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Out of Time

FLAVIO ARAGON WAS 19 WHEN HE BLED TO DEATH one overheated summer afternoon in 1994. Nine years later, Flavio's sister, Maria Lupita Sanchez, 33, still hasn't gotten over it, not by a long shot. The grief is bad enough, Lupita says, but the crazy-making doubts make it worse. "There are still so many unanswered questions. So many pieces of the puzzle that still don't fit."

Flavio, his sister, and their older brother, Robert Aragon, grew up in the Pico-Aliso housing projects of East Los Angeles, a two-mile-square neighborhood that is one of the city's poorest and most violent. For years, the LAPD listed Pico-Aliso as having the most intense level of gang activity in Los Angeles. As a consequence, residents have gotten extremely experienced at burying their young. Father Greg Boyle, the priest who most often officiates at Eastside gang funerals, has, at last count, buried 115 young men and women like Flavio Aragon. Yet, for all the accumulated sorrow, his death still haunts residents with particular intensity.

This is not to say that Flavio was any kind of innocent. "My brother sold drugs," says Lupita. "There's no nice way around that." Neighbors are more specific. Like a lot of projects boys, they say, Flavio's life had jumped the tracks for the usual list of reasons: grinding poverty, dysfunction in the family, a beloved older brother who succumbed to the gang world. Flavio himself was never a violent kid. Rather, he was smart, a former straight-A student with so much damned potential that everybody prayed he'd one day turn things around.

"Yeah, Flavio made his money dealing," says Arnold Machado, a cheerful, moon-faced construction worker whose family lived just behind the wood bungalow that the Aragons used to rent. "But he was someone who meant something to a lot of people. Even now I keep thinking, What the hell happened? Did the police let him die? And if they did, how come nothing happened to those officers? A lot of people in the projects still ask those questions."

Pico-Aliso is policed by the Hollenbeck Division of the LAPD, not Rampart; in other words, not by the division made notorious by officer misdeeds. Yet for the minority communities of Los Angeles, "Rampart" now represents more than a division, or a discreetly bordered scandal. It has become a code word calling up all the old sad, bad stories that residents hold in their collective memory, a catalog of disquieting police encounters that, if unacknowledged, wear away at the fabric of a neighborhood, a police force, a city. The last moments of Flavio Aragon constitute one such story.

 

THE LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT HAS ALways contended that the truth of Flavio Aragon's death is a simple one. According to police documents, around 4:50 on the afternoon of July 16, 1994, Officers Thomas Wunsch and Edward Veenstra, both from the Metro Division, were cruising north on the 100th block of Clarence Street when they observed what they assumed was a drug deal: Two young men in their 20s standing on the sidewalk handed a third man an undetermined amount of cash. The officers screeched their unmarked car to the curb, got out and searched the three men. They found nothing suspicious — no contraband, wads of cash or weapons. ä All the men had identification, and no outstanding warrants. One of the men, Robert Aragon — Flavio's brother — admitted he was on parole. He was in the projects visiting his mother, he said, and pointed to a nearby bungalow at 156 Clarence. Officers Wunsch and Veenstra asked Robert Aragon for permission to search the residence. Robert refused. The officers decided to go in anyway "in furtherance of the investigation." Wunsch and Veenstra radioed for backup. Metro Division Officers Daniel Skinner and Randy Andrews arrived a few minutes later to watch the three men while the first officers entered the bungalow.

Wunsch and Veenstra found the living and dining rooms unoccupied. They searched for a minute or two, went back outside to tell Skinner and Andrews to handcuff the men, then they re-entered the living room. Suddenly a door opened to the left of the officers. A male, later identified as Flavio Aragon, was "standing in the doorway holding a clear plastic bag in his right hand." The officers noted the bag contained a "white, powdery substance that resembled cocaine." Startled, Flavio ran back into the bedroom and slammed the door shut. As the officers followed, they heard the sound of breaking glass. Thinking their bird was flying the coop, they ran out the front door and around to the side of the house. There they found Flavio lying on a small concrete walkway below the shattered window, bleeding from his right arm and ankle. One shard of glass had penetrated the side of his chest under the right armpit, slicing clean through his right axillary artery.

Officer Skinner later told investigators that he grabbed a sweatshirt from the front porch and tried to stop the flow of blood from under Flavio's armpit, while another officer radioed for an ambulance. Fire Department records indicate that paramedics received the call at 4:57 p.m. and arrived six minutes later at 5:03 p.m. Flavio Aragon was taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center where he was pronounced dead at 5:27 p.m. by Dr. John Falcon. The cause of death was listed as exsanguination. His heart had bled dry.

The reality of an event is in the eye of the beholder. The more witnesses, the more truths. While Flavio Aragon bled on the pavement, at least a dozen police officers and 40 community members showed up at the scene. I interviewed a total of 28 people who were present or nearby on the day that Flavio died. Their stories fit together to form the following narrative:

On the afternoon of July 16, Lupita, her two children, and her mother, Juanita, were about to go shopping when Flavio tried to charm Juanita into hemming a pair of pants he'd bought at the swap meet that morning. Juanita grabbed the pants with mock exasperation. Ten minutes later, the hems were finished. "That's beautiful, Mom," Flavio said, and he smiled his most radiant smile.

Juanita remembers no dark moths' wings passing over her heart. She recalls only her daughter urging, "Come on, Mom! Let's go!" Juanita followed Lupita and the kids into the piercingly bright Southern California sunshine. On the front porch she passed her eldest son, Robert, playing chess with Angel Muro, a former gang member who now worked for Power 106 radio. Two other homeboys-turned-working men, Miguel Martinez and George Olmos, leaned against the wood railing to watch.

When the game was finished, Angel Muro left to change clothes. The men remaining decided it was time for some beer. Olmos agreed to walk the half-block to Moons Market at Clarence and Third streets, so Robert Jr. and Martinez dug into their pockets and handed him a few bucks. It was this exchange that Wunsch and Veenstra interpreted as a drug deal.

The officers reported they pulled over to investigate at 4:50 p.m. Community members place the time much earlier. Whatever the hour, when the police stopped the men, word flew up and down the street, and community mothers began to gather. In the past decade, there had been numerous complaints of police abuse in the projects. So now mothers made it a habit to materialize in doorways whenever officers questioned a homeboy or homegirl. As long as there were witnesses, the women figured, the cops were more apt to behave.

The first mothers to arrive were Rosie Rosales, Maria Torres and Marta Sosa, who say they got to the house in time to hear glass breaking. "When we came around to the side, Flavio was lying on the ground bleeding a lot," says Sosa. "I wanted to go to him, but the police wouldn't let me or my friend, Maria, near him."

Cecelia Sandoval, who lived next to the Aragons, rushed to her kitchen door just in time to see Flavio's body crashing through his bedroom window. Sandoval says she knew right away that the young man was hurt badly. Blood splattered his white boxer shorts and was oozing fast from his upper chest onto the pavement. Instinctively she rushed toward him, but the officers waved her off. "One of the police . . . yelled at me to get back in my house," she says. Sandoval stepped back, but refused to leave. Instead she kept watch, assuming an ambulance would arrive momentarily. She remembers not liking the way the officers handcuffed Flavio's arms behind his back and stood over him, a gun pointed at his head. As minutes passed, Flavio became dehydrated from the blood loss, and called out for water. Sandoval got a glass from her kitchen, but says again the police refused to allow her near. Nor would the cops give Flavio the water themselves. Sandoval, a shy, private woman, says she's positive the officers never administered any kind of first aid. No sweatshirt. No tourniquet. "I was there all the time," she says. "The police did nothing."

Maria Torres says she heard Sandoval plead with the officers to call paramedics. Frightened by Flavio's deteriorating condition, Torres also asked them to call an ambulance. "He was bleeding so much," Torres says.

Flavio's father, Robert Aragon Sr., was with friends down the street when somebody told him what had happened. He raced to his son, but officers stood in his path. Flavio was still crying out for water. The dad got close enough to splash water at his son from an old gallon milk jug. But before he could actually get the liquid to Flavio's mouth, the police pushed him away.

Rosie Rosales stationed herself on the sidewalk with a direct view down the walkway. A few minutes after the father left, she remembers watching the police drape yellow tape around the area where Flavio was lying. "Why did they take the time to do all that with the tape," says Rosales, "when they should have been doing anything they could to help that child live? I just didn't understand it."

As the minutes ticked by, more residents gathered and more police vehicles arrived. A woman from the nearby Christian church went home and got a video camera. The tape shows Robert Jr., Olmos and Martinez still handcuffed and on their knees in front of a chainlink fence. Flavio's father stands uncertainly on the front porch of his house, one hand clutching the jug of water. Police move in and out of frame as squad cars and the neutral-colored sedans favored by CRASH arrive and disgorge more officers who mill on the sidewalk consulting one another. Flavio is at the side of the house, out of sight of the camera, but most of the officers never glance in his direction. In their demeanor there is no anger, nor is there a sense of urgency, no appearance of crisis. The music of an ice cream truck plays in the distance, its hurdy-gurdy melody fading in and out. And still the ambulance doesn't come.

Roman Gonzalez, a boyhood friend of Flavio's, says he remembers the scene clearly. "By the time I got there, there was a huge crowd of people from the community and maybe 15 cop cars in the street. People were leaving and coming back, getting other people. Everybody was really upset because so much time passed and there were no paramedics." Bravon McDuffie, the president of Pico Garden's residents' advisory board, phoned then-Councilman Richard Alatorre with the idea that he might break the impasse. Alatorre remembers getting the call and driving from his home in Monterey Hills, taking time to drop his wife off at an appointment on the way. He says he isn't certain whether he got there before or after the paramedics had come and gone, but he remembers the street still being jammed with police and angry residents.

 

IF THERE WAS WRONGDOING ON THE part of the police, it hinges on the passage of time. According to estimates by community members, the time between when Flavio went out the window and when the ambulance arrived is as short as 25 minutes to as long as an hour. The most common appraisal is 30 minutes.

Paramedics and hospital reports establish the back end of the continuum. Police radio reports could establish the front end, but despite my repeated requests, the LAPD declined to release them. There is only Wunsch and Veenstra's written notations stating that the officers stopped to search Robert Jr. and friends 13 minutes before the ambulance showed up. A great deal occurred during those 13 minutes: The two officers left their car, detained the suspects, searched them, ran their IDs, called and waited for backup, entered and began searching the Aragon house, came out of the house, entered again, spotted Flavio, Flavio went out the window, the officers ran to the side of the house, handcuffed him, tried to stanch the blood flow, called the paramedics, called for more backup, multiple police vehicles arrived, the ambulance arrived.

Community members are uniform in their belief that the 13-minute version of events defies credulity. "Think about it," says Angel Muro, the chess player who works at Power 106. "Those cops had time to radio for backup and for all those cop cars to arrive. There was time for people to come and see what was going on, then go home, then come back again. There was even time for McDuffie to go home and call Councilman Alatorre. Flavio was lying there for 30 minutes, maybe more. If an officer had been injured, or if this had happened on the Westside, an ambulance would have gotten there in three minutes. Instead, all those cops just stood there and let Flavio bleed. And 40 people saw them do it."

Paramedics arrived at 156 Clarence St. at 5:03 p.m. As Flavio was carried on a stretcher toward the waiting ambulance, onlookers saw him trying to lick his own shoulder in a last-ditch effort to reabsorb moisture. The Fire Department's report indicates that paramedics tried unsuccessfully to get an IV into Flavio, intending to give him a blood transfusion on the spot. But, by that time, his veins were too badly collapsed.

Maria Torres and Marta Sosa followed the ambulance to the hospital. In the absence of his mother, Juanita, they were asked to identify the body. "Right then the doctor asked us, 'Why did you wait so long to call the ambulance?'" says Torres. "The doctor said if Flavio had gotten to the hospital sooner they could have saved him."

Back in the projects, the police draped more yellow tape, and the crowd wouldn't disperse. "Everybody was waiting for his mother and his sister," says neighbor Arnold Machado. "People were saying, 'What about Juanita? What are we going to say to Juanita?'"

Lupita, Juanita and the kids didn't get home until nearly 7 p.m. Lupita remembers thinking hazily that all those bright-yellow streamers must be draped for some kind of fiesta. She was confused by the clusters of neighbors who fluttered toward her like swallows, and she told her mother to stay in the car. "Oh, Lupita!" she remembers they said. "Oh, Lupita!" Father Greg Boyle was the one to reach her first. He put a hand on her shoulder. "There's been an accident," he said. "Flavio died."

Neighbors remember that the priest held Lupita while she beat on his chest, screaming and screaming. Then Juanita's sister-in-law's sister rushed up to the car. "Flavio's dead," she cried in shrill, high tones through the window to Juanita. "He's dead!" Lupita's screams continued. But Juanita took in the news of her son's death in silence, without tears, still as stone.

"It's not that I think that the officers were looking at their watches waiting for him to die," Father Greg Boyle says later. "I think it's just that Flavio wasn't somebody who mattered."

 

THE NEXT DAY, TWO DOZEN COMmunity mothers marched the three-quarter-mile distance to Hollenbeck police station to demand an investigation. The marchers carried hand-lettered placards that read "Enough Is Enough," and chanted "We want justice" as they walked.

Within days, an investigation was conducted by Detective James Bright of the OID (Officer Involved Shooting) detail of the Robbery Homicide Division. Bright's report quotes Wunsch and Veenstra but contains no record of attempts to interview any civilian eyewitnesses. On July 22, 1994, Flavio Aragon's death was officially ruled accidental.

Dissatisfied, Juanita Aragon filed a claim with the City Attorney's Office, hoping for an independent inquiry into her son's death. The claim listed the names and phone numbers of various material witnesses including Maria Torres, Marta Sosa, Rosie Rosales and Cecelia Sandoval. But the city attorney merely turned the matter back to the police. Once again, no civilian witnesses were interviewed.

"Truthfully, we don't do those investigations ourselves," said an assistant city attorney familiar with the case. "We depend on the police to investigate the cases, and we have to assume they interview all the relevant witnesses. Whether they do or not is up to them." Juanita Aragon received a brief letter from the City Attorney's Office dated April 10, 1995. "After reviewing the circumstances of your claim and the applicable law," it read, "we have come to the conclusion that your claim should be denied."

Juanita's last possible alternative was a civil suit, which she had six months to file before the statute of limitations ran out. She was unsure if she could stand the emotional cost of going further, but friends told her not to give up. In July, with four months to go before the deadline, Lupita hired attorney James T. Stroud, who began an investigation. But, whether out of inattention or miscommunication, Stroud allowed the filing deadline to slip by. Full of apologies, he called Juanita to tell her the bad news.

"I told her that we really screwed up," Stroud says, "and that she could sue us if she wanted. But that, short of suing me, the case was over." Juanita had no interest in suing Stroud. "Why should I?" she asks, her voice laced with fatigue. "I only was trying to get some justice for my son. That was all."

POSTSCRIPT: I first began researching this story in the winter of 1999. A few days ago I made one last pass at trying to get the computerized police records. Sergeant Greg Valenti, the officer in charge of the legal unit for the department's Risk Management Division, was silent when I explained the case. "I can't venture any excuses for those investigative methods," he said finally. "But, I believe we'd do it differently now."

Regarding the records, he said I'd have to put in another formal request, but volunteered to check as to their whereabouts. "It's too late," Valenti said when he called back 15 minutes later. "Too much time has passed. The master tapes have been destroyed."


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