Killings, Beatings, Framings,
Drug Dealing - And That's
Just The Police
By Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles,3604,392597,00.html
Stymie had killed Lizard so there was a "green light" - the term for a go-ahead for a revenge killing - shining on the Temple Street gang when it met that night. But now a different kind of light is being shone on this meeting four years ago of the young gangsters of Los Angeles, and it has exposed another slice of the biggest police corruption scandal in the city's history.
This week four LAPD officers have been standing trial in what could be the first of many such cases. And the outcome will have huge political, social and cultural ramifications.
Stymie is Anthony Adams, a member of the Temple Street gang who had killed Lizard, a leading member of the Mexican Mafia - a fearsome prison based gang strong enough to order killings from behind bars.
Lizard had been collecting "taxes" on his gang's behalf and Stymie had shot him "as a 'we're not going to pay' kind of thing". The MM could not let this go unpunished and had demanded thousands of dollars as a "fine" before removing the "green light".
The meeting that was due to take place at the corner of Temple Street and Coronado, a patch known to the police as the Snakepit, was for gang members to discuss how they were going to pay this fine. The police planned to be there, too, and pick up Stymie and his pals.
The person explaining all this to fascinated jurors in the city's courtroom 109 is Brian Liddy, one of the accused. He looks like a bull in a sports jacket and is sitting in the witness box on this balmy November day being questioned by his attorney, Paul DePasquale.
What happened after Liddy and his colleagues arrived at the Snakepit that night is what the jurors have to decide.
Did he and his fellow officer, Michael Buchanan, really get hit by a pick-up truck driven by a getaway gangster or did they make the whole thing up, and frame and beat up the gang member? And are the officers part of a vast scandal that has led to killings, beatings, framings and drug dealing - all carried out by the men who should be enforcing the law?
That story starts with Rafael Perez, a policeman caught stealing 2.7kg (6lb) of cocaine from a police locker room in 1998. In a plea bargain deal, he was given a five-year jail sentence in exchange for information about corruption among his fellow officers.
What Perez told investigators has now led to more than 100 people having their convictions overturned and left the city facing bills for an estimated $135m (£93m) in law suits from ex-gang members who were framed, beaten and, in one case, paralysed. One victim will not be suing personally: Juan Saldana, 21, was shot and left to bleed to death with a gun planted beside him.
Every week over recent months it has seemed that a gang member, usually Latino, has emerged from prison with tales of beatings and plantings.
One of the very worst cases was that of Javier Ovando, who was allegedly shot and paralysed by Perez and his fellow officer, Nino Durden. The officers then accused Ovando of attempted murder and he was jailed for 23 years, with the judge chiding him for his lack of remorse. Ovando is out now and will be compensated but will not walk again.
The police union, the Police Protection League, has claimed that Perez was a rogue cop and was only implicating his colleagues to save his own skin. But morale among officers has slumped. They say they are now so concerned about being accused of framing or beating gang members that they spend their hours on duty avoiding trouble. This may be the reason for the recent rise in gang shootings, and the renewed activity among the more than 400 gangs and 60,000 gang members in the city.
There is a heavy political undertow in LA to accusations that the police have abused their power. In 1992, 54 people died after the riots that followed the acquittal of officers caught on video beating Rodney King. In 1965, in the Watts section of LA, it was police action against an alleged drink driver that led to the riots in which 34 died. This time the city wants to show that it is acting properly, and hence the Los Angeles district attorney, Gil Garcetti, has initiated the prosecutions.
Liddy, Buchanan and two other officers, Paul Harper and Edward Ortiz, accused of conspiring to pervert or obstruct justice, are the first fruits of Mr Garcetti's labours. And as their trial comes to its conclusion, there is a political dimension: Mr Garcetti is running for re-election next Tuesday. A conviction would help his credibility and an acquittal would pose questions about his judgment.
This week has come a new twist: Perez is not giving evidence as planned because his ex-girlfriend has now claimed that he and a fellow rogue officer, David Mack, had killed a drug dealer and his mother and had buried their bodies in a rubbish tip in Tijuana, Mexico. The Mexican police found no remains.
Perez is duly "pleading the fifth" - refusing to give evidence in case he incriminates himself in a double murder. But whatever happens in this case, the ramifications are already being felt throughout the city.
A few miles from the downtown courthouse, in Boyle Heights in the Latino area of the city, sits Frank, as he suggests we call him. Frank, a good-looking, shaven-headed 20-year-old in a Nike jacket and jeans, has cut his teeth with the Playboys gang. He says that the framing of young gang members is routine and is himself suing the LAPD for planting marijuana and crack on him, which led him to a year in jail.
Different rules
"Rafael Perez was known to us more as a businessman than a policeman. He was one of the big dealers. Have things changed because of what happened? The police just play by different rules now."
He said that instead of planting drugs on gang members, the police now arrest them for petty offences. "They do it with righteous excuses now but they're still there."
Frank is sitting in a room at the back of the centre where Father Greg Boyle - "G-Dog" as the young gang members call him - runs a programme that helps them find work and tries to get them out of the gang cycle.
Father Greg, who probably knows as many gang members as anyone in California, has noticed a dramatic change in policing since the scandal broke, but it is not a change he welcomes.
"What we have now is police abuse that takes the form of absence," he says. "There is an over-cautious tentativeness, a reluctance to stop the people that they should. They want to get to the ends of their shift not just without being shot but without having a grievance filed or a complaint levelled. Either they're violating human rights in the name of law enforcement or they have a hands-off policy. Both are wrong and both are not helpful.
"I buried my 85th and 86th kids last week," says Father Greg. "One was a 19-year-old gang member and one was a 10-year-old girl caught in the crossfire. A lot of that comes from the tension that kept mounting that could have been largely remedied by a police presence but because we didn't have any, that [the shootings] became an inevitability."
Back in court, the two young prosecuting attorneys, Laura Laesecke and Anne Ingalls, cross-examine other officers. Without Perez their case is weak. It is further weakened by the reluctance of the police witnesses to remember too clearly what happened on key nights. But Ms Laesecke has got her teeth into the case. She rides the constant cries of "objection" from the high-profile all-male defence attorneys as she tries to construct the case against the four.
The judge, the elegant Jacqueline Connor, has been attacked by the local press for being pro-police. She watches as Liddy pauses for a split second while he answers as to whether he kicked the fleeing gang member so hard between the legs that he soiled himself.
The presidential election has taken over the city's front pages and the taxes being discussed are the ones George W Bush would like to cut, not the kind imposed by the Mexican Mafia. The circumstances that created LA's gangs, the drug laws that take them to court and the jails in which so many languish have not been part of the presidential debate. Neither of the frontrunners offers much in the way of penal reform or a shift in the distribution of wealth.
Amazingly to some outsiders, includ ing New York journalists covering the case, there has been little public outrage. To many in LA, it seems, what happens to the young gang members is what they deserve.
James Ellroy's book LA Confidential told a story of police corruption in the 1950s, but it was not written until 1990. Perhaps we will have to wait a while for the full story of the current scandal and another 40 years to see Rafael Perez and his gang of untouchables on the big screen in all their terrible glory.
Crimes and punishments
July 1996
Police swoop on Temple Street gang and claim to have been injured by
fleeing gang members. Gangsters claim assault
October 1996
Officers Rafael Perez and Nino Durden allegedly shoot and paralyse Javier
Ovando, plant weapon on him and charge him with attempting to kill police
February 1997
Ovando jailed for 23 years
March 1999
Officer David Mack, friend of Perez, jailed for 14 years for bank robbery
March 1998
Perez steals cocaine from police locker
December 1998
Perez arrested
September 1999
Perez offered deal in exchange for information about corruption. Starts
naming officers. Total of 51 officers now under investigation, 118 sacked,
200 leave while under investigation. Ovando freed
October 2000
First corruption trial starts, involving sergeants Brian Liddy and Edward
Ortiz, and officers Michael Buchanan and Paul Harper
November 2000
LA city council agrees to allow sweeping reforms of LAPD and future
monitoring by independent observers. US attorney general, Janet Reno,
hails agreement as offering "extraordinary challenge" to LAPD. Perez takes
the fifth amendment.
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