July 20, 1996, dawned as a day of mourning at 676 South Shatto Place, a crowded immigrant tenement just south of Wilshire Boulevard. Two residents of the building, both members of the 18th Street Gang, had been shot dead the night before, victims of a turf-war drive-by. A makeshift shrine was erected on the sidewalk; a crowd of tenants gathered to recite prayers in a fourth-floor apartment.
By the end of that night, the parents, siblings and neighbors of Shatto Place had another body to mourn, this time killed during a raid by the Rampart Station CRASH unit. Two other residents were wounded by police gunfire in a night of mayhem that is still shrouded in mystery.
Police officers said then that their targets, members of 18th Street like the victims the night before, were armed and dangerous. None of the suspects returned fire, however, and witnesses said they were unarmed; but in the official reviews and court proceedings that followed, nobody listened.
Now everybody’s listening.
The first new light to be shed on the case came in September, in the first reports from an official investigation into police misconduct at Rampart. Renegade officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez had named Shatto Place as the scene of a ”dirty shooting,“ but no further details were released.
In the weeks since, several officers on the scene that night have been suspended and a grand jury convened to look into possible misconduct. But attorneys for the family of the man killed at Shatto Place, and for another man wounded by police fire, contend that law-enforcement officials are seeking to control the damage and protect the chain of command. They hope to make that charge stick in a lawsuit filed last week in federal court alleging civil rights violations by the officers who shot and killed Juan Manuel Saldaña, and a systematic coverup by the LAPD brass. ”Either there was a Keystone Cop on top signing every piece of paper put in front of him, or it‘s a coverup of everything that’s been going on,“ attorney Antonio Rodriguez said at a news conference announcing the suit.
The official version of what happened that night is detailed in an officer-involved-shooting review filed with the Police Commission by Chief Willie Williams in January 1997. Williams found the shootings ”in policy,“ and pronounced himself ”pleased by the officers‘ efforts to apprehend violent gang criminals and prevent further injuries.“
According to the review, officers were dispatched to Shatto Place based on an unsourced report that gang members in the building were planning to retaliate for the deadly drive-by the night before. Officers reported that three gang members, Saldaña, Oscar Peralta and an S. Montufar, were seen brandishing weapons. Four officers, clad in body armor and with weapons drawn, entered the building from the rear; two headed for the top floor, where they encountered Saldana; two other officers confronted Peralta in the front lobby. Montufar surrendered without incident, but the other suspects fled and both were shot, the report states; Peralta was injured, and Saldaña was struck once during two initial volleys of police fire and then, still clutching his weapon, was slain by a single shot when he encountered another officer.
The attorneys for Saldaña’s family say the police story falls apart right there, and that anyone reviewing the record should have seen that, based on the autopsy conducted by the county coroner. That autopsy finds that Saldaña sustained two fatal shots, each piercing his torso from above. The first shots fired in the official version came from above, but neither of the two subsequent rounds did, the lawyers point out, and the presence of two fatal wounds renders the police account impossible.
”Both rounds were found to be lethal, and that says a lot,“ said Jorge Gonzalez, another of the attorneys representing the Saldaña family. While nobody can say yet just what did happen at Shatto Place that night, Gonzalez contends that, in light of the autopsy, the police version is a clear fabrication: ”Saldaña couldn‘t have taken one of those wounds and been able to run around like they say he did. They should have seen that just from reading the reports.“
They might also have listened to the other witnesses that night, several of whom reported seeing the accused gang members fleeing the police, and none of whom saw a gun.
One witness with a particularly good vantage was Salvador Ochoa, a native of El Salvador and a Shatto Place resident with two small children. Ochoa was descending the stairs that night with his kids in tow when Officer Michael Montoya burst into the front door in pursuit of Peralta, trained a shotgun up into the gloom of the stairwell and let go a blast. Ochoa caught several pellets of buckshot, but managed to shield his son and daughter with his back. Ochoa’s injury was reported in the official report, but his children weren‘t mentioned. Nor was his version of the night’s events.
Ochoa said in an interview that his wife was attending a vigil for one of the boys killed the night before, leaving him to look after his own kids. ”I was coming down the stairs almost to the first floor — that‘s when it happened,“ said Ochoa. ”When I saw the shotgun, I covered my little girl. On the third floor, there were more shootings. I couldn’t do anything. I stayed there trembling and my little girl crying. Behind me was my little boy.“
Asked if Peralta was carrying a weapon — a blue-steel .25 caliber Beretta semi-automatic pistol, according to the police report — Ochoa said, ”He didn‘t have anything. I went to court about seven times regarding the same case.“ But his testimony was ignored.
”I am not a gang member,“ added Ochoa, a 45-year-old auto mechanic. ”I have nothing to do with them, and their problems are none of my concern. After they arrested [Peralta], they took me to court and put me on the stand. I had to say what I saw.“
Ochoa added that he was disturbed by the treatment of the injured gang members after the incident was over. He noted in particular that he was the least injured of the three who sustained gunfire that night, but that when an ambulance arrived, it was he who received medical attention first. He said he didn’t see medics attend either Peralta or Saldaña.
A second witness was produced at Peralta‘s trial, later that year, on assault charges stemming from Officer Montoya’s allegation that Peralta pointed a gun at him. The witness, a teenager named Oscar Espinoza, said he was also in the lobby when Peralta was shot. Espinoza said, ”I never saw a gun.“
Despite the testimony of witnesses and the coroner‘s assertions, the officers involved continued to embellish their account during Peralta’s criminal trial. Officer Brian Hewitt, fired from the force in July of this year when an internal review found that he had beaten a suspect in custody, was the lead officer sweeping the top floor of the building.
Hewitt said that when he entered the fourth floor hallway, he found ”30 to 40 people screaming, frantically trying to enter an apartment.“ From that he deduced that Saldaña ”had fired directly into the crowd of people,“ and he lit out after the suspect. No witnesses were produced from the crowd to confirm Hewitt‘s story, and no shooting by Saldaña was ever demonstrated.
Hewitt said he then chased Saldaña to the front of the building, and that once he reached the top of the stairs, he got off seven rounds at the fleeing gang member, one of which struck Saldaña. What happened next seems to come right out of late-night TV: Hewitt said he peered through a window in a fire door and spotted Saldaña halfway down the third-story hallway, gun in hand, creeping back toward the officers to stage an ambush. With Saldaña three feet away, Hewitt then flung the door open for his partner to squeeze off a round. The bullet missed, slamming into the wall, and Saldaña was fleeing again. ”He was running real good,“ Hewitt testified.
Then — while Saldaña ducked into a rear hallway, there to meet his doom — Hewitt dropped down another flight of stairs to assist Montoya, who by then had dropped Peralta with the shotgun blast. Both officers testified that it was Hewitt who handcuffed Peralta.
The criminal case against Peralta never got to trial — his criminal attorney said he was able to settle for a light sentence because the police case was so problematic — so Peralta never took the stand to give his version of the night’s events. But Peralta‘s civil attorney, Jorge Gonzalez, said his client had very clear recall when asked if he remembered Brian Hewitt.
”Hewitt got hold of him when Peralta was lying on his stomach in the stairway, bleeding from the front and the back because the buckshot went clean through,“ Gonzalez said, reviewing his notes of the conversation. ”Peralta told me Hewitt grabbed him by the shirt, twisted him around and said, ’You thought you were bad, huh? Too bad you‘re gonna die, motherfucker.’“
Even in the grim context of Rampart, the Shatto Place shootings stand out. Not simply for brutality — after all, Officer Perez has told investigators that, in another incident, he and an officer shot gang member Javier Ovando three times while Ovando was handcuffed. But Shatto Place involved more than just a pair of officers, raising larger questions about crime and coverup.
”This was not like the Ovando shooting,“ said attorney Rodriguez. ”Here there were at least nine officers, all on the scene, all completely comfortable with the fact that there were other officers who were witnesses.“
In fact, Gonzalez and Rodriguez say part of their strategy in filing their suit before the LAPD concludes its internal investigation is to bring public pressure for a more open process: ”I‘m hesitant to trust them. Any time you’re dealing with an official body like the LAPD, they have a monopoly on the information. And because it‘s an internal investigation, they’re going to put a lid on the information that‘s really going to hurt them.“
That strategy may not help Peralta, who returned to Shatto Place after spending 10 months in prison on the assault charge. In court Tuesday, that charge was thrown out. However, according to court records, Peralta remained a member of the 18th Street Gang, even getting a new tattoo — a large 18 inked into the back of his head — to commemorate his allegiance.
On September 9 of last year, Peralta was named by three witnesses as the instigator of a sidewalk shooting that scattered a group of rival gang members and left one bystander injured. In the months after his arrest, one of the witnesses was hospitalized in a stabbing attack and has stopped cooperating with authorities, but prosecutors believe they can still make their case. Peralta is scheduled to face trial for attempted murder later this month.
However the Rampart investigation plays out, Salvador Ochoa said he’ll never forget his encounter with the LAPD: ”To this day, my daughter starts running every time she hears a police siren. And me, my mouth curled because of my nerves. I came out of that in a shambles.“