The Square Cop
Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
ARMANDO CORONADO WAS A RISING star in the navy-blue firmament of the LAPD. A former Marine and a fluent Spanish-speaker, Coronado had a flair for undercover work that helped him become a leader at the narcotics-enforcement section of the Rampart Division -- "Our number-one, best-producing officer," as one supervisor described him.
In his four years as a street cop and narcotics investigator, Coronado had never had a complaint lodged against him. In the evenings, he took classes in public administration, working toward a degree that would help him advance up the ladder at the department. Coronado's record was spotless, and his future with the LAPD seemed assured.
All of that began to change when Rampart CRASH Officers Rafael Perez and Nino Durden were transferred to the narcotics detail in June 1997. Almost from the outset, Coronado clashed with them, Perez in particular. Within weeks, he had told his supervisors that Perez flouted department rules about handling narcotics and cash. As the summer unfolded, he repeated those complaints, including at least twice when suspects reported to him that Perez and Durden had ripped them off.
But Coronado's efforts to rein in Perez and Durden only backfired. Rather than spark investigations into possible rogue officers, Coronado was ostracized by his supervisors and his fellow officers, derided as a "square" and a "company man."
In the years since, of course, Coronado's concerns were borne out by the confessions of Perez and Durden and their revelations of the entire Rampart scandal. Of all the cops who worked with Perez at Rampart, Armando Coronado is the only one who can say that he blew the whistle, the first officer to identify Perez's misconduct and alert his supervisors to the problem. As one department commander put it, "Hindsight being what it is, had the department responded to Coronado's concerns earlier, perhaps problems could have been avoided for Rampart."
Yet as the scandal grew, Coronado's troubles only mounted. In 1998, after he transferred out of Rampart, Coronado found himself the target of his own narcotics investigation. It turned out that, on three separate occasions, Perez had used Coronado's name to sign out quantities of cocaine from an LAPD evidence locker.
Coronado cooperated with investigators and helped to finger Perez, thereby clearing himself of suspicion. But soon after, Coronado was under investigation again, this time named by Perez as one of the rogue officers at Rampart. Over the past year, Coronado has been suspended twice and tried before two internal Boards of Rights on 11 counts of misconduct stemming from four separate incidents.
Coronado and his attorneys say Perez was retaliating against the officer who first reported him. His supervisor at Rampart, Detective George Lusby, agreed, declaring at one disciplinary hearing that "When I found out Coronado was at a Board of Rights, my first opinion was that Perez was getting even with him."
Last month, the second of those boards found Coronado innocent of all charges. But in the meantime, at 32 years of age, Coronado's career and his self-esteem are in a shambles. "He's an evil person," Coronado said of Perez during testimony before a disciplinary board. "He's trying to ruin my life, which he probably already has."
Coronado's travails at the hands of the department provide an ironic subplot to Rampart, the story of how one cop who dared challenge Perez was himself dragged into the quagmire. At the same time, Coronado's case provides new insight into one of the central questions posed by the Rampart scandal: How was it possible for Perez and Durden to carry out what amounts to a two-man crime wave while carrying the badge of the LAPD?
The answer lies in a 38-page diary Coronado compiled in the course of his defense, a remarkable document detailing his encounters with Perez and how his supervisors ignored his complaints. Buttressed by the corroborating testimony of several of his fellow officers, Coronado's Rampart memoir provides a rare glimpse inside the culture of the LAPD, a macho, locker-room atmosphere where arrests and drug seizures were prized above all else. There, Perez's routine violations of procedure and due process were ignored, while his continuing crime spree went undetected.
That insight was lost, however, on the brass at the LAPD. Rather than examine the culture of the department -- how its paramilitary team concept can foster the same outrages the police are charged with preventing -- Chief Bernard Parks reacted to Rampart with a grim campaign of punishment. For the department to show it could police itself, heads had to roll. Armando Coronado was simply collateral damage.
BY THE TIME OF HIS TRANSFER TO THE Rampart narcotics division, Perez had already become something of a legend inside the LAPD. Detective William McGee, one of the supervisors at Rampart narcotics, recalled during one Board of Rights that "We got [Perez] because he was such a great cop." Paul Pesqueira, then the commander in charge of narcotics operations citywide, said that Perez's supervisors regarded him as "the greatest officer in the world."
The arrival of such a celebrated street cop sparked a natural rivalry with Coronado, until then the unit's leading officer. As Perez himself put it later, "I sort of took the limelight away from him."
The rivalry was exacerbated by wildly contrasting styles and played out in the close confines of the narcotics unit, housed in a double-wide mobile trailer in the parking lot behind the Rampart station. Where Coronado was diminutive and soft-spoken, Perez was rangy, cocky and garrulous. Where Coronado was described by his colleagues as "passive" and "a good listener," Perez was "the entertainer, the performer, the bullshitter," as one officer put it, who smoked expensive cigars and liked to brag about his several girlfriends.
The contrasts continued when it came to police work. Dean Gizzi, the officer whose desk faced Coronado's, described him as "career-minded," a man who "liked the recognition of being a good narcotics officer." He was also regarded as selfish, another cop said, and tended to hoard his investigative leads. "Other members in the unit didn't believe Coronado was a team player with them," still another recalled. "Ray Perez, on the other hand, he liked to be the center of attention," Gizzi said at a Board of Rights.
The differences between the two officers were most pronounced in the field. Coronado "was very straight-arrow, a by-the-book kind of guy," as one of his former partners said. "He was almost like a training officer," Dean Gizzi said. "I mean, it was almost sickening." Especially for a fast-and-loose cop like Perez.
Early on in Perez and Durden's tenure at narcotics, according to Coronado, the two would pair up with him, "because they saw I could make cases." And almost immediately, sparks flew. As Coronado recalled in his memoir, "After a while, I noticed that Perez and Durden did not care much for the rules and regulations."
"I felt it was my obligation to correct any members of the squad," Coronado wrote. "After I tried to correct him a few times, he began to curse at me. He would state, 'Man, fuck that.'"
It's easy to see how Perez's swaggering, sneering disdain for police regulations, and for Coronado's invoking them, was intoxicating to the other cops. After all, in the war on drugs and gangs, the niceties of legal due process only got in the way. And when it came to making cases, nobody produced bigger hauls -- of suspects, of contraband -- than Perez.
According to Coronado, the supervisors in the squad "bragged" about Perez. In turn, Perez made no effort to hide his contempt for Coronado.
"When there were other members of the squad in the operation, he would still curse at me and ignore me." Coronado added ruefully, "Most of the squad members just followed him, for the most part."
Coronado first put his objections on the record in July, after he and a team of officers, Perez among them, raided the home of a reputed drug dealer named Cesar Luis de la Mora. The officers found plenty of marijuana and, stashed in the bag of a vacuum cleaner, $10,350 in cash. The dope was confiscated, the money was turned over to George Lusby, the detective in charge of Rampart narcotics, and de la Mora was taken to the station for booking.
According to Coronado, while the haul was still being counted, he spoke on the phone with de la Mora's mother. "The black officer that spoke Spanish took my money," she complained -- funds that weren't included in Lusby's count. Coronado says he relayed the complaint to his supervisor. But he says that when Lusby called de la Mora's mother an hour later, she recanted her complaint.
In his later interviews with police investigators, Perez denied stealing the cash, but recalled de la Mora being upset, and that Coronado took it up with his boss. Lusby, for his part, denies any report of missing funds, but agrees that Coronado took the occasion to raise concerns with the way Perez and his partner ignored department procedure in conducting searches and seizures of drugs and money.
In fact, Lusby says now, he convened a training session for the entire squad, going over the department rules on searches, "all the procedures and policies that were in effect."
The dispute over search procedures was critical. Narcotics busts often involve large quantities of drugs and money, and if searches proceed without supervisors or at least a second officer present, the likelihood of theft increases exponentially. As it turned out, Perez was grabbing drugs and money on just these occasions.
Coronado's July complaint marked the beginning of a running battle between him and Perez, open antagonism that grew steadily in intensity and ended only when Coronado left the unit that October. He told friends at the time that the other officers at narcotics took Perez's side and followed his lead, making drug buys and conducting searches without supervision.
In return for his complaints to supervisors, Coronado said, he was ostracized by his peers and ignored by his bosses. "I was being sold off as a troublemaker," he said in his memoir. "The whole unit began to get sloppy . . . Perez was pretty much running the unit."
IN HIS INTERVIEWS WITH INVESTIGATORS, Perez offered conflicting versions of his relationship with Coronado. On one occasion, Perez said flatly, "I didn't get along with Coronado. He then modified his comment, saying, "I don't know why this turned so big that I supposedly didn't like Coronado. Coronado was not liked by the entire unit."
Coronado's version of his feud with Perez was supported, however, by the testimony of several of his peers. Dean Gizzi recalled Perez constantly needling Coronado, making him the butt of jokes in the narcotics trailer. "It was just the kind of kidding that went too far," Gizzi said. One joke he remembered: "Ray Perez said to Coronado, 'Are your kids happy to see you when you come home?'" The implication, Gizzi said, was that "Ray got the impression that nobody liked him."
Detective McGee recalled the ribbing as well. Testifying to the county grand jury, he said that in the roughhouse atmosphere of the squad room, "Everybody was teased a lot. But you could tell that Perez made a point when he teased. All his teasing was directed towards Mando." Later, at a Board of Rights, McGee was more emphatic. "You could tell there was no love lost on the part of Perez towards Mando . . . There was no doubt that Perez hated Mando's guts."
Frustrated when Perez ignored his reproach, Coronado continued making complaints to Lusby. After the altercation in July, according to Coronado, he went to the squad supervisor twice more to report funds missing after a Perez search. In each case the citizen complainant recanted, however, leaving Coronado all the more dismayed. "It seemed that I was trying to set up Perez and Durden," he said later.
Detective Lusby disputes key elements of Coronado's story. Testifying at a Board of Rights, he said Coronado did complain to him about Perez on three occasions, but only once mentioned money. That was critical, of course, because as a supervisor, Lusby could be fired if he had failed to respond to blatant misconduct. During the board hearing, Lusby was asked directly, "At any time did [Coronado] come to you and say Perez was committing misconduct?" Lusby replied with a flat "No."
Yet Lusby agreed that Perez hated Coronado. On one occasion, he said, Perez had stormed into the trailer complaining about Coronado. "He said he was going to kick his ass," Lusby recalled. Lusby responded by taking Perez out to the parking lot to talk him down. "We had a very heated [confrontation]," Lusby said, "almost to the point of physical between the two of us." In fact, Lusby testified, "I had numerous face-to-face meetings in the parking lot, meetings with Officer Perez regarding his feelings about Coronado."
But if Lusby sought to run interference between the two, in the end he came down on the side of Perez. At least, that's how Coronado perceived it. As the summer of 1997 wore on, Coronado said, "It seemed that Lusby and McGee were dismissing anything I reported. I felt like they, as well as the rest of the squad, blackballed me."
IN SEPTEMBER, CORONADO TOOK THREE weeks off. Upon his return, he wrote in his memoir, he met with Lusby and McGee. "Lusby told me that while I was on vacation, members of the squad had raised some issues . . . that I needed to get along with some of the members of the squad. I replied with 'George, I have been telling you what has been happening around here. I told you Perez will not listen to me. He does what he wants and nobody does anything about it.' It was at this point that Lusby got really angry with me. He said, 'Are you going to listen to me or should I just shut the fuck up?' At this point I realized, no matter what I said, I was going to lose.
"That talk with Lusby and McGee was the last straw. I had enough of the unit and all the sloppy work that was going on. I went up to Position Control and practically begged to be put on the next transfer." The next month, Coronado was assigned to the Hollenbeck Division patrol.
Coronado's story was corroborated by Captain Pesqueira, the head of all Field Enforcement Narcotics at the time. He described the situation in testimony at one of Coronado's Boards of Rights. "I don't know what's been discussed before this board, but Armando decided to leave the narcotics position.
"It was purported to me at the time that he could not get along with certain people in the unit assigned to Rampart. And I subsequently discovered that the reason why he left is because he saw things occurring that he knew was not the way we want people to do things . . . and he brought this to the attention of his supervisors and nothing was done. Unfortunately, I was a bit misled myself.
"In hindsight, it was Armando that was trying to raise red flags, that he saw things that were wrong and tried to correct those things."
Sergeant Ray Garvin, the department's representative arguing the case against Coronado, followed up by suggesting that, if his complaint to Lusby was ignored, Coronado should have taken it to the next level of command. Pesqueira's response was surprisingly candid, suggesting how misconduct can persist inside a tightly knit police unit. "There are traditions we all know of," Pesqueira said, "those conditions that don't allow people to freely bring those things to the attention of either the department or the public.
"Quite frankly, we have a lot of employees that are extremely reluctant to come forward to their lieutenants, their commanding officers . . . I think employees are reluctant at times because they feel that there is a price you pay if you do that."
Another LAPD narcotics supervisor, Detective Frank Goldberg, was also asked whether Coronado should have gone over Lusby's head with his concerns about Perez. Goldberg's answer was blunt. "It would set the stage for a lot of animosity. Once you complain about a detective supervisor who is not doing his job to another supervisor, you better have your ducks lined up.
"It's very difficult to take on LAPD management, LAPD supervision," Goldberg said. "It is. It just is. Okay."
As to the story that Detective Lusby sided with Perez, Coronado's version was corroborated by none other than Perez himself. During an appearance to testify against Coronado at a Board of Rights, Perez said he recalled one of Coronado's complaints against him, but said, "It didn't matter to me either way because, from the response that I got from the supervisor, he assured me that I was welcome in the unit."
After Coronado's vacation, Perez explained, "He came back to the unit for a week and then was gone, to Hollenbeck. That's why I was told, 'Stay in the unit, he's leaving. We'd rather have you here anyway.'" Or as Perez put it another time, "Lusby said, 'I'll get rid of him before I get rid of you.'"
"So far as I was concerned, Coronado was not an issue," Perez testified last year, sounding as if he still took satisfaction for vanquishing his straight-laced counterpart. "I had gotten my reassurance from the supervisors," Perez said. "That's all I needed."
CORONADO HOPED HIS MOVE TO HOLLENBECK would end his entanglements with Rafael Perez, but it was just the beginning.
He got his first taste of the trouble to come on February 11, 1998, when he received a notice from the Property Division that evidence was missing. Coronado promptly contacted a clerk there and learned that a pound and a half of cocaine had been checked out under his name, with no signature on the receipt. Coronado was told to do nothing.
Three months passed. On June 9, after an evening roll call, Coronado was summoned to meet with Detectives Brian Tyndall and Michael Hohan, and Sergeant Luis Segura, all of the elite Robbery-Homicide Division. Unbeknownst to Coronado, they were members of a secret new task force investigating Rafael Perez and corruption at Rampart.
The first questions concerned the missing cocaine, but Coronado could shed little light on the apparent theft. He was then asked if he had trouble getting along with anyone in the department. Coronado first replied, "No, not really." Then he mentioned his problems at Rampart narcotics, "how there was one particular officer that had created an atmosphere for me that made me leave the unit . . . I told them his name was Ray Perez and that he had a partner named Nino Durden."
"You could see their eyes lighting up," Coronado recalled.
That initial interview ran more than four hours. At the close of a second interview, Coronado was asked if he wanted a security detail of officers from the Metro Division. He declined. Over the next two months he was interviewed over a half-dozen more times -- the same questions, the same answers -- each time in secret. On three occasions, it turned out, Rafael Perez had signed out batches of cocaine under the name Armando Coronado. First interviewed as a suspect, Coronado was now a witness.
In August, members of the task force searched Perez's home, relying on a warrant based in part on Coronado's testimony. A week later, Perez was arrested. And days after that, Coronado's role was exposed. The L.A. Times obtained the search warrant and published that Coronado had shared with investigators his concerns about Perez's conduct.
Once again, Coronado was ostracized by his fellow cops. "When I returned back to work, I had it really hard," Coronado wrote in his memoir. "The general consensus was still that the department was trying to set up Perez to take the fall for the stolen cocaine. After the article in the paper, I was tagged a 'snitch' by some officers . . . I walked into the locker room and I heard someone yell out, 'Here comes the I.A. plant'" -- a reference to Internal Affairs.
"I continued to work, but I could not go anywhere without someone calling me a 'rat' or a 'snitch' or an 'I.A. plant.' There would be times I would go eat with the rest of the officers on the watch and someone in the group would say, 'OK, did someone check Mando for a wire?'"
Perez went on trial in February 1999. The case was largely circumstantial, and ended in a hung jury. The charges were immediately re-filed, and the police investigators turned again to Coronado. "We need something to get us over the hump," Segura told Coronado. "We need you to remember things." The interviews resumed, "so many," Coronado recalled, "that I lost count of them."
That April, Coronado received a subpoena to testify at Perez's second trial. He braced himself for his trip to court, there to face the rogue officer who had become his nemesis. The day before the trial was to go forward, Perez pleaded guilty. Once again, Coronado believed his ordeal had ended. Once again he was wrong.
ON MARCH 21 OF LAST YEAR, A MEXICAN immigrant with two drug convictions named Oscar Ochoa was busted for possession of narcotics. While sitting in jail, angry at his arrest and fearful that he would be deported, Ochoa filed a complaint with the LAPD. His arrests had been at the hands of Rafael Perez, Ochoa said. He'd been framed, he said.
It was a smart move. Ochoa had seen in the press how scores of other Rampart convicts had been released from jail and were suing the city; Ochoa would seek the same treatment.
Investigators with the LAPD's Rampart Task Force reviewed Ochoa's claims. Perez was nowhere near the first arrest, in 1996 -- Ochoa later admitted he lied about that one -- but he was there for the second, in July of 1997, along with Armando Coronado. The detectives then took Ochoa's complaint to Perez.
At first, Perez could remember nothing of the case. He was shown a photo of the house where Ochoa was found with a stash of rock cocaine. "It doesn't spark a memory," Perez said. The detectives pressed forward, sharing a description of the arrest report and details from Ochoa's complaint. Perez then began to catch on, agreeing in parts and asserting that Coronado had lied in the police report documenting the arrest.
Richard Rosenthal, a deputy district attorney working with the task force, pointed out that in the past Perez had said Coronado was not one of the lawbreakers at Rampart. Perez agreed. "Coronado was definitely not involved in any criminal activity. He was not in the loop, per se, or anything like that. But on some occasions we did -- he found the need to fabricate some probable cause to establish a case."
That said, Perez warmed to the business of identifying misconduct by Coronado. He said the 1997 Ochoa bust had started with an informant tip, but Coronado embellished the arrest report to include that he and Perez set up a brief surveillance of Ochoa and saw him make a drug sale before moving in. Perez said that was false.
Perez added that he had obtained a written confession from Ochoa by threatening to deport his wife and children if Ochoa did not cooperate.
Perez was asked about another Ochoa allegation, that the arresting officers had stolen money and food stamps from his wife. Perez said it didn't happen. He'd personally robbed other drug suspects, he said, but said he wouldn't dare commit misconduct in front of Coronado, because Coronado would turn him in. "I don't care if I found a thousand dollars, I'm not going to do anything working with Coronado," Perez said.
Based on the forced confession, as well as the allegedly bogus statement of probable cause, the district attorney moved to reverse Ochoa's conviction. His was the 94th case overturned based on Perez's testimony. In July, the LAPD filed charges of misconduct against Coronado. On September 27, Ochoa filed a civil suit seeking damages from the city.
In the charges lodged before a Board of Rights, Coronado was accused of failing to get permission to search the closet where he found Ochoa's stash of cocaine, and of three related crimes: making a false arrest, filing a false report and testifying falsely in court. It was, as Perez recalled later, "pretty much a nothing case," yet in the LAPD's cumbersome internal disciplinary process, it took four months of intermittent hearings, appearances by 13 witnesses and 1,200 pages of transcribed testimony to resolve.
In reaching its verdict, the board held that Ochoa and his wife repeatedly contradicted themselves, that Perez's testimony before the board contradicted statements he'd given police investigators, and that Ochoa had explicitly testified that he did give permission to search. Ironically, the case was clouded by further allegations of misconduct by Perez -- that he stole money and food stamps from Ochoa's wife, and Perez's own testimony that it was he who used threats to force Ochoa to write a confession. Moreover, the board gave substantial weight to the defense argument that Perez had fingered Coronado in retaliation.
CORONADO WAS RESTORED TO ACTIVE duty and returned to work on Monday, October 17. Two days later, he was approached at his desk at Hollenbeck. There he was served with a new set of charges, seven allegations emanating from three other arrests he had made with Rafael Perez.
A new Board of Rights was convened. Hearings began in January and continued through last month. Again, each case was rife with obvious lies and conflicting testimony, and with contentious debates over the credibility of Rafael Perez. And each was complicated by the fact that the most egregious misconduct was committed by Perez himself -- at one of the drug busts, where Perez again said Coronado had fabricated probable cause, Perez himself later grabbed a sizable stash of the contraband and resold it on the street for cash.
One case was particularly ugly: During the arrest of a woman for drug sales, both Perez and Coronado were alleged to have grabbed the woman's teenage daughter and dragged her across the floor by her hair. In his interviews with investigators, Perez denied taking part in the altercation and pointed the finger at Coronado, while in testimony before the board, the daughter said it was Perez who grabbed her by the hair.
For his part, Coronado testified to the board that no assault had taken place. He said the situation was calm until he handcuffed the mother; at that point the daughter had become hysterical, and he and Perez handcuffed her until she calmed down.
The final count against Coronado concerned another arrest, one in which he, Perez and Durden kicked in a door during a drug raid. During the department's investigation into the arrest, the landlord of the building told police he had given Coronado a key to the apartment. The investigators later interviewed Coronado, and at one point during more than 12 hours of interrogation, Coronado said he had not received the key.
That discrepancy formed the basis for count seven: that Coronado had made a false or misleading statement to investigators, an offense for which he could be fired.
On March 14, during his last day of testimony on the last count in his last Board of Rights, Coronado was asked by a member of the board to explain what had happened with the key. There was silence in the room. Strains of classical music drifted in from the airy atrium that is the centerpiece of the Bradbury Building. Coronado finally began his response, then stammered and, bowing his head to the table before him, began to sob. After a break, he returned to testify that he thought the question applied to before the arrest was made, not afterward, when he obtained a key to lock up the deserted drug pad.
Two days later, Coronado was again exonerated on all counts. He's back on the job, relieved, chagrined, and certainly less optimistic about his future with the LAPD than in the heady days as a top producer at the Rampart narcotics division.
After the verdict, his attorney, Russell Cole, took a moment to consider the question of why the department had been so eager to turn on such a straight-laced cop as Coronado. Like his client, Cole, who cut his teeth as an assisting attorney in the defense of Rodney King assailant Timothy Wind, was reluctant to condemn the LAPD. But like a lot of LAPD loyalists, he was ready to criticize Chief Bernard Parks.
"For him to be the guy that can claim that he was the one who cleaned up the LAPD, Perez has to be credible. The whole thing went forward on that basis. What we're seeing now is that Perez may well be playing games with them.
"There's a certain amount of bureaucratic inertia," Cole said. "And it's human nature, once you start on the premise that you've identified the bad guys, you're going to work toward a conclusion of guilt. The department hung their hat on the idea of Perez being credible."
Of course, Perez wasn't lying about everything, either. In the same week Coronado was exonerated, three more Rampart officers were indicted for misconduct based on Perez's allegations, and Perez's former partner, Nino Durden, pleaded guilty to four bogus arrests.
Yet even some of the core of officers who pursued the leads and cases built on Perez's confessions are now eyeing his testimony more closely. "I've changed the way I look at things," said Ray Garvin, the department advocate who brought the first Rampart case, against Brian Hewitt for beating a handcuffed suspect, and who argued the first case against Coronado. "At first I thought we had a bad officer who turned good. Now I weigh everything."
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