A Superior Court jury here has ordered the city of Los Angeles to pay $622,830 in damages to the estranged wife and two children of a man killed by an off-duty LAPD officer in 1992 in a double murder-suicide fueled by a love triangle.
The widow, Orleatha Thomas of Rancho Cucamonga, had charged in her civil suit that the Police Department knew Officer Victor Felix Ramos had beaten and threatened his wife, Melba Ramos, but failed to provide him with enough psychological counseling or take away his gun.
Although jurors essentially agreed, finding that Thomas and her sons had suffered $1.78 million in losses, they placed most of the blame on the deceased parties themselves and in issuing their verdict Wednesday asked that the city pay out only 23% of the total damage.
Melba Ramos, 26, Gregory Rico Thomas, 39, and Victor Ramos, 29, died on Aug. 12, 1992, when the distraught officer, a three-year veteran of the West Los Angeles Division, fired 20 rounds from his LAPD-issued pistol into his wife and her lover before turning the weapon on himself.
The Ramoses' three sons, then aged 3, 5 and 6, were physically unharmed but stayed huddled in a bedroom of the family's south Glendale townhouse all night until the bodies were discovered by police the next morning.
According to court testimony and police documents, Ramos beat his wife and pointed a gun at her on May 18, 1992, when she returned to the Hollywood office where she worked as a secretary from a lunch date with Thomas.
Ramos told his superiors about the incident, and agreed to turn in his 9-millimeter Beretta and seek counseling. He was taken off patrol duty for a month, then returned to work and reissued his gun.
"The LAPD knew [the beating] had happened but failed to report it accurately or deal with it in accordance with their own policies and procedures," said Gregory Yates, Orleatha Thomas' attorney. "They took Officer Ramos' gun, but returned it shortly thereafter . . . without providing a psychological evaluation to determine if he was fit to carry that firearm."
Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Victor Schulte said LAPD officials decided to remove Ramos from patrol duty and send him for counseling on a voluntary rather than mandatory basis because the officer had a clean record and was described as a "quiet, timid cop."
Ramos attended just one 45-minute session with an LAPD psychologist, Schulte acknowledged.
The Internal Affairs Division also began a mandatory investigation into the officer's behavior, but that, too, fell short, according to court testimony.
An officer who interviewed Melba Torres after the May, 1992, incident failed to include in his report her statement that Ramos had pointed a gun at her, Schulte said. Then, in two subsequent interviews with police--tapes and transcripts of which were presented to the jury--Melba Ramos either said that her husband pointed his gun at a computer or failed to mention the gun at all.
The internal investigation and a simultaneous criminal investigation into possible domestic abuse charges were being completed when the shooting occurred, Schulte said.
Because of the department's efforts and the fact that Ramos had a blood-alcohol level of .22% when he died, Schulte said he believed the LAPD was not responsible for the officer's behavior.
"For some reason he snapped that night, and our contention was that the snap was enough for the LAPD not to have any liability," Schulte said.
The jury partly agreed. After 10 days of testimony and four days of deliberation, it awarded Thomas and her two sons, now ages 8 and 10, a total of $1.78 million in damages for Gregory Thomas' lost income as a personal trainer as well as their emotional suffering.
But the jury found the LAPD responsible for roughly 23% of the damages; the bulk of the damages were assigned to the deceased and will not be paid.
Victor Ramos was found responsible for 43%, Melba Ramos for 20% and Gregory Thomas for 12%, said Superior Court Judge Charles Stoll. Orleatha Thomas herself was assigned 2% of the blame for failing to put an end to the affair.
Stoll said a portion of the award will be put in a trust for the Thomases' two children.
Melba Ramos' survivors have also filed a $6-million federal civil rights lawsuit against the LAPD. The case was originally rejected by a federal district court judge, but last month the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the case should be reconsidered.
The Ramos children are now living with relatives.