Hoping to get a bed for the night, Abner Thomas headed off to grab an early spot in line outside the downtown Midnight Mission. As he walked down Winston Street through L.A.’s Skid Row district, the lanky Thomas spied some men playing craps on the sidewalk. Unbeknownst to the gamblers, an LAPD black-and-white carrying Officers Christopher Coppock, 28, and David Cochrane, 34, had seen them too.
As the police car slowed to a stop, Thomas gave the dice players a “Hi” sign to alert them. Jumping out of the car, Cochrane yelled to Thomas, “Turn around and grab the fence.”
Thomas says he immediately complied. As Cochrane began the customary pat-down for weapons, he menacingly growled, “You think you‘re pretty slick, warning your friends.” Then he demanded to know what Thomas had in his mouth.
Thomas, 47, told the Weekly that he denied having anything in his mouth. But Cochrane, he says, persisted, “If you don’t fucking spit it out, I will bust you in the back of the head with my flashlight.”
Turning to face his accuser, the homeless man again protested that he had nothing to hide. Thomas says he even coughed and spit several times to show Cochrane he was telling the truth.
It was then, Thomas says, that Cochrane leaned into him. The officer opened his own shirt pocket and showed him a crack pipe and several baggies filled with nuggets of cocaine. “‘Which one do you need,’ he asked me, ‘the pipe or the rock?’ I‘m telling you,” says Thomas. “It was crazy.”
The date was November 6, 1997. At that time, Thomas says, he was completing a parole term from a previous drug bust and had turned his life around. “I had been clean and sober for 14 months, joined a Christian fellowship, and recently passed a drug test by my parole officer. I was following all the rules and staying out of trouble,” he insists.
Still, Thomas says, he was scared. “I told the cop that I was on parole, and he responded, ’You‘re on parole, well, you’re going to jail.‘ But he never said for what.”
Thomas says he repeatedly begged Cochrane not to arrest him, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. Meanwhile, Coppock, who had been interrogating another man, joined his partner. Cochrane, Thomas says, checked his pockets and pulled out what appeared to be a piece of lint or popcorn. He accused him of having cocaine.
“I told him it wasn‘t cocaine, and that I was clean. But he said, ’I‘m no fucking chemist, so you are going to jail.’” (The item Cochrane collected was later tested by the police and proved not to be drugs.) Thomas says the men playing craps were allowed to leave the scene.
Thomas says they handcuffed him and put him in the back of the patrol car. The time, he contends, was around 4:20 p.m., a fact that would later prove crucial to his case.
Instead of taking him directly to Central Division for booking, Thomas says, the officers continued to cruise the area, occasionally stopping to order homeless men off the street. Twenty minutes later, Thomas says, his captors happened upon Charlie Robinson, another homeless man.
Robinson was stopped outside a liquor store on Fifth Street near Crocker, emphasizes Thomas. In his written declaration and testimony, Robinson corroborates that claim. Both men say that Coppock and Cochrane searched Robinson and discovered, in his pocket, a piece of a car antenna, an item often used to smoke crack cocaine. Thomas says he saw one of the officers use his hand radio to call for what he figured was a warrant check.
Robinson was eventually handcuffed and put in the police car alongside Thomas. Like Thomas, Robinson protested his innocence. Robinson, he says, denied having cocaine and said he found the antenna on the street, intending to use it for trade. After Robinson‘s arrest, Thomas says, the officers continued to patrol. A short time later, he says, they happened upon a group of men using lighters on what appeared to be a pipe.
“The cops pulled up fast and jumped out of the car,” says Thomas. “They took the pipe from one of the men and put it on the hood of the car. Then they searched the group, handcuffed two of the men, and put them in the black-and-white next to me and Robinson.” The men were later identified as Elmore Williams and William Perry, who both stated they didn’t have any cocaine.
Finally, Thomas says, Coppock and Cochrane drove back to Central Division. At the station, Thomas says, he protested to the watch commander that he was innocent of any cocaine-possession charges and even offered to take a drug test, a request that, he says, was ignored.
The arrests of the four homeless men — Thomas, Robinson, Williams and Perry — all with past histories of drug problems and arrests, led to the suspension and, ultimately, termination of the two officers. The case illustrates how hard it is to get the criminal-justice system in Los Angeles — from police investigators to prosecutors and judges — to take seriously the claims of suspects who swear they are innocent.
The case is not the only one involving the fallen officers. Last October, a grand jury indicted Coppock and Cochrane for the alleged kidnapping, false imprisonment and beating of Delton Bowen, a homeless man. Coppock and Cochrane are accused of driving him to the Los Angeles River and assaulting him.
Cochrane is also alleged to have used a handgun in the commission of this crime in the presence of Coppock. If convicted on all counts, Cochrane faces a maximum of 18 years in prison and Coppock, nine years. Both men have pleaded not guilty. Two weeks ago, Judge Larry P. Fidler set May 10 as a tentative date to begin their trial.
In addition to these charges, Coppock and Cochrane are also named as defendants in almost two dozen federal lawsuits. The accusations in those cases range from illegal arrests and planting evidence to perjury and malicious prosecutions.
Coppock and Cochrane‘s alleged on-the-job criminal activities pose a threat to a perceived policy of containment practiced by the LAPD as it investigates the scandal surrounding disgraced former Rampart Officer Rafael Perez.
Despite LAPD Chief Bernard Parks’ public assertion that his investigators have pursued thousands of clues, conducted hundreds of interviews and amassed a million pages of documents in their no-holds-barred effort to root out corruption, the record indicates that the department has focused on two main goals since Perez‘s history of drug thefts, evidence planting, perjury, excessive force and false arrests came to light. One is proving that Perez lied about other officers’ misconduct. The second is limiting the collateral damage of its investigation to one geographic division.
Critics of the LAPD, including the U.S. Justice Department, have repeatedly charged that the so-called Rampart scandal is symptomatic of a larger problem: a pattern and practice of constitutional violations regularly committed by officers throughout the department. Lax or mediocre supervisors — who placed a premium on results, regardless of the costs, critics assert — worsened these problems.
Coppock and Cochrane‘s alleged crimes and work records appear to support those charges. For starters, Coppock and Cochrane worked out of Central Division, not Rampart. Cochrane also served a stint on a Field Enforcement Services unit, which focuses on making drug busts. Both Perez and David Mack, another former officer and partner of Perez, now serving time in federal prison for bank robbery, also worked on a Field Enforcement unit.
The department also missed or ignored a series of red flags involving Cochrane. In 1994, Cochrane received a five-day suspension for failing to properly care for narcotics evidence. He also received two 22-day suspensions in 1997: once for failing to cooperate with an official department investigation, and a second time for making false and misleading statements to LAPD investigators.
Thomas steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout his nearly four-year legal ordeal. While in jail, Thomas says, he rejected several increasingly favorable deal offers by the prosecution, enduring a trial ending in a hung jury before he finally accepted one. All four men eventually accepted plea bargains.
“I wasn’t guilty, but I eventually took a no-contest plea for time served, because I was sick and tired of sitting in jail. I also didn‘t know if I would ever convince a judge and jury that these cops were lying. Plus, the D.A.’s deal included a promise not to violate my parole on the previous case,” he explains.
In 1999, Thomas went back to court and got a dismissal of his previous no-contest plea in this case. The motion was granted “in the interest of justice.” Last September, Thomas also filed a state civil lawsuit against Coppock and Cochrane for alleged violation of his civil rights, conspiracy, violations of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and malicious prosecution.
Intelligent and well-spoken, Thomas says he‘s maintained his sobriety, is off parole, living a “good, Christian life” and now works full time as a telemarketer.
It did not always look as if Thomas would persevere. Shortly after his arrest, Thomas says, he was shocked to learn that Coppock and Cochrane had written an arrest report, claiming to have caught him and Robinson together using cocaine.
In their report, the officers stated they saw Thomas “put his right hand up to his mouth. We observed one off-white rock, resembling rock cocaine, fall from Thomas’ right hand to the ground.” The officers also claimed to have seen Robinson “place a rock-cocaine pipe and one off-white rock, resembling rock cocaine, down to the sidewalk beside him.” They also claimed to have recovered an additional “off-white rock, resembling rock cocaine” from Thomas‘ right front pocket.
In the Property Report, Coppock and Cochrane claimed to have booked three pieces of rock cocaine, each totaling slightly more than one-half gram, and a lighter, silver metal rock pipe, all allegedly recovered from Thomas and Robinson.
At Thomas’ 1997 preliminary hearing and 1998 trial, only Coppock testified. In both appearances he repeated the story contained in the arrest report. Coppock also testified that it was he, not Cochrane, who stopped Thomas, searched him and recovered the alleged rock cocaine from his pocket. Although Coppock admitted at trial that the time of Thomas‘ arrest was off by one hour in their report, he contended that it was a mistake and not a falsification of the facts.
“These guys lied on the arrest report and then Coppock (lied) in court,” insists Thomas. “Not only did Coppock lie about the facts — Robinson and I were not arrested together, and neither of us had cocaine — he claimed that it was him and not Cochrane who first stopped me.”
While he was awaiting trial on the drug charge, Thomas says, he repeatedly told his public defender that the officers lied. However, Coppock was never directly confronted at trial with that accusation. Thomas also says he was so incensed by the arrest report in his case that he wrote complaint letters to the judge, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the LAPD, accusing the cops of corruption.
Although the U.S. Attorney‘s Office declined to investigate, the LAPD did. They began the investigation in 1998. However, the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Division (I.A.) referred the case back to Central Division, an indication that they considered it low-priority. According to the final Internal Affairs report, obtained by the Weekly, Central Division investigators interviewed Coppock, Cochrane, Thomas, Robinson, Perry, and Frederick Brennan, Thomas‘ public defender.
Thomas, Robinson and Perry all denied having cocaine when they were arrested. Plus, Thomas and Robinson repeated their denials that they were arrested together. Brennan could offer no information about the arrests. Meanwhile, Coppock and Cochrane held fast to their stories, denying all of Thomas’ charges.
Investigators also reviewed printouts from the officers‘ in-car computer and their Daily Field Activity Reports (DAFR), which are supposed to chronicle their movements, arrests and warrant checks, as well as the communication tapes of Coppock and Cochrane’s radio transmissions.
Investigators noted one warrant-search request, in the radio traffic. It came at 4:42 p.m., while Coppock and Cochrane reported their location as Fifth and Crocker. Although the report did not disclose whom the warrant search involved, the location and timing supported Thomas‘ assertion concerning Robinson’s arrest. The radio request also appears to back up Thomas‘ contention that he saw one officer use his hand radio when Robinson was stopped.
LAPD Sergeant Godfrey Bascom supervised the completed investigation and tells the Weekly that he found Thomas to be a “credible witness.” However, citing confidentiality concerns, he refused to state whether he believed the officers had committed crimes.
Bascom’s team investigated 18 allegations that Thomas made against Coppock and Cochrane. Those charges included the alleged false arrest of Thomas, falsifying their arrest and DFAR reports, and discourtesy. Coppock was also charged with giving false testimony in court, while Cochrane was accused of illegally possessing cocaine.
Bascom‘s final report was submitted to his Central Division captain on January 21, 1999. Ultimately, the department sustained 10 allegations against Coppock and eight against Cochrane. On February 11, 1999, the department suspended both men.
The legal fallout from these suspensions began a short time later. On March 12, 1999, a narcotics-possession case filed against Johnnie Durham — arrested in 1998 — was dismissed when Deputy D.A. Ilean Richard disclosed to the defense that Cochrane and Coppock had been suspended.
The department scheduled Board of Rights administrative hearings for both officers. However, Cochrane was facing termination on February 16, five days after his Thomas-related suspension. Cochrane’s termination came after he provided a false alibi for ex-Officer Mark Haro in an unrelated administrative hearing. Haro was facing termination for attempting to supply narcotics to an informant as payment for information. Cochrane had also disrupted a narcotics sting operation the department was conducting against his friend. The LAPD has yet to refer the Haro case or Cochrane‘s perjury at Haro’s 1998 hearing to the L.A. County district attorney for possible prosecution. Haro resigned from the force in 1998 as proceedings to fire him were under way, according to police department documents.
Meanwhile, Coppock‘s board hearing went forward. It began in March 1999. Both Thomas and Robinson testified, repeating their charges of a frame-up. The hearing abruptly ended when Coppock resigned on April 5 for personal reasons.
Thus ended the department’s disciplinary process against the officers. According to its own protocols, the department should have then referred the matter to the D.A.‘s Special Investigations Division (SID) for review and possible prosecution. Instead, nothing happened. For a time, the Coppock-Cochrane-Thomas-Robinson case remained locked away inside Internal Affairs’ files.
Ultimately, the case against these two disgraced officers was forwarded to the D.A., but the timing of that process is shrouded in controversy. The LAPD claims that it sent the charges against Cochrane in the Thomas complaint over to SID Assistant Head Deputy Jim Cosper on December 26, 1998, and is still awaiting a decision.
Recently, D.A. Steve Cooley split the unit into two sections: the Justice System Integrity Division, which handles law-enforcement and judicial cases, and the Public Integrity Division, charged with prosecuting elected officials.
Cosper, who‘s now assistant head deputy of the justice unit, says he reviewed his files and found no referral to him regarding Cochrane that matches that date. “If the LAPD claims they sent it over to me then, they are mistaken,” he says. The LAPD’s claim is further undermined by the fact that the Internal Affairs investigation into Thomas‘ complaint was not even completed until January 1999.
The department also claims that the charges against Coppock, in the very same matter, were not referred to the D.A.’s Special Rampart Investigative Team until March 2000. That referral finally came nearly a year after Coppock resigned.
A source inside the D.A.‘s Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, contends that the LAPD reluctantly sent this case over for just two reasons.
“One, they needed to cover their ass. And two, the D.A.’s Office requested all I.A. information on these guys after publicity surfaced in December 1999 concerning the federal lawsuit filed by Jimmy Lee Render, accusing them of false arrest, planting evidence and perjury. I believe these are the only reasons our office ever got to see this material,” says the source.
Render, who coincidentally was stopped near Fifth and Crocker, the location where Charlie Robinson was arrested, was busted by Coppock and Cochrane on November 2, 1997, just four days before Thomas and the other three men were arrested. Render, who was jailed for alleged cocaine possession, denied the charge and claimed the officers told him he would “have some drugs” when they got him to the station.
Render‘s conviction was overturned in October 1999. The LAPD also referred the Render investigation to the SID unit in 1998, but the D.A. declined prosecution of Coppock and Cochrane.
According to sources inside the D.A.’s Office, the Rampart team “debated, but ultimately declined, prosecution” of Coppock and Cochrane in the Thomas complaint. However, Cosper tells the Weekly that once news stories about these two officers began surfacing, he reclaimed all the files on LAPD criminal-case referrals regarding Coppock and Cochrane from the Rampart team.
The SID‘s review of that material led to the indictment of Coppock and Cochrane in the Bowen case. Now the Weekly has learned that the D.A.’s police-prosecution unit is taking a second look at the Thomas complaint. Benjamin Hecht, Thomas‘ civil attorney, says his client was recently interviewed.
Deputy D.A. Kraig St. Pierre is prosecuting Coppock and Cochrane in the Bowen case and reviewing the facts surrounding the Thomas, Robinson, Williams and Perry arrests. Because it’s an ongoing investigation, St. Pierre declined comment on any potential new charges. However, he remains outspoken in his evaluation of these two ex-cops.
“Coppock and Cochrane were picking on the least among us,” he says. “It‘s all about their abuse of power, and a clear violation of trust between these officers and the people they were supposed to serve and protect. The Bowen case is one clear example of that abuse of power.”
Neither Barry Levin, who is representing Coppock, nor Ira Salzman, who represents Cochrane, would comment on the case.
In addition to Thomas, two of the other men arrested with him have also had their convictions overturned. Perry’s motion was granted on November 3, 2000. Two weeks ago, Judge Fidler granted Robinson‘s motion, filed by Alternate Public Defender (APD) Ida Campbell-Thomas. Robinson is currently in prison, on another drug charge, and that case will also have to be reviewed to see if this recently dismissed conviction had influenced his current sentence.
Campbell-Thomas says she’s not surprised that this miscarriage of justice took place. “Look at the process. You have two white cops, very experienced and very adept at ‘testi-lying.’ Who do you think judges and juries will believe?”
Plus, she says, these two officers routinely picked on the homeless. “Remember, these are guys who have no jobs, no steady residences, may have past records, and live in high-narcotics-trafficking areas. These are men society has already thrown away,” Campbell-Thomas adds. “That‘s why these cases are so outrageous.”
The whereabouts of the third man arrested with Thomas — Elmore Williams — is unknown. The number of motions seeking to overturn convictions is expected to grow as the investigation into the officers’ arrests proceeds.
Last September, a judge set aside the conviction of Anthony Carnighan, who was accused by Coppock and Cochrane of stashing cocaine in his cardboard shelter. In an arrest report, the officers said they saw Carnighan spit crack cocaine out of his mouth. Carnighan has since filed one of the federal suits against these officers and the city.
In another case, Deputy Public Defender Armando Rodriguez filed a motion to set aside the conviction of Isaac Hewing, who was arrested on a drug-related charge. A judge set aside that conviction last Friday — because it had relied on evidence provided by Coppock, Cochrane and former Officer Sandra Salazar. Salazar resigned in 1999 rather than face probable dismissal for lying to protect Coppock and Cochrane in the matter of the alleged Bowen beating.
In the Hewing case, Coppock and Cochrane signed a report alleging Hewing to be in possession of cocaine when they spotted him, and Salazar, who participated in the arrest, later testified to that effect at Hewing‘s preliminary hearing. Hewing’s attorney contends the cocaine was planted. Salazar is now testifying against Coppock and Cochrane under a grant of immunity in the Bowen case.
Rodriguez says he plans to file two more motions seeking to reverse convictions in cases handled by Coppock and Cochrane. Rodriguez is one of several deputy public defenders reviewing that agency‘s cases involving these two ex-cops. He says he’s now found a pattern and practice of profiling in their arrests.
“I found three different fact patterns,” says Rodriguez. “Their stops involve either homeless African-Americans or Latinos, who are either on parole or probation. And there is always an allegation of cocaine possession.”
Rodriguez also says he doesn‘t have a current estimate on the number of cases involving these ex-officers. However, Deputy APD Campbell-Thomas says her office has so far identified 162 cases that were handled by alternate public defenders, who take cases that can’t be handled by the Public Defender‘s Office because of a legal conflict.
“Figure the P.D.’s Office had anywhere from three, four, even five times that number involving these guys. So, between their office and ours, we might have anywhere between 700 and 1,000 cases in connection with just these two officers,” she says.
Of course, all the parties acknowledge that this doesn‘t mean all Coppock-Cochrane cases will prove to be bad. Still, the cost in review time, court personnel, and potential claims against the city involving just these two officers is staggering.
“Each case must be judged on [its] individual merits,” emphasizes Deputy D.A. Eleanor Bigolski, who joined in the Carnighan-conviction dismissal. “I know the process is painfully slow and difficult, but our office is committed to seeing justice done. And we will eventually get through all of Coppock and Cochrane’s cases.”