Gates, Special Unit Found Liable for Robbers' Deaths

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A federal jury--saying it wanted to punish the police officers responsible but not reward the families of criminals--on Monday found Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and nine officers liable for the killing of three robbers and the wounding of a fourth outside a McDonald's restaurant in Sunland two years ago.

The jury assessed a $44,042 damage award against the defendants--nearly half of it against Gates--after four days of deliberations in the three-month trial. The plaintiffs contended that the department's controversial Special Investigations Section is a "death squad" and that its officers used excessive force when they opened fire on the robbers.

Jury members said they assessed the relatively low damages because they wanted to state that the officers acted improperly without awarding significant damages to the families of the robbers and the one man who survived the shooting and is now in prison.

"We wanted a verdict that sent a message to the police--the SIS should be revamped," said juror Edward Young, 40, of Los Angeles. "We didn't want a message that said robbers and their families could get a lot of money."

It was the first civil trial in which the Christopher Commission report--the highly critical study of the Police Department that followed the Rodney G. King beating--was allowed into evidence, but jurors said its impact on their findings was minimal.

Juror Kevin Jones said the report was treated as "just one of many data points. I don't think it swung the jury either way."

While finding that the officers used excessive force in the Feb. 12, 1990, shooting--and that Gates was ultimately responsible for their actions--the 10 jurors assessed no damages to the city.

"He's the leader," juror Bryce Yamashiro, 27, of Torrance, said of Gates. "He's responsible for controlling his officers."

The plaintiffs had sought $10 million, maintaining that the excessive force violated the robbers' civil rights. Along with Alfredo Olivas, 20, the robber who survived the shooting, the plaintiffs were relatives of the three men who were killed--Elizabeth Burgos and Julia Gomez, wife and mother-in-law of Herbert Burgos; Filadelpia Cruz, mother of Juan Bahena; and Raquel Moreno, wife of Jesus Arango.

In the incident that resulted in the lawsuit, 19 members of the SIS followed four men suspected in a string of restaurant robberies. They trailed them from Venice to Sunland and watched as they broke into the closed McDonald's and robbed the lone employee inside. She was unharmed.

After the robbers got into their getaway car on Foothill Boulevard, the officers moved in. They testified that they fired 35 shots from shotguns and handguns when the robbers pointed guns at them. After the 1 a.m. shooting, the officers learned that the weapons were unloaded pellet guns that were replicas of real firearms.

The shooting has spawned an ongoing investigation of the officers' actions by the FBI and has sparked a second lawsuit. Robbin Cox, the McDonald's employee who was robbed, is suing the SIS for negligence. Jurors said after the verdict Monday that they believed she was used as a "pawn" by the SIS officers who did nothing to stop the robbery.

Jurors also said that they found the officers' version of the events surrounding the shooting implausible and that there were numerous inconsistencies in the investigation by the Police Department's officer-involved shooting team that cleared them of any wrongdoing.

The plaintiffs contended that the robbers did not point weapons at the officers and jurors agreed that the scenario, as described by the SIS officers, was unlikely to have occurred.

"Common sense-wise, I don't think they would have pointed unloaded pellet guns at the police," Yamashiro said.

Stephen Yagman, chief attorney for the plaintiffs, said the verdict was a significant victory against a police unit with a long history of violence and a police chief who condones it.

"The object of this case was to bring an end to a murderous unit of the LAPD that has existed for years and been condoned by Daryl Gates," Yagman said in a telephone interview from Aspen, Colo. "The message is that this unit should be disbanded."

Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent, who defended the officers, expressed displeasure with the verdict but said it might not be appealed because of the minimal damages awarded.

"It's not the verdict we expected, and certainly not the one we wanted," said Vincent, who heads the unit in the city attorney's office that defends lawsuits against police officers.

Noting the King case and other controversies surrounding the Police Department, Vincent said: "The awards were nominal, and with what's been going on, this is really the worst time to try a police case."

Gates and the officers were not in the courtroom when the verdict was delivered. But in a statement released later through the Police Department, the police chief said he will urge Vincent to appeal.

"We firmly contend these officers were engaged in perilous work protecting the people of the city of Los Angeles with their lives and got into a shooting with bandits involved in numerous robberies, kidnapings and, in general, terrorizing their victims," Gates said in the statement. "If this decision stands, the department will have to evaluate if this effective tool . . . can continue to be used."

The jury awarded a total of $44,042 in damages, of which Gates was ordered to pay $20,505. Detectives John Helms and Richard Zierenberg, the two SIS partners who fired a total of 19 times on the robbers, were each ordered to pay $1,001 to each of the five plaintiffs. Seven other detectives who fired fewer times were ordered to pay damages ranging from $501 to each plaintiff to $501 to only one plaintiff.

Also, Vincent noted, the city could eventually pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the plaintiffs' attorneys. Under federal guidelines for civil rights cases, a government agency is liable for plaintiffs' legal costs if the plaintiffs win during trial, he said.

It was unclear Monday whether Gates and the officers will have to personally pay the damages assessed by the jury. In the past, the City Council has voted to cover damages awarded in police cases with money from the city's insurance fund.

But in assessing the damages, jurors made a point of saying they did not want taxpayers footing the bill.

"We wanted something that these people would have to pay out of their own pockets," said juror John O'Malley, 37, of Ventura. "From what I understand, the City Council can pay it, but I don't think they should."

Times staff writer Leslie Berger contributed to this story.

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