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Attorneys Experience Life in Third-World War Zone : Legal affairs: Four L.A. lawyers on a pro bono case investigate massacre of 15 peasants in El Salvador.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It must have been an odd sight: four young attorneys from one of the largest law firms in California, dressed in their business suits, briefcases in hand and unable to speak Spanish, investigating the massacre of 15 peasants in a Third-World war zone known as El Salvador.

For June McIvor, a Marina del Rey resident who normally handles corporate buyouts, very little in her elite East Coast schooling prepared her for what she would find. The graphic photos of mutilated corpses; the horrific tales of murder from stoic 7-year-olds; the entrenched poverty of dirt-floor huts.

“It is a totally different world,” she said.

McIvor, 28, and three other associates who work at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in downtown Los Angeles took on the investigation as a highly unusual pro bono case, one that dispatched the team into what was for them truly unexplored territory.

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What they experienced was a far cry from their workaday world in Los Angeles, a world of plush, carpeted offices on the 43rd floor of a downtown skyscraper, a world of personal computers and billable hours, of beachfront homes, Volvo sedans and sailing in the bay.

For one week in the relentless tropical heat of March, the three women and one man rode along narrow dirt roads past bombed-out electrical power plants; they met with army generals in fortified command headquarters; they paced the clearing in the woods near a hamlet called El Zapote, where 15 members of the same family were killed Jan. 21.

With three interpreters in tow, the attorneys interviewed suspects in an open-air prison where leftist guerrillas controlled entire sections; they swatted flies in the offices of judges who work without a staff or an electrical typewriter--but with death threats hanging over their heads.

“Lots of things shocked me about El Salvador,” said Karen N. Fredericksen, 31, an associate who usually works on multimillion-dollar libel suits and other 1st Amendment cases for some of the country’s media giants.

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“I couldn’t even fathom what it’s like to live almost 11 years in civil war.”

The El Zapote case was brought to the attention of Gibson Dunn by a Central American activist group seeking a law firm to do pro bono work on the killings. The four attorneys were persuaded that if they didn’t go, the deaths might be forgotten.

They presented their proposal to Gibson Dunn’s pro bono committee, which gave its approval. Pro bono is free legal work and Los Angeles law firms have been encouraged by the county bar association to provide it on an ongoing basis.

The result of the trip is a 34-page report released Friday in which the attorneys urge further investigation and suggest that Salvadoran authorities did not handle the case properly.

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Salvadoran officials have said the killings were part of a family feud. Some human rights groups have suggested the military might have had a role.

Both the attorneys and Gibson Dunn have sought to distance the firm from the report, saying the document only reflects the authors’ viewpoints.

Nevertheless, Gibson Dunn sanctioned and paid for its associates’ investigation, and questions have been raised about whether the work--and the firm’s well-known name--will be used to press a political agenda.

Although their findings are largely inconclusive, the attorneys who made the trip concede the report may form part of future discussions on the controversial issue of U.S. military aid to El Salvador. The activist group that pitched the case, the Central American Refugee Center, has a long history of fighting U.S. policies in Central America.

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“We try very hard not to take sides politically,” said Ron Beard, chair of the 650-member law firm. “But we do encourage our attorneys to engage in community and pro bono matters (and) unless there is truly a conflict, we don’t restrict those activities.”

“Our work could very well be used by some group or individuals who espouse a particular cause,” said Thomas B. Pitcher, chairman of Gibson Dunn’s pro bono committee. “That goes with the territory. We undertake this kind of work, apply the same kind of lawyering skills that we expect to give a client, and then stand by it.”

Senior attorneys at Gibson Dunn said that in approving the project, the main concern at the firm was the safety of four employees venturing into a country torn by war. The four were required to sign numerous waivers before traveling.

Their luggage swelled by computer terminals, printers and office supplies, Fredericksen, McIvor, and the other participants, Eileen M. Duncan and Mark D. Kemple, flew to San Salvador on March 17. They were accompanied by an aide to Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.). They also carried dozens of letters of introduction from U.S. congressmen.

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Once in El Salvador, the lawyers received something akin to red-carpet treatment, Fredericksen said, with unusual access to judicial files, orphanages, prisons, military commanders and dozens of witnesses.

The facts of the case go like this: Beginning at 11 p.m. on Jan. 21, 15 members of the Aragon family, ranging in age from 14 to 65, were taken from their mud-and-stick, one-room homes in El Zapote and killed. Several were stabbed repeatedly.

Because of the large number of victims, the case created a furor in El Salvador and attracted the attention of human rights organizations.

For McIvor, the eeriest moment came when the attorneys-cum-detectives walked through the clearing where the butchered bodies had been found. She took notes on who was tied up where, who was killed where.

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“That really brought it home,” said the blonde, well-manicured McIvor. “It was creepy. We went there in very broad daylight.”

Safety, they said, was a concern. They were warned not to go out at night, not to talk freely in taxi cabs and to assume their hotel rooms were bugged. They looked out for strange characters lurking in the hotel lobby.

The four said they were taken aback by the commonplace nature of violence in El Salvador, of the way people almost seemed nonchalant about bombings and shootings. Distant shooting always gave pause.

Fredericksen, who has a young daughter, said the most difficult thing was interviewing several little boys who are said to have witnessed the killings.

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“You just can’t feel sorry enough for them,” she said. “The first week or two (after returning to Los Angeles), I had nightmares.”

“It’s hard to deal with a massacre,” added McIvor.

Kemple was struck by the sparse conditions judicial officials worked in. The attorney general’s office, he noted, consisted of cheap paneling, a battered desk and a chair.

A former clerk for U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie of Los Angeles and former editor for Cable News Network, Kemple, 29, is a USC law graduate who lives in Manhattan Beach and concentrates his practice on antitrust law and trademark infringement.

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For the El Zapote investigation, the four said they spent the days traversing the countryside, then the nights compiling notes, summarizing interviews and outlining details in the case.

Ultimately, the attorneys said they found circumstantial evidence of military involvement in the killings--as well as similar evidence that lent credence to the official explanation of a feud between rival families. The dead may have had ties to the guerrillas, while the second family may have been connected to the military, the lawyers say.

In their report, the four attorneys say that the “extraordinarily complex” truth in the case may never be known.

None of the four spoke Spanish--though Fredericksen said she speaks Danish--nor had they ever taken much interest in Central American causes before the trip to El Zapote, they say.

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“You wonder what right do we have to be doing this,” McIvor allowed. “We all come from very different backgrounds and don’t know what life is like down there, (then) to come in and say we’re going to make a judgment. . . .

“But, then you think, it was such an egregious crime, someone has to figure it out. It’s everyone’s business.”

The four said Friday their work is done, and there were no immediate plans to revisit El Salvador. In fact, upon returning to Los Angeles after the weeklong trip, two of the attorneys climbed out of the plane, walked to the sidewalk at LAX, knelt down and kissed the ground.

“We were glad to be home,” McIvor said.

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