It appeared to be a moment of truth: a pair of Riverside Sheriff’s deputies caught on tape by a television news camera as they delivered a violent roadside clubbing to two Mexican nationals.
But more than two years after the April 1 beatings of Alicia Sotero Vasquez and Enrique Funes Flores sparked national outrage, there is growing concern that the deputies involved in the beatings will never be prosecuted. “This isn’t a case that required Sherlock Holmes to figure out who did it,” says Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU in Los Angeles, which represented one of the beating victims. “If a Mexican national had engaged in the same conduct against a sheriff’s deputy it would have taken all of two minutes for prosecutors to have filed charges. There is no excuse for the inordinate amount of time it has taken, except that this is about politics.”
Certainly politics came into play in the weeks after the beatings, with their obvious echo of an earlier videotaped police beating — that of black motorist Rodney King. The chorus of voices that joined together to demand justice ranged from City Hall, where three council members called for a federal probe, to the White House, where President Clinton expressed his concern over the treatment of immigrants.
Five separate investigations were launched within months of the beatings. At least one, by the Riverside Sheriff’s office, has been closed, having concluded that the department was not at fault and that no policies should change. Last summer, the County of Riverside settled two separate claims with an agreement to pay Sotero and Funes $740,000, but no action has been initiated against the perpetrators.
The basic evidence is straightfor ward and on tape: Grainy footage shows a pickup truck pulled to the side of the road at the end of an 80-mile chase. As deputies close in, an estimated 17 undocumented immigrants tumble from the bed of the truck and flee. Then, as a television chopper hovers over the scene, Riverside Deputy Tracy Lee Watson repeatedly hits Sotero in the back and then pulls her to ground by her hair. Moments later, he and Deputy Kurt Franklin are seen hitting Funes on the back even after he’s on the ground.
While the tape is compelling, there’s more to the story — the troubled history of one of the deputies. In a 1997 deposition, Watson admits that while stationed at Lake Elsinore Sheriff’s station three years earlier, he was part of a small clique of deputies who called themselves the Lake Town Bad Boys. Known for being rough on the streets, at least two of the group’s members, including Watson, bore tattoos of a cloaked figure with a skull for a head, brandishing a gun. Watson was transferred to another department shortly after a supervisor questioned Watson and several others about the group, according to the deposition.
Watson faced use-of-force questions in at least four incidents before the taped beatings, including two shootings and one case where he was disciplined for hitting a suspect who was already under arrest. Watson’s attorney, Robert Padia, did not return the Weekly’s telephone calls. Watson was fired by the Riverside sheriff in August 1996. He now runs his own private-investigation firm.
So why haven’t charges been filed in a case that was initially considered so egregious? Latino and civil rights activists say they’ve been pressing the Department of Justice and L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s office for answers the past two years. They worry that as the case fades from public memory, so will the political resolve to prosecute.
The official response is concise. “We’ve completed our investigation from this office’s perspective, and the results are now being reviewed by authorities in Washington, D.C.,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gennaco, the prosecutor leading a grand jury investigation into the beating. Gennaco declined to reveal what he recommended to Department of Justice officials.
For civil rights attorneys such as Jorge Gonzalez, the delays signal an unwillingness to prosecute. “The bottom line is that if the Justice Department had wanted to indict, it would have done so already,” says Gonzalez, who worked on Sotero’s legal team. “What we have is a case of political bureaucrats in Washington who haven’t shown the political determination to ask for an indictment.”
At least one former prosecutor agrees. “If they are doing anything about this in Washington, it is to sit on it, because the more time that passes the better they can forget about it,” says Harland Braun, the attorney for a California Highway Patrol officer who witnessed the beatings. “It wouldn’t surprise me if [Department of Justice officials] decide to wait until one day when Monica Lewinsky appears nude at some press conference, and while that is going on they quietly announce they aren’t going to prosecute the deputies.”
L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti is drawing similar heat for his failure to press charges against the Riverside deputies. (The beatings took place within L.A. County.) “This is just par for the case with the District Attorney’s Office,” says civil rights attorney Antonio Rodriguez.
In October 1995, a group of lawyers from the Mexican-American Bar Association met with Department of Justice officials to denounce what they called Garcetti’s total lack of resolve in at least 20 officer-related shootings in which the victims were Latinos. “It’s clear to us that Mr. Garcetti is intent on not prosecuting these types of cases,” says Sam Paz, an attorney for Sotero. “Mr. Garcetti dismantled the roll-out team that investigated police shootings, and now he is refusing to even consider the evidence.”
Fellow attorney Gonzalez and others contend Garcetti is stalling, a game that could end up letting the deputies off the hook. Unlike federal prosecutors, the district attorney has only three years in which to file charges.
“We won’t let the statute run out without making an announcement as to our decision,” responds district attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.
The two Mexican nationals who were left bloodied and bruised by the beatings have since returned home. Sotero now lives quietly on the outskirts of Mexico City, where she used the money from the settlement to start a bus transport service.
Funes is also back in Mexico, as are all but three of the other immigrants who rode in the back of the pickup truck. The other three remain in California working as farm laborers.
And while the second anniversary of the beatings passed with little fanfare earlier this month, the Mexican government took the opportunity to ask whatever happened to the promises made two years before. “I’m very worried because we’ve been told the investigations are already done, [that] the FBI already came out and interviewed everyone and the recommendations have been turned in,” says Jose Angel Pescador, Mexico’s consul general in Los Angeles. “Still we can’t get anyone to answer the question, ‘What’s going on?’”