Why Did L.A. Taxpayers Just Give $50,000 to a Cop Widely Accused of Racism?

Frank Lyga, the last cowboy cop in L.A.?
Frank Lyga, the last cowboy cop in L.A.?

Former LAPD detective Frank Lyga on Friday was handed $50,000 by the city of Los Angeles to settle a lawsuit in which he alleged that he was terminated after being "wrongfully perceived to be racist."

The deal, in which the city admits no wrongdoing and Lyga agrees he'll never wear an LAPD badge again, appears to wrap up the wild saga of one of the nation's best-known investigators.

In 2013, Lyga was lecturing officers in ongoing training when he addressed the 1997 shooting of off-duty LAPD Officer Kevin Gaines, whom Lyga killed in apparent self-defense during a road-rage confrontation. For years, Lyga has insisted that he was justified in shooting Gaines, as he thought he was a gang member and didn't know he was a cop. But during the training session, Lyga told officers that he regretted Gaines was alone in the vehicle at the time of the shooting. "I could have killed a whole truckload of ’em … and would have been happily ... doing so," the detective said.

A recording of the lecture was published by journalist, political consultant and frequent LAPD critic Jasmyne Cannick, and Lyga's head was subsequently put on the department's chopping block. He retired before he could be fired. And then he sued the department, alleging anti-white discrimination in the workplace.

Lyga's tale has a dark side that might never be revealed. Among the things he told the cops that November day — the thing that most blows us away — was that he had, in fact, met Gaines in the weeks before he shot him. In fact, Lyga said Gaines was behind the wheel of the same undercover Buick hooptie he was in during the shooting. Driving in a Hollywood neighborhood one day, Lyga spotted former trainee Derwin Henderson and a partner on-duty and stopped to say hello. Gaines, he said, was that partner.

"That's how Gaines knew who I was, basically," Lyga says on the recording.

When he spoke to investigators after the 1997 shooting, Lyga said he didn't know Gaines or that he was an officer. 

Just three days after the lecture, an unnamed officer who was at the event sent a memo to then–assistant chief Earl Paysinger describing more of Lyga's alleged remarks — comments that weren't captured on the recording. The memo said those included Lyga threatening to go public with his allegation that his fatal shooting of a fellow cop "was a sanctioned hit on Gaines by the LAPD." Lyga had expressed anger that former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks wanted to move him to another unit following the shooting, according to the memo.

The document was leaked to Cannick, who published it on her website.

The Gaines homicide, closed by the LAPD as a justified shooting, was investigated by the department's own Russell Poole, who is perhaps best known for his inquiry into the March 9, 1997, shooting death of rapper Notorious B.I.G. outside the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Poole forwarded the theory that B.I.G.'s murder was allegedly the work of rap impresario Suge Knight and one of his security hands, LAPD Officer David Mack, neither of whom has been arrested or charged in the case.

The B.I.G. detective also linked Kevin Gaines to Knight's empire. Two days before he was killed, Gaines showed up while off-duty to the scene of a shots-fired call at the Hollywood Hills home of Sharitha Knight, the estranged wife of Suge Knight. Gaines reportedly taunted officers and was handcuffed. The LAPD Internal Affairs Group — then run by Parks, the future chief — reportedly discovered that Gaines himself had made the 911 call.

Poole said the SUV Gaines drove at the time was registered in Sharitha Knight's name. Gaines also drove a Mercedes, wore expensive suits and seemed to be living well, evidence used by some to lend credence to Lyga's claim that he thought Gaines was a gang member.

And we still have yet to reach the part of the story where Gaines' death may have helped to unravel the Rampart scandal, perhaps one of city government's darkest hours.

The scandal uncovered that officers in the Rampart Division allegedly beat, shot and shook down Latino suspects west of downtown. It inspired federal Justice officials to put the department on a racially sensitive consent decree for years. Ex-LAPD Officer Rafael Perez is perhaps the central figure of the scandal, and his story emerged because he allegedly stole $1 million worth of cocaine from an LAPD evidence room. The drugs — which had been entered into evidence by Lyga, then a narcotics officer —disappeared nearly one year after Gaines was killed.

The speculation was that Perez, who later served time in federal prison for his role in the Rampart scandal, was friends with Gaines and took the dope as payback for his killing.

In 1997, Officer David Mack orchestrated a bank robbery near USC and a few days later was seen partying in Las Vegas with his former narcotics division partner, Rafael Perez.

"Perez is a good friend of David Mack’s; both were good friends of Gaines’s," Parks said in 2001. "I think the picture reflected that we had some people on this department that were, in a coordinated effort, involved in some very serious criminal misconduct."

The scandal shook the department to its core and inspired a new era of reform and minority recruitment. The force is now a so-called "majority minority," like the city it serves.

Interestingly, then, it was some of Lyga's other comments on Nov. 15, 2013, that inspired headlines in 2014 and led to his exit. He called attorney Carl Douglas, who had deposed Lyga for a lawsuit against the city by Gaines' family, Johnnie Cochran’s "little Ewok assistant." And he suggested that a Latina police captain had been "swapped around" sexually. She sued him.

Cannick on Friday called the city settlement "a damn shame" and suggested city officials would rather shut the door on Lyga than reopen this can of worms. (Read her take on the settlement here.)

"If there's a silver lining here," she said. "it's the fact that he will never ever again be an officer with the LAPD."


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