When Los Angeles police used an armored military vehicle with a 14-foot battering ram to smash down the wall of a Pacoima house, the only occupants they found inside were two women and three small children, two of whom were eating ice cream.
It was not quite what the officers expected to find in what they suspected was a "rock house," a fortified dwelling from which drugs are sold. The dealing in rock houses is generally done by armed men passing their merchandise and collecting the money through a slot in the front door.
Despite an extensive search of the house after battering their way in Wednesday night, police found only a small amount of marijuana and no guns. On hand to record the action was a large contingent of television and print reporters.
The raid and the use of the armored vehicle, with Police Chief Daryl F. Gates in the passen ger seat, drew more than a little criticism Thursday from the residents of the home and neighbors in the 13000 block of Louvre Street.
The home was left with a gaping hole in a front room that is used by the children as a play area.
Tom Montgomery, vice president of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, called the raid "ridiculous" and said: "We want to take steps to make sure that Daryl Gates doesn't do this again."
Delores Langford, who had been visiting the home, was visibly shaking as she recalled that her two children and the child of Linda Brown, a resident of the house, had been called into the kitchen only a few minutes before.
Otherwise, she said, they would have been in the room struck by the ram.
Brown, 24, was arrested on suspicion of child endangering. Her 5-year-old son was taken into protective custody, police said.
Police later arrested Brown's husband, Antonio Johnson, 25, who was not home at the time of the raid, on suspicion of selling cocaine, based upon what officers said was an earlier undercover purchase at the house.
Gates defended the raid Thursday, saying undercover officers recently purchased cocaine at the home, which was fortified with steel bars and a steel door.
Residents of the home and neighbors denied that drugs were being sold from the house and said the steel bars and doors provided protection.
Similar protective equipment can be seen on other houses in the neighborhood, a low-income area of the East San Fernando Valley. Several neighbors said they did not see an unusual amount of traffic at the house.
Brown said she and Langford were talking Wednesday night when suddenly, she heard a noise and looked out the window. She said neither woman heard police announce their presence.
"All I could see was this big tank coming up in the yard," Brown said.
"Then a gun came through here," Langford said, pointing at the kitchen window. "We jumped up and ran.
"My oldest son started screaming, 'Mom! Mom! Mom!' I grabbed my son and was laying on him, and my other son, I had my legs wrapped around him."
She said that due to the confusion, she was not sure at what point the vehicle entered the front room.
Langford's oldest son, Dyvon, 9, had taken his ice cream into the living room, when officers suddenly broke the glass in the barred kitchen window and in the living room. They pointed a gun at him and shouted, "Don't move," Langford said.
'Please Don't Shoot'
"Shut up! Shut up! You know what's going on here," Langford quoted the officers as saying. "We kept saying, 'Please don't shoot.' "
"They came in with real big guns. They had us in the corner at gunpoint," Brown said. "They didn't warn us or nothing. They didn't talk on those blow horns. They didn't hand us no warrant or anything."
Asked why no drugs were found in the house, Gates said: "I suspect they're sold out. That happens all the time."
Gates refused to say if any precautions were taken to protect the children.
"The proof of the pudding is no one was injured," he said.
Officers, including members of the Special Weapons and Tactics Team, surrounded the house at 7:30 p.m. and then announced their presence over a bullhorn. They then lobbed a diversionary explosive device into the house, according to Cmdr. William Booth. Moments later, the armored vehicle crashed through the wall.
Freed on Bail
Brown and Johnson were booked at the Van Nuys Division jail. Both were freed Thursday, Johnson on $5,000 bail and Brown on $3,000. The child remained in custody.
Booth said narcotics paraphernalia and accounting sheets that police believe are "records of narcotics transactions" also were found inside the home, which was searched on a warrant.
"Our effort last night was designed to notify rock-house dealers through the media that we are not going to put up with it," Gates said. "The message has to go out: If you don't want a battering ram breaking down your wall and SWAT coming through your doors, don't deal dope." Police said the vehicle, a converted military V-100 used in the Vietnam War, was loaned to the Police Department for use in providing security during the Olympic Games last summer.
It is now on indefinite loan to the department, which added the battering ram.