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Mum’s Not the Word

Photo by Ted Soqui

On the night of January 19, 1999, four off-duty L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies had just rolled into Tam’s Restaurant in Lynwood from a Kings hockey game when they were allegedly confronted by an angry customer.

A fight ensued, and the restaurant manager called the Sheriff’s Department. According to the version of events supplied by the Century Station deputies, the customer poked Deputy Ivan Chavez in the chest. Then he began yelling, “What the fuck are you looking at? I don’t give a fuck if you’re a cop or a fireman. I’ve got two strikes and I’ll kick your white ass.”

Chavez allegedly tried to calm the man, but was punched in the stomach. Deputy Gary Gerlach tried to subdue him, but he slipped and fell. The suspect then pushed Chavez into a booth and started beating him in the face. Gerlach and Deputy Guillermo Morales claimed they pulled the man off Chavez. But he punched Gerlach, ran out of Tam’s and vanished into the night.

The elusive suspect has never been found, but the police report identified Chavez and Gerlach as victims of battery on a police officer. Three days later, however, new information surfaced suggesting the deputies, who are no longer on active duty, had concocted a phony story to cover up misconduct that occurred after they’d been drinking. And the real crime victim may have been the customer.

These allegations were referred to the Sheriff’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, igniting a bizarre, two-and-a-half-year legal battle by the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office to get reports about the incident that were written by the off-duty deputies. Ultimately successful, the D.A.’s struggle to get this material led to an important Appeals Court ruling that could ease future public access to police reports.

The alleged beating itself is now under review by the D.A.’s Justice System Integrity Division, which prosecutes criminal misconduct by police. The Weekly has also learned that at least one narcotics case has been dismissed because of this investigation. And the top administrator in the D.A.’s Compton office ordered an internal review of other cases involving these four deputies: Chavez, Gerlach, Morales and Craig Roberts. The results of that review have not been disclosed.

The groundbreaking legal squabble arose after Century Sergeant Victor Lopez ordered the quartet of off-duty deputies to file “supplemental reports,” detailing their roles in the fight. “The story we heard,” says one Sheriff’s Department staff officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “was that the deputies had been drinking. This guy started to bother them. So they took him outside and beat him down to teach him a lesson. Then they told him to ‘get the hell out of Dodge.’”

Despite Lopez’s order, only Morales ever submitted a report to the department. It was read and approved by a supervisor. But even as word got out of an investigation into possible misconduct, Morales was seeking legal advice from Green & Shinee, a law firm representing the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.

The law firm told the deputies they should avoid any potential self-incrimination, by sending their reports to the firm rather than to department supervisors. Morales had already withdrawn his paperwork, handing it over to Green & Shinee instead. The other three deputies followed suit. Green & Shinee then refused to turn over the four reports to the internal-affairs unit, claiming attorney-client privilege. It was a legal gambit that stopped the investigation in its tracks. Attorney Richard Shinee did not return the Weekly’s calls for comment on behalf of the deputies.

In response to the legal stonewalling, the D.A.’s Office served a search warrant on the law firm in September 1999. But Green & Shinee agreed to turn over the four supplemental reports only to a specially appointed judge to review the paperwork. He advised Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler, who is handling the case, to give the reports to the prosecution.

In November 1999, a hearing was held before Fidler to determine the fate of these disputed reports. Sheriff’s Captain Kenneth Brazile testified that the reports were crucial to a probe of the bar incident, especially after he learned there was a witness who contradicted the deputies’ version of events. Brazile testified he eventually spoke to the unidentified witness, who said he was “devastated” by what he saw. Brazile also said his concern was heightened when investigators told him the deputies had been drinking.

The D.A.’s presentation included a written Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau interview with Sergeant Norine Plett. In her statement, Plett writes that Sergeant Lopez, the one who ordered the deputies to file supplemental reports, grew “enraged” when he heard Morales had withdrawn his paperwork. Plett quoted Lopez as saying, “This is the last time I try to defend these guys,” or “I’ve gone to the wall one too many times for these guys. I am not looking out for them anymore.”

Judge Fidler denied the deputies’ motion that their reports were privileged and illegally obtained because they were compelled to write them. Citing an earlier state appellate decision, Fidler wrote, “Any record required by law to be kept by an officer, or which he keeps as necessary or convenient to the discharge of his official duty is a public record.”

Fidler also noted that under the deputies’ argument, “no officer who wrote a false report could be prosecuted for it, because the report would have been ‘compelled’ by the requirements of his job.”

On December 20, 1999, he ordered the reports turned over to the D.A. Green & Shinee appealed, which held up matters until April of this year, when the Appellate Court upheld Fidler’s ruling. After one final appeal, also unsuccessful, Green & Shinee turned over the reports in May, some 30 months after the investigation began. It was a belated but clear victory both for the D.A. and public-records advocates.

Still, the law firm’s delaying tactics ran out the one-year statute of limitations on filing misdemeanor charges. Now the D.A.’s Office is faced with a decision: either file felony charges against these deputies or no charges at all.

Deputy D.A. Max Huntsman declined to discuss any specifics regarding the supplemental reports or the investigation. “But this has been a long battle, and the case has dragged on long enough,” he said. “So we will make our decision on filing charges sooner, rather than later.”

A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department said this week that three deputies are on paid leave. The fourth deputy, Gerlach, has retired. Earlier this year, a different spokesman indicated that the probe had broadened beyond the bar altercation. “I was told the investigation involves multiple allegations of misconduct,” Sergeant Ken Davidson said in March. “So there is more than one incident, but I can’t discuss any details.”

Another party with an intense interest in the outcome of this case is the Alternate Public Defender’s Office, which represents indigent criminal defendants. Attorney Gary Wigodsky filed a motion in February requesting the dismissal of a narcotics-possession charge against a client, who had been arrested by Gerlach and his partner, Deputy Ronald Licata, in 1998.

The point of Wigodsky’s motion was to sanction the D.A.’s Office for refusing to turn over subpoenaed evidence of alleged criminal misconduct by deputies. Under federal law, prosecutors must turn over to defense attorneys any information concerning the background and character of witnesses, including police officers, as well as any material that might exonerate or lessen the guilt of the accused.

However, the D.A. responded to Wigodsky’s motion by dismissing the narcotics charge entirely. The defense lawyer countered by filing a motion asking for a finding of factual innocence, claiming that Gerlach and Licata had framed his client. The motion also asked that his client’s arrest records be sealed and destroyed.

Wigodsky said he expected the D.A. to contest his action, giving him another shot at the deputies’ records. To his surprise, prosecutors agreed to the finding of factual innocence, which the court issued in March.

Meanwhile, the Weekly has learned that former Compton Head Deputy D.A. David Traum issued a memo in April 1999, alerting prosecutors that Gerlach, Roberts, Chavez and Morales had been relieved of duty and might not be available to testify. He directed his prosecutors to review case files and report any legal problems back to him.

Wigodsky said he has yet to receive any notice from the D.A. regarding the results of that review. “I am waiting for the D.A.’s Office to release any material which might help exonerate our clients,” said Wigodsky. “ I am still waiting for them to do what is right.”