Citing insufficient evidence, federal authorities said Thursday that no perjury indictments will result from a grand jury investigation into whether members of an elite Los Angeles police unit lied about the 1990 shooting deaths of three robbery suspects in Sunland.
The announcement by U. S. Atty. Nora Manella brings to a close five years of probes and controversy over the actions of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Investigations Section, also known as the SIS, which had been criticized for watching crimes unfold before attempting to make arrests.
Earlier this year, a federal grand jury reviewing the same incident declined to indict SIS members involved in the shooting for violating the robbery suspects’ civil rights, similarly citing insufficient evidence.
The controversial Sunland saga began Feb. 12, 1990, when nine SIS officers followed a group of four alleged robbers from Venice to a San Fernando Valley McDonald’s fast-food restaurant, waited for them to tie up the manager, complete the pre-dawn robbery, and flee to a car parked outside. The officers then rammed the suspects’ car and confronted them.
What followed was a fusillade of 23 shotgun blasts that left Herbert Burgos, 27, Jesus Arango, 25, and Javier Trevino, 21, dead. The fourth alleged thief, Alfredo Olivas, was seriously wounded and later convicted of that and similar heists.
The officers claimed they had fired in self-defense because the suspects pointed guns at them. But police soon realized that the holdup men were armed with air pistols.
Earlier, federal authorities and the Los Angeles County district attorney had focused their investigations on whether nine of the officers had violated the suspects’ civil rights by opening fire before attempting to make an arrest. But those probes also ended without charges being filed.
The perjury investigation concentrated on whether the officers had lied during their testimony in a 1992 civil case in which the slain suspects’ surviving relatives sued the city and police.
But, following what Manella called a “thorough review” of the shooting and of civil trial testimony, federal authorities found that “the evidence was insufficient to prove criminal violations of the federal perjury statutes.”
Assistant U. S. Atty. Michael Gennaco, the veteran civil rights prosecutor who headed the probe, said the book now is closed on the Sunland McDonald’s shootings.
“There is no longer an investigation federally as far as I know, and I would know,” he said.
Stephen Yagman, a well-known civil rights attorney who has filed numerous cases against the SIS and LAPD, criticized federal prosecutors, who he said “virtually always refuse to prosecute police for misconduct.”
The lawyer said federal authorities “have been significant contributing causes of police brutality in Southern California,” adding, “They ought to be ashamed but they are too morally bankrupt and too political to feel any shame.
But Richard E. Drooyan, head of the U. S. attorney’s criminal division, asserted that his office is “committed to vigorously investigating civil rights violations,” noting that federal investigations are working on “several active cases.”
Police welcomed the end of the probe.
“Five years is a long time to investigate and determine there’s no wrongdoing with police officers doing their job in arresting armed felons,” said Cliff Ruff, president of the Police Protective League, which has defended the SIS officers.
“It was a very stressful ordeal, having to go though a five-year investigation for doing their job, which is to protect the citizens of Los Angeles, not coddle criminals,” Ruff said.