day.

Investigators learned of the Munoz case from Perez, who said during taped interviews that the officers were never struck, that they invented the injuries they said they sustained, and that they detailed the bogus events in a false police report. When police investigators located Munoz in January in San Salvador, he again asserted his innocence.

Parts of Munoz’s story have been corroborated by two witnesses, one a cop and one a civilian.

Jurors also heard from Mark Arnold, the prosecutor who tried that case and now a Superior Court judge. Arnold said he brought the case solely on the strength of the statements of Liddy and Buchanan. He said he never questioned the officers‘ accounts, and never interviewed any other witnesses before deciding to proceed with the case.

Arnold conceded on the stand that he did harbor doubts at the time -- in particular, he thought Buchanan ”would have shown more serious injuries“ from his encounter with the pickup truck -- but decided the evidence was ”sufficient“ to take to a jury. The case was settled when Munoz and his passenger agreed to plead guilty.

Now a new jury will deliberate that case. This time they are hearing from all the parties involved, and hearing that the district attorney now believes it was wrong to prosecute Munoz. To find against the officers, however, all 12 jurors must rule not only that the initial conviction was bogus, but that the officers conspired to make it so.

That’s a long stretch to make on the basis of patchwork evidence and the recall of bystanders four years later. But one thing already is clear as this case moves forward: Since Rafael Perez began to talk, nothing should be taken for granted.