A retired farmer who spent two grueling months in a high-security prison in Mexico sued the Los Angeles Police Department for false imprisonment Thursday.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Jose Gonzalez, a citizen of Mexico, and his wife, Maria Pinto de Gonzalez, is believed to be the first attempt to use the federal Alien Tort Claims Act to sue a local police agency.
Under that law, passed in 1789 but rarely used until 1980, a non-citizen has the right to seek redress in federal court for violations of international law, such as torture, false arrest or false imprisonment.
Gonzalez, 73, was arrested by Mexican police outside his Tenamastlan, Mexico, home in July, 1994, on a murder warrant issued by the LAPD. Over his protestations of innocence, the father of 12 grown children and 26 grandchildren was sent to Puente Grande prison in Jalisco.
"I was standing in front of my house," Gonzalez said through an interpreter. "[The police] came up there and just arrested me. I told them I had nothing to do with it."
Gonzalez insisted he had never been in trouble with the law.
"All my life I've been peaceful," he said at a news conference in his attorney's Santa Monica office. Three of his sons were by his side, but his wife of 47 years was too ill to make the trip from Mexico, he said.
According to the lawsuit, which seeks more than $1 million in damages, police suspected Gonzalez of killing an acquaintance on Workman Street in San Fernando in July, 1992. But the lawsuit alleges it was a case of false identity from the outset.
Gonzalez said he was not in Los Angeles at the time. The real suspect's name was Miguel Lopez, according to a police bulletin issued after the crime that bore Lopez's picture. Both Lopez and Gonzalez are from the same Mexican town and each has a glass eye. But Gonzalez is 20 years older than Lopez, and their glass eyes are on opposite sides.
Still, Mexican police put Gonzalez in prison, where he stayed for two months despite frantic efforts by his family to show police in both countries that they had the wrong man.
At one hearing in Mexico, Lopez's sister-in-law brought the judge a picture to illustrate that Gonzalez was not Lopez. But, the lawsuit says, the judge said he could not release Gonzalez without the approval of the LAPD detectives who sought his arrest.
A spokesman for the LAPD said he could not comment on the case because of the litigation.
In prison, Gonzalez slept on a concrete floor next to a toilet. He worked in the prison gardens until he earned money for blankets and a mattress. The food was inedible, Gonzalez said, so his family brought him food from home.
Responding to reporters' questions Thursday, Gonzalez described his ordeal simply as " una cosa mala (a bad thing)."
The lawsuit names as defendants the city of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department, Police Chief Willie L. Williams and LAPD detectives and supervisors Salvador Narez, John D. White and Alberto F. Gonzales. In addition, an LAPD detective identified only as Moya was listed as a defendant. An LAPD spokeswoman declined to release Moya's first name.
The 1992 street killing that sparked Gonzalez's ordeal remains unsolved, said his attorney Paul L. Hoffman. The lawyer said he will argue that the arrest and imprisonment of Gonzalez violated international law and thus falls under federal court jurisdiction.