The Marked Man
|Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter|
CARLOS OLIVA MENJIVAR GOES BY THE street name "Pelon." Loosely translated, it means "Baldy," but seven months in county jail have left him with a bristling thatch of jet-black hair. Still, you can't miss his gang affiliation tattooed on his forehead. Just below the hairline on the right side of his face is a number 1; on the left side, an 8.
Oliva fell in with the 18th Street gang when he was 10, around the time most kids are entering fifth grade. The decision marked his life in every possible way. It made him a target for rival gang members, a threat that culminated in a 1991 shooting that paralyzed him from the waist down. Four years later, the Rampart CRASH unit dumped Oliva from his wheelchair, stripped him of his baggy clothes and beat him in a random act of street justice.
He filed a formal complaint against the officers, but LAPD brass ignored it. Two years ago, after the confessions of Rafael Perez confirmed his account, Oliva took his story public, making headlines and filing a federal lawsuit against the police. Yet his new high profile provoked a new round of persecution.
Since August 2000, he's been the target of constant harassment by cops from several different LAPD divisions, harassment documented in an impressive sheaf of traffic tickets and court papers. He has been stopped on the street for repeated interrogations, issued traffic citations for every conceivable violation -- 25 in less than a year -- and been charged three times with resisting arrest, once after four officers manhandled him in his wheelchair, repeatedly slamming his head against a metal door frame. Most of the tickets and all of the misdemeanors were thrown out of court.
"All the cops know me now," said the 26-year-old Oliva during a brief interview in the steel-and-glass confines of the visiting room at the county jail. "They get high fives when they bring me into the station."
The most serious fabricated charge police lodged against him was an assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer. Oliva said no such assault took place, and last February the district attorney agreed, opening an investigation into possible misconduct by the arresting officers.
The police campaign against him ended last October 3, when a witness to a gang shooting picked him out of a police lineup and accused him of driving one of two cars involved in a chase that left one man with a bullet wound in the foot. Today he resides in the county jail, awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder.
With his arrest and jail time, with his tattoos and his lifelong roots in the immigrant barrio of Pico-Union, Oliva personifies the civic dilemma that came to be known as the Rampart scandal. To some, he's just the sort of hardcore gang-member the cops are paid to keep behind bars. For others, his clean criminal record, despite several documented efforts to frame him, makes him a compelling example of the deeply rooted official misconduct Perez described.
Yet if Oliva's story sounds familiar, the time frame sets it apart. Even as city officials affixed their signatures in September 2000 to a consent decree that installed federal monitors to oversee the LAPD, cops on the beat escalated their campaign to put Oliva behind bars. And the officers who sought to frame him on trumped-up charges last year hailed from the Newton Division, not the notorious Rampart. In its breadth and in its particulars, his story adds a new chapter to the LAPD's deepest scandal.
In turn, the twists in his tale could determine the course of the final act in the city's Rampart drama -- and the final cost to the city. His is one of more than 90 civil lawsuits still awaiting trial in federal district court. All those cases have been bundled up and are before District Court Judge Gary Feess, who has spent much of the past year marshaling demands by plaintiff lawyers for internal police documents and efforts by the City Attorney's Office to fend them off. Because of the scope of Oliva's allegations -- his lawsuit alleges misconduct on the part of half a dozen officers, and complicity by much of the command staff, including exPolice Chief Bernard Parks -- his case has moved to the front of the pack. Says his attorney, Greg Yates: "This is the paradigm case."
THE MOST BLATANT ATTEMPT BY THE LAPD to frame Oliva occurred on March 31, 2001. The facts were grave enough that it was referred to the district attorney's Judicial System Integrity Division. D.A. spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said last week the case remains under investigation.
As the lawyer handling Oliva's civil case against the city, Yates sees the bogus bust as a bid to derail the federal lawsuit. "If they can get rid of him by destroying his credibility or literally running him outta Dodge, then he may not be available as a witness. Or if he is a witness, then he will be so dirtied up that his credibility is destroyed," Yates said. It's basic courtroom strategy, played out on the streets. "If you can't deal with the facts, then go after the source," Yates said.
To Steffeny Holtz, Oliva's criminal defense attorney, the conduct of the police warrants legal action on its own merits. "Steve Cooley ran for office on cleaning up Rampart," Holtz said. "He's been looking for a case. Well, here's one on a silver platter."
The arrest came after a night out with friends at the Spearmint Rhino, a strip club located in a dilapidated industrial district southeast of downtown.
Oliva admits being at the club that night, but beyond that, there are two distinct accounts. The police contend that he drove one of two vehicles that engaged two police cars in a high-speed chase. They say he ran interference, swerving across the road in a Dukes of Hazzard maneuver to keep police from catching the second vehicle. Police say they lost track of Oliva that night, but arrested him weeks later on charges of assault with a deadly weapon for trying to ram one of the squad cars.
Oliva and his lawyers concede there may have been a chase, but insist it involved a single car, and Oliva was not involved in any way. The story of him driving recklessly in a speed duel with two police cars is entirely fabricated, they say, the product of brazen collusion that involved at least two supervisors at the LAPD's Newton Street station.
The lawyers' account is corroborated in part by records from a police computer that directly contradict the incident report composed by officers the night of the alleged chase. Taken together, the police documents detail what appears to be an elaborate frame-up.
The official version is contained in two police reports and in the court testimony of Guillermo Calleros, an officer with LAPD's Newton Division.
According to the initial police report, Calleros and his partner were patrolling Olympic Boulevard east of Alameda Street when they received a call of shots fired near the strip club. They arrived at the club minutes later and found no evidence of a shooting, but spotted a green Ford Explorer parked "awkwardly" on a side street nearby.
According to the police report, the officers ran the car's plates through their onboard computer and no violations turned up. Calleros inspected the car and found its windows up and doors locked, and said he noticed a large assault-type weapon lying on the floor in front of the passenger seat. Calleros called his sergeant, asked for a backup unit, took up a position a half-block away, and settled in to wait.
Minutes later the officers watched a white Mitsubishi Montero pull up -- later identified as being driven by Oliva -- and drop off two passengers, who climbed into the Ford. As the two SUVs drove off, the cops quietly followed. According to the police report, the officers trailed the Ford for several blocks until it ran a red light at Alameda. The police then hit their lights and siren, and the Ford sped off onto side streets to evade them.
Several blocks into the chase, the officers reported seeing Oliva's Montero again, this time driving into their path and trying to block the pursuit. "The white SUV attempted to run us off the road by speeding up and attempting to swerve into us," the report said. Moments later, the report added, "The white Mitsubishi SUV tried to ram the side of our car." The police avoided this assault, lost track of the Montero and kept on the tail of the Ford, which made it to a freeway ramp and led the officers on a 30-mile chase before police found it abandoned.
In court testimony five months later, Officer Calleros repeated the charge against Oliva. "He was right on me, trying to swerve into me."
Oliva did not testify at that hearing, but he told his lawyer that he was never involved in a chase; he simply dropped off his friends at their green Ford and drove home. The first he learned of the case was when he sought to renew his car rental and learned the vehicle was wanted by the police. Oliva was arrested more than two weeks later.
Holtz took her client at his word, and in court she derided the inconsistent police reports and the fantastic nature of the officer testimony. "It begs credulity," Holtz said. If Oliva had truly attempted to ram a police car during a pursuit, she argued, "My client probably wouldn't be alive today . . . If these officers really saw this take place, they would have shot Mr. Oliva and he would be dead. This case is a complete fabrication."
SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE GEORGE Lomeli had more credulity than Holtz, and Oliva was bound over for trial. But that gave Holtz several months to develop her defense, and when the trial date arrived this past February, she had evidence to dispute the officers' account.
The proof came in the form of a log from the MDT, or mobile display terminal, which recorded the communications traffic from the onboard computer in Calleros' squad car. According to the log, Calleros and his partner arrived at the strip club at 2:34 a.m. and saw both the green Ford and the white Montero. Computer inquiries on both cars came back clean, but the Ford yielded a special notice to contact the Rampart detectives division, including the phone number for the station.
According to the computer log, it wasn't until five minutes later -- the opposite of the sequence reported by the officers -- that a call of "shots fired" was recorded. Indeed, Holtz regards the call itself as suspiciously sketchy: The log reports only ä "five male Hispanics shooting," with no further details, as the caller hung up.
To Holtz, the computer notice to call Rampart was the "red flag" that set in motion the made-up case. She believes the officers made the call, learned that the Ford was registered to a member of the 18th Street gang -- though not Oliva -- and moved into gang-enforcement mode and began plotting their conspiracy.
The MDT log is silent on the Olympic Boulevard stakeout that purportedly lasted for close to an hour, and then records a remarkable exchange. Officer Calleros first sets up a meeting with a second squad car. Then he reports to his sergeant that "We found a car round the corner that has its windows down and a TEC-9 on the passenger floorboard" -- once again contradicting the written police report, which said the windows were up.
The sergeant responds moments later with urgent instructions. "Whatever you do, take possession of the gun first . . . Take it and secure it in your trunk, then sit on the car and grab anyone who gets in."
That would sound like reasonable advice, if there were actually a gun lying next to an open window. But no weapon was ever recovered, and nobody was arrested at the scene. To Holtz, the only smoking gun in the case was the computer log -- evidence of police conspiring to invent a charge against her client. She says the Montero was never involved in a chase, and that the accounts in the two police reports were invented to frame Oliva. "This is bullshit," she fumed during an interview. "The officers had a meeting. They set my guy up."
At a February 14 court hearing, the District Attorney's Office agreed. Appearing before Judge William Fahey, Deputy District Attorney Dennis Fuhrman said the prosecution could not proceed. "It pains and saddens me that I have to come before this court and move that this pending case be dismissed." The statement echoed the lament repeated a hundred times by prosecutors in cases thrown out based on the confessions of admitted rogue cop Rafael Perez -- but this incident took place two years after Perez was off the force.
Contacted by the Weekly, Fuhrman declined to discuss the case, but he alluded in court to "serious credibility issues." He also acknowledged Holtz "for her willingness to provide us with additional information . . . that we looked at and compared with information that we had that led us to this conclusion" -- the MDT log.
THE PHANTOM AUTO ASSAULT ON Olympic Boulevard is the second time the LAPD bungled an attempt to jail Oliva on fabricated charges. The first stems from his initial run-in with the Rampart gang unit in September 1995.
That encounter began as a simple case of bad timing: Oliva had the misfortune to be on the street in the hours after the tires had been slashed on CRASH Officer Brian Hewitt's car. More than a dozen officers fanned out to wreak a little vengeance. When they found Oliva, he was seated in his wheelchair, but he got the same beating as any other gangbanger that night.
Word of the abuse soon reached Rampart Captain Nick Salicos. In a deposition, Salicos made a rare admission: "It was unit misconduct. I realized we had a major issue to deal with."
Oliva filed a personnel complaint that landed on the desk of Bernard Parks, then deputy chief in charge of internal affairs. It languished for more than two years, and was resolved only after the department statute for charges of misconduct had expired -- thus forming the basis for the claim in Oliva's civil suit that the LAPD brass tolerated misconduct at Rampart.
In the meantime, in December 1995, another Rampart officer arrested Oliva and jailed him for five days for driving a stolen vehicle. He went free when the car's owner insisted he had permission to drive it. A month later, Oliva was jailed again on the extraordinary charge that police had found 55 cocaine "rocks" when he was searched after the December arrest. The arresting officer and the D.A. offered no explanation for the lapse between the original arrest and the drug charges being filed, or why Oliva was released in the first place.
Oliva maintained from the start that he was being framed. His lawyers at the time, deputy public defenders Gregory McCambridge and Raunda Frank, agree. "We feel this was a case of retaliation," said Frank in a recent interview. In fact, Frank said she is continuing to investigate the circumstances of the 1996 arrest through the Public Integrity Assurance Section, a new division of the Public Defender's Office devoted to reviewing thousands of tainted Rampart cases. She said the LAPD and the District Attorney's Office continue to rebuff her efforts to obtain witness statements and a 113-page Internal Affairs report on the drug arrest. "It's very frustrating," Frank said.
The case was suspended that August, after Oliva spent three months in jail, and after he agreed to enter a drug-diversion program. The drug charge was not erased until last year, when it was dismissed by Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler, but in the years that followed, Oliva maintained a wary peace with the police.
The truce ended in August 2000, when Oliva was profiled in the weekly New Times. It was the first story about the 1995 incident that Captain Salicos called "unit misconduct," and it placed Oliva at the white-hot center of the unfolding scandal.
OLIVA'S NEW ROUND OF COP PROBlems began soon after the New Times story. It is detailed in a stack of traffic tickets -- 25 of them issued between October 2000 and June 2001 -- with infractions ranging from the mundane to the laughable: passengers with open containers, rolling stops, double parking, no front license plate, a broken taillight, loud music, improper position for a right turn, no seatbelt. With the fines and the court appearances, they came to dominate Oliva's life -- and that of his lawyer. "I spent the better part of last year dealing with this guy's tickets," said attorney Holtz. "Most of them were thrown out."
The tickets were issued throughout the city, which might suggest that Oliva was just a bad driver. But he and his lawyers insist Oliva had been "red-flagged" -- meaning that any inquiry into a law-enforcement database would yield a notice for strict enforcement. Mixed in with the tickets are a series of misdemeanor criminal charges, each of which could have resulted in jail time, but none of which survived judicial review.
The CRASH unit lodged the first of the misdemeanor charges on November 3, 2000. Oliva was pulled over for faulty rear lights, his fourth stop in two weeks. He was ordered out of the car, but he balked -- his wheelchair was in the trunk. According to the police report, he declared, "I'm not getting out unless I'm under arrest." The officers booked him on four counts of resisting arrest and driving with the intent to evade arrest -- two charges for each officer in the squad car. The case was thrown out after a court hearing this April.
In another resisting-arrest case, police said Oliva refused to get out of his vehicle; this time, the violation was for loud music, and this time, Oliva was the passenger. The case was dropped when both the city attorney and the district attorney declined to mount a prosecution.
The arresting officer in both cases was Mike Richardson, the sergeant named to head the new Rampart gang unit after CRASH disbanded. According to Oliva and his lawyers, Richardson is especially aggressive in pressing complaints against the gang member. Said Holtz, "Richardson really has it in for my guy."
In court papers, attorney Greg Yates cites Richardson as an example of the sort of continuity inside the department that makes reform at the LAPD so difficult. During his eight-year tenure in the department, Richardson spent three years in the 77th Street Division, where Rafael Perez said the corrupt Rampart cops learned their craft, and the last four at Rampart itself. In addition, Richardson is the brother of Officer Mark Richardson, now assigned to the elite Metro Division. Mark Richardson was a key figure at the Rampart CRASH unit when Perez was there, and is named in several lawsuits alleging police misconduct. When Perez was asked if Mark Richardson was a problem officer at Rampart, the former officer was positively effusive: "He's done it all . . . Absolutely! Planted guns, planted dope . . . He's absolutely committed perjury."
MIKE RICHARDSON WAS THE SUPERVIsor at the scene of still another Oliva arrest, on May 17 of last year. That night Oliva was hanging out with several buddies, most of them gang members, at a burger stand called the Double Eagle. Located on Alvarado Street at Olympic Boulevard, the Double Eagle is not the kind of place easily confused with McDonald's. It's built of painted concrete block, and orders are served through a slot in a wraparound metal cage. On a given night you might find a customer at the window swigging from a 40-ounce bottle of beer; on the weekends, said counterman Julio Ramirez, "Sometimes it gets real crazy."
But for Oliva and his friends from 18th Street, the restaurant is a regular hangout. "It's cool because they've been coming here a long time," Ramirez said. "They don't bother us for nothing. They grew up around here."
The night of the arrest, police said they received a call of a man with a gun outside the restaurant. A helicopter was dispatched, and four officers headed out to investigate. They arrived in their usual fashion: tires squealing, barking orders and immediately pushing people around. As usual, the gang members answered with resentment.
According to police, when officers ordered Julio Escamilla to exit the restaurant, he asked, "Why?," and then he complied. The officers turned to Oliva, who was seated in his wheelchair playing a video game. He said, "Hold on," but the police were in no mood to wait. All four grabbed hold of Oliva and the wheelchair, trying to force his arms back to be handcuffed while shoving him toward the entrance.
He objected, gripping at the wheels of the chair and cursing at the police. The officers responded by slamming his head into a metal window frame. A police report said his head struck "two or three times"; Oliva said it was "at least 10 times," leaving him bloody from several wounds.
None of the gang members was found in possession of a gun, but Oliva was once again booked for resisting arrest. This time he reached his lawyer on the phone, and both Greg Yates and his police investigator, a former LAPD captain named Tom Owens, went to the Rampart station. Yates met with Sergeant Richardson, and filed a complaint against the arresting officers, but Richardson found the level of force to be "in policy."
While Yates met with Richardson, Owens went down to the Double Eagle. He said several witnesses agreed that Oliva did nothing to provoke the police beating that night. But the most surprising evidence Owens came across surfaced later, when the police turned over copies of their radio transmissions. Listening to the 911 call of a man with a gun, Owens heard a police radio in the background. The distinctive crackle of a police radio could only mean one thing: The call came from an officer or from someone standing next to one. To Owens, that means that "these guys made the call themselves. This was a setup." The faulty case was dismissed after a preliminary hearing.
Another run-in shows that Oliva's troubles could run even deeper if not for the intervention of his legal team. On April 18 of last year, he was arrested in Hollywood for possession of a gun. After four days in jail he was permitted a phone call, and he contacted Owens, who promptly called Detective Brian Tyndall, then a supervisor on the LAPD's Rampart Task Force, and told him, according to court papers, that "any weapon found on or near Oliva during that contact with Hollywood CRASH officers was planted there by the arresting officers." Owens then demanded that any "alleged weapon" be fingerprinted to eliminate Oliva as a suspect. He was released the following morning with no charges filed and no explanation offered.
CRITICS OF THE LAPD'S HARD-NOSED gang units contend that there's no need for officers to fabricate cases or plant evidence; all they need to do is wait, because hardcore gang members will eventually get caught on a legitimate charge.
That moment may have arrived for Oliva last October 3, when he was picked up with another member of the 18th Street gang and charged with attempted murder. Oliva and his lawyers declined to discuss the case, which is scheduled for trial later this month, but the bare details were laid out at a preliminary hearing in November.
The case rests on the testimony of the alleged victim, a resident of South-Central L.A. named Kyrus Moore. According to Moore, Oliva pulled up to a stoplight well after midnight on the corner of Figueroa Street and Exposition Boulevard, across the street from the Museum of Science and Industry, and his passenger threatened Moore with a gun. Moore said he attempted to flee but crashed his vehicle into a curb. When he jumped out and ran, Moore testified that Oliva's passenger fired at him several times; when a second car arrived, someone else began firing, striking Moore once in the foot.
Oliva's defense attorney, a court- appointed lawyer named Pierpont Laidley, asserted in court that Moore had started the trouble himself, opening fire on Oliva and several friends who were loitering on the corner of Figueroa Street at Pico Boulevard, and that they had given chase. Moore denied the accusation, and the judge barred any further questions on how the trouble began.
The judge let the charges stand on the basis of Moore's testimony. Bail was set at $540,000, more than Oliva could raise, and he's spent the past seven months in jail.
Seated in a battered wheelchair during an interview at the downtown jail, Oliva's feverish, his skin dank and clammy, possibly because of an angry welt on his ankle that has swollen to the size of a baseball. He is housed on the medical ward, but his requests for medical attention have been ignored. There's no television in his five-man cell, no radio, no access to an exercise yard. "Just a room and a bed," Oliva says. "The only time I see the sun is when I go to court."
While he refuses to discuss the facts of the Kyrus Moore shooting, it's clear that Oliva blames his troubles on the special attention he's received since going to the press and filing his lawsuit. "I was a nobody until I decided to tell my story. Look at me now," he says, gesturing to the harsh confines of the jailhouse meeting room. These days, he says, "The cops stop me every time they see me. It's kind of hard to hide from them."