SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS SECTION: WATCHING CRIME HAPPEN : LAPD’s Secret SIS Unit : Citizens Terrorized as Police Look On
“‘To Protect and To Serve,’ states the essential goal of the Los Angeles Police Department. The Department protects the right of all persons within its jurisdiction to be free from criminal attack, to be secure in their possessions and to live in peace. . . .”
On a November morning in 1986, two robbers entered a videotape rental shop in Koreatown, slammed clerk Eunsook Oh to the floor and tore off her jewelry.
One of the robbers clubbed manager Brian Ahn with a revolver and kicked him in the face, then put the gun to Ahn’s head and demanded that he lead them to the shop’s safe.
Ahn’s terrified clerk reached for an alarm. She didn’t need to.
Already outside, watching, were 10 undercover police detectives. They had been following the suspects for two days and watched them go into the shop. They already had ample reason to make an arrest, and could have prevented the attack. Now they let it run its course--and readied their shotguns.
For the Special Investigations Section of the Los Angeles Police Department, the tactics were standard procedure.
The secretive, 19-man unit watches armed robbers and burglars but rarely tries to arrest them until after the thieves have victimized shopkeepers, homeowners and others, an investigation by The Times found.
Indeed, SIS detectives have often ignored opportunities to arrest targeted criminals after watching them commit lesser crimes, such as car theft, attempted burglary or attempted robbery. In some cases, the detectives have overlooked existing arrest warrants.
Instead, they have waited for dozens of criminals to commit actual armed robberies and burglaries--felonies that carry longer sentences and are more easily prosecuted because the detectives can testify as witnesses.
The Times found no cases in which innocent victims were killed by criminals during surveillances by the SIS. However, the investigation documented numerous instances in which well-armed teams of SIS detectives stood by watching as victims were threatened with death and, sometimes, physically harmed by criminals who could have been arrested beforehand.
Not all of those criminals went to jail afterward. Man for man, the little-known surveillance squad has shot more suspects than any other unit in the Police Department, records show.
Its detectives have killed 23 suspects and wounded 23 others since 1965, when the SIS was formed, The Times found in reviewing police shooting reports. In addition, the surveillance detectives have been involved in more than 20 other incidents in which they shot at suspects and missed.
“There’s a separate subculture involved there, a very macho subculture,” said a retired high-ranking officer knowledgeable in the unit’s operations. “They just let situations degenerate to the point where they can use deadly force.”
In all of their armed confrontations, no member of the SIS has ever been shot by a criminal, although one detective was killed in 1980 when he inadvertently ran into another squad member’s line of fire and was hit by a shotgun blast intended for a fleeing bank robber.
The surveillance squad has no guidelines compelling it to deter people about to commit potential violence. Nor does the special unit have any written policies that tell its members whom they should follow, for how long or where.
It is not uncommon for a dozen or more SIS detectives to spend weeks tailing one suspect--often ranging outside the county and even outside the state--and show nothing for their labor.
Official monthly summaries of the squad’s activities show that fewer than one-fourth of the unit’s 1987 surveillances ended in the arrests of targeted suspects. The SIS took credit for 36 arrests in 1987--an average of less than two arrests per man--at a cost to taxpayers of $1 million in salaries and overtime. The rest of the detectives and patrolmen in the 7,400-member LAPD made 75,362 felony arrests in 1987.
Los Angeles police officials nonetheless praise the Special Investigations Section as needed and effective.
While Chief Daryl F. Gates refused repeated requests to be interviewed about the squad, his spokesman, Cmdr. William Booth, said, “It’s a good unit.”
Booth said the SIS is usually assigned cases in which there is insufficient evidence to arrest suspects believed to be criminally active. Consequently, he said, the detectives sometimes must watch criminals commit serious crimes before they can legally take action.
“We’re dealing with people who we have a lot of reason to believe are involved in extreme forms of violence and so we’re watching them and there’s not much we can do until they violate the law,” Booth said. “We think we’re protecting the public this way. We think the public agrees.”
However, police officers and leading law enforcement experts elsewhere do not.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said James J. Fyfe, a former New York City police lieutenant who is chairman of the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University in Washington.
“The fundamental standard of police work is to protect life. That’s not consistent with a strategy in which you let a guy rob a place and hope he doesn’t kill someone,” Fyfe said.
Officers from other major cities--and even from other LAPD units--said that to thwart robberies and burglaries, they do all they can to make arrests beforehand for attempted crimes, weapons violations, conspiracy, unrelated offenses and outstanding warrants--anything to deter armed robberies or burglaries of buildings that might be inhabited.
“You’re a fool courting disaster if you let the crime go down. It’s just a matter of time before an innocent person is killed,” said Washington Deputy Chief Edward J. Spurlock who, until he was recently promoted, led a widely respected unit that pursues repeat offenders in the nation’s capital.
Moreover, Spurlock and officers in other cities said that if they receive word that a suspect is planning to hit a particular business or home and have no legal recourse to stop him, they will often substitute themselves for the people inside.
But records show that even when tipped to planned robberies and burglaries, SIS detectives have waited to watch the crimes happen, not warning potential victims.
What’s more, the detectives in some instances have made no effort to stop unsuspecting customers from walking into businesses that were being robbed by armed criminals.
In one case, for example, the detectives did not stop an 8-year-old boy from entering a florist shop in Torrance as it was being held up by three paroled members of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. The boy, robbed at gunpoint of $4, was not hurt. Two of the robbers were killed and the third wounded as they drove from the scene.
The SIS commander, Capt. Dennis A. Conte, readily acknowledged that despite innocent people being imperiled, his detectives will sometimes wait to watch a criminal commit armed robbery even after watching him commit a lesser felony, such as car theft. By waiting for a robbery, Conte said, the suspect can be irrefutably linked to the crime and often tied to other, unsolved hold-ups, leading to a longer prison sentence.
“If we have a suspect in a series of crimes and we can’t prove it,” Conte said, “we’re going to follow him to see if he commits a crime and eliminate him (as a suspect) if he doesn’t.”
The surveillance detectives do not generally make arrests beforehand for attempted robbery or attempted burglary because, Conte said, those charges are more difficult to prove in court than a consummated crime.
“Public safety is certainly a concern,” the SIS captain said, “but we have to look beyond that because if we arrest someone for attempt, the likelihood of a conviction is not as great.”
Nor will the unit automatically arrest suspects who are wanted on existing arrest warrants issued by other agencies, Conte said.
“If we have a particular suspect that we think is involved in crimes in this city and he has not been positively identified as such, we will follow him,” Conte said. “We may know they are wanted by other jurisdictions, but that doesn’t help us clear (solve) crimes here.”
He acknowledged that every burglary or robbery poses a potential danger, and that SIS detectives cannot predict how violent a criminal may become. But if a suspect is believed to be particularly dangerous, “then we’ll want to effect arrest as soon as we can,” Conte said.
Yet The Times documented case after case in which the detectives made no effort to deter the suspects they were following, even when the suspects were described as having beaten, pistol-whipped or shot victims in previous crimes.
Even when armed burglars have been observed late at night breaking into inhabited houses or apartments, the detectives have made no effort to interfere but simply watched the thieves enter and then waited until they re-emerged to arrest them.
In one case, records show, the surveillance squad followed a paroled burglar and stood by as he broke into a North Hollywood apartment building late at night. The detectives watched as he made repeated trips in and out of the building with a handgun tucked into his belt. Only after he had put his last load of stolen goods into his car and was driving away did the detectives move in.
When he allegedly tried to ram them, he was shot and wounded.
That is not how other LAPD officers are taught to deal with criminal suspects whom they observe about to commit burglary or robbery.
Lt. Gary A. Lee, the head of tactics training at the Los Angeles Police Academy, said recruits are instructed to be “pro-active” in protecting the public.
“If you’re driving by and there’s a crime in progress, you don’t go in then,” Lee said, because someone could get hurt. “But if you see suspicious behavior--somebody is looking like they’re getting ready to do a robbery or burglary--you have an affirmative responsibility to stop it if you can before it happens. . . . You arrest him for attempt burglary or robbery.”
Sgt. Paul R. Mattson, who commands the “Cobra Corps,” a 13-officer Los Angeles police unit that shadows mostly parolees in the San Fernando Valley, said: “If the (suspect) is going into an inhabited dwelling, you don’t know what’s on his mind. He might be going in for rape or murder.
“You’ve got to try to take him down before,” Mattson said, “and if you’re not able to, you hope like hell you can live with the consequences.”
Last year, Mattson’s Cobra Corps arrested 104 burglars, robbers and other criminal suspects, nearly three times as many as the 36 taken into custody by SIS detectives. Mattson said the unit attained a conviction of 85% to 87%. Conte said the SIS does not keep track of convictions that result from the squad’s arrests but added that the conviction rate is “very high.”
Conte said that while the surveillance unit’s arrest numbers may appear low, people arrested by the squad are usually responsible for multiple crimes. And while it concentrates on burglars and robbers, the SIS also shadows suspected murderers, kidnapers, rapists and even corrupt police officers.
In addition, the surveillance unit detectives work behind the scenes in many investigations without taking credit while doing a job that is often dangerous and always difficult, Conte said.
Virtually all police departments conduct surveillances of suspects who are believed to be criminally active. But of more than 20 other large departments surveyed by The Times, from New York City to Chicago to San Francisco, none has full-time surveillance units. A few have attempted surveillance-only programs but canceled or drastically modified them after concluding that the efforts were wasteful or likely to lead to violence.
Police officers in other cities said that when they do place specific criminals under surveillance, they do not allow them to initiate a robbery or break into a building that might be occupied. The reason: Once the criminal is inside, the officers are virtually powerless to protect those he may attack.
“Even if we can get the guy off the street before then for three days, we’ve saved victims,” said Washington’s Spurlock. “Getting a stiffer sentence is great but it isn’t a police officer’s job--that’s why we have courts.
“This defies all logic,” he said of SIS methods. “It would not be accepted in my community.”
But in Los Angeles, the Special Investigations Section has evolved virtually unknown outside the Police Department. Even many uniformed officers are unaware of the squad, whose members sometimes sport T-shirts and baseball caps bearing a cloak-and-dagger insignia that former squad detectives say connotes the covert, deadly nature of the unit’s work.
The SIS was formed without public announcement in January, 1965, by then-Chief William H. Parker and his chief detective, Thad Brown.
Parker and Brown, according to former unit members, envisioned a nine-man squad of “professional witnesses”--police officers who could produce irrefutable evidence against professional criminals by covertly watching them break the law. With trained observers testifying against them, criminals would have little room for plea bargaining.
The unit reported directly to Brown and Parker, both of whom are now dead.
The officer who first commanded the SIS and ran it for 12 years, Lt. Daniel E. Bowser, now retired, said in a brief telephone interview that the squad was considered so elite, “we weren’t even connected to a division. They carried us (on the the department roster) at different places, different times.”
The squad was soon doubled in size and a formal chain of command was eventually established, so that the unit now reports to the captain in charge of the Detective Support Division, based at police headquarters.
Yet even when surveillance officers have shot suspects, an occurrence in which the LAPD, under its own policy, must release specific information to the public, the facts have often been intentionally vague and misleading. The name of the unit and names of officers involved at times have been omitted.
‘Nobody Talks About’ Unit
“It was pretty much a secret,” said Robert Carleton, a retired robbery-homicide detective who spent two years in the SIS during the mid-1960s. “They didn’t want the criminal element to know the department had a team that would follow the suspects around until they actually committed the crime. It’s still a thing that nobody talks about.”
Department officials rejected The Times’ request for a “ride-along” with the SIS, and oral requests for interviews with unit detectives were refused. Written requests that were hand-delivered to SIS detectives at their offices in police headquarters went unanswered.
A few former SIS detectives did agree to discuss the unit for these articles.
Relying in part on the California Public Records Act, The Times researched 32 SIS cases, each involving one or more suspects who were shot following surveillances. Police files, court records, autopsy reports and other related public materials were examined, while more than 200 police officers, crime victims, witnesses, criminals, prosecutors and defense attorneys were interviewed.
In all, The Times found that in 17 of the 32 cases examined, SIS detectives had apparent justification to arrest the criminals they were following before serious crimes were committed.
Instead, the detectives watched robberies or burglaries occur even though the criminals:
- Were already wanted on arrest warrants.
Take the case of paroled bank robbers Jane E. Berry, 36, and John H. Crumpton, 33. After being released from federal prison, the couple had been linked to five bank robberies in the San Fernando Valley. Each was wanted on federal felony warrants for parole violations. Crumpton, police knew, was particularly dangerous, having once served a prison term for shooting a gas station attendant during a robbery.
But instead of arresting Crumpton and Berry on the warrants, the SIS spent 18 days shadowing the couple. On Sept. 15, 1982, 13 detectives and an LAPD helicopter followed them as Crumpton stole a car. The detectives in their reports said they did not know it was stolen. The couple then drove to a Security Pacific Bank branch in Burbank, which they had robbed a month before.
Detectives watched Crumpton and Berry drive repeatedly past the bank, watched them park their own car behind a nearby apartment complex, then watched them drive the stolen car to the bank. The suspects parked behind the bank and detectives, according to their own reports, watched Crumpton and Berry put on masks and gloves--the same garb they had worn and had been photographed in during their robbery of the same bank two weeks before. Detectives, however, did not stop the couple from walking in and robbing the bank again.
When Berry, who was armed, and Crumpton, who was not, returned to the car they had parked earlier behind the apartment complex, four SIS detectives surprised them and ordered them to halt. When the pair turned in the officers’ direction, according to police reports, the officers fired 18 times, killing Crumpton and wounding Berry. Berry never drew her weapon.
-Had been observed committing lesser crimes beforehand.
Take the case of roommates Robert L. Miller, 22, and Michael V. Moroney, 19, convicted felons suspected of robbing five liquor stores and delicatessens in the Van Nuys area over a three-week period.
On Jan. 26, 1969, after four days of surveillance, seven SIS detectives watched them steal a car. The thieves then drove it to a convenience store in Van Nuys. The detectives watched Miller and Moroney hide in the dark near the store while putting on ski caps. After eight minutes, the pair crept toward the door and put on masks. Miller drew a revolver and ordered the clerk to the floor, threatening to kill her if she moved. Moroney snatched her purse and $181 from the till.
Hidden in the darkness, SIS detectives waited until the robbers emerged, ordered them to halt and, according to reports, opened fire when Miller pointed his gun in their direction. Three detectives fired four shotgun and two revolver rounds. Both criminals were fatally wounded. They did not fire.
-Were clearly attempting armed robbery or burglary.
Take the case of William Garrett, 47, a paroled bank robber suspected of robbing five San Fernando Valley banks after his release from prison.
On July 6, 1977, 10 SIS detectives watched him case a savings and loan office in Sherman Oaks. Three SIS detectives set up an observation post in an apartment overlooking the bank; others continued to follow Garrett as he drove around the neighborhood.
Garrett parked periodically. At successive stops, the detectives watched him remove the front license plate of his car, drape a towel over the rear license, put on a wig and sunglasses, pull on clothing over the ones he was wearing, and pull a rifle or shotgun wrapped in a trash bag from his trunk. They waited while he stopped at two bars and watched him drive several times through the savings and loan’s parking lot before parking outside the back door. They watched as he carefully put on surgical gloves, got out of his car while holding a shotgun behind his back and walk toward the door.
At this point, according to several legal experts interviewed by The Times, Garrett was guilty of attempted robbery and could have been arrested. Instead, the detectives did not move to stop him from entering the savings and loan. A police report said that the detectives did not have time to react because Garrett had parked so close to door.
When Garrett returned to his car with more than $1,000 in stolen cash, he turned after being ordered to freeze, according to police reports. Three officers who were deployed around the parking lot fired four shotgun blasts. Fatally wounded, Garrett did not fire back.
-Could have been arrested had previous victims been asked to identify them.
Take the case of paroled armed robber Jose M. Montoya, 43, who was suspected of robbing at least two grocery stores after his release from state prison.
In both instances, Montoya matched the description of one of two criminals who had robbed the stores. Moreover, witnesses to each robbery provided police with a license-plate number of the getaway car. The car was registered to Montoya.
But inexplicably, and contrary to standard investigative procedure, victims were not shown photographic lineups of Montoya or any other possible suspect. Instead, Montoya was placed under SIS surveillance. It lasted three days.
On the night of Sept. 12, 1985, 10 SIS detectives watched Montoya and two other men take a car from a garage where Montoya worked. The police said later that they did not know that Montoya had stolen it.
The three suspects drove to a beauty salon in Van Nuys. Standing on either side of the salon’s door, Montoya and one of the men, Gabriel Lopez, 34, put on gloves, baseball caps and sunglasses. The detectives watched as they drew guns, went in and robbed the hair stylists and their customers of $8,683 in cash and jewelry.
Lopez emerged first. When he refused to halt and allegedly turned toward them, two detectives fired three revolver shots each. Lopez ran behind a trash dumpster. After another detective fired a shotgun blast at him, he surrendered, uninjured.
Montoya, meanwhile, fired four shots as he ran from the salon, none of them hitting the officers. As he ran, he was hit by one of five shots fired at him. One of the officers’ shots shattered an apartment house window, narrowly missing a woman and her young daughter.
Only after Montoya was arrested were victims from the earlier grocery store robberies shown a photo lineup. Victims from one of the robberies told The Times that they easily picked Montoya. He was charged with that robbery, along with the beauty parlor holdup, and is in state prison.
-Had already been conclusively linked to previous crimes by victims and witnesses.
Take the case of gang member Rodney Hickman, 24, one of the two criminals who assaulted Brian Ahn and Eunsook Oh during the Nov. 12, 1986, robbery of the L.A. Video shop in Koreatown.
SIS detectives knew that Hickman had been identified as having shot a man more than a week before in a robbery at a musical rehearsal studio in Hollywood. District attorney records show that the victim of that shooting, Stephen J. Hott, had already formally picked Hickman from a police photo lineup.
So had a Hollywood physician and his receptionist robbed by Hickman on Oct. 27.
So had a Hollywood videotape rental operator held up by Hickman on Nov. 1.
In addition, witnesses to two of the three robberies had given police the license-plate number of the getaway car--a green Ford Pinto registered to Hickman’s wife--and provided consistent descriptions of the fleeing Hickman.
But Hickman, a parolee with a history of violent crime, was not arrested or even questioned. Instead, he was placed under surveillance.
Police gave two differing explanations for their tactics.
Hollywood Detective Harold R. Venneman, who initially handled the investigation, said that because he was unable to identify Hickman’s accomplice in the earlier robberies, he asked the SIS to tail Hickman.
“When you’re dealing with people who are extremely violent and career criminals, you’re not going to get that man (Hickman) to tell you who his crime partner is nor is he going to confess willingly . . .” Venneman said.
However, SIS Capt. Conte said that despite the four photo identifications and the license plate information, Hickman had not yet been “positively” identified. “We can’t rely on every photo ID we get,” Conte said.
But officers from other departments who deal with armed robbers and other violent criminals said that given the same evidence--and particularly knowing that someone had already been shot--they would have immediately arrested Hickman.
“When you’ve got enough to arrest these people, you pick them up outright,” said Chicago Police Cmdr. Charles Ramsey, who supervises a number of detective units that investigate violent crimes. “The object is to avoid anything from happening to anyone else.”
Said Lt. Stephen Davis, a New York City police spokesman and former robbery-homicide investigator: “You get him for what you have him on. . . . You can always get him to roll over” or identify his partners.
Officers in New York City and elsewhere said that if they see a known felon whose suspicious behavior suggests that he is about to commit a robbery, they will stop and pat him down for weapons. In California, a felon caught carrying a gun faces 16 months to three years in state prison.
The right to “stop and frisk” a suspect was affirmed 20 years ago in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that involved a Cleveland detective who had been watching three men case a jewelry store.
The detective did not recognize the men and did not see any weapons but feared they were planning a robbery. He approached them, patted the pockets of one man’s overcoat and found a revolver. He frisked a second man and found another gun. The two armed men were convicted of weapons charges and went to prison.
“The record,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “evidences the tempered act of a policeman who . . . had to make a quick decision as to how to protect himself and others from possible danger, and took limited steps to do so.”
But records show that SIS detectives rarely, if ever, make stop-and-frisk arrests.
“If you see somebody driving up to a store, guns in waistband, fine and dandy,” Conte said, “but it doesn’t carry the same (significance) as the completed act” of robbery or burglary.
Neither do arrests for attempted robbery or burglary, Conte said, which is one reason why SIS officers make very few arrests on those charges. Conte said it is often difficult to win a conviction on attempted robbery or burglary, charges that carry half the sentence of actual robbery or burglary.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Norman Shapiro, whose section determines which cases are prosecuted, agreed with Conte that it is difficult to win convictions on attempted crimes because it must be proven that the suspect intended to commit the crime and took “perpetrating” steps toward it.
Shapiro said it is often easier to win conviction for criminal conspiracy, which occurs when two or more people plot a crime together. Conspiracy, he noted, carries the same penalties as actual robbery or burglary. Still, LAPD records show that SIS detectives rarely, if ever, make arrests for that offense.
Wants to Avoid Risk
“If you can nail the guy for a more significant crime without any victims or additional damage to property, fine,” Shapiro said. “But if you’re taking a chance and putting people at risk, we don’t want that. The police don’t want that. The last thing everybody wants is for somebody to get pistol-whipped and robbed.”
Nevertheless, in the case of the Koreatown video store robbery, SIS detectives made no effort to arrest Hickman and his partner, Allen Jewell Bradley, 17, for anything short of robbery.
Bradley, Hickman’s cousin by marriage, had been released from juvenile work camp in May, 1986, less than nine months after being convicted for assaulting two department store security guards who had stopped him for shoplifting.
Hickman was no less an accomplished criminal. He had served four terms in California prisons for auto theft, assault with a deadly weapon, shooting into an inhabited dwelling and receiving stolen goods. He had been paroled a month after Bradley was released.
Between Oct. 1 and early November, 1986, Hickman and Bradley were believed to have committed at least six armed robberies, including the one on Nov. 3 in which Hott was shot at the Hollywood musical rehearsal studio.
Hott picked Hickman from a photo lineup on Nov. 10, as did Dr. Thomas J. Dailey and his receptionist, Marlina Bruehl. That same day, SIS detectives began watching Hickman.
Two days later, 10 SIS detectives assisted by an LAPD helicopter watched the two suspects drive to the L.A. Video shop at 4359 W. 3rd St.
Hickman and Bradley were driving a new sports car. The car had been reported stolen three days before, police records show. But because the two suspects apparently had removed the car’s license plates, police officials said, the surveillance detectives could not know the car was stolen.
When the two suspects entered the video shop, Hickman asked Eunsook Oh if she had any English-language movie tapes. She directed them to another shop next door. They walked out and went back moments later. Oh was knocked to the floor with a blow to the neck.
By then, SIS Detective Jerry L. Brooks had hidden directly across the street. At times looking through a small telescope, he radioed his observations to the other SIS detectives who had taken up positions around the store.
“I observed the defendant to have what appeared to be a handgun in his right hand . . .” Brooks testified last year at a preliminary hearing for Hickman. “I observed (Hickman) make swinging motions with his hand down out of my sight in the direction of where I last saw the female Oriental forced to the ground, as if he was striking the individual.
“I observed (Hickman) also stand and move his body in what appeared to me to be a kicking motion in the same area where this female Oriental was on the ground.”
At that moment, unaware that a robbery was in progress, Brian Ahn, 29, decided to walk downstairs from his second-floor office for coffee.
Brooks testified that when he saw Ahn come into view, “I observed (Hickman) to strike this male Oriental in the back, back area of the head and shoulder with his right hand which contained the object that appeared to be a handgun, knock him to the ground and do the same type of movement, striking movements with his right hand towards the area where this male Oriental had fallen; also the foot kicking type movements in the same area.”
Then, for what Brooks described as “a good four minutes,” the people inside the store disappeared from his sight.
For Ahn, the minutes “seemed like an hour.”
Ahn said that the thugs grabbed his wallet and watch, put a gun to his head and dragged him upstairs. They “kicked me on the face until they found the little safe” next to his desk, he said. Inside was $2,000.
Oh, meanwhile, tried to trigger an alarm in the shop’s cash drawer, but Bradley threw her aside.
The robbers ordered Oh and Ahn to lie face down on the floor. Ahn said he feared he was about to die. Instead, the robbers sprinted to their stolen car with the safe.
Brooks testified that as the bandits ran out, he went into the video shop, “verified that both of the occupants in the store had been beaten, that they had been robbed, and I was informed that both individuals had guns and certain property was taken, at which time I relayed this over the police radio to other officers outside the location that had the vehicle under observation.”
However, Ahn’s recollection of events that day differs considerably from Brooks’. Ahn told The Times and also testified in court that seconds after the robbery, as he was still laying on the floor of his shop, he heard shotgun blasts. About a minute after that, he said, a man ran in, flashed a badge and asked if anyone was hurt. When Ahn said no, the man with the badge ran out.
The shotgun blasts that Ahn heard, six in all, were fired by three SIS detectives who had converged on Bradley and Hickman as they were getting into their car. When the robbers moved after being ordered to freeze, according to police reports, both sustained buckshot wounds to the head. A revolver was later found in Hickman’s pocket. Bradley was unarmed.
Earlier this year, facing more than 20 counts of armed robbery, assault, burglary and car theft, Hickman and Bradley arranged plea bargains. More than a dozen of the criminal counts against the two men stemmed from the crimes in which Hickman had been formally identified before the L.A. Video holdup.
Hickman was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in state prison. Bradley was sentenced to no less than nine years in prison.
Eunsook Oh, meanwhile, was so fearful of being robbed again that she went back to her native Korea and only recently returned to Los Angeles.
Brian Ahn continues to work at L.A. Video, where security cameras now keep track of everyone who comes and goes.
“I asked the police why they didn’t move in that day,” Ahn said recently, “and they told me that (the robbers) might have held us as hostages, which they said could have complicated things. They said they didn’t have any solid evidence to stop them.”
Ahn said he tries not to think about what happened to him on that November morning and has found solace in the fact that his assailants were captured so swiftly.
Others, however, whose lives were disrupted by dangerous criminals while SIS detectives watched, are less accepting of the unit’s methods.
Edward Merrill still seethes when recalling the night in January, 1983, when his wife, Jane, was robbed at gunpoint at a small liquor store-delicatessen three blocks from their North Hollywood home. SIS detectives watched two robbers drag her into the store and force the elderly woman to the floor, where they tied her up.
One of the thugs, whom the SIS had been following for about a week, was shot and wounded after the robbery. Both robbers later went to prison.
Jane Merrill escaped physical injury but remains terrified that she will one day be robbed again. It isn’t the criminals who attacked her whom Edward Merrill blames for his wife’s continued anguish.
“The least little thing could have gone wrong inside that store and she could have been killed,” Merrill said. “What could the cops do then? They can’t stop it once the robber pulls the trigger.”
A SURVEILLANCE, ROBBERY AND TWO INNOCENT VICTIMS
Los Angeles Police Department crime scene photos taken Nov. 12, 1986, after SIS detectives followed Rodney Hickman and Alan Bradley and watched them rob the L.A. Video store at 4369 W. 3rd St. Victims from three previous armed robberies, including a man who was shot in the stomach, already had picked Hickman out of a police photo lineup. Still, the surveillance squad waited as Hickman and Bradley held up the video shop, in which store manager Brian Ahn, right, and a clerk were pistol-whipped and kicked repeatedly. As Hickman and Bradley attempted to leave the crime scene in their stolen car, the officers fired six shotgun blasts. Both men were wounded in the head. A revolver was later found in Hickman’s pocket. Bradley was unarmed.
Facing more than 20 counts of armed robbery, assault, burglary and car theft--some stemming from crimes previous to the L.A. Video robbery--Hickman and Bradley arranged plea bargains. Hickman was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in state prison. Bradley was sentenced to no less than nine years.
SAME BANK, SAME DISGUISES, A DIFFERENT ENDING
The SIS spent 18 days in 1982 watching Jane E. Berry, 36, and John H. Crumpton, 33, parolees who had been linked to five bank robberies and already were wanted on federal arrest warrants. On Sept. 15, 1982, 13 detectives and a police helicopter followed them as Crumpton stole a car. The couple then drove to a Security National Pacific Bank branch in Burbank. The detectives watched Crumpton and Berry put on masks and gloves--the same garb the two had been photographed in when they robbed the same bank a month earlier. The detectives watched the robbery proceed, but when Berry and Crumpton returned to their car, they were surprised by four SIS detectives. The officers fired 18 times, wounding Berry and killing Crumpton. Berry never drew her weapon. Crumpton was unarmed.
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