The manager of a Sunland McDonald's who was robbed by four men while an undercover unit of Los Angeles police officers watched without interfering has filed a $1-million claim against the city, charging that the officers were negligent because they did not stop the break-in.
Robbin L. Cox, 24, said she was terrorized at gunpoint during the Feb. 12 robbery at the Foothill Boulevard restaurant and remains traumatized and unable to return to work. "Just because they didn't shoot me doesn't mean I wasn't hurt," she said of the robbers.
The robbery ended when three of the suspects were shot to death and the fourth was wounded during a confrontation outside the restaurant with members of the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Investigations Section. The unit has become controversial in recent years because of its high number of shootings and incidents in which officers allowed crimes to take place and victims were threatened or injured.
Police said at the time of the Sunland McDonald's robbery that the unit's officers had been following the four men because they were suspects in a string of fast-food restaurant robberies.
However, the officers did not move in to stop the robbery--even after Cox called 911 requesting help--because the suspects broke in too quickly, were scattered around the restaurant and had no previous record of harming their victims, police said.
Cox, who lives in the Pasadena area, filed a claim for damages Thursday against the city, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and members of the investigations unit.
"The motto of the Police Department is, 'To protect and serve,' " said Christopher Hiddleson, an attorney representing Cox. "I certainly don't feel they protected Robbin. Whatever happened to Robbin was of no concern to those officers."
But Assistant City Atty. Victoria G. Chaney said the officers did not behave negligently during the McDonald's robbery investigation.
"It is the city's and the officers' position that they acted properly and used reasonable tactics given the situation," Chaney said.
Cox said she was alone in the locked restaurant at 11:45 p.m. on a Sunday when she heard a loud noise. She said that when she looked out one of the glass doors on the side of the restaurant she saw a man jump away and press his body against the wall. She said another man ducked and ran away from the door.
Cox said she realized the men were not customers who had mistakenly thought the restaurant was open. She said she followed McDonald's procedure by going to a phone in an office, dialing 911 and reporting a burglary in progress.
"The operator asked how I knew and I told her what I saw," Cox said. "I was trying to be specific, the way I was taught--tell them exactly what is happening. She told me to hang up, and I asked if I could stay on the phone. I told her I was alone. She said my hanging up was the only way to put the report through fast."
After hanging up, Cox waited in the office for 15 minutes, she said. But the police did not arrive, and the robbers broke in and held her at gunpoint.
"I figured the police were here, or at least should be," she said. "I didn't know what happened."
The dispatch of her emergency call was intercepted by the undercover unit officers who were already outside the restaurant. The officers decided not to move in once the robbers were inside the restaurant because entering the restaurant while the suspects were with Cox could have endangered her life, authorities said.
But Cox and her attorney claim that the officers had more than ample time to capture the robbers before they entered. Because Cox had reported a burglary in progress and the suspects were seen attempting to open the restaurant's door, there was probable cause for police to move in and arrest them. Hiddleson said the officers held back because they wanted to arrest the suspects for a more serious crime than an attempted break-in.
Chaney disputed Cox's account on the duration of the break-in, saying it happened very quickly and before officers could react. City officials declined to release a tape-recording of the 911 call.
After the robbers broke in, Cox was tied up, blindfolded and forced to give them the combination to the restaurant's safe.
Cox described an exchange in which one of the robbers could not open the safe and accused her of giving him the wrong combination: "He told me he was going to blow my brains out," she said. "But I had given him the right combination. At that point, I was the most scared. I thought I was going to be killed."
After the robbers opened the safe and took the money, they left Cox tied up in the office. She said that a few moments later she heard gunfire in the street. Fearing that the robbers would retreat to the restaurant, she said, she hid in a refrigerator until police officers found her.
Police said that when the robbers returned to their car, the investigations unit's officers moved in to make arrests and opened fire when one of the suspects pointed a gun at them. The gun was later found to be a pellet gun.
Herbert Burgos, 27, and Jesus Arango, 25, both of Venice, and Javier Trevino Cruz, 20, of Hollywood were killed. Alfredo Olivas was shot but recovered. Last week he was sentenced to 17 years in prison after pleading guilty to 10 counts of robbery.
No officers were injured in the shooting.
Cox remains angry that police did not stop the robbery, even if it meant moving in and arresting the suspects before they actually entered the restaurant.
"They told me they had watched the whole thing," Cox said of the unit's officers. "I thought, 'What do you mean you watched them coming in?' Why didn't they do anything?"
City officials said the claim is the first ever filed against the unit by a victim of a crime it investigated. Criminal suspects who have been shot by the unit's officers have filed suit on two occasions.