Spraying with a can of green paint, 19-year-old Christopher Rebolledo seemed to have been caught red-handed tagging a warning to a rival crew on the side of a motel on April 3, 1999.
L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies David Auner and James Best said the young man was read his rights, interviewed and booked at Century Station on a misdemeanor vandalism charge.
Case closed? Not so fast.
“The problem was,” said Deputy District Attorney Valerie Aenlle-Rocha of the Special Investigations Division, “the deputies falsified the report.”
Best, an in-field trainee, felt pangs of conscience and came forward to tell Sheriff‘s internal-affairs investigators that the arrest report was wrong and that Rebolledo was first seen 100 feet from the motel. Best also said he had falsified two other case reports at the direction of the 31-year-old Auner during his stint with the training officer.
Aenlle-Rocha filed six felony counts against Auner in May, charging the 12-year veteran with falsifying public records and filing false police reports in the three cases. Last Thursday, Municipal Court Judge Helen Bendix ordered Auner to stand trial in Superior Court on the charges. Dressed in a black suit, Auner sat quietly at the defendant’s table next to his attorney, Richard G. Hirsch. The courtroom was filled with Sheriff‘s deputies and civilian supporters of Auner.
“The public and the Legislature have a right to expect that law-enforcement officers will tell the truth and uphold the integrity of the system,” said Judge Bendix. “It appears to me that sufficient cause has been presented to believe that Deputy Auner has committed these crimes.” Auner’s arraignment was set for September 21. He remains free on $50,000 bond.
His problems may be just the tip of the iceberg at Century Station. Last year, Sheriff‘s Lieutenant Jim Lopez began investigating a number of deputies at the station in Lynwood. Lopez interviewed judges, deputy district attorneys and public defenders about “Century personnel whose reports, demeanor, testimony, trustworthiness, or reliability had raised questions.”
Word of the investigation is contained in a report by Sheriff’s Special Counsel Merrick Bobb, who declined comment on the status of Lopez‘s inquiry. Bobb also said he didn’t know how many officers were involved or what problems were discovered. He noted that Jeffrey Jones, another training officer at Century Station, pleaded no contest in 1996 to four felony counts of falsifying arrest reports. Like Auner, Jones was turned in by his trainee. Trainee Aurora Mellado eventually resigned from the L.A. County Sheriff‘s Department and criticized Jones’ sentence of one year in County Jail, three years of probation and resignation from the force, for framing blacks and Latinos, as one “sweet deal” designed to minimize bad publicity.
Jones‘ plea bargain was negotiated between prosecutors and Auner’s attorney, who claimed this was a case of a police officer bending the rules to do what he thought was right.
Bobb told the Weekly he‘s taken an ongoing interest in Century Station because it has been “very active in terms of arrests, crimes, litigation, complaints and officer-involved shootings.” Lopez could not be reached for comment.
In Auner’s case, only one witness, Sheriff‘s Lieutenant Allan Smith — the lead investigator into the alleged misconduct — testified at last Thursday’s preliminary hearing. Smith said that Best came forward because of an attack of conscience.
“He had gotten his first subpoena related to these cases, and he felt a uncomfortable about falsely testifying,” stated Smith. “He told me he took pride in coming forward and telling the truth.”
According to Smith, Best said Rebolledo was not seen spraying the building. He was stopped about 100 feet away from the motel. Best, he testified, also told him that Rebolledo was never told of his right to remain silent by Auner.
Rebolledo pleaded no contest to the charge and was sentenced to two years‘ probation. However, in June, Aenlle-Rocha successfully petitioned the court to throw out the conviction because of the falsified arrest report.
The Rebolledo case was the third alleged doctored report. The first one involved a drive-by shooting near the King-Drew Medical Center on March 30, 1999. Auner and Best drove the three victims to see three possible shooters. But, in contrast to what the report said, the victims did not all name a 28-year-old man as being at the scene. No arrests were made in the case.
The other case involved the arrest of a man on suspicion of cocaine possession on April 1, 1999. Best now says that, as he and his partner approached, the man slipped cocaine into his mouth. At that point, Auner ordered him to spit it out. The report, however, says the man was arrested on outstanding warrants and that the deputies saw cocaine on his tongue during interrogation. Charges were dropped because of problems with the report.
Auner’s attorney says his client is a victim of the Rampart syndrome. More than 100 convictions have been dismissed in connection with the LAPD scandal. “I believe Rampart has heightened the scrutiny inside the D.A.‘s Office on these kinds of cases. Auner’s violations, if they occurred at all, would only be hypertechnical. This case is a threat to the livelihood and reputation of every officer on the street,” Hirsch said.