A PROJECT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE NEWKIRK CENTER FOR SCIENCE & SOCIETY,
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL & MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW
A PROJECT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE NEWKIRK CENTER FOR SCIENCE & SOCIETY,
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL & MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW
Wide-ranging misconduct by officers in Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart division led to approximately 170 exonerations.
The vacations and dismissals occurred in 1999 and 2000 after a Los Angeles police officer revealed extensive misconduct by officers in a unit created to fight drugs and crime in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Five officers were convicted in state and federal courts for their misconduct, and the city of Los Angeles has paid approximately $125 million to settle claims based on their actions.
The misconduct and the enormous toll it took on the defendants and the city is known as the Rampart Scandal, after the police substation that served a 7.9-square-mile area just west of downtown Los Angeles. More than 200,000 people live in the Rampart neighborhoods, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the United States. A report written in the aftermath of the scandal noted that the crime rate in the Rampart area has always been among the highest in Los Angeles.
Gang violence began to surge in the area in the 1980s. The Los Angeles Police Department responded with the creation of the CRASH program, which was an acronym for “Community Response Against Street Hoodlums.” The CRASH officers were given wide latitude to crack down on drugs and the related crimes that accompanied this illegal activity. It appeared to be working: statistics from the LAPD said gang-related crime fell by 60 percent between 1992 and 1999.
But, as a later inquiry would note, “This ‘success’ of CRASH … came at a great price. Rampart CRASH officers developed an independent subculture that embodied a ‘war on gangs’ mentality where the ends justified the means, and they resisted supervision and control and ignored LAPD’s procedures and policies.”
At the heart of the Rampart scandal was the misconduct of Officer Rafael Perez. He joined the police department in 1989 after a stint in the Marines. Although the Rampart area was overwhelmingly Hispanic, few of the officers who patrolled the area spoke Spanish. Perez was born in Puerto Rico and was bilingual, so he assumed an outsized role in the Rampart operations. In an arrest warrant he filed in December 1997, Perez noted that he had worked as an undercover buy officer for three years and had made approximately 600 hand-to-hand purchases of controlled substances.
Although most of the misconduct that led to the exonerations occurred between 1996 and 1998, there is evidence that Perez’s illegal actions began much earlier. Russell Newman was charged on December 15, 1991 with selling cocaine after Perez said he had seen him complete a drug transaction outside a liquor store on the edge of the Rampart district. The case went to trial, with Perez testifying, and Newman was convicted on July 15, 1992 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. In a declaration in support of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Newman said he was not selling drugs. “Mr. Perez was lying, and his perjury resulted in my conviction” he said. Newman’s conviction was vacated in 2000. At the time, he was on parole after having served more than half of his sentence.
Despite those early episodes, the misconduct by the CRASH officers was not discovered until 1998. But a later inquiry into the scandal noted there were lots of warning signs. They included: a high number of CRASH arrest reports containing similar or identical language describing the probable cause; numerous reports from CRASH officers stating that suspects had discarded drugs or weapons in plain view, often just a few feet away from themselves; less than half of the Rampart CRASH arrests were entered into a document reviewed by supervisors; and there was frequent use of informants in ways that violated department policy.
Three separate events broke the scandal open. First, Officer David Mack was charged with robbing a Bank of America branch on November 6, 1997. The investigation revealed that Mack and Perez, who were close friends and former partners, had gone to Las Vegas two days after the bank robbery. Perez denied any involvement with the crime and was never charged. Mack was later convicted.
A few months later, on February 26, 1998, a young man who was a suspected gang member was beaten at the Rampart substation until he began vomiting blood. The man left the police station, went to the hospital, and reported the incident. The police department investigated and sought to fire the three officers involved. Two were fired; the third successfully appealed his dismissal.
A month later, the police department property division noticed that approximately six pounds of cocaine had been checked out for court and not returned even though the related case had been adjudicated. Investigators looked hard at Perez, who had been under close scrutiny since Mack’s arrest and had placed several suspicious phone calls the day the drugs were checked out.
The state of California charged Perez on August 17, 1998, with theft, possession of cocaine, and forgery. The jury deadlocked at his trial (with a majority voting for conviction) in December 1998. Police investigated further, and additional charges were filed against Perez. Just before his retrial on September 8, 1999, Perez pled guilty to eight drug charges and struck a deal with prosecutors. In exchange for a sentence of no more than five years in prison, he would cooperate with an investigation into the Rampart operations.
Perez began talking two days later. Over the next year, he met 29 times with investigators from the police department and the office of the Los Angeles County District Attorney and detailed alleged misconduct committed by himself and his fellow officers.
One of the first incidents that investigators addressed involved the shooting of Javier Ovando on October 12, 1996, in an apartment building in the heart of the Rampart patrol area. Ovando, who was left paralyzed, had been convicted of assaulting an officer and sentenced to 23 years in prison. The court vacated his conviction after Perez reported that that fellow officer Nino Durden planted a gun on the previously unarmed suspect to make the shooting by Perez and Durden appear justified. Perez later said the shooting weighed heavily on him. “I told my attorney, ‘I want that guy out of jail,’” he said.
On October 12, 1996, Officers Rafael Perez and Nino Durden shot Javier Ovando in the chest and head paralyzing him from the waist down. In their initial report, the officers said the shooting happened after Ovando entered a vacant apartment where the officers had set up an observation post. They said that they had fired in response to a threat from Ovando. As proof of that threat, they noted the presence of an assault rifle near his feet. The state charged Ovando with two counts of assault with a firearm on a police officer. Perez and Durden both testified against Ovando, who was convicted on February 20, 1997 and sentenced to 23 years in prison, the maximum allowed. Ovando had no prior felony convictions, but was an admitted member of the 18th Street Gang. The prosecution’s sentencing memorandum alleged that Ovando had broken into the apartment with the intent to kill the officers because of their surveillance of gang activities.
Ovando appealed his conviction, but the court’s judgment was affirmed by California's Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District on June 2, 1998.
After Perez was arrested and charged with stealing cocaine from the evidence room at the Rampart substation, he cut a deal with prosecutors and began disclosing misconduct that he and fellow officers committed. He said that Ovando had wandered into the “observation post” in the apartment, where he got into an argument with Durden. He saw Durden shoot Ovando, and then he did the same. Quickly, Durden left the apartment and returned with a semi-automatic rifle, equipped with a “banana clip.” The weapon had been seized in a previous gang sweep, and Perez had seen Durden file off its serial number. Durden placed the rifle near Ovando in order to make it appear that he had been armed.
During his interviews, Perez was asked whether he discussed the shooting with officers other than Durden. He said he didn’t.
“I do know one thing that we never discussed is how it all went down,” Perez said. “You know what I mean, how, uh, you know, you sort of don't even want to talk about it amongst yourselves. You know what I mean. It’s – it happened. And, you know, you look at each other like, okay. You just need to fix this. You know, it’s – it’s one of those things where you don’t go, man, we just shot a guy who was unarmed. You don’t discuss that. You know, you say, okay, well, let’s get this straightened out. Let’s fix this.”
A police detective interviewed Ovando on September 11, 1999 at Salinas Valley State Prison. He said that Perez and Durden had stopped him and his friend the day before and warned them. The next day, the officers demanded to enter the apartment where Ovando was staying. They handcuffed him, took him to the Observation Post apartment and shot him. He noted that prior to the charges being filed, there was no attempt by the police department to hear his side of the story. He said he didn’t testify at trial because his lawyer told him jurors wouldn’t believe him.
Ovando’s conviction was vacated on September 16, 1999. He later received a $15 million settlement from the city of Los Angeles.
According to Perez, the bulk of the illegal activity began in the spring of 1997 with theft of money seized in a drug raid. He said he and Durden made a “righteous arrest” and seized a shoebox of cash. As they processed the money, the two officers wondered whether to report it all. Perez said: “He goes, ‘Man, we’re gonna book all this?’ He said it to me in a way where, come on, man, we ain’t gonna book all this money. I know that.”
They split approximately $1,000, and, according to Perez, “We moved on from there.” Many of the persons arrested and wrongfully convicted due to the misconduct of Perez and the other officers were immigrants, and in some instances they were not legal residents of the United States. This made them less likely to complain about mistreatment and less credible to juries. Perez said that Officer Armando Coronado falsely said in an arrest report filed July 10, 1997 that they had seen Oscar Ochoa engage in a drug transaction. Perez also said that Coronado told him that Ochoa consented to a search of his apartment, where they found cocaine and money. Later, Ochoa wrote a statement admitting ownership of the drugs. Ochoa was on probation at the time, and he pled guilty and received three years in prison. Perez later told investigators that they hadn’t seen any illegal activity, did not obtain Ochoa’s consent to search, and had forced a confession out of him by threatening to deport him and take away his children. The court vacated Ochoa’s conviction in June 2000. Coronado was cleared of any wrongdoing in this arrest by a civilian oversight board, which found in part that Perez held a grudge against Coronado.
A similar series of events happened with Sonia Castro, who was arrested in MacArthur Park on March 7, 1996, and charged with possession of cocaine. Officer Thomas O’Grady said he saw Castro make a drug sale prior to her arrest. A subsequent search found 13 grams of cocaine on her person. Perez contradicted O’Grady’s story. He said an informant told O’Grady about drug activity in the park involving a woman and two men, but the officers did not see a deal take place prior to the arrest. The court vacated Castro’s conviction in January 2000.
Most defendants pled guilty, unwilling to risk lengthy sentences if they took a case to trial and lost. Alex Umana was one of the few who went to trial, after he had been charged with possession of cocaine. He claimed that three officers – Michael Buchanan, Mark Richardson, and Daniel Lujan – falsely testified at his trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. While the details of Umana’s case were not discussed during Perez’s interviews, the court vacated his conviction and dismissed his charges in June 2000.
On the evening of January 11, 1997, officers with the CRASH unit descended on an apartment building on South Kenmore Avenue that was known as a hotspot for drugs and gang activity. Officer Michael Buchanan said he looked down the hallway and saw Alex Umana and some other young men in the lobby. He would later say in a report that he saw Umana take a small baggie out of his mouth and put it on a ledge near the firehose. The state charged Umana with possession of cocaine for sale. Unlike many of the Rampart defendants, Umana chose to go to trial, turning down an offer of probation.
Buchanan and two other officers testified at trial about the circumstances of Umana’s arrest. Umana did not testify, but several witnesses testified on his behalf, stating that Umana and his family were at a barbecue until 10:40 and that after they got home, they only left the apartment to complain about noise from an upstairs unit. Umana later alleged that the police arrested him only because he had gang tattoos.
Umana was convicted on September 24, 1997 and sentenced to five years in prison.
During his interviews with investigators, Rafael Perez alleged misconduct by all three of the officers involved with Umana’s arrest and prosecution. As the district attorney’s office investigated these claims, they found numerous cases similar to Umana’s, where the testimony of the officers that drugs had been found on a defendant stood without corroboration. In Umana’s case, investigators also located a new witness who said that he watched the police raid and was surprised when he saw Umana among the detainees. Umana, the man said, didn’t “hang out” with the dealers and had a job. This man had been a potential witness at the trial, but Umana’s public defender lost contact with him.
Umana’s conviction was vacated June 22, 2000.
Planting weapons was a common practice of the CRASH officers. The officers filed off the serial numbers of guns seized in police raids to make them untraceable. In one instance, the officers planted bullets on a defendant to undercut his defense that a weapon found in his apartment did not belong to him.
Many of the defendants were either members of gangs or had previous gang affiliations. Often, they were already on probation for previous offenses, making them particularly susceptible to mistreatment at the hands of the officers. This happened to a defendant named Rafael Zambrano, who was convicted of possession of a weapon by a felon. Perez and several other officers had gone to break up a party at an abandoned house. The guests scattered, and several people began discarding weapons in the dark. Perez later said it wasn’t clear that Zambrano had discarded a weapon or ever had one, “but I think, when it came right down to it, Officer (Brian) Hewitt just told me who was gonna go for it. And, um – and you know, Zambrano was the person that we, uh – or we saw – or that we said that placed the gun there.”
In another incident, Perez said he observed CRASH officers try to detain some alleged gang members in an alley on July 19, 1996. Two of the men, Raul Munoz and Cesar Natividad, got in Munoz’s pickup and drove down the alley. At some point, Munoz lost control and hit a tree. According to Perez, the two officers who wrote up the report, Brian Liddy and Buchanan, falsely said Munoz hit them as he drove off. Munoz and Natividad were charged with deadly use of a personal weapon and pled guilty. The court vacated their convictions in 2000. By then, Munoz had been deported to El Salvador. The facts of this case remain in dispute, and it would later be a focus point of a malicious prosecution lawsuit filed by the officers against the city that was settled for $20.5 million.
Most of the Rampart defendants received relatively short sentences, particularly if they entered guilty pleas. But Lorenzo Nava, who faced potentially severe punishment under California’s “Three Strikes” sentencing guidelines, went to trial and was convicted based on testimony by officers implicated by Perez. He was sentenced to between 54 years and life in prison, although the sentence was later reduced on appeal to 29 to life. The court vacated his conviction in 2000.
In his interviews, Perez implicated 28 current and former Rampart officers in criminal activities and misconduct. Many incidents he described did not result in wrongful convictions. They just made part of the drumbeat of the officers’ daily activities. In one instance, Perez said, the officers made a bet over whether they could make a 14-year-old boy cry by squeezing pressure points on his body. Perez told the investigators that many of these officers had the mindset that “They were LAPD and could do whatever they wished.”
Perez would later say in an interview with investigators that about 40 percent of his arrests involved defendants who hadn’t committed any crime at the time of their arrest, but simply were persons whom the officer wanted off the street.
Just before Perez was arrested, a man named Delbert Carrillo was arrested and charged with selling cocaine in June 9, 1998 based on the report filed by two CRASH officers. He quickly pled guilty on June 15, and was sentenced to two years in prison. His conviction was vacated in 2000 after prosecutors said they no longer had confidence in the officers’ report, which claimed that Carrillo had wanted to talk with the police, despite a bulge of cocaine in his front shirt pocket.
On June 9, 1998, Delbert Carrillo was charged with offering to sell a controlled substance after he was arrested by Officers Ethan Cohan and Edward Brehm, both assigned to the Rampart CRASH unit.
According to Cohan’s report, he and Brehm were on patrol when Carrillo contacted them (The report doesn’t say how contact was made.) Carrillo was a member of the 18th Street Gang, and his nickname was “Cartoon.”
At about 9:30 p.m., Carrillo met the officers on Wilshire Boulevard. Cohan said that as they talked, he and Brehm noticed a bulge in Carrillo’s front shirt pocket. He said that Carrillo became nervous and took out a plastic bag containing about nine paper bindles of cocaine. The officers arrested Carrillo, who was already on parole. In a statement given a few hours later at the Rampart station, Carrillo wrote that had had contacted the two officers to discuss something and hadn’t bothered to make sure he was not carrying any drugs because he knew the officers. A week later, Carrillo pled guilty in the Municipal Court, Los Angeles Judicial District and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Two weeks later, Carrillo told a probation officer who was preparing a post-sentence report that the facts in the police report were not true. He said he signed the statement because the officers threatened him with additional charges.
A year and a half later, after the Rampart scandal broke open, detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department interviewed Carrillo, who repeated his allegation that the officers had planted cocaine on him. A detective asked him whether he wanted to file a complaint against the officers Carrillo hesitated, wondering what good would it do.
On September 8, 2000, Carrillo filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In an affidavit, he said that the officers had seen him riding in a cab on the night of June 9, then pulled the taxi over and put him in the patrol car. “What’s up, Cartoon?” Cohan asked. They drove to the back of the parking lot at the Ambassador Hotel, with Carrillo protesting his innocence as he rode in the back seat. In the parking lot, Brehm told Carrillo that if he helped them with getting guns, they would let him go. “What do you mean, let me go?” asked Carrillo. “You have to let me go, I haven’t done anything.”
Brehm then said the Parole Board would treat Carrillo harshly if it knew he was in possession of drugs. Carrillo said he had no drugs. Brehm said, “Yeah, you do. Who do you think everybody’s going to believe?”
Recalling the incident in his affidavit, Carrillo wrote: “I remained quiet because that’s when it hit me, he’s right.”
After Carrillo filed his writ, the district attorney’s office investigated his claim further. It said that while not all of Carrillo’s claims could be corroborated, there was enough evidence to lend credibility to many of his statements. In particular, the DA’s office noted it had filed writs on behalf of three other defendants who had made similar claims involving Cohan. Carrillo’s conviction was vacated in November 2000. Cohan was terminated as a police officer in 1999 for his role in the beating of a teenage suspect in custody.
Based on Perez’s disclosures, the district attorney’s office began moving to dismiss convictions. It relied heavily on the work of the police department, which quickly identified 99 cases tainted by Perez’s involvement in the arrest and prosecution. As the transcripts made their way to defense attorneys, the pool of potential defendants widened to include other officers that Perez had identified for misconduct. These cases proved harder to verify, and many hinged on whether there had been disclosure violations based on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which require prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence to defendants.
One brief filed in a habeas motion asserted that the district attorney’s office had been aware of misconduct by Perez and another officer as far back as June 1997. In several instances, the district attorney’s office opposed petitions for writs of habeas corpus, asserting that the defendants were overreaching in their claims of innocence and Brady violations. According to a report issued in 2007, defendants filed approximately 333 petitions to vacate felony convictions, and the court granted 156. In addition, 15 writs were granted for misdemeanor convictions.
While most of the exonerations occurred in 2000, the final dismissals came in 2001. Five defendants – Anthony Adams, Luis Davalos, Jesse Alvarez, Jorge Alvarez and Ceaser Menendez – had all been convicted of manslaughter and each sentenced to 12 years in prison, based in part on testimony of a woman named Sonya Flores, a former girlfriend of Perez. She told Rampart investigators that Perez urged her to testify against the men, and that he had picked the defendants from a police book of gang members. Flores was later convicted in federal court of lying to authorities about a murder she said she had witnessed.
As part of the immunity deal Perez struck with prosecutors, the state did not bring additional charges against him. His statements led to a wide range of disciplinary and criminal proceedings against other police officers. Allegations of misconduct involving approximately 40 officers went before the Board of Rights, a quasi-judicial board that has the authority to determine punishment for officers. The board heard 86 cases and found the officer involved not guilty in 54. In one instance, the board could not reach a decision. In the remaining cases, the board meted out some form of punishment, including reprimands, suspensions, and terminations. The collapse of many of these disciplinary cases underscored the limits of Perez’s testimony. In many instances it remained uncorroborated and fell apart when investigators interviewed witnesses or rechecked details.
Eight officers other than Perez faced criminal charges for misconduct in the Rampart scandal. Four, including Durden, pled guilty. Four others –Buchanan, Liddy, Eddie Ortiz and Paul Harper – went to trial for two separate incidents involving civil-rights violations. In one case, the officers were acquitted. In the other, they were convicted but later had their convictions overturned based on insufficient evidence. The officers subsequently filed lawsuits against the City of Los Angeles for malicious prosecution, which were settled in 2009 for $20.5 million.
Separately, Durden pled guilty to state and federal charges related to the Ovando shooting and was sentenced to five years in prison. And apart from his earlier theft and fraud convictions, Perez pled guilty to violating Ovando’s civil rights and a related firearms violation and was sentenced to two years in prison.
More than 200 lawsuits were filed against the city by persons wrongfully convicted or falsely arrested because of the Rampart misconduct. The city settled almost all. No public final accounting is available. A report from 2007 said the city had paid out $75 million, and more recent reports put the figure at closer to $125 million. The largest single award was to Ovando, who received $15 million.
In 2000, the city of Los Angeles entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which had notified the department that it intended to file a civil lawsuit alleging that the police department was engaging in a pattern of illegal practices. The decree did not require the city to admit any liability, but it brought federal oversight in an effort to rein in the practices, both by supervisors and patrol officers, that contributed to the Rampart scandal. The decree was supposed to be lifted in 2006, but U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feess extended it after he found the department was dragging its feet on reforms. It was terminated in 2013.
“In these last 12 years the Los Angeles Police Department did not just comply with the consent decree, they took it to heart. They used it as a guide to change their culture,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said when the consent degree was ended. “The entire department, from the officers on the beat in the neighborhoods to the top brass downtown, have made these reforms their reforms.”
In 2007, a blue-ribbon commission issued a report called Rampart Reconsidered that tried to make sense of what had happened and how the police force lost its way. The report found plenty of blame to go around, from supervisors who silenced whistleblowers, to managers who looked the other way as civilian complaints piled up.
The report said, in part:
It happened because LAPD brass, the Police Commission, the City Council, the District Attorney, federal authorities and the courts failed to heed decades of warnings to change that police culture and the City’s policing paradigm... And without the inept oversight of these same institutions, none of LAPD’s systems failures in leadership, supervision, accountability and management would have been possible.
It continued: "In short, the CRASH crisis did not happen because a few LAPD rogues stole drugs. It happened because the Los Angeles criminal justice system’s anemic checks on police abuse and LAPD's feeble constraints on its 'warrior policing' failed across the board."
-- Ken Otterbourg
Click here for the names of known defendants who had their convictions vacated and charges dismissed based on misconduct in this case. Because court records are incomplete, this list does not include all members of this group.