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Fugitive’s Twin Has Legal ‘Identity Crisis’ : Courts: Man mistaken for brother wanted in bank robbery seeks $13 million.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fraternal twins Ray Dean Nugent and Jay Gene Nugent used to pull childhood pranks of switched identities when they were growing up in Arkansas. Even though Ray has green eyes and Jay has brown, the rest of the world had a hard time telling the youngsters apart.

Now, the Nugent boys are 38 years old and those tight bonds of twinship are no longer cause for giggles. Not while Jay remains a fugitive wanted for bank robbery and attempted murder of two police officers. And not since Ray spent 13 days in Los Angeles County Jail because authorities confused him with his brother.

“I love my twin brother, you know. I’ve never been angry with him,” said Ray Nugent, a burly Eagle Rock contractor with a shaved head, goatee and a steady gaze. “But I am angry about the way the police treated me.”

Since his jailing in June, 1993--the fourth time his identity has been confused by police--Ray has channeled his anger into researching criminal law. As a result, he recently filed federal and Superior Court lawsuits against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for what he contends were false imprisonment and malicious disregard of evidence showing he was not Jay. He is seeking $13 million--a million for every day he was kept in jail cells with Crips and other dangerous gangsters.

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“At first when we heard about it, we thought, gee, this sounds like something out of a novel about the good twin and the evil twin,” recalled Roberta Ikemi, an attorney friend who helped free Ray and avoid extradition to Louisiana, where the 1985 bank robbery occurred. “Things like that normally don’t happen and yet here it was happening.”

The Sheriff’s Department, public defender’s office and court records all confirm that Ray Nugent was jailed without bail on an FBI fugitive warrant from June 9 to June 22, 1993. Release papers state that the person in custody was “the wrong defendant.”

John Hoos, an FBI spokesman in Los Angeles, said the agency has been aware for years that there are Nugent twins. As for Ray, Hoos added: “We believe him to be a stable individual.” Jay’s whereabouts, he said, are unknown.

Sheriff Sherman Block was on vacation and unavailable to discuss the Nugent case. Block’s spokesman, Sgt. Larry Lincoln, said the department does not comment on cases in litigation.

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The effort to free Ray Nugent attracted a large cast. Among the people who lobbied for him were employers, friends, staff aides of an Arkansas congressman and family members, including an older Nugent brother who is, ironically, a policeman in their hometown of Little Rock, Ark.

Ray Nugent said he believes that his twin brother is innocent of the robbery and attempted murder charges, although he concedes “anything is possible” since he last talked to Jay several months before the shootout.

But beyond that debate, Ray said his experience in jail made him a changed man.

“I was fixing to hit middle age and cruise. Now this opened me up about how poor people are treated in the judicial system,” he said the other day on the steps of the federal courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles, his Arkansas accent still strong. “I never really cared about politics. And I’m no bleeding heart liberal. But the whole system, honest to God, is made to plea bargain, not to find out who’s innocent or guilty.”

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Given the serious charges, Ray Nugent said, it is understandable why he might be held for a few hours or even overnight. That is why he always keeps in his wallet a plastic-embossed business card given to him by a South Pasadena police officer who took Ray, handcuffed, into custody on Jay’s fugitive warrant after a minor traffic accident in 1988.

On his card, Officer Gabriel Thierry penciled the 1988 case number as a guidepost to any other policeman who thinks Ray is the man who stole $7,000 from the St. Landry Bank and Trust Co. on North Main Street in Opelousas, La., and escaped in a flurry of bullets. Also on the card is a contact number for the FBI.

“You gotta feel sorry for the guy if his brother is making his life a living hell,” Thierry said this week.

The officer recalled the mixed identities incident from 1988 because “that kind of thing doesn’t happen too often.” Beyond eye color differences, records showed that Ray had a chin scar from a childhood mishap, but Jay did not, Thierry reported.

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Twice over the next few years, Ray Nugent recounted, policemen pulled him over for broken taillights on his 1987 white Ford van and discovered the Nugent warrant in routine checks. The officers, however, called South Pasadena police and quickly released him.

But the card did not help on June 9, 1993. That is when Ray, after inspecting a remodeling job in Malibu, pulled off Pacific Coast Highway to watch the waves and feed the sea gulls. That is when two sheriff’s deputies noticed that his van’s registration had expired, he said.

The deputies ignored Thierry’s card, Nugent contends. His lawsuit alleges that they subsequently didn’t heed fingerprint records, the twins’ birth certificates sent by their mother, and numerous telephone calls from friends, relatives and the office of Rep. Ray Thornton, the Little Rock Democrat who represents Nugent’s mother.

“I thought we could get him out right away,” recalled a Thornton aide, who said she placed the calls to the sheriff but asked this week not to be identified. “The bad thing was they kept him so long. . . . It was awful. I got the impression they didn’t care about Ray.”

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Arthur Nugent, the Little Rock police officer who is the oldest son in the family, also telephoned. “I told them my name is Nugent too and I don’t want to be thrown in jail because of something my brother did,” Arthur said this week.

Two days after his arrest, Ray Nugent was arraigned on the warrant. It took 10 more days for the case to be dismissed at an extradition hearing. He was released the next day.

Because he is a large man, Ray said, he was able to steer safely through the violence in jail. He is more worried, he said, that he might one day be shot if he does not react quickly enough to a nervous police officer’s commands.

After high school, Ray Nugent attended college for two years and then worked as a roughneck on gulf oil rigs. Although he has never married, Nugent is the father of a 15-year-old girl who lives with her mother in Arkansas. He came to Los Angeles in 1982 to work with friends as a plumber and builder. Nugent may look like a thick-necked tough guy, but he is actually a bookworm whom friends jokingly call “absent-minded professor,” said Ikemi and others.

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That love of reading led Nugent through months of research in the county law library after his jailing. There he learned about a relevant case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979. In Baker vs. McCollan, one brother argued his civil rights were violated when he was jailed on narcotics charges for eight days before authorities in Potter County, Tex., conceded that they had arrested the wrong sibling.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Texas sheriff had probable cause to think the right man was in jail because of past confusion over the brothers’ driver’s licenses. As long as a speedy trial was guaranteed, the sheriff was not required “to investigate independently every claim of innocence, whether the claim is based on mistaken identity,” wrote Justice William H. Rehnquist for the majority.

Yet, in a phrase that tantalizes Nugent, Rehnquist wrote that insufficient investigation “in the face of repeated protests of innocence will after the lapse of a certain amount of time deprive the accused” of his rights.

It is not just his extra days in jail that makes his case different, Nugent suggests. He also alleges that sheriff’s deputies purposefully ignored early evidence.

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However, Deputy Public Defender Stan Efron, who represented Nugent in his final hearing, said it is not unusual for innocent people to be held two weeks in extradition cases. In such cases, identity hearings are usually held 10 days after arraignments. Although he had no memory of Nugent amid a heavy caseload, Efron reviewed his records this week and found such a 10-day separation between hearings.

“That’s the way it goes,” Efron stated. “I’m sorry for Mr. Nugent and I wish him luck, but it’s not uncommon.”

What is uncommon is bank robbery in Opelousas, a town of about 19,000 people, 140 miles west of New Orleans. There has never been another such crime since the alleged heist by Jay Nugent on June 17, 1985, according to Detective Sgt. Donald Thompson, one of two officers who exchanged gunfire with the escaping robber. No one was wounded and, after a car chase, Jay Nugent apparently fled on foot into the woods, Thompson recalled.

Jetta Hickman, the Nugents’ mother, said she has not heard from Jay since before the bank robbery. Born 30 minutes ahead of Ray, Jay was always more hot-headed, more of a discipline problem than the younger twin, she recalled.

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A nurse in a large public hospital in Little Rock, Hickman said her work experience gave her insights into why it took so long for Ray to be freed last year. “I know how people get lost in the system here. I can see very well how it happens,” she said.

Police officers have suggested that the confusion would end if Ray Nugent somehow changed his name. He rejects that advice, but first in jest, and now more seriously, Nugent has taken to signing letters with the name “Outlaw.”

“It’s who I became in that jail cell,” he said.


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