Lucky to Be Alive
One sunny afternoon in Lancaster, an hour's drive north of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley, Angel Mendez woke from an afternoon nap to a sound outside the 7-by-7-foot makeshift shack he called home. It was close to 1 p.m., and his fiancée, Jennifer Garcia, was resting next to him on a futon, pregnant with their fourth child.
Mendez, 30, and Garcia, 27, were living without their children one step above homelessness in the squalid, rat-infested backyard of Paula Hughes, Mendez's high school friend. The longtime couple had fallen on very hard times during the punishing recession that hammered the high desert, and they were broke.
On Oct. 1, 2010, life was about to get much worse.
Unknown to them, Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Conley, a member of a specialized unit set up by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca at the Lancaster station and given the ill-chosen name COPS HIT — for "Community-Oriented Policing Services High-Impact Team" — was about to enter their shack. With Conley was Deputy Jennifer Pederson, also a COPS HIT team member.
The deputies did not have a search warrant and did not announce themselves to Mendez and Garcia, who were not wanted for any crime and did not remotely match the description of the big, white man the officers sought.
Conley opened the shack door with his department-issued 9mm semiautomatic Beretta drawn. Mendez, who had on the bed a Daisy Powerline rifle-style BB gun that he used for shooting rats, sat up and moved the BB gun to the floor. Conley opened fire. A bullet ripped into Mendez's right forearm, passed through it and struck his right leg — proof, his attorneys today say, that he was reaching down to put the BB gun on the floor when shot.
"I didn't even know it was them," Mendez later told Sheriff's Homicide Sgt. Robert Gray. "They didn't say 'police'! They didn't say 'freeze'! They didn't say 'drop the weapon'! They said nothing, sir."
Conley and Pederson fired at will, peppering the couple with 14 more bullets, one of which struck the seven-months-pregnant Garcia in the right upper back and shattered her collarbone. Mendez was critically injured, hit multiple times in his right leg, arm, back and side; blood poured from his wounds. Weeks later, his badly fractured right leg, whose key arteries had been sliced in half, had to be amputated.
In a disturbing videotape taken minutes after the shooting, as a paramedic worked to stop the bleeding, police can be clearly heard pressuring Mendez to say he'd pointed the BB gun at Conley. Mendez begs the people around him, "Oh, please, don't let me die, sir!" then turns his head toward neighbor Charles Green, who is witnessing the drama, and tells Green: "I never pointed the gun at him, Charlie!"
From the moment he was shot, Mendez has maintained that he did not point his BB gun at Conley — that he was moving it to the floor. Conley told Baca's Internal Affairs Bureau investigators he saw a rifle barrel aimed at him and opened fire.
"I thought he was going to kill me," Conley told Sheriff's IAB Sgt. Patrick Kim, "and I thought he got the jump on me and I was done. So I thought, 'Here's my chance to live.' "
The horrific incident happened too far from the Los Angeles urban core to earn more than a few sentences in the media taken from the Sheriff's Department website. L.A. Weekly was among the few that bothered to report that a federal lawsuit had been filed by Mendez against L.A. County, Conley and Pederson, alleging use of excessive force and that Mendez's constitutional rights had been violated.
A four-day, no-jury trial before U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald wrapped up weeks ago in downtown Los Angeles, and his verdict is expected anytime.
But police experts and watchdogs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are questioning every aspect of the shootings — the events that set the Lancaster COPS HIT deputies on edge leading up to the shooting, the shooting itself and Baca's internal findings that the shooting was "in policy."
Critics suggest the Mendez case is further proof that Sheriff Lee Baca, who has come under withering attack for repeatedly failing to prevent his deputies from abusing and harassing jail inmates, is losing control of a department some see as a cowboy-style organization rather than a modern law enforcement agency.
Prominent civil rights attorney Samuel Paz, who has won many police-brutality lawsuits, says Baca's deputies "think they don't have to worry about being investigated because the top guys [Baca and his command staff] tell them they have free rein."
Paz cites a 2012 report by the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence produced by such heavyweight civic leaders as Rev. Cecil Murray, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell and former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno, which found serious problems.
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.
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.
That same year, Lancaster deputies were federally investigated for using discriminatory practices against mostly poor black and Latino Lancaster residents of government-subsidized, Section 8 rental housing. Civil rights leaders, with help from Public Counsel Law Center, sued Lancaster and the Sheriff's Department for "constant surveillance and harassment" of Section 8 recipients, claiming that police "often initiated 'compliance checks' at Section 8 tenants' homes intended solely to harass and intimidate." (In a settlement, Baca's department agreed to back off.)
That year, personal-injury attorney Drexler filed the federal lawsuit against L.A. County and deputies Conley and Pederson for shooting Angel Mendez. Drexler and Ryckman say Mendez's Fourth Amendment right to a reasonable expectation of privacy was violated when deputies entered his home without a warrant and failed to announce their presence. They claim Mendez was the victim of excessive force, resulting in "catastrophic injuries and damages."
"What was shocking was that people who are downtrodden are treated to a different style of justice," Ryckman says. "It's not important if it's a mansion or a shack. It's just a matter of an expectation of privacy."
They await a verdict from U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald, hoping to win millions for their client.
Baca spokesman Whitmore says, "Lawsuits don't tell the whole story, and this one certainly doesn't. He was pointing a BB gun at the deputies, and that's why he was shot."
As expected, the battling sides don't agree on various facts. But certain intriguing details have emerged in investigations by the Sheriff's Department and Drexler and Ryckman.
The day of the shooting, deputies from the Lancaster station's COPS HIT unit and its equally dubiously titled Target-Oriented Policing (TOP) team gathered outside an Albertsons market on 20th Street West. A court document quotes Sgt. Greg Minster as saying deputies "got some info" that Ronnie O'Dell, a big, white parolee and known drug user, had been spotted at Albertsons following a weeks-long search for him.
Ryckman tells the Weekly that O'Dell had skipped out on his drug-rehab program and been pulled over in his vehicle by deputies but had bolted on foot, leaving a toddler behind. After that, according to the Sheriff's Department, deputies sought O'Dell for "felony child endangerment" and violating his parole but couldn't find him.
The Sheriff's Department labeled O'Dell "armed and dangerous." That was a somewhat dramatic description, probably inspired by the fact that he'd eluded deputies and raised their ire. O'Dell's arrest record showed no violence in his long history of drug possession, DUIs and driving without a license.
Minster and his deputies — including Conley and Pederson — swarmed Albertsons. But they didn't find O'Dell. While still at the supermarket, they got a tip that he might be at a nearby residence. In a deposition, Sheriff's Deputy Claudia Rissling testified that her informant claimed to have spotted someone looking like O'Dell riding a bike on 18th Street West near Paula Hughes' home. Rissling informed the COPS HIT and TOPS deputies that two people lived in a shack behind Hughes' home. According to Mendez's attorney, Drexler, Rissling even "identified Angel and Jennifer by name." Rissling said her informant told her that O'Dell could also be at Rose Larsen's house down the block from Hughes'. Minster later described Larsen's and Hughes' homes as "dope houses."
So Conley, Pederson, Minster and deputies Billy Cox and Veronica Ramirez headed to Hughes' home, just three minutes from Albertsons. Another team went to Larsen's home.
According to a Sheriff's Department document, the Community-Oriented Policing Services Bureau to which COPS HIT is assigned is "highly specialized" and provides "prevention, intervention and suppression law enforcement services" to Sheriff's stations. Under the bureau, the High-Impact Team, or HIT, handles "quality-of-life issues," serves warrants, "independently" canvases areas and conducts "saturation patrol." In essence, they are troubleshooters. Conley and Pederson were part of COPS HIT.
Capt. Robert J. Tubbs, who commands the COPS bureau, declined to talk with the Weekly. But Eugene O'Donnell, a police-procedures expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says teams such as COPS HIT and TOPS can be troublesome.
"When you establish specialized units," O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor, says "you have to be careful that there's not spin-off. You had that problem with the Los Angeles Police Department, where the supervision [was] lax" toward the anti-gang CRASH unit, leading to the Rampart scandal. "People are looking for stuff that's not always there."
ACLU's Eliasberg says the COPS HIT moniker — created by Lee Baca's brass — only underscores the department's over-aggressiveness. "Why would you call yourself that?" a dismayed Eliasberg asks. "Are you going to call yourself an assassination team? We don't want our police to be 'hit teams.' There's no good that comes out of it, branding yourself in a very aggressive way."
As young recruits, COPS HIT deputies Conley and Pederson had both worked at Baca's North Facility jail at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, where a former prisoner told the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence that he underwent seven strip searches after an inmate riot and was handcuffed and left naked in a shower for six hours. The commission found that Baca's jailers often used humiliation tactics.
As Conley and Pederson arrived at Hughes' home that afternoon, Conley later told investigators, their job was to clear the backyard. Meanwhile, Minster, Cox and Ramirez went to Hughes' front door, banging on it with a rock and demanding entry, according to videotaped testimony from neighbor Charles Green.
Hughes refused to open her door to deputies, Green said, so the deputies used a "battering ram" on her front door. They had no search warrant, but she finally let them in. Ronnie O'Dell wasn't there, nor did police find a cache of drugs.
According to a Sheriff's report, Conley and Pederson meanwhile approached the tiny backyard shack constructed of plywood, with an air conditioner protruding from its side. Conley told investigators he opened the door without identifying himself, saw the "barrel of a rifle" pointed at him and yelled "Gun!" He explained, "I started firing and backing away almost like instinct."
More than six months later, on April 19, Sgt. Patrick Kim asks Conley, "How much time passed between the time you saw the suspect and the time you fired your weapon?"
Conley responds, "Maybe 15 seconds."
That's more than enough time for a deputy to shout "Freeze! Police!" and take cover. When asked about this anomaly, Deputy DA Alarcon couldn't recall it. She tells the Weekly, "I reviewed everything that was provided to me. It appeared to be a thorough and complete investigation."
On May 25, about eight months after the shooting, Alarcon concluded that Conley and Pederson "acted in lawful self-defense."
As Conley unloaded his gun toward Mendez and Garcia, Pederson later told investigators, she feared for Conley's life and fired off five rounds from her 9mm Beretta.
Deputies Cox and Ramirez and Sgt. Minster, who'd been dealing with Paula Hughes, moved toward the sound of erupting gunfire. Cox then spotted Hughes' German shepherd mix, took aim and killed the pet with one bullet. "A dog ran out snarling, ran at me," Cox later told Sheriff's Homicide Sgt. Gray. "I shot it once. It went down immediately to the ground."
It was a gruesome scene. Conley ordered the critically injured Mendez and Garcia to get out of the shack. Bleeding and almost certainly heading into shock, Mendez was made to crawl out and was quickly surrounded by deputies. Paramedics arrived, ripping off his clothes to tend his wounds.
As Mendez lay on the ground, nude and severely wounded, Minster videotaped him. Minster can be heard trying to get Mendez to say that he'd pointed his BB gun at Conley. Filled with terror, Mendez repeatedly says he did not point his BB gun at Conley.
"One more time," Minster says. "Why'd you point the gun at my deputies?"
"I didn't, sir," Mendez cries out. He tells Minster the BB gun was "on my bed, and I went to move it, sir, so I could get up. Sir, I'm not a bad guy." He repeatedly says he's "sorry," which Sheriff's investigators and Deputy DA Alarcon intently focused on in their reports.
Mendez and Garcia were taken to Antelope Valley Hospital. The next day, Oct. 2, as Mendez fought back fears that his badly pulverized right leg would be amputated, Sheriff's Homicide sergeants Gray and Marty Rodriguez questioned him. According to a transcript, Rodriguez assures Mendez that he's "not in any custody."
But a Sheriff's incident report later showed that the department immediately saw Mendez as a suspect. In that Oct. 1 incident report, Mendez is accused of "assault with deadly weapon ... on a peace officer" and "brandish[ing a] firearm in a peace officer's presence."
Conley and Pederson are portrayed as Angel Mendez's victims.
During the hospital interview, Mendez again apologizes. But as Gray and Rodriguez encourage him to say he pointed the BB gun at Conley, Mendez rebuffs them: "I did not aim it at them, sir" and insists he doesn't know anyone named Ronnie O'Dell. Mendez says, "I was, like, 'No, please, stop, don't shoot me!' And they shot again and again and again after I dropped everything."
Mendez and Garcia, who had criminal records, are not model citizens. They were both convicted in February 2008 of "misdemeanor willful cruelty to a child," according to the L.A. County District Attorney's Office. A month later, Mendez was convicted of misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance.
Shortly after the shooting, Garcia, who later married Mendez, tells investigators that she used to abuse meth but got sober in 2008. She admits that Mendez still uses drugs, telling investigator Rodriguez, "I can't keep somebody clean."
The Sheriff's Department charged Mendez with pointing "an imitation firearm," but then–District Attorney Steve Cooley's office declined to prosecute. Deputy DA James Garrison, who heads the Justice System Integrity Division, says there was insufficient evidence he'd committed a crime. After the Sheriff's Executive Force Review Committee cleared Conley and Pederson, Capt. Tubbs ordered the deputies to undergo "tactics" training and to review the incident.
Ryckman is outraged. "They just storm these places and do whatever the hell they want," he says. "We're lucky we didn't end up with two people dead."
About 20 miles outside Lancaster next to Highway 14, a huge billboard announces that personal-injury lawyer R. Rex Parris has won $921 million in verdicts and settlements. Parris, who is also the mayor of Lancaster, was first elected in 2008 as a law-and-order man. But he got into hot water with civil rights leaders by strongly supporting the armed Sheriff's deputies who entered apartments to check for Section 8 housing violations.
Parris, an imposing man with a full, white beard, has made local and national headlines several times. He once said Lancaster was "growing a Christian community" and proposed playing bird chatter on loudspeakers on a main thoroughfare to spruce up the town. When L.A. Weekly contacted Parris about the Mendez case, he described the incident as "tragic" but wouldn't comment further.
Throughout L.A. County, small cities like Lancaster, West Hollywood and Compton pay the Sheriff to provide police services. Baca spokesman Whitmore says there's a "combined" and "community" effort between these towns and the Sheriff as to how deputies carry out their work.
Catherine Lhamon, an attorney with Public Counsel, the nation's largest pro bono law firm, says Parris "declared a war on Section 8," and deputies acted as his muscle. Her firm sued Lancaster and the Sheriff's Department and won a settlement.
Before the lawsuit, she says, 74 percent of the city's Section 8 investigations involved deputies. In L.A. County, the figure is only 8 percent. "It was aberrant how involved [the deputies] were," Lhamon says. She notes that Parris and the Sheriff's Department have now made a "radical transformation." The mayor even apologized at a press conference for his past statements and actions concerning Section 8.
Yet several police experts and watchdogs are not convinced, given events such as the shooting in the backyard shack, that Baca has a grip on things. In its blistering report, the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence deemed Baca's response to excessive force in the jails "insufficient" and noted a "failure of leadership" at the top.
Civil rights attorney Paz points to findings by the commission that Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, Baca's recently departed right-hand man, urged deputies to "work in the gray area'" and "undermined the credibility of Internal Affairs Bureau on more than one occasion."
Paz says Sheriff's Department leaders were "reinforcing" the unwritten policy that supervisors should let deputies "do their jobs as they see fit." That, he says, "encourages violence."
Paz now is assisting in a federal lawsuit involving Kenneth Rivera III, who was killed in Lynwood in 2012 by a Sheriff's deputy who shot him in the back.
Tom Parker, the former head of L.A.'s FBI office, read the Sheriff's and L.A. County District Attorney reports on the Mendez shooting, as well as David Drexler's opening statement at trial. He has come to suspect that COPS HIT and TOP were engaged in the "very common" practice of "testi-lying" after a bad shoot.
Parker is a retired 24-year veteran of the FBI whose distinguished career included undercover investigations, police corruption and brutality cases and investigations of agent-involved shootings. Last year, the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara gave him a Heroes of Justice Award for his work on criminal-justice reform.
Parker says police sometimes lie about "drug houses" to justify unjustifiable searches. But he has even more fundamental doubts than that in the Angel Mendez case. He questions whether a deputy ever saw big, white Ronnie O'Dell at Albertsons or whether the purported informant even existed.
"From that point forward," Parker says, referring to the deputies' huddle outside Albertsons, "there's really faulty police procedures happening here." Nobody saw O'Dell leave Albertsons, so the deputies were not in a "hot pursuit" to Paula Hughes' home. Nor was there any clear and immediate threat to the public.
Parker says, "Without a warrant or substantial probable cause ... you don't have a right to go into the backyard and search through buildings, never mind the shack." He says the killing of Paula Hughes' German shepherd was wrong. "If you've got no right to be on the property, you've got no right to shoot the dog."
Professor O'Donnell agrees that if there's not an emergency, "You need to have a warrant to go into someone's house." But he notes that due to institutional pressures, officers and their commanders often feel they can't admit they were wrong.
O'Donnell adds, "If you can't be truthful, then what are your reports going to say?"
Parker explains, "If you operate from the premise that [police] had no right to be there, that damages the self-protection aspect of the shooting. ... Angel and Jennifer are innocent victims in this situation."
O'Donnell says it's also "interesting" that Mendez was not prosecuted for pointing an imitation gun. "He basically didn't do a crime," the professor says. "He was sitting in his home."
O'Donnell says the deputies had a hard-to-beat explanation for firing 15 bullets into a 7-by-7-foot shack. "Cops are almost always going to win the main issue, which is the guy had a gun."
Parker says he believes it's possible that some deputies were interested in looking for illegal drug activity at the homes of Larsen and Hughes and weren't out to find Ronnie O'Dell at all. He says the Sheriff's version of events simply doesn't pass his smell test.
Baca spokesman Whitmore says, "You can paint the picture that everyone's in cahoots, which is fine. ... But when everything is said and done, [Mendez] caused the shooting."
The men representing Angel Mendez before Judge Fitzgerald have been working on the case for two years, but they still get outraged over the Sheriff's and district attorney's investigations. Drexler says of the DA's office, "They don't do any independent investigation" and he criticizes the Justice System Integrity Division's weighty name as "a misnomer."
For Ryckman, the halfhearted effort he saw made by police oversight authorities to determine what really happened that day haunts him the most. "As it goes up this chain of command," he says, "it's constantly rubber-stamped."
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.
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