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Investigation of Death Is Officer’s Life : Police: Lt. Sergio Robleto, head of South Bureau Homicide, has turned the unit around.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not long after Lt. Sergio Robleto took command of South Bureau Homicide--the Los Angeles Police Department’s biggest and busiest murder squad--one of his detectives had a heart attack right before his eyes.

The detective was in Robleto’s office complaining about stress. It was 1993 and murder was rampant in South Bureau, which covers the city’s southern end. By year’s end, a record 411 killings had been reported. Cases poured in so fast that investigators had to put aside one almost as soon as they started it to tackle a fresher one.

As he talked, the detective grew pale. He began to sweat. Moments later, Robleto was driving him to a doctor. Over the next several months, two more detectives suffered heart attacks; another had a stroke.

“People were just getting sick left and right,” Robleto says. “I figured I’d never even finish two years here. I thought they’d be carting my butt out, too.”

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In the 56 square miles under his jurisdiction, 18,000 gang members roam the streets. His detectives ducked automatic weapons fire at a crime scene; one investigator was forced into hiding by rumors that a gang sniper was stalking him. Witnesses are killed so often that Robleto refuses to release the total, for fear of sealing future witnesses’ lips.

He is beeped to grisly murder scenes at all hours of the night; twice he developed pneumonia after supervising lengthy investigations. When a teen-ager is slain, he performs the heart-breaking chore of notifying the parents. He works up to 70 hours a week.

He says it’s the best job he’s ever had.

‘Don’t Be Fooled by This Smiling Face’

At an LAPD firing range in San Pedro, Robleto and his detectives are holding their annual Juneteenth picnic. Tables are piled with barbecued ribs and potato salad; bursts of raucous laughter puncture the air.

About half the detectives are white men but there also are blacks, Latinos and women, mingling easily. A white cop plops down next to Robleto and starts kidding him about his ethnicity.

“El Salvadoran,” says the cop, grinning.

“I ain’t no Salvadoran,” says Robleto, grinning back.

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“Guatemalan.”

“I’m Nicaraguense.

He is the only LAPD lieutenant from Nicaragua--dark, portly and smart. At 47, his thick black hair is finely shot with silver. He is gregarious and political, earthy and ambitious. He smiles easily but warns: “Don’t be fooled by this smiling face.”

He doesn’t just enjoy homicide work, he loves it. He is a rarity among homicide lieutenants: one who was once a homicide detective. In 1984, he and a partner identified a serial killer suspected of slaying 34 elderly Hollywood women. Lately, he has been studying autoerotic deaths in his spare time, so he can advise subordinates how to distinguish them from murders.

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Robleto took over South Bureau Homicide in December, 1992--a time, he says, when morale could not have been worse.

With swatches of South-Central Los Angeles still in ruins from the riots, community hostility toward the police ran high. A surge in murders had left detectives struggling to handle their caseloads. Many witnesses refused to speak to investigators, forcing them to abandon dozens of cases.

“Nobody would talk to us,” says Paul Mize, a South Bureau detective since 1976. “You’d walk up to somebody’s house and they’d say through the door, ‘I have a gun, get off my porch. If you don’t, I’m going to shoot through the door.’ ”

Statistics reflected the depth of the problem. In 1992, South Bureau’s murder “clearance rate"--the ratio of cases in which investigators manage to identify a suspect--was an anemic 47%, the lowest of LAPD’s four bureaus. (Central Bureau--with more murders that year--had a 63% rate). There was talk at Parker Center of dismantling South Bureau, breaking it into four smaller divisions.

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Robleto faced internal problems as well. Cliques had formed in the squad room. Supervisors openly complained that they were not getting enough support from LAPD brass. One detective was an alcoholic; another had choked his wife. Still another, whom Robleto describes as a “good ol’ boy,” had called a black detective “boy.”

A dozen other officers wanted out of the unit. They were former patrol and motorcycle cops who, as the murder rate rose, had been hurriedly converted into homicide investigators--without benefit of training. They wanted their old jobs back, fast.

Robleto immediately set out to shake things up.

He made it clear that working homicide “is a privilege” and he would tolerate no more whining.

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“I had to be a little bit demanding, [and say] that being down and out is a comfort zone that’s not meant for homicide detectives,” he says. “You want to come crying to me about the riots or politics, go somewhere else. . . . I ain’t got time for that. You want to cry about a case, I’ll cry with you.”

He also started lobbying for more detectives. At the time, South Bureau had only 43. Robleto went to Police Chief Willie L. Williams, himself relatively new on the job, and pleaded for more bodies.

Eventually, he began to get some. They were younger, much younger. While most LAPD homicide investigators are in their 40s, the average age of Robleto’s crew dropped to about 30, he says.

Besides importing new blood, he overhauled the way homicide investigations were conducted.

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Under the old system, two lead detectives handled virtually an entire investigation, from diagraming the position of the corpse to interviewing witnesses.

But under Robleto, four investigators performed routine crime-scene tasks, such as collecting evidence, which can consume hours or even days. That, he says, freed the lead detectives to quickly interview witnesses and get a jump on pursuing a suspect.

Some detectives went along with the changes. But others, especially veterans, grumbled. They complained that Robleto was being too dogmatic. That he was a publicity hound. That he tried to micro-manage their cases.

Moreover, experienced investigators felt that having too many inexperienced ones meant South Bureau’s clearance rates would never improve. At one point, Robleto recalled, he looked up to see a woman detective in a shouting match with her older male partner over what leads to pursue.

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But the new commander stuck to his guns, arguing that younger detectives would reinvigorate the bureau.

“Police work is a young man’s sport,” Robleto says. “And homicide in South L.A. is a very young detective’s sport.

“In a place where the burnout factor is so high, because the work is so hard, you need that youthful enthusiasm to drive the organization. Those guys will work 36, 40 hours straight. And then they want to know if they can go and arrest somebody, when I’m on my last wind and ready to pass out and so are all the other old-timers.”

He also made it clear that those who resisted his policies could seek work elsewhere. To help speed their departure, he tutored some officers on promotional exams.

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“I made it quite evident that if someone didn’t want to be there . . . that I would be more than happy to punch their exit visa,” he says.

At the same time, he sought ways to boost morale--to, in his words, “give the guys some wins.”

He gave out more commendations, and urged other supervisors to do the same. He staged news conferences whenever a big case was solved, making sure the detectives involved got due credit. He even donned an apron and, joined by lower-level supervisors, cooked breakfast for his investigators.

The upshot? Today, South Bureau has 66 detectives, a 53% increase over 1992. The bureau’s clearance rate hit 71% in June. And there is no talk anymore of breaking it up.

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“There’s a lot more optimism now,” says Chuck Merritt, a 15-year veteran of South Bureau Homicide. “The [additional] resources have made the workload a little more reasonable. It allows the detectives to pursue those extra leads, to look a little deeper in their investigations.”

‘We’re Not in the Business of Being Close’

It is a Friday evening, and the squad room with its long rows of detectives’ desks is mostly empty. In his glassed-in office, Robleto sucks on a Tootsie Pop as he studies a thick blue notebook.

Cops call them murder books. They summarize homicide investigations. The most important part of Robleto’s job is reviewing the books, making sure his detectives are on track, suggesting different ways to approach a case.

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After such a review, he makes a crucial judgment call: to “clear” or close a case, or to keep hunting the suspect.

The murder book before him details an armed robbery that turned into a killing: Two Latinos stole a gold chain from a middle-aged black man, then shot him in the chest.

The detectives assigned to the slaying believe they have identified one suspect: a man who recently committed suicide. They want to close the case on him. But their evidence is circumstantial, and Robleto doesn’t quite buy it. He wants them to find an eyewitness who can place the suicide victim at the murder scene.

If the man who killed himself isn’t the suspect, closing the case means a murderer walks free.

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“It’s real close,” Robleto says. “But we’re not in the business of being close. I’ve got the feeling they haven’t done enough.”

In the late 1970s, Robleto was a homicide detective in the tough Rampart Division. His fellow cops tagged him with a half-mocking, half-affectionate nickname: Chili Chan.

At one point he was assigned to investigate a double murder at a hamburger stand. There was a witness, a scared young man who named a local gang member as the killer.

But because of a slip-up by another police officer, the witness wound up dead in the Los Angeles River. The incident left a strong impression on Robleto, who calls witnesses who risk their safety to come forward the “true heroes” of the criminal justice system.

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“Ask anybody in the squad what I think about witnesses,” he says. “Do not make a mistake with a witness with me.”

That resoluteness is regularly tested in South Bureau.

Witnesses have been gunned down. Their houses have been set on fire. In 1991, a family of four, including a witness, died after their home was torched. Last year, 39 witnesses and their families had to be evacuated from their homes by Robleto’s detectives.

“I’ve never seen the ferocity of the attempts [to kill or intimidate witnesses] that we have here,” he says. The culprits, he added, usually are gang members.

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The number of witnesses killed on his watch is big enough, he says, that revealing it would terrify other witnesses into silence--exactly what the gangs want.

“It’s too negative,” he says, shaking his head. “It’d just drive them underground.”

Another good way to rile him is to fail to keep him updated on a politically sensitive case.

On a recent afternoon, a visibly agitated Robleto personally supervised several detectives as they examined the home of a state senator’s mother-in-law, who had died there.

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Her family believes a burglar may have attacked her. One of Robleto’s detectives interviewed family members by phone but did not check the house for possible evidence. The senator later complained that police did not investigate thoroughly.

The detective is one of Robleto’s top people. But the lieutenant says he is so angry, “I’m tempted to gangster-slap him.”

Robleto says he generally has good relationships with the three City Council members who represent South Los Angeles. But, he quickly added, he steers clear of politicians whenever possible.

“The only reason I go near them is to get reward money,” he says, laughing.

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‘Get Him, Boys! Get Him!’

At 8 o’clock on a Friday night, a detective pokes her head into Robleto’s office.

“We just got one,” she says.

A 16-year-old gang member has been fatally shot by someone in a Datsun. Police have spotted the car in another neighborhood, parked and empty, and put it under surveillance.

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Robleto, who minutes ago had been complaining about his problems and threatening to retire, begins humming the Marine Corps anthem.

Of the 300 to 400 homicides in South Los Angeles each year, Robleto “rolls” on two-thirds of them, personally overseeing detectives at the crime scene. In minutes he arrives at the site of this latest murder, on Western Avenue near 39th Street.

The boy’s body has been removed by paramedics, but a dark puddle of his blood remains on a sidewalk. Robleto walks over and eyes it.

“That’s all that remains of a human being,” he mutters.

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Suddenly, a cop runs toward him. The gunman’s car is on the move, officers trailing it.

Robleto runs to his car. He punches the accelerator, hitting 50 m.p.h. in traffic on Western, weaving among startled motorists without benefit of siren or flashing lights.

“Get him, boys! Get him!” he shouts, as his radio barks details of the suspect’s pursuit.

Moments later, he jams on his brakes on Adams Boulevard, where a battered Datsun is stopped and a skinny young man stands handcuffed amid half a dozen grinning cops.

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Using a pocket flashlight, Robleto picks out a dot of blood on the passenger-side window. Beaming, he shakes hands with each officer.

“Textbook,” he tells one. “Just textbook.”

And, with a look of cop satisfaction in his eyes, it’s clear that Robleto’s love of the job is intact--at least for another day.


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