It’s no surprise that the national media have weighed in with major stories on L.A.‘s long-simmering police scandal — The New Yorker, in its May 21 edition; television’s FrontLine, covering the same material with the same correspondent; and Rolling Stone on June 7.
After all, Rafael Perez is scheduled for release from county custody sometime in the next month, wrapping up two years of revelation and intrigue. It seems high time to take stock of the ex–rogue officer who sparked the scandal, and what it meant to the police department that brought us Rodney King, Daryl Gates and Mark Fuhrman.
What is disappointing is how the correspondents chose to cover it — which elements of the story are embraced, which are dismissed and which are ignored. Both stories key on profiles of Perez and his partner before Rampart, convicted bank robber and LAPD Officer David Mack, cobbling together some of the more lurid moments to emerge in the case, while glossing over details of broader misconduct at Rampart. The excesses of the war on drugs are shrugged off as old hat, while the prospect of ”gangsta cops“ proves positively intoxicating.
It‘s a trail that leads to Death Row Records and to the murder of rap star Biggie Smalls, a.k.a., The Notorious B.I.G., a slaying Rolling Stone terms ”L.A.’s Most Famous Unsolved Crime.“
The problem is, it‘s a trail we’ve been down before. Neither story adds much to what readers in L.A. already know of Rampart. We‘ve seen the photo of Mack in his blood-red blazer and matching hat; we’ve heard about the 1997 robbery of the Bank of America and the high-rolling weekend in Vegas that followed. We read, on the front page of the L.A. Times, in December 1999, the theory that David Mack had a hand in the Biggie Smalls murder.
And then as now, the trail went nowhere. One witness had placed Mack at the scene of the shooting, and police indeed considered him a suspect. But the scene in question was a party following the 1997 Soul Train awards, attended by hundreds of young black hipsters. Mack‘s presence need not have drawn suspicion; there was no evidence tying him — or Mack’s friend Amir Muhammad, named in the Times as the suspected gunman — to the shooting.
That led to embarrassment for the Times, which followed its story with a second front-pager exonerating Muhammad. Wary of a similar snafu, the ever-scrupulous New Yorker ran the allegations in barest form, pointing out simply that Mack was ”being investigated in connection with the 1997 killing of Biggie Smalls.“ Rolling Stone writer Randall Sullivan chose to push the story further, citing ”powerful evidence that police officers were operating within the LAPD both as members of the Bloods gang and as security for gangsta-rap kingpin Suge Knight.“
Here Sullivan falls prey to what has emerged as a recurring phenomenon in the life of the scandal: So tantalizing are the stories, and so intense is the competition to get them first, that journalists have repeatedly gotten ahead of the facts.
For months now, Perez‘s partner at Rampart, Officer Nino Durden, has been talking with authorities, and many believe those interviews will lead to a new federal indictment of Perez, and possibly new information on the purported Death Row connection. Until then, however, and despite the references to ”powerful evidence,“ Sullivan can only point to rumor and flimsy, second-hand reports. And when he gets down to details, he gets them wrong.
Sullivan, a onetime L.A. Herald Examiner columnist and winner of a National Magazine Award, develops the gangsta-cop theme by profiling Mack, Perez and a third black LAPD officer, Kevin Gaines.
Gaines was killed in a March 1997 road-rage altercation with an undercover narcotics cop who fired on him when Gaines threatened to ”cap his ass.“ Investigators found that Gaines was romantically involved with Sharitha Knight, Suge Knight’s estranged wife, that Gaines was seen on several occasions at Death Row functions, and that he was living beyond his means.
From this foundation, Sullivan extrapolates. Suge Knight was associated with the Mob Piru set of the Blood street gang, and was suspected of having founded Death Row in part with drug money; Gaines must therefore be a ”gangsta“ cop, presumably one running drugs for Knight, part of ”a growing cadre of black officers whose involvement with Death Row superseded their loyalty to the department.“
No ties have been documented between Gaines and Blood gang members, however, or even ties linking Gaines with Mack and Perez. And while Gaines may well have profited by his association with Sharitha Knight — he bragged of getting work through her — he was never on the Death Row payroll.
Nor is there evidence that drugs were being trafficked through Death Row at the time Gaines was there. There‘s strong evidence that Suge Knight obtained a loan from a drug dealer as seed money to launch the record label in 1991. But by 1993, when Gaines first hooked up with Sharitha, a federal task force had been formed to investigate Death Row for drug-trafficking and money-laundering. Suge Knight was grossing hundreds of millions of dollars in record sales, and even his critics doubt he would have jeopardized that windfall with a potential drug bust. In any event, the feds found nothing. They placed informants inside the organization and monitored every move made by Knight and his artists, but the investigation came up empty.
As for Perez and David Mack, while Mack now identifies himself as a Blood and Perez may as well be, there’s no evidence that either worked for Death Row Records. LAPD investigators took a statement from a former Death Row security guard placing both officers at several Death Row functions, but that source stated specifically that, in each case, neither Perez nor Mack was working as a police officer or as an employee of Death Row. They were there, he said, ”to socialize.“
Where, then, is the cadre of gangsta cops? Sullivan a may have been referring to Wrightway Security, the in-house security firm at Death Row founded by Reggie Wright, a former Compton police officer. Wright made it a point to staff his shifts with off-duty or former law-enforcement officers — the better to deal with cops in case trouble should arise — but most hailed from Compton, Inglewood and Hawthorne, and from school-police agencies in those cities.
That presented a problem for those departments — the chiefs of police at Compton and Inglewood both found occasion to reprimand officers for working for Death Row — but it doesn‘t make the connection to Rampart.
Sullivan resolved that problem with a bald, unattributed statement of fact: ”Since 1998, half-a-dozen black LAPD officers have been suspended for accepting employment with Death Row without obtaining the required permits,“ he wrote. Not true. In fact, a single LAPD officer was disciplined for his work for Death Row — and he had an authorized departmental work permit.
Officer Richard McCauley moonlighted for Death Row beginning in 1995, and was in Las Vegas when Death Row star Tupac Shakur was shot and killed; Suge Knight was injured in the same fusillade. McCauley, who lives in Covina and is considering writing a book on his experiences, says he was the only LAPD officer among the cops at Wrightway.
He told investigators the same thing. ”They kept asking me if there were any others,“ McCauley said in an interview. ”I kept telling them no.“ Asked about the suspensions, McCauley opened a copy of Rolling Stone and looked at the reference to six officers and said, ”That guy’s just padding his numbers.“ A call to Sullivan to ask the source of his information was not returned.
In some respects, McCauley would fit Randall Sullivan‘s profile of a black gangsta cop with ties to Death Row. While he never joined a gang per se, he acknowledges that ”In my neighborhood, most kids had some gang affiliation. I was into sports, so I wasn’t on the street, but I was always down for my hood.“ But McCauley‘s no hoodlum — his father is an LAPD detective — and while he knew David Mack on the force, it was from the department football team. ”Mack was a cool dude,“ McCauley recalled. ”All I knew was he was involved in a lot of shootings.“
McCauley added that he never saw Mack or Perez around Death Row. After Mack’s arrest for the bank robbery, McCauley inquired and heard that Mack and Perez had indeed attended several Death Row functions prior to his employment there: ”They were hanging out. That‘s how it was explained to me, they were partying.“ As for Gaines, McCauley said he was known at Death Row, but as persona non-grata. Sharitha Knight told Rolling Stone the same thing, describing a single encounter in which she relied on the cop to counter a ”threat“ from her former husband.
McCauley scoffed at the idea of an LAPD clique inside Death Row. Referring to the federal task-force investigation, he said, ”Everybody’s been watching Suge for years. If Mack, Perez and Gaines was that close, don‘t you think the FBI would know?“
Embellished as it was, Sullivan’s reference to a ”cadre“ of LAPD officers was not enough to support his headline — ”The Murder of Notorious B.I.G.: Suge Knight, Gangster Cops, and allegations of police cover-up.“
To close the circle, Sullivan had to troll deeper in the waters of rumor and hearsay that have inundated the Rampart story from the beginning. That expedition took him to Mark Hylland, and the claim that Suge Knight personally put out the contract on Biggie Smalls.
Hylland is an ex-felon currently on trial for more than 20 counts of grand theft and practicing law without a license. Hylland himself will tell you he‘s an inveterate liar and compulsive hustler — he even claims to have Tourette’s syndrome.
That doesn‘t mean Hylland doesn’t know anything about Rampart. As Sullivan reported, Hylland‘s story that he helped Perez, Mack and several other officers launder funds has drawn the interest of federal investigators, who spent months tracking down his leads. Nor should Hylland’s shady record disqualify him as a source on crooked police officers — their most likely associates, especially in criminal enterprises, would be fellow crooks.
But that does mean that Hylland‘s stories would have to be checked out. Especially the one he tells about being present ”with Mack and Perez when they met with Suge Knight in the parking lot of a Denny’s restaurant in Bellflower during early 1997.“ There, Sullivan reports, Knight handed off a cash bounty that Hylland would take to Phoenix to pay for the gun used to kill Biggie Smalls.
It‘s a great story, of course, nailing Knight, Mack and Perez for L.A.’s most famous unsolved crime. Except that it‘s impossible. Knight was in jail at the appointed hour, and had been for months.
Sullivan’s mistake was apparently in reading news reports that Knight was sentenced to prison at the end of February 1997. It‘s true that’s when he was sentenced, but Knight was jailed four months previously, in October 1996, after failing a drug test, and held there until his sentencing.
It was not a good mistake for Sullivan to make when accusing someone of murder. Nor when writing a story that purported to set the record straight.
The New Yorker piece, penned by another former L.A. journalist, Times alum Peter J. Boyer, is strikingly similar, especially considering that the two articles were produced from opposite poles of the publishing spectrum, one sober, the other psychedelic.
Like Sullivan, Boyer opens with a detailed account of the Gaines shooting. Like Sullivan, Boyer gives nary a nod to the journalist who broke that story, Jan Golab, in New Times Los Angeles. And like Sullivan and Golab, Boyer strives mightily to tie the Gaines murder to the Rampart scandal.
But where Sullivan and Golab sought to make links through Death Row, Boyer went right to the top — to none other than Chief Bernard Parks. The chief has chosen his spots with the Rampart media corps, declining requests for interviews from the likes of Sullivan and Geraldo Rivera, but he talked at length with Boyer, and to good effect.
Parks delivered what Boyer called a ”crew of gangsta cops“ in a nice, neat package. ”Perez is a good friend of David Mack, both were good friends of Gaines,“ the chief told Boyer. ”We had some people on this department that were, in a coordinated effort, involved in some very serious criminal misconduct.“
Parks didn‘t bother to support his claim that Gaines knew Mack and Perez — a link his own investigators were unable to document. Nor did he specify what ”coordinated effort“ he was referring to — was it Death Row? Biggie Smalls? The bank robbery? — but the allegation allowed Boyer to cut to the point he wanted to make: That Perez floated the Rampart scandal as a ruse to deflect official inquiries into a ”criminal cadre of black cops.“
That Perez was playing games with the LAPD is a charge the accused officers at Rampart have made from the outset of the scandal, and both Sullivan and Boyer gave it new substance. Boyer in particular gained access to prosecutors and detectives who have not previously spoken on the record, when he demonstrated that the authorities felt bushwhacked when Perez, instead of turning on David Mack or others in the ”cadre,“ described widespread misconduct at Rampart.
It’s an important point, and the strongest new material in either story, but what are we to make of it — that the Rampart scandal was fabricated? That Perez simply cooked up the scenario of gang-unit cops out of control?
That, certainly, is how LAPD Chief Bernard Parks would have it. For more than a year, Parks claimed credit for unearthing Rampart, suspended a score of officers on suspicion of misconduct and denounced prosecutors for failing to file criminal charges in several Rampart cases. But to Boyer, Parks asserts that the Rampart case was ”exploited“ by the news media and police critics, and limited to ”one-tenth of one percent of our officers,“ presumably Perez‘s ”cadre.“
Boyer buys into that line wholesale, making snide reference to Johnnie Cochran and ”a flourishing ’police-brutality bar‘ that portrayed the department as a congenitally brutal force.“ By contrast, Boyer draws a close portrait of Brian Liddy, a man ”born to be a police officer,“ as one former colleague is quoted as saying, and one of the four officers charged in the first criminal case to arise from Rampart. Three were convicted of filing false reports, but the verdict was overturned by the trial judge.
In Boyer’s account, Liddy and the others were all but railroaded, because Liddy was ”charmless“ and because the jury bought the testimony of ”gangsters.“ Nowhere did Boyer mention that parts of the gang members‘ testimony were corroborated, albeit reluctantly, by cops on the scene; nor did he consider that Liddy might have been guilty after all.
In the end, Boyer pulls his punches, concluding only that ”Few now believe that the wrongdoing was as widespread as Perez once suggested,“ while ”Investigators find themselves no closer to answers about possible police involvement in the bank robbery, Death Row activities or the death of Biggie Smalls.“
In other words, no story. Which was probably a better decision than Sullivan’s bid to create links where they didn‘t exist. But Boyer’s more tentative close only underscores the point that, for all the references in both pieces to the media ”missing“ or ”exploiting“ the story, neither Rolling Stone nor The New Yorker managed to build on what we already knew.
if these stories don‘t teach L.A. readers much about Rampart, they do say a lot about the national media. Clearly, what mattered here was the possible connection to Death Row Records, and even to a high-profile slaying. Never mind that the allegations had been published previously, and in the case of Biggie Smalls, retracted.
What didn’t matter was the more fundamental question of continuing abuse by LAPD officers, the kind that sparked riots in Watts in 1965, and again across South Central in 1992. Certainly it‘s intriguing, the prospect that Mack and Perez, and perhaps other cops, had criminal ties to Death Row. But just as certainly, it matters less to the life of the city than Perez’s explicit accusation that egregious misconduct is the norm in LAPD anti-gang units, from Foothill to Pacific Division, from Van Nuys to 77th Street.
That might be the best news to come out of the national media‘s latest tour of what they like to call the Left Coast. As much as Rolling Stone and The New Yorker managed to show they have nothing meaningful to add, the local press they sneered at look all the stronger by contrast. In particular, while they too took a pass at Death Row and the gang connection, the L.A. Times’ Matt Lait and Scott Glover soon turned to the tougher and less glamorous job of documenting Rampart-style LAPD cases outside that benighted division.
That‘s not a story Bernard Parks is willing to narrate for them. But then, who but a rube would quote the chief of police as the primary source on a scandal in his own department?