BELL GARDENS CITY COUNCILMAN ?Mario Beltran walked into L.A. County Superior Court in Downey last week looking as self-assured as a politico could be while on trial for filing a false police report after being seen with prostitutes.
Beltran passed out drunk in a Skid Row hotel last June, lost possession of his wallet and city badge, and told Bell Gardens and Los Angeles police he was robbed on the street by several African-American men, one of them wielding a knife.
The boozy circumstances of his wild night at the seedy Huntington Hotel might be enough to derail the careers of lesser politicians. But Beltran has friends in high places, such as state Senator Ron Calderon, for whom he works as a field deputy, and state Senator Gil Cedillo, who mentored him early in his career. Several witnesses including Cedillo were listed as character references for Beltran, so last Wednesday, as his trial began, he was as cool as a cucumber.
That was until 6-foot-tall, rail-thin Sherrilynn Ridgeway, an African-American woman with weathered skin and a criminal record of drug dealing and prostitution, took the stand and described Beltran, a 29-year-old, 5-foot-5-inch immigrant from El Salvador, staggering around the Huntington in the wee hours of June 28 hurling racial slurs and menacing threats and, in her words, “grabbing a handful of my ass.”
At that point, Beltran’s expression suggested he knew he was in for a long ordeal.
The jury had been warned things could get ugly. They were going to hear allegations that Beltran degraded Ridgeway with words like “nigger” and “bitch,” Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Maureen O’Brien said in her opening statement — words that O’Brien said she did not feel comfortable uttering. They also were going to hear from witnesses with questionable occupations and backgrounds. “There are no angels as witnesses,” O’Brien said.
Beltran’s lawyer, Philip Cohen, was not nearly as delicate. He spat out the N-word in rapid-fire bursts while shredding the testimony of one prostitute. And he accused prosecutors of misconduct, saying they offered an implicit deal to one witness, a hotel desk clerk who placed Beltran inside the hotel but also faces an unrelated gun charge in a Pasadena courtroom.
Cohen confirmed that his client was “drunk out of his mind” last June after visiting the nearby 740 Club, whose owner is a friend of Beltran’s. But he urged the jury: “You will not be asked to decide if [Beltran] is an ass, a racist, a sexual assaulter or a drunkard. This case is about whether he knowingly and falsely [accused] someone of a crime.”
Cohen’s statement begged for some insight, however, into what a young elected official is doing in a place like the Huntington, allegedly in the company of prostitutes. If he really did use such despicable language or commit a sexual assault, what does that say about the quality of representation in Bell Gardens? And is it true that people say things when they are drunk that they are really thinking when they are sober? Beltran’s lawyer insists Beltran did not make racist statements.
The trial about Beltran’s foray into the night gave jurors a glimpse not just of the sordid life inside the Huntington Hotel but also of the next generation of Los Angeles County politicians. Seated in the front row each day of the trial, which is expected to end this week, was Beltran’s good friend and fellow legislative aide Gil Cedillo Jr., son of the state senator whose Eastside district includes the Huntington. Facing the judge was Beltran himself, a rising political star who works for Calderon, the state senator who represents Bell Gardens. And finally, presiding over the case was newly minted Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel Lowenthal, the son of state Senator Alan Lowenthal — whose district includes the Downey courthouse where Beltran was being tried.
Beltran has made inroads with the Hollywood political set, posing with Dayna Bochco, wife of television mogul Steven Bochco, for photographs that were published on the Web site of Environmental Entrepreneurs, a support group for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Web site praised Beltran for his work, just weeks after the Skid Row incident, in establishing California in the “carbon-conscious global marketplace.”
The case against Beltran revolves around two conflicting police reports obtained by the L.A. Weekly. According to a report filed less than 24 hours after his wild night, Beltran told Bell Gardens police that he wandered from downtown’s 740 Club at about 3 a.m. in search of a food vendor when he was confronted by “three to four male blacks” at the corner of Eighth and Main streets, one of whom grabbed him from behind, reached into his pockets and stole his cell phone, wallet and city badge.
There was no mention of Sherrilynn Ridgeway, the Huntington, or any of the nastiness that witnesses say occurred there. In fact, Bell Gardens Assistant City Manager Phil Gardner told police that Beltran was initially uninterested in filing a report — a hesitance that left Gardner, a reserve police officer in Montebello, “somewhat suspicious.”
About a week later, LAPD detective Thayer Lake took a sexual-battery complaint from Ridgeway that described a vastly different scenario. According to the LAPD report, Beltran entered the lobby with a white 20-something prostitute named “Beth” after midnight and went to a room with her. A couple of hours later he reappeared in the lobby and approached Ridgeway, who was standing near the desk clerk.
The report states that Beltran was verbally abusive, drunkenly flashed his badge, and reached under Ridgeway’s skirt and assaulted her. “This fucker just grabbed my ass,” Ridgeway said, according to the report — a comment disputed by Beltran’s defense attorney.
Beltran told the Weekly he was never with a prostitute that night, but that he can’t recall specifics because he was so drunk. “It was an isolated incident,” he said of the evening. His lawyer claims he suffered a “spot blackout” and does not recall being at the hotel or using racist language.
The LAPD report states that Ridgeway accompanied Beltran to an ATM because he was so unstable. Returning to the hotel, Beltran rented a room, and Ridgeway followed him up the stairs to the second floor, according to the report, where Beltran became aggressive, allegedly grabbing her arm and her skirt. When she yelled, the report states, bystanders came to her aid and “kicked [Beltran’s] ass,” causing him to drop his man purse, scattering his wallet and city badge. Angry and panicked, the report continues, Ridgeway gathered up Beltran’s belongings and hid out in a friend’s room.
When Beltran filed his robbery report with Bell Gardens police, and even when he returned to the scene days later to show LAPD detectives where he had allegedly been robbed, he failed to mention the Huntington — despite a tape-recorded phone call, set up after the incident by the LAPD in an effort to catch him in a lie, in which he told Ridgeway, “If I offended you in any way, that is not who I am.”
While Beltran omitted the Huntington Hotel during his police interviews, security guard Antonio Hines said he clearly remembered Beltran’s visit. Hines testified that he found the drunken councilman passed out in the hallway on the second floor and helped carry him downstairs. Hines followed him out to the parking lot of the 740 Club, about a block away.
There, Beltran encountered a couple of friends, 740 Club owner Ralph Verdugo and La Puente City Councilman John Solis, the report states. Verdugo and Solis brought Beltran back to the Huntington and offered money to residents for information about where Ridgeway lived, and about where to find Beltran’s possessions, according to the LAPD report.
Hines told jurors that Beltran’s friends pretended to be police even as they offered $500 to anyone who could produce the councilman’s badge. One Beltran associate, according to Hines, delivered the message explicitly. “Unless you cooperate with me, I can have 150 cops come up here .?.?. in a matter of minutes, secure the whole apartment and take all you guys down,” Hines recalled one saying.
Despite being offered immunity from potential prosecution for impersonating a police officer, Verdugo and Solis informed prosecutors they intended to invoke their Fifth Amendment right to refuse to testify. Both men were dropped from the district attorney’s witness list.
On the trial’s fourth day, jurors were treated to a July 13 audio tape of Beltran being quizzed via telephone by Lake, the LAPD detective. On tape, Beltran again declined to mention the hooker hotel, repeating his story about being robbed on the street.
When Beltran spoke to Bell Gardens police two weeks earlier, he had been unable to describe any of the men in the knife-point robbery scenario. But in his LAPD interview, Beltran suddenly had clear descriptions of the dark-skinned men whom he portrayed as his attackers. One had a “light beard” and was three inches taller than Beltran; another was in his late 20s.
Asked why he did not initially tell the LAPD about the robbery, Beltran offered an answer that made sense no matter what a jury decides. “I was very embarrassed,” said Beltran, pointing out that he shouldn’t have been out so late. “In many ways,” he told the LAPD detective, “I was responsible for what happened to me.”
While the jury learned quite a bit about Beltran’s wild side, some Bell Gardens officials have heard enough. Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez told the Weekly, “Our concern is not to cover up for Councilman Beltran. He appears to have been untruthful with us. It’s become the focus of negative attention. Even if he is found innocent, he has caused damage to our community.”
Matthew Fleischer contributed to this story.