The Silent Squad
IT'S BEEN SIX YEARS SINCE BLANCA PRUDHOMME LOST HER son Erik to a gang shooting on a gritty stretch of Pico Boulevard near the Harbor Freeway downtown. She buried her boy back in her native Guatemala, then returned to her home in South-Central to mourn and to wonder: Did the Rampart gang squad play a role in the death of her son?
Prudhomme got a partial answer in December, when the District Attorney's Office issued the first public statement by authorities on the death of Erik Vega, 16 years old and a recent recruit of the 18th Street gang. Vega had been taken into custody during a routine drug arrest, driven from the scene and released close to the border of rival gang territory, officers said. He was found dead roughly 15 minutes after his arrest, the victim of gunshot wounds.
The Vega case is one of 82 cases in which the D.A. declined to press charges against officers in complaints stemming from the Rampart scandal. But the report raised as many questions as it answered, and this week Prudhomme filed a federal lawsuit "to bring out the truth about my son's death."
The wrongful-death suit rests on new allegations contained in five sworn declarations from Vega's mother, sister and gang members. They say that Vega was subjected to a series of beatings, threats and illegal detentions by the Rampart CRASH unit in the months before his death.
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While the D.A.'s Office declined to bring charges, the report criticized the two officers who arrested Vega, asserting that Mike Montoya and Mario Rios "intentionally withheld information from the homicide detectives, internal-affairs investigators, and their chain of command." The new declarations raise questions about whether the circle of silence encompassed the same detectives, investigators and supervisors from whom the two officers withheld information.
On paper, at least, on the day of his murder, Vega simply disappeared. Of the eight officers on hand at the time he was taken into custody, none made any reference to him in their reports or in the field logs each officer compiles at the end of a shift. Moreover, despite specific allegations made by Prudhomme the day after the slaying, the homicide detective assigned to the case never questioned the officers at the scene. Nor did the two Rampart sergeants who mounted an internal inquiry into the mother's complaint ask any officers what happened that night.
One key element makes Vega's death stand out among the scores of Rampart allegations: It never involved Rafael Perez, the corrupt officer whose confessions, made as part of a plea bargain on charges of stealing cocaine, sparked the scandal in late 1999. Some observers hold that Perez invented the scandal to minimize his own misconduct, but this case cannot be blamed on Perez: He was not on hand the day Vega died, and he never mentioned the case to Rampart investigators.
In fact, the impetus for the Vega investigation came from Beverly Hills attorney Greg Yates. A personal-injury specialist, Yates became involved in Rampart by representing gang members seeking compensation for time served in jail on trumped-up charges. Yates said several of his clients pressed him to look into the circumstances surrounding Vega's death. "They were really disturbed by what happened there." Yates alerted the Rampart Task Force in early 2000.
Task-force investigators interviewed police officers a year later and obtained sketchy statements from Montoya and Rios, which were forwarded to the D.A. But those were "compelled" statements given to department investigators and Deputy D.A. Laura Laesecke said they cannot be used for any prosecution. And, as in so many Rampart cases, official inquiries into the case went nowhere.
Now Blanca Prudhomme has vowed to "bring everything out in the open. That is the only justice my son can have now, and he deserves it."
In the summer of 1996, Erik Vega was drifting away from the home he shared with his mom and older sister, and into the orbit of the 18th Street gang, which counted an estimated 2,000 members in the Rampart Division. In July he got his first tattoo, the number "18" on his left shoulder. Vega fell in with 18th Street's Red Shield clique, named after a Salvation Army youth center on 11th Street between Union Avenue and the Harbor Freeway.
That summer, Vega and his friends frequented South Lake Street, a stretch of once-stately homes fallen into disrepair, the property lines marked with ominous barricades of spiked steel fencing. One favorite hangout was a hulking apartment building at the corner of Lake and 12th Street. The owner had called police in February to ask for help clearing the gang members out, but sweeps by officers had little effect, and the building was sold, then closed down and boarded up. Gang members continued to break in and use the trashed, vacant apartments.
The night of August 21, two officers inspected the building and found Erik Vega sleeping there with two other minors and Sam Alfaro, a member of the Hoover Locos clique of the 18th Street gang. According to court papers filed by Officer Stephanie Barr, she found loose cash and a small amount of rock cocaine in the room. When Vega claimed the rocks belonged to him, he was charged with possession.
It was his second arrest, and it made Vega, not yet 16 years old, a target in the eyes of the Rampart CRASH unit. By September, according Prudhomme and Vega's sister Alma, his sunny disposition had turned fretful and nervous. He took to draping blankets over his bedroom windows, "like he didn't even feel safe in his own home," his mother said.
Alma Vega, in her sworn statement, said that in September, her brother confided the source of his anxiety. "He said, like several other members of the 18th Street gang, he was being threatened, intimidated and beaten by officers with the LAPD gang squad." She said her brother identified several of the officers by name, including Montoya, Rios and Ethan Cohan.
Cohan, in particular, "was the main one being mean to him," Alma Vega said. "He said they would see him walking in the neighborhood and stop him, then search him and take him into an alley and just beat him up," she said of her brother. Blanca Prudhomme added that she learned from Vega's girlfriend that Cohan had threatened Vega's life.
Vega had reason to take such a threat seriously. That October, CRASH Officers Perez and Nino Durden shot and paralyzed Javier Ovando, a member of the 18th Street gang, in the same abandoned building where Vega had been found sleeping. Ovando was charged with assault on an officer, but his friends that night knew Ovando was unarmed, and his shooting sent a jolt of fear through the gang members claiming turf in the Pico-Union district.
THE NIGHT OF OCTOBER 2, VEGA ARRIVED HOME WITH HIS shirt torn and "looking like he had been in a fight," Alma said. He told her he had been picked up by Cohan and Rios, and they had driven him into the territory of a rival gang and dropped him off. As Alma recalled it, Vega said, "Officer Cohan then got on the car P.A. system and announced they were dropping off an 18th Streeter." Rival gangsters promptly closed in on him, but he escaped the gauntlet with just a few scratches.
Cohan and Rios were asked by detectives a month after Vega's death to answer the charge they had dropped Vega in enemy territory. The officers acknowledged they stopped Vega because he resembled a suspect in a shooting, but after deciding he was not involved, the officers drove him home. They left him off "a few blocks away" because he feared local gang members would identify him as a snitch.
In the sworn statement she gave attorney Yates, Alma Vega offers a different version. "He told me the police officers wanted him to sell drugs for them . . . and the stronger he said no to them, the more angry they would get with him." Vega's friend Sam Alfaro makes the same allegation. "On several occasions, Erik personally told me that certain LAPD officers in Rampart had aggressively pressured him to sell drugs for them," Alfaro said in a sworn declaration.
It's not the first suggestion that Rampart officers pressed gang members to engage in drug sales. Rafael Perez, in his confessions, admitted forcing some informants to sell drugs for him, the better to obtain information about street trafficking. And in October 2001, an 18th Street gang member named Danny Tapia testified before an LAPD discipline hearing that he himself had sold cocaine for Cohan. Tapia said Cohan assaulted him and sent him to prison when he failed to pay for the drugs. The case against Tapia was overturned and he was released from prison, but his allegation about drug sales was never investigated.
Cohan was fired from the department in 1998 for failing to report a beating administered by another officer inside the Rampart station. This past February, he pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the beating of still another gang member.
Blanca Prudhomme reported two contacts of her own with police in the weeks before Vega's murder. The first was with a pair of detectives looking for Vega who wanted to take his statement regarding a shooting he had witnessed. Vega reluctantly consented and was taken to the Rampart station.
The second contact was a visit by Cohan and Officer Lucy Diaz. Erik wasn't home, but Prudhomme said Cohan "pushed past me at the door and walked in," then demanded to search Vega's belongings. Cohan "didn't find whatever it was," Prudhomme said, but as the officers left, Diaz "told me I should watch out for my son because he was going to get himself killed."
ERIK VEGA SPENT MUCH OF THE LAST HOUR OF HIS LIFE with the CRASH unit.
On the afternoon of November 5, Vega was again hanging out with Sam Alfaro and other friends from the 18th Street gang on South Lake Street. They were in a three-story house with a large stone porch across the street from where Vega had been arrested and Javier Ovando was shot.
Around 3:30 p.m., Montoya and Rios said they witnessed Eva Garcia soliciting narcotics sales outside the house. They radioed for backup, and the rest of the CRASH unit assembled, including Diaz, Cohan and four other officers, each later named by Perez as "in the loop" of corrupt Rampart officers. Together they moved on the house.
Inside, the officers found Garcia in possession of cocaine, and arrested her. While they were there, both Montoya and Rios say Vega approached them to volunteer information about the 18th Street gang.ä According to Rios, Vega "asked to be handcuffed and taken from the location." The officers obliged, leaving the scene "shortly after" 4:21 p.m.
After driving away, however, the officers found Vega had little useful information to share. They then asked where he wanted to be left off, and he chose a known 18th Street stronghold. Minutes later, at 4:39 p.m., a police dispatcher announced that an ambulance was en route to a shooting two blocks from Vega's location. Montoya and Rios were the first to arrive and found Vega lying on the sidewalk dying from three gunshot wounds.
As the first one on the scene, Montoya gave a statement to Detective John Curiel, who handled the Vega homicide. But Curiel said Montoya never mentioned driving Vega from Lake Street. Nor did Montoya — or any other officer — mention Vega in reporting the Eva Garcia arrest.
Curiel did take statements from two witnesses to the shooting. They said they saw Vega and another "male Hispanic" struggling over a gun on Pico Boulevard. The gun went off and Vega ran; the suspect assumed a two-handed stance and fired two more rounds.
The radio log from that afternoon sheds some light on the fast-paced events. It shows that Montoya and Rios called for a meeting with two other officers, Kulin Patel and Lucy Diaz, at 11th and Union, three blocks from where Vega was dropped off, at 4:29 p.m.
That radio call slices in half the time allotted by Montoya and Rios for driving and dropping off Vega. It also adds two other officers in close proximity to Vega during his last minutes of life. Yet by the time they were interviewed by police, in July 2001, none of the four officers could recall the meeting at 11th and Union, or whether they saw Erik Vega there.
Ira Salzman, an attorney who represented Officer Montoya in several departmental hearings, said Montoya and Rios committed no misconduct by driving Vega from the arrest or by releasing him soon after. "The officers treated Vega respectfully and appropriately," Salzman said. Montoya left his name out of his reports, Salzman said, "because Vega was a snitch."
The gang members present for the Lake Street arrest offer a different account. For starters, they said no drug sales were conducted in front of the house, but the CRASH detail arrived in the usual fashion — "jumping fences, guns drawn," said Julio Escamilla, one of the gang members at the scene.
Eva Garcia admitted having a single rock of cocaine, and said she was smoking it inside the house at the time of the raid. It wasn't until she was arraigned, Garcia said, that she learned she was falsely charged for possession of 12 rocks. She said she agreed to plead guilty "since she had been attempting to sell the one rock in her possession."
Moreover, Garcia, Escamilla and Alfaro each deny that Erik Vega volunteered to be handcuffed. Instead, they said he was grabbed by the throat and choked until he spat out several rocks. They say he was arrested along with Garcia, but then separated at the last minute and put in Montoya's squad car.
Escamilla said he found it particularly suspicious that Vega was not booked on a drug charge. "If they catch you with rocks, you go to jail," he said. "It makes them look good." Asked what he thought happened to Erik Vega, Escamilla said, "It's not too hard to do the math."
PROSECUTOR LAESECKE, WHO WROTE THE DISTRICT ATtorney's report on the incident, did some of the calculations. Laesecke asked why, if the official version is true, would Vega walk away from an 18th Street stronghold and into rival territory after he was released? Why did Montoya and Rios call for a meeting with Patel and Diaz? And why were Montoya and Rios first to the scene if they were returning to the Rampart station to book Eva Garcia? The D.A.'s Office did not serve subpoenas on the officers, however, and Laesecke's questions go unanswered.
Laesecke further criticized the officers for failing to report to John Curiel the fact that they drove Vega from Lake Street and left him just blocks from where he was slain. In addition, she wrote, "Montoya and Rios do not adequately explain . . . why their contact with Vega was not documented in any report."
Laesecke does not criticize Detective Curiel. True, Curiel said the two officers never told him about taking Vega from Lake Street in handcuffs. But Blanca Prudhomme was at the Rampart station the very next day, demanding that police explain how her son was killed when he was last seen in their custody. Why, then, didn't Curiel press for answers from the officers involved? In fact, according to Laesecke's report, Curiel never interviewed any of the officers who attended the Lake Street arrest.
In a telephone interview, Laesecke said she did not focus her report on Curiel because he was never accused of a crime, as were Montoya and Rios. "It may have shown very poor investigative technique," Laesecke said. But "I wasn't evaluating Curiel's investigation of the homicide."
The LAPD mounted two investigations of its own into police conduct in the Vega arrest, but both were inconclusive. The day after Vega's shooting, Sergeants Ron Dickerson and Doug Roller were assigned to handle the complaint filed by Vega's mother and his girlfriend, Yaira Garcia (no relation to Eva). When they returned her call, however, Prudhomme and Garcia had flown to Guatemala for Vega's funeral. The detectives said they assumed the move was permanent — it was not — and decided to close the investigation without questioning any members of the CRASH unit.
Yet Dickerson and Roller were aware at least that Yaira Garcia had returned from Guatemala: They addressed a letter to her on April 1, 1997, informing her that the complaint "could not be clearly resolved" due to "conflicting information from the involved parties."
One last internal investigation was launched in 2001, after Montoya and Rios were interviewed by Internal Affairs. Both officers were charged with writing false reports, for failing to mention Vega in their logs, and with lying to Internal Affairs by saying Montoya had informed Curiel of their contacts with Vega.
After an internal hearing in February 2002, Montoya and Rios were exonerated on all counts. On the key question of what Montoya told Curiel, the detective declined to testify and his own records showed no reference to the Vega arrest, but the disciplinary panel determined "Curiel was not a meticulous note taker" and that without more solid evidence "the board would have to use suspicion and speculation" to find against the officers.
THE OFFICIAL INQUIRIES DO NOT GIVE MUCH OF A ROLE TO Ethan Cohan, the officer who Vega's mother and sister blamed for harassing Vega in the final months of his life. Laesecke's report mentions him as a member of the gang unit that day, and her report goes to some length to refute a specific allegation by one gang member who alleges he saw Cohan — not Montoya — driving with Vega on Pico Boulevard moments before the shooting was reported. But Laesecke does not mention that Cohan was on hand for the Lake Street arrest, or that he was among the officers who responded to the homicide.
In their declarations, Vega's mother and sister say they specifically named Cohan in lodging their official complaint against the Rampart gang squad. And they say he came to their house the day after the homicide to offer his condolences. He told them he had been in the ambulance with Vega when he died and that he had been good friends with Erik.
"I knew Cohan was lying," Prudhomme says now. "He was the one Erik was afraid of more than any of the others." When she confronted him, Prudhomme says, Cohan "became very upset" and asked about the personnel complaint she had filed: "I told him I was going to find out what happened to my son, and to get out of my house."
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