Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
The case surfaced with a bang last May — a sensational press conference announcing that a series of predawn arrests had brought a dangerous militia cell “to its knees,” averting a “holocaust” and saving “countless lives.” More than a hundred weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition were confiscated, and in the ensuing months, three defendants in the case pleaded guilty to weapons charges. One, Irwindale reserve police officer Glenn Yee, was sentenced to 16 months in prison on weapons charges.
Which made it all the more confounding when the Los Angeles City Council last week agreed to pay out $1.1 million to settle four civil lawsuits brought by the defendants in the case. Council members said those arrested had been defamed as militia terrorists by overzealous police officials, and voted to institute mandatory training for LAPD spokespeople.
But defamation was just one of the complaints against the department, prosecutors and the city attorney, who reportedly sold the deal to the council by warning that a trial verdict might top $5 million. The plaintiffs alleged the cops had framed and entrapped them, spied on them illegally, and then lied under oath to cover up their excesses. Moreover, the suits alleged that police officials at the LAPD’s Anti-Terrorist Division (ATD) had conspired with city and district attorneys to withhold exonerating evidence.
Said Michael Stoller, the attorney representing all four defendants and the wives of two of them, “I believe that the complaints involving police conduct were of merit and were taken into consideration for making this settlement.” Stoller said he couldn’t discuss any terms.
The million-dollar settlement means the allegations of wrongdoing will never be tried. But it also marks another miserable outing for one of the last remnants of the LAPD’s once-vaunted — and widely feared — spy apparatus. The ATD is a secretive division directly descended from the Public Disorder Intelligence Division, which was disbanded after activists disclosed widespread spying on liberal political figures, including some public officials.
The lawsuits assert that the ATD had pressed its investigation because it urgently needed a major bust to make up for years of lackluster performance and head off plans to dissolve the division. (The ATD has accrued more lawsuits than major arrests in its controversial history.) So the unit dispatched an officer to infiltrate the plaintiffs’ group of gun enthusiasts and survivalists, and depicted its quarry as militia militants bent on fomenting urban terror.
Filed in federal court last summer, the lawsuits recount unsuccessful efforts by the ATD’s undercover officers to induce the group, which generally met in the northeastern part of the county, to instigate an armed encounter in South-Central L.A. and provide protection to an anti-immigrant group. Uncomfortable with the behavior of one ATD infiltrator, the lawsuits allege, the group disbanded, but members consented to that undercover cop’s plea for one last shooting practice — which turned out to be a setup for the arrest.
ATD investigative records obtained by the Weekly chronicle the unit’s infiltration by that officer, the LAPD’s Doug Stice, into the Southern California Marksman’s Association (SCMA), a group formed by Yee and others. The records show how the cops portrayed the SCMA as a racist militia, bent on killing illegal Mexican immigrants and “hostages,” despite the fact that the SCMA was multiracial — Yee and another plaintiff are Asian; a third member’s wife is Mexican.
Stice’s report, about what the plaintiffs say was the first meeting he attended, in January 1996, calls the group the “Orange County Militia.” In subsequent reports, Stice alternates that name with the “Orange County Corps,” an actual organization — but not the one he was attending. Glenn and Christine Yee and their SCMA associates had split from the corps in mid-1995, before Stice entered their lives as “Andrew Nelson.” They left because the corps was too “political,” according to the lawsuit and Weekly interviews. (One of those arrested, Timothy Swanson, a childhood friend of Glenn Yee, says he never belonged to the SCMA.)
According to the Orange County Corps’ founder, National Rifle Association activist T.J. Johnston, the organization was intended for community protection in the event of riots or natural disasters. Johnston told the Weekly that he and Dave Ralph, an LAPD officer who later joined the SCMA, met with Congressman Ed Royce to discuss the organization. One of Stice’s reports terms the Orange County Corps’ founding meeting at Cal State Fullerton a “militia callout.”
Stice’s reports reflect nothing of the SCMA’s survivalist focus. Instead, Stice reports attending “militia training” and drills. In interviews over the past year, Swanson, the Yees and other plaintiffs insisted that Stice fabricated, twisted and outright lied about what went on inside the group. Prosecutors who filed 13 felony charges against SCMA member and plaintiff Alvin Ung in San Bernardino County, a case that is only now going to trial, alleged a plan to kill immigrants, but have introduced no evidence besides Stice’s report.
Use of the word militia, which acquired considerable punch after the April 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, probably helped the ATD persuade the Police Commission and then–Police Chief Willie Williams to give the required permission to launch and continue the investigation. In an interview for an earlier story, then–Police Commission president Raymond Fisher told the Weekly that he was familiar with the operation and that it was justified.
The dire characterization of the militia threat, in turn, helped persuade the same police commissioners and the City Council to decide in 1996 to substantially loosen the guidelines governing the activities of the ATD. Even so, those guidelines require a reasonable suspicion that a group be planning criminal activity before officers may investigate. The lawsuits contend that, when it came to the SCMA, the ATD had no basis for such an investigation. After it arrested the men, the ATD said its investigation was the first under the loosened guidelines and couldn’t have been conducted under the old rules.
The new guidelines continue a requirement that the Police Commission monitor the ATD. A recently released commission audit of the unit’s activities during 1996-97, the period when it infiltrated the SCMA, said the ATD had carried out no improper investigations. But commission staffer Clifford Weiss, who conducted the audit, told the Weekly that because of the litigation, he was told to put “information about the militia case in a confidential version of the audit.”
In fact, Weiss said, neither the Police Commission nor the City Council has yet seen his report on the SCMA investigation. He said the commission will soon — in closed session, because the report deals with undercover operations. The commission considered settlement of the lawsuits during a closed session before Christmas, then sent its recommendations on to the council.
Weiss said the commission would “not necessarily” pass along his confidential audit to the City Council. In the past, Weiss said, “There were courtesy copies [of ATD audits] given to the Public Safety Committee,” but there’s no requirement to do so.
The plaintiffs and their attorneys say that Stice lied repeatedly about the weapons used or owned by members of the group. They also say the ATD officers swore to these lies in order to obtain search warrants. Alvin Ung recently petitioned the judge presiding over his San Bernardino case for access to personnel records to help him prove that Stice, Sergeant Glynn Martin and officer Michael O’Brien made “misstatements” in police reports. Ung’s motion is set for hearing on January 29.
In addition, the affidavits for the search warrants served in the case mischaracterize Stice himself. The officer is identified as a “reliable confidential informant” who had infiltrated right-wing groups and helped bring off previous arrests — not as a member of the LAPD. It’s a crucial distinction, say civil rights attorneys.
At court hearings, officials identified Stice as an LAPD officer, but they repeatedly thwarted defense attorneys’ efforts to learn his identity and get him into a courtroom. At one hearing, when an attorney cross-examining ATD Sergeant Martin asked about Steich,” the name officials had given him, Martin said, “I don’t know anybody by that name.” After the judge intervened and the defense lawyer mentioned “prosecutorial misconduct” and “misrepresentations,” Martin volunteered that it was “a spelling and pronunciation issue,” then gave the correct spelling.
Doubts about Stice’s affiliation resurfaced when attorneys trying to serve papers on him learned he wasn’t listed on the LAPD’s personnel roster. His ties to the department were confirmed only after a Weekly reporter visited Stice at his suburban home earlier this month. The next day, an LAPD spokesperson phoned a Weekly editor to express concern that the paper might reveal the address of “a member of our department.” Stice would not comment on his activities as Andrew Nelson.
Weiss, of the Police Commission staff, said he couldn’t comment on Stice’s ghost status or on the cops’ description of him as an informant. Two sources with direct knowledge of the LAPD’s operations told the Weekly that the department routinely keeps some of its officers off the books.
In their lawsuits and in interviews, the SCMA plaintiffs also complained of more prosaic misconduct. In an earlier report, the Weekly detailed how the prosecution withheld evidence of the investigation as “not relevant,” but trotted it out selectively to justify stiff charges and sentences. The plaintiffs, their defense attorneys and other sources with inside knowledge say these statements — plus judges’ unwillingness to second-guess allegations of terrorism — resulted in a string of unfavorable rulings and sentences.
When Yee entered his plea, the prosecutor told the judge that the district attorney had agreed with the police and city attorney to withhold certain investigative records. Yee and Swanson included with their pleas statements that they’d withdraw them if they obtained the evidence they’d been denied. The Weekly has learned that deputy D.A.s in at least two cases threatened to introduce additional charges unless the defendants plea-bargained by a certain date.
When contacted, a spokesperson for the D.A.’s Office claimed not to know about the lawsuits or their settlement, even though District Attorney Gil Garcetti and several of his lieutenants were named defendants.
Yee’s defense attorney, Chuck Michel, said the State Court of Appeals has agreed to hear Yee’s appeal of his sentence. After he pleaded to a negotiated misdemeanor, plaintiff Tim Swanson complained to the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau about the conduct of the ATD investigation. He said that after he heard nothing from the bureau, he took his complaint to police Inspector General Katherine Mader, but was informed that she was not allowed to investigate the case.