|Courtesy Irma Madera|
Nineteen years ago, LAPD Detective Steven R. Miller shot a handcuffed suspect in the chest during an interview in the police interrogation room.
Miller says it was an accident. The suspect, Jose Luis Frutis, says the enraged detective helped frame him for murder.
Three weeks ago, the allegations contained in Frutis’ motion for a new trial languished with little interest from the authorities. Now there is renewed interest in the case, fueled by allegations from admitted rogue Officer Rafael A. Perez of bad shootings, planted evidence and routine abuse in the Rampart Division CRASH anti-gang unit.
Frutis, a Boyle Heights resident and member of the Third Street Gang, has filed declarations from a fellow inmate whose fingerprints were found in the getaway car, and who claims he committed the killing for which Frutis was convicted.
Undisputed in the case is the fact that, while he was handcuffed and in an LAPD interrogation room, Frutis was shot in the chest and critically wounded.
Now, in the wake of the Perez misconduct allegations, the District Attorney’s Office is preparing to reopen the Frutis case.
in court documents, Frutis contends that he was shot without provocation, when an interrogating detective became enraged that Frutis could not name a suspect in the murder case for which Frutis himself was later convicted. The questioning was conducted by two detectives: Miller, who left the force in 1982, and his partner, Albert Gonzales, who remains a detective at the LAPD’s Central Division. Both at the time were assigned to the CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) detail — the same unit at the center of the current police-misconduct scandal.
Gonzales, when contacted at work Tuesday, said he could not discuss the case. Efforts to reach Miller were unsuccessful.
The December 26, 1980, interview took place in a windowless room inside the Central bureau headquarters, at Sixth and Wall streets. According to both Frutis and the police, he was handcuffed to the chair during the entire 60-minute encounter.
As Frutis recounted in a 1986 deposition, Detective Miller leafed through a book of photos to see if Frutis would identify any as potential suspects. Frutis demurred, and Miller escalated his demands, finally declaring, “If you don’t tell me who killed this guy, I’m going to kill you.” Frutis answered that he had no information and that he’d take a polygraph exam to show that he wasn’t lying. According to Frutis, Miller then slammed the book onto a table, reached into his coat, pulled out a handgun and shot Frutis in the chest.
The bullet entered three inches above his heart, exited through his left arm and embedded itself in a wooden baseboard.
Miller later testified under oath that he shot Frutis by accident. But Miller corroborated much of the rest of Frutis’ account, acknowledging that Frutis did nothing to provoke a shooting.
Miller and Gonzales gave their sworn statements on the case in depositions taken in 1986 in connection with a civil suit filed by Frutis.
According to Miller’s testimony, he was passing the gun, which he said had been holstered to that point, to his partner so as to set Frutis more at ease, then lost his grip on the weapon and fired it by accident. Subsequent tests by the LAPD established that Miller’s .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver required 7 and a half pounds of pressure on the trigger to discharge.
Gonzales, by his own account as well as Miller’s and Frutis’, sat silently until the shooting took place. Gonzales testified that he and Miller were working a “good-cop, bad-cop” routine, with Miller “being the tough guy.” In contrast to Miller, Gonzales said, Frutis “became upset” a couple of times during the interview, and just before the shooting, Frutis “turned away from my partner as a display of being arrogant.” Gonzales confirmed that Frutis was handcuffed the entire time.
As to the shooting, Gonzales said he did not realize Miller was attempting to pass his weapon to him. Gonzales said he heard Miller say his name and saw a hand movement, but never saw the gun. Gonzales testified, “To the best of my recollection, the gun went off within six to 10 inches from my ear.”
After the shooting, according to Frutis, he quickly passed out from his injuries, but not before he heard Gonzales state to Miller, “You killed him.”
The in-custody shooting of Jose Luis Frutis received the customary departmental review — not unlike the process in place today.
First on the scene were several officers and detectives who responded to the sound of a gunshot inside the building; Miller and Gonzales each said they could not recall any names. Gonzales said he was contacted soon after that by a Sergeant Kennerson — the commanding officer that day. In his deposition, Gonzales was asked, “Did [Kennerson] ask you at that point for any details to the shooting as to how it occurred or what had happened?” Gonzales answered, “No. I just informed him that there had been a gun fired and that’s all he asked.”
Kennerson’s inquiry was followed by a visit from the LAPD’s officer-involved-shooting team, a special unit dispatched from headquarters to ensure close scrutiny of any incident involving firearms. As Miller described it, the shooting team arrived promptly at Sixth and Wall, and conducted an at-scene investigation.
“Do you know if they took photographs?” Miller was asked. “Yes.” Did they take measurements?” “Yes . . . then after they determined the circumstances of the incident, then they left.” Miller said he was never called up before a departmental panel to explain what happened; both he and Gonzales said nobody from Internal Affairs contacted them in connection with the shooting.
After Sergeant Kennerson’s visit, Gonzales said, he arranged for Frutis to be taken to County USC Medical Center, where he was treated for his injuries at the jail ward on the 13th floor. Frutis said in a deposition that it took 40 minutes before he received any medical attention; he said his treatment was delayed because the doctor insisted on seeing a police report containing some statement as to how he got injured.
Frutis said that he learned then the credibility problem that would haunt his case. When the doctor asked him directly how he’d been injured, Frutis explained he’d been shot while handcuffed and in custody. “You see,” the doctor exclaimed, turning to the officers standing nearby. “That’s why you need a police report, because he could say whatever he wants.”
Frutis then describes in his deposition being visited later that night by “four or five officers” who asked what had happened to him. “I told them that all I wanted was a polygraph and a lineup . . . to prove to them that, you know, I didn’t know nothing about this case.”
According to Frutis, one officer responded, “We are going to make sure that you get one, because we don’t want to let an innocent man go to jail.” Then another said, “Let me put some words in your mouth. This was an accident, and that’s all I’m going to write down.”
Frutis was removed from the hospital to the county jail three days later and charged with the murder of Jesse Porras, a member of a rival street gang who was beaten to death by two assailants while a third waited in a car. Frutis was never again interviewed by the LAPD in connection with his shooting; nor was he allowed to stand in the police lineup that he felt would exonerate him in connection with the slaying.
In fact, it was Steven Miller, the detective who shot him, and his partner, Albert Gonzales, who were assigned to investigate the Porras case and who brought the charges against Frutis.
In March 1981, while still in custody awaiting trial, Frutis filed a claim against the LAPD seeking $1 million in damages stemming from the shooting. The attorney appealing Frutis’ case, Antonio H. Rodriguez, argues that Miller and Gonzales should have been removed from the case, asserting that the two had a conflict of interest and were motivated to pin the crime on Frutis. The damage claim was promptly denied.
When the criminal trial began the following December, the evidence consisted of two witnesses who identified Frutis on the basis of photographs presented to them by detectives Gonzales and Miller. The Defense attorney was barred from introducing the fact that Frutis had been shot, and from challenging the detectives’ methods.
Frutis alleged in court documents that the police had conducted only cursory examinations of key figures in the case, including the registered owner of the getaway car and Joey Garcia, a gangbanger later jailed for a separate murder, whose fingerprints were found inside the same vehicle. On January 13, 1982, after deliberating four days, a jury found Frutis guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life, and has been incarcerated ever since.
The civil suit Frutis filed against the city remained on the books. With a sketchy employment history behind him and a life in jail in front of him, Frutis could expect only negligible monetary damages. The LAPD continued to maintain that the shooting had been an accident, and the city settled the case in September 1988. Frutis won a total of $18,000; after court costs and attorney fees, he was able to forward to his mother a check for $7,710.
Frutis’ story — and his life — lay dormant until an October evening in 1996. As he lay in his cell in Soledad state prison, drifting off to sleep, Frutis was approached by a prison guard named Wayne Garnett. As Frutis recalled in a deposition, “He asked me why I was in jail. I told him that he would not believe me. He said, ‘Try me.’”
Frutis played along: “I told him that I had not killed Jesse Porras, and I was doing time for a crime I did not commit.” Garnett then told Frutis that another inmate, a twice-convicted killer named Joey Garcia, had confessed the murder to him.
Garcia, of course, was the man whose prints had turned up in the getaway vehicle. Garcia said in a subsequent declaration that he’d never been interviewed by police in connection with the Porras killing. Garcia also identified his two accomplices and said Frutis had nothing to do with the murder.
In a declaration made by Garnett to support Frutis’ motion for a new trial, the prison guard said Garcia had initially approached him and “asked me what . . . he should do if he knew that an inmate was doing time for a crime he had not committed and where he [Garcia] personally knew who had done it.
“I told him he should do whatever his conscience told him was the right thing to do.” Two months later, said Garnett, Garcia came forward with his story.
Jailhouse confessions by prisoners serving life sentences will rarely result in a new trial on a decades-old murder case, even when buttressed by corrections staff. Yet Frutis is fortunate — relatively speaking — to be represented by Antonio Rodriguez, a dogged attorney who has pursued Frutis’ appeals, with little prospect of compensation, for more than a year and a half. Rodriguez’s habeas corpus petition for a new hearing was denied on June 1; he re-filed on August 27.
Rodriguez is also a determined critic of police misconduct, and is hoping that in addition to achieving what he considers justice in the Frutis case, his efforts will force a modicum of reform at the LAPD.
To Rodriguez, the Frutis case shows that the kinds of misconduct of which the CRASH officers at the Rampart Division stand accused are rife in the department, and have been for years. “As far as I’m concerned, the whole department is implicated. It’s not one or two or four cops who know about it. All kinds of cops know about it.”
Adds Stuart Holmes, the Claremont attorney who brought Frutis’ civil case, “You get these sorts of incidents popping up around the country — here, New York, Houston — and you start to wonder what’s going on.”
Holmes, himself a former Pomona police officer, contends that reform will have to come from within: “You can appoint a commission, but those reports are received and filed, and then it’s back to business-as-usual.”
But there’s little in the Frutis case to indicate any real interest in reform. Antonio Rodriguez contacted District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s office in the week before the police scandal broke to seek a new investigation in the case, but was told then that the D.A. would leave it to the LAPD to conduct its own inquiry.
Early this week, Garcetti’s aides changed their tune and promised to do a parallel investigation. There was one catch: The officer they would rely on to review the LAPD’s conduct of the case was Albert Gonzales — the same detective who witnessed Frutis’ shooting 19 years back, and the same one who handled his prosecution.
Asked on Tuesday if that decision was final, D.A. spokesperson Sandi Gibbons said, “We’re still looking into that.”
Christine Pelisek contributed to this story.