Update: Be sure to read the reaction to the Jeremy Marks case [click here] and his mother's effort to free him for Christmas.
Update: Jeremy Marks made it home on Dec. 23. Photo of him reuniting with his mom is here.
On Dec. 2, Jeremy Marks, a Verdugo Hills High School special education student, was offered a new plea offer by the L.A. County District Attorney: If he pled guilty to charges of obstructing an officer, resisting arrest, criminal threats and “attempted lynching,” he'd serve only 32 months in prison.
That actually was an improvement from the previous offer made to the young, black high schooler — seven years in prison.
The D.A. then handed Angela Berry-Jacoby, Mark's lawyer, a stack of 130 documents, and the message within those thick files was clear: She says District Attorney Steve Cooley's prosecution team plans to try to discredit Marks, and several other Verdugo Hills High School students on the witness stand, by dragging out misbehavior incidents from their school records over the years.
Marks, 18, has been sitting in Peter Pitchess Detention Center, a tough adult jail, since May 10. Bail was set at $155,000, which his working-class parents can't pay to free their son for Christmas. His mother is a part-time clerk at a city swimming pool, his father is a lab tech.
The first thing to understand is that Jeremy Marks touched no one during his “attempted lynching” of LAUSD campus police officer Erin Robles.
The second is that Marks' weapon was the camera in his cell phone.
The third is that Officer Robles' own actions helped turn an exceedingly minor wrongdoing — a student smoking at a bus stop — into a state prison case.
The altercation that has ruined Marks' life occurred in early May at a Metro bus stop on a city street a few blocks from Verdugo Hills High School as about 30 kids were waiting to board a bus.
Witness accounts say campus police officer Robles challenged an unnamed 15-year-old for allegedly smoking — it's unclear whether he was smoking or just holding what has been variously reported to be a cigar, cigarette or joint.
When the 15-year-old resisted, Robles grabbed and shoved him, according to eyewitnesses.
In Robles' sworn statement, she says she pulled the resisting boy to the ground as other students shouted “Fuck you!” and Marks called out the name of the gang Piru Bloods.
Robles testified that the minor who allegedly was smoking “is screaming, 'Hit me, fucking bitch, hit me, you stupid bitch, hit me, you dyke!'” When that boy turned his body and possibly elbowed her, Robles says, “That is when I did strike him,” with her expanded baton, “about three times in the left leg.”
She further stated that she sprayed him with pepper spray. The kid then hit her hand, she dropped her pepper spray can, and another student grabbed it off the ground.
Students and Berry-Jacobs allege to L.A. Weekly that Robles then slammed the student’s head against the bus window — a violation of numerous police policies. After that, several stunned students got out their cell phone cameras to record what was unfolding.
Robles struck the 15-year-old's head on the window so hard, eyewitnesses tell the Weekly, that the window was forced out of its rubberized casement and broken.
Robles has changed her story in documents obtained by the Weekly, as she describes which student allegedly called out, “Kick her ass!” — the phrase at the heart of Cooley's case against Marks, and the basis of the “attempted lynching” charge against him.
But student videos of Marks doing his own cell phone taping tell a different story.
Two YouTube videos show Marks in a grayish shirt, getting out his cell phone as he stands in the background of the scene near a student in a white shirt.
Marks tapes the final minutes of the MTA bus stop altercation as several students — not including Marks — loudly and repeatedly taunt Robles.
The videos appear to show that Robles had little ability or training to handle razzing from angry high schoolers. She holds the 15-year-old against the MTA bus as he repeatedly tries to slap and push her hands off, and she never appears to have him fully under control.
She turns several times to look behind her at rowdy students, several feet away on a low wall, who jump around and cheer for the student Robles is grasping.
The videos show the loudest and angriest student in a black shirt and sweatpants rushing a few feet toward Robles more than once, and another student in a striped shirt moving toward her — but not Jeremy Marks.
In the videos, Marks, in his grayish shirt, can be seen speaking once. He never joins the extended taunting or picks anything up off the ground.
Testifying at a preliminary hearing over the summer, Robles acknowledges she doesn’t know who grabbed for her fallen pepper spray, or even why fellow Officer Gilbert Rea decided to pin it on Marks in the incident report submitted by campus police, which Robles did not write.
Her preliminary hearing testimony also reveals the chaos during which Robles now claims she is certain it was Marks — who student videos show standing out of her line of sight most of the time — who yelled, “Kick her ass.”
“I was very scared,” Robles testified. “I got my O.C. spray to control (the 15-year-old student) that was facing me, and went to spray him. Sprayed him for about one, maybe two seconds. He had hit the pepper spray out of my hands and it landed in between the bus and the sidewalk in the gutter. It was starting almost a riot.
“It was getting very, very wild. There was screaming, people were walking behind me. There were individuals trying to reach for my O.C. spray that had fallen on the ground. I was screaming for help on my radio. I could not leave that weapon there for all the juveniles and a few adults, as well, in the area. So after the O.C. had fallen out of my hands, I used my right hand and got my baton out next.
“There is a subject by the name of 'Victor' that went after my O.C. spray, a minor as well. And also — defendant (Jeremy Marks) wasn't necessarily going to grab it, but he was walking around me — made me believe that he was. I believe when I told (Officer Gilbert) Rea that (Jeremy Marks) was in the area — I don't know what conclusions (Officer Rea) formed when he was writing the [incident report], or this Arrest Report.”
One student waiting for the bus last May described the incident to the Weekly as being driven by Robles' repeated overreactions after coming down on a kid for smoking: “The officer (Erin Robles), initially, confronted the student over a cigar.” After the student yelled at and grappled with Robles, “She slammed the student into a wall, threw him on the ground, took out her pepper spray, slammed him into the bus, broke the window out of the bus with his head, sprayed him in the face and slammed him into the bus some more.”
Marks' mother, Rochelle Pittman, has barely been able to sleep since the campus cops and Los Angeles County prosecutors began to single out her son as the bad actor that day.
Yet he had no physical contact with anyone during the bus incident, was shown on video to be among the quieter students watching the altercation, and spent much of the time taking pictures of it with his cell phone.
The family recently hired two new criminal defense attorneys, Mark Ravis and Karen Travis, to defend him.
Pittman tells the Weekly that Los Angeles School Police Officer George Sandoval told her on the day her son was arrested that Marks was being charged with a serious crime for saying, “Kick her ass!”
Several Verdugo Hills students and parents have questioned whether the alleged words spoken by Marks even rise to the severe criminal charges of “attempted lynching,” which means trying to “incite a riot during an attempt to free a suspect from police custody.”
All the other students initially detained by police, including the student who shoved and fought with Robles, were released May 11.
But more and more charges were piled onto Marks.
Cooley's team claims Marks “resisted arrest” at the McDonalds where he was arrested after he watched the bus incident.
Pittman says her son and two of his friends walked to McDonalds after the excitement was over. At McDonalds, “Police cars came flying from everywhere, jumped out on my son with their guns pointed right at him, yelling and screaming for him to get on the ground,” she says.
Pittman says Marks did not resist arrest, doing everything he was asked.
His own mom might be expected to say that. But for many present at the bus incident, something doesn't add up.
Student eyewitnesses told the Weekly that Marks is not the student who laughingly told the teenager being struck by Robles to “kick her ass!” But they are terrified of repercussions against them on campus if they speak out against LAUSD's school police.
Pittman expects the grandmother of the student struck by Robles to sue the L.A. School Police Department. Attorney Berry-Jacoby says she has a copy of an invoice that shows an order to replace the MTA bus window.
The campus police, now blaming Marks for grabbing the pepper spray can after Robles dropped it, have dropped all interest in the “Victor” identified by Robles in her sworn testimony.
Says Berry-Jacoby: “In Officer Rea's report of what Officer Robles allegedly told him, Jeremy tried to take her pepper spray after it was knocked out of her hand. In her testimony in court she stated that 'Victor' tried to take her pepper spray but that Jeremy was walking around behind her.”
The Weekly contacted Cooley's office four times for an explanation of the changing stories by school police officers. ** Sandi Gibbons, public information officer for says, “I can’t tell you about the details of the case, about the evidence. In the first place, we don’t discuss the evidence outside of court.” Gibbons says a trial is set for February 14, and a bail hearing for January 4, in San Fernando. “The judge felt there was sufficient evidence to hold the defendant for trial on all three counts,” she adds.
Lydia Grant, an LAUSD student safety activist and community liaison, says she's disgusted by the piling-on of accusations against a student observer with a cell phone camera, and the severe charges that could send him to a California prison.
“In my opinion, the district is responsible for the beating of a youth and the entire bus-stop incident, including the false imprisonment of a special education student for seven months,” Grant says. “The officer involved failed to write a police report, and the LASPD has failed on two occasions to appear in court, under subpoena, to turn over any evidence.”
Coincidentally, six days before the bus incident, Grant says she reported two officers to school authorities, Erin Robles and Angelica Kegayan, “and asked for their removal,” after Grant got complaints from students and parents that the two were harassing them.
L.A. School District Police Department deputy chief Tim Anderson stands by the case against Marks, saying, “When someone is arrested, we obviously have to know everything from reasonable suspicion, probable cause, the elements of the crime, etc.”
Berry-Jacoby says Robles met with deputy District Attorney Ed Green for nearly three hours and told Green she saw a video taken by a “kid” inside the bus that would substantiate her claim that Marks urged the 15-year-old to attack her.
Berry-Jacoby says she has asked the D.A. for a copy of the video, as is her right as a member of the defense team.
But, she tells the Weekly, she was appalled to learn from Deputy D.A. Chuck Stodel that Officer Robles never viewed the video purportedly taken from inside the bus — and the student on the bus no longer has the phone that purportedly contained the footage.
Cooley's office says it cannot comment on evidence outside of court, and the “kid” from inside the bus has not been identified by prosecutors as a witness.**
School police chief Anderson says, in defense of the stiff bail hike that is keeping Marks in the rough adult Peter Pitchess jail for months, “I don't know him personally or have any other information about him. However, one of the unique things about our department is that we are on or around these two campuses every day, and we get to know the students, the staff, the community, etc., very well.”
But in fact, L.A. Weekly investigated the tiny, and controversial, school police agency in 2009 in its cover story “LAUSD’s Finest: How an Oblivious School Board Lets a Tiny, Scandal-Ridden Campus Police Force Endanger L.A. Kids” (Sept. 4-10, 2009) and found a different situation.
The Weekly found the tiny police force is a little-watched and highly isolated organization, heavily armed and given extremely broad policing powers on Los Angeles city streets — not merely on school campuses.
Its officers and brass are subjected to very little oversight or accountability, and two extensive, secret 2007 audits obtained by the Weekly called for a radical remaking of the police force.
Unlike virtually every other police department in California and in the West, the LAUSD's campus cops and their top brass have undergone no serious, modern-day reforms.
Most important, the Weekly found, the Los Angeles School Police Department's internal affairs division “sat on 16 investigations of police wrongdoing for so long that the officers can't be punished, even though all were ultimately found guilty of misconduct.” As the story reported, “Its top brass have failed to heed sharp private warnings against letting its woefully undersupervised cops patrol L.A.'s streets far beyond school boundaries.”
It may be that Jeremy Marks was a kid unlucky enough to have been in trouble with the LAUSD school police in years past.
Before his parents requested his transfer to Verdugo Hills High School in 2009, Marks was involved in fights at Kennedy High School, had been given “truancy tickets” by campus police and was arrested once for robbery.
Hoping to get their son a better academic and social grounding, his parents transferred him to Verdugo.
Since last year he has been attending school regularly, passing his courses and trying to stay out of trouble, his mother says.
Grant, the parent activist and liaison, lashes out at the school police department and its persecution of Marks. Grant alleges the school police now are harassing outspoken students and even parent advocates like her.
“Now the witnesses, including myself, are being watched and harassed,” Grant says. “They are putting us in danger.”
Grant says she was unnerved when she spotted Officer Erin Robles outside the L.A. Superior Courthouse one day, watching as she, Marks' attorney Berry-Jacoby and six eyewitnesses visited the building. When Berry-Jacoby asked Deputy D.A. Green if he had subpoenaed Robles to be at court that day, she says, Green told her he had not.
Marks' case is attracting interest from the civil rights group Congress of Racial Equality of California, which is calling for donations to help Marks pay for a rigorous defense.
Celes King IV, CORE's vice chairman, learned of the case recently and wrote a letter to Cooley stating, “After looking at the video, it became quite apparent that this prosecution is not only without merit, it could very well be considered a libelous abuse of power under color of law.”
King believes “pressure is being placed on this 18-year-old special education student to plead to some minor offense to shield the actions of the school police and justify the cost of prosecution and incarceration.”
In particular, King notes, “Only Robles' testimony is used to substantiate a course of events that no one person could keep track of alone while involved with the original detainee. The arrest of Jeremy was effected several blocks away at the McDonalds, based solely on the misinformation given by Officer Robles.”
Jeremy Marks, after turning his grades around, may not graduate with his Verdugo Hills High School class in 2011. He has lost seven months of his life.
King finished his letter by questioning the mission statement of the Los Angeles schools' police department, declaring, “The idea of preying upon school students by those who are supposed to protect them is alarming and unacceptable.”
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
** Correction: The original online version of this story twice erroneously stated that the Los Angeles District Attorney did not return the Weekly's phone calls. D.A. spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons did respond, providing a statement that has been added to this article.