L.A. murder saga costs city $8 million

Ballistics tests suggest evidence might have cleared a man who spent 17 years in jail.

On a March morning in 1994, two homicide detectives and a Los Angeles Times reporter stood on the roof of a South L.A. brothel, bullets and spent shells at their feet.

The detectives were investigating the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old man who was killed during an apparent robbery the night before.

Los Angeles police Det. Pete Razanskas bent down and picked up six rounds. But instead of bagging them as evidence, he handed them to the reporter, Miles Corwin, as souvenirs.

The spent rounds from the roof were kept in a closet in the reporter's home as two men were convicted in the killing. The men spent more than 15 years in prison until a judge threw out their convictions.

Now, ballistics tests conducted by lawyers for one of the men suggest that the spent rounds came from the weapon that was possibly used to kill Felipe Gonzales Angeles and could have helped identify the real killer.

The tests mark the latest twist in a legal saga that led last month to the city of Los Angeles agreeing to pay Obie Anthony, 40, more than $8 million.

His lawsuit and other court documents portray an investigation and prosecution rife with problems — including the withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence, perjured testimony and the ignoring of leads that pointed to a different suspect.

"The money will never make up for it," Anthony said.

The city admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement. City attorneys argued that detectives had conducted the investigation properly. Corwin said the spent ammunition was rusty and corroded and didn't appear to have any relevance to the case.

"I don't think the detectives would have done something untoward knowing they had an L.A. Times reporter following them," he said.

L.A. prosecutors are fighting Anthony's effort to receive compensation from the state for his years behind bars, and at a hearing last week they reminded the court they still have the ability to refile murder charges against him.

On the night of the shooting, Angeles and two friends had driven to the building at 49th and Figueroa streets. Angeles walked up to the brothel's front door and asked for a woman named Melinda.

He was rebuffed, and as he returned to the vehicle, he was accosted by three men demanding money. Moments later, shots were fired and Angeles was fatally wounded. His two friends were also shot, but they survived.

The slaying and investigation were chronicled in Corwin's book "The Killing Season." The story followed two Los Angeles Police Department detectives — Razanskas, a 22-year veteran, and Marcella Winn, a newly minted detective leading her first homicide investigation. Razanskas, who is now retired, could not be reached for comment. Winn, who is still with the department, did not respond to requests for comment

An anonymous tip that a local gang member was involved led the detectives to Anthony and Reggie Cole, who at the time were in County Jail on carjacking charges that would later be dismissed.

During the trial, John Jones, the pimp who ran the brothel, identified them as the robbers and testified that they also shot at him as he looked out a window.

One of those who was shot, Victor Trejo, identified the men during trial despite failing to positively identify them in photo and live lineups.

A security guard at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center testified that Cole and Anthony had come in, one of them wounded, shortly after the shooting. Police believed that another person open fired on the pair, wounding one of them.

Anthony testified that he had nothing to do with the shooting, but he lied by telling jurors that he didn't know Cole, who prosecutors were able to show was a longtime friend.

There was no physical evidence connecting Anthony and Cole to the crime, and the case relied almost entirely on eyewitness testimony.

The men were found guilty and sentenced to prison without the possibility of parole.

"When the gavel went down it was just — this sinking feeling," Anthony said. "But it was immediately bolstered up by 'OK, how am I going to prove that they're lying, that they're setting me up?'"

The journey toward freedom for Anthony began in 2000 when Cole stabbed a fellow inmate to death.

Cole said he acted in self-defense. But he was charged with murder, which would have made him potentially subject to the death penalty because of the prior murder conviction.

The California Innocence Project, which reviews inmates' claims of wrongful conviction, began looking into his case.

The group determined that Jones, the pimp, had fabricated his testimony.

A Los Angeles County judge in 2009 overturned the murder conviction.

Two years later, after a petition by Anthony, another Los Angeles County judge concluded that not only did Jones lie during his testimony, but prosecutors failed to disclose an agreement to give him a lighter sentence on pimping and pandering charges in exchange for his testimony. He was later found factually innocent.

Anthony was released from prison after 17 years.

Anthony and Cole sued the detectives and the city of Los Angeles for wrongful imprisonment, alleging that the LAPD had used illegal methods.

The lawsuit alleged that the detectives protected Jones by ignoring his ongoing illegal activities and refusing to pursue an alternative theory that he, or someone he knew, was the killer. Jones could not reached for comment.

The detectives did so by concealing the discovery of bullets on the roof and by failing to test them against bullets found at the crime scene, attorneys alleged. This was critical, they said, because an autopsy would conclude that the fatal bullet struck the victim on a downward trajectory.

Last year, the city had a ballistics expert test the bullets Corwin had for all those years against the bullet found on the street where Angeles had been killed. The expert said there was insufficient evidence to determine a match. A separate expert hired by Anthony's attorneys concluded they were fired from the same weapon.

The lawsuit also alleges that the detectives mischaracterized the accounts of eyewitnesses, evoked false evidence in interviews and suppressed evidence.

In court documents, the city's attorneys denied that the detectives knowingly withheld evidence.

The city also asserted that it is not legally required to disclose mere suspicions that Jones, or someone he knew, had fired a weapon that night.

Anthony's attorney insists the evidence is clear.

"The misconduct by police led to a miscarriage of justice and Obie spending 17 years in prison for a murder he obviously did not commit," said attorney David McLane, who along with attorney Marilyn Bednarski represented Anthony in the civil case.

Cole's lawsuit and the Anthony's legal claim against the district attorney are still pending. Cole was arrested last month on felony mayhem and assault charges and is out on bail.

Anthony now lives in rural San Bernardino County. He said he now saves every single receipt to have a record of his location. He said he is lucky to have his wife, Denise a childhood crush he reconnected with in prison.

Anthony told her during her first prison visit that he'd one day be free.

"I told her, "I know I got life without the possibility of parole plus 50 years — but I'm coming home," he said. "I'm innocent."

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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