”What a difference an election makes!“
That was the reply offered by a key figure in the Rampart Division investigation when asked what might have triggered sudden heat on a trail that had long gone cold.
The election in question was Steve Cooley’s landslide victory over incumbent D.A. Gil Garcetti in November. ”You‘ve just got a whole new approach coming from the District Attorney’s Office,“ the source said. ”Where before they were taking the soft approach, now they‘re coming hard.“
The upshot has been two major new criminal filings over the course of the past week. In one case, county authorities charged three officers with the unprovoked beating of gang member Gabriel Aguirre, and with a cover-up of the incident. They were the first charges filed in connection with the beating, and brought to eight the total number of Rampart cops charged with criminal misconduct.
In the second, Nino Durden, Perez’s former partner, pleaded guilty Friday to a range of charges stemming from four separate incidents, including the shooting of Javier Ovando, a member of the 18th Street Gang who was unarmed at the time of his arrest.
More important, Durden, as well as two of the officers from the Aguirre beating, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, suggesting that more cases may be filed in the weeks to come. Speaking at the Friday news conference, U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas termed the agreement with Durden ”a very significant breakthrough.“
Mayorkas and Cooley both emphasized that the officers who reached deals with the government are talking about more than just the cases in which they were charged. For one thing, they‘re talking about other officers in other divisions, Cooley said, ”if that’s where the facts lead.“ But the D.A. declined to make a firm prediction: ”We can‘t say if we’re winding down or winding up.“ The cases filed last week represent a dramatic change of pace in the Rampart investigation, which broke with sensational headlines in September 1999 but had failed to result in criminal convictions against any cops other than Rafael Perez, who reached a plea agreement in return for a reduced sentence. One trial, of four officers accused of misconduct in three incidents, produced jury verdicts against three officers, but those decisions were thrown out by the judge in the case.
In the meantime, Perez has proven a tricky witness around whom to build cases. Even before he struck his deal with county prosecutors, he failed a series of polygraph exams. And his extensive and detailed statements, to prosecutors and investigators, about misconduct by other officers are contradicted in numerous instances by verifiable fact. In addition, the leak of thousands of pages of Perez‘s interviews with police allowed witnesses and alleged wrongdoers to prepare their stories, presenting unique and virtually intractable problems of credibility for everyone involved.
Now, new confessions — by three other officers from the Rampart CRASH unit — give prosecutors a second chance to develop cases based on relatively untainted testimony. Sources say the LAPD is now setting up a new, ”sanitized“ Rampart Task Force, staffed by investigators who have had no exposure to Perez’s initial confessions.
However that investigation proceeds, the case filed last week, stemming from the beating of Gabriel Aguirre, was filed just in time. The statute of limitations on violent crimes runs three years, while the limit on filing charges in procedural violations, such as perjury and making false reports, runs four years. The Aguirre beating took place on March 26, 1998, and the D.A. filed charges on March 23.
It‘s hard to say what took so long. Perez gave investigators a detailed description of the case soon after he started talking in 1999. He alleged that officers Ethan Cohan, Shawn Gomez, Camerino Mesina and Manuel Chavez had found Aguirre sleeping in a friend’s apartment and set upon him. ”Cohan probably kicked him at least 20 times,“ Perez said, while he himself grabbed Aguirre and slammed him head-first into a wall. Sergeant Paul Byrnes, the CRASH supervisor on duty that night, then helped concoct a cover story, Perez said.
Aside from the beating, the Aguirre case resurrects charges of conspiracy from the early days of the Rampart scandal. According to court papers filed in that case and several civil suits, CRASH officers made a practice of systematically threatening gang members who filed complaints against them. If the complaints persisted, the officers tracked the gang members down and assaulted them.
Little came of the accusations. Aguirre and Ismael Jimenez filed civil suits alleging assault and civil rights violations, but each faces prosecution of criminal cases; Jimenez won a $231,000 judgment but is now in federal custody, and Aguirre‘s claim is on hold pending resolution of an assault charge.
As for the officers, Cohan was fired from the department in a separate case and is now attending law school in New York. Sergeant Byrnes was brought up on internal charges of filing a false report, but was exonerated. Officers Gomez and Chavez were called to testify during that hearing, but resigned rather than give their accounts.
According to one source, the case languished under former D.A. Garcetti, but when Cooley came into office, prosecutors focused on the approaching deadline. Letters went out Wednesday, March 21, warning Gomez and Chavez they would be prosecuted if they did not cooperate. They agreed to enter no-contest pleas the following Friday.
No charges have been filed against Mesina.
Cooley has declined to discuss the details of the case ”since this is a continuing investigation.“ However, at the news conference he repeated what has become a mantra for the early days of his new administration: ”We’re evaluating these cases with fresh eyes.“
Those ”fresh eyes“ led to a critical change in strategy in the prosecution of Nino Durden as well. Durden had already been charged, by Garcetti‘s office, with attempted murder as well as other elements of a cover-up. After reviewing the case, Cooley Head Deputy Bill Hodgman decided to accept Durden’s story that he had been startled when Javier Ovando entered a room in a deserted apartment building, and that he shot Ovando in self-defense.
With attempted murder off the table, Durden pleaded guilty, in both state and federal court, to crimes stemming from the cover-up, in which he and Perez planted a gun on Ovando, then testified in court that he, Ovando, had drawn his gun on them.
In his confessions, Perez had characterized the shooting as an attempted execution. But by giving Durden the benefit of the doubt, Cooley — and U.S. Attorney Mayorkas — won themselves a key new witness. According to the plea agreement, Durden met with staff from the District Attorney‘s Office on February 14, 22 and 23, and on March 1, 8, 9, 19 and 20.
There’s no telling how many new allegations will arise from Durden‘s interviews with investigators, or whether any new officers might be implicated. Clearly Durden is talking about more than the Ovando shooting, as his plea covered three other arrests. Officials said after the news conference that Perez himself would be a likely target. While Perez has an immunity agreement with the county, he could still be charged by federal prosecutors. Asked on Friday whether he is considering charges against Perez, Mayorkas would only say the investigation was ”ongoing.“
Durden’s disclosures could also extend beyond the Rampart Division. According to Perez, Durden learned the tricks of the trade while assigned to the department‘s 77th Street station. Rampart officers Brian Liddy, Mark Richardson and Sergeant Ed Ortiz — all of whom were accused by Perez of misconduct at Rampart — also did stints there. When pressed at the news conference on whether Durden would be asked about 77th CRASH unit, Cooley said, ”Absolutely.“
Along with the news about the Rampart investigation, last week’s developments said a lot about the new district attorney. During his campaign against Garcetti, Cooley made much of the slow pace of the Rampart inquiries, the failure to make cases and the D.A.‘s apparent failure to challenge police misconduct before the scandal broke.
Since taking office, however, Cooley had fallen largely silent on police issues. When a Superior Court judge threw out the convictions in the first Rampart case, Cooley elected to appeal the decision rather than re-file the charges, an appeal most observers said would be futile. And when Rafael Perez announced in January he would no longer cooperate with police investigators bringing internal cases against other Rampart officers, Cooley simply shrugged.
Weeks later, his office moved in Superior Court to remand Perez from county to state custody. That meant there would be no effort to force Perez to fulfill the terms of his plea agreement. ”We’re through with him,“ Cooley said at the time.
Absent any new developments in the case, it looked as if Cooley would join Chief Bernard Parks in allowing Rampart to simply slip into the past, with a handful of officers fired from the department, and Perez and his partner the only officers brought to justice for widespread misconduct at the gang unit and beyond.
Those new developments came last week.