Ex-Deputy Testifies She Witnessed False Arrests
A former sheriff’s deputy, reviving long-festering allegations of corruption and racism at the department, testified Wednesday that her training officer repeatedly altered, destroyed and even fabricated evidence in a pattern of harassment against Latinos and blacks.
The testimony came in a tense courtroom showdown between two officers who once shared a squad car, and it led the judge to issue a stinging attack on defendant Jeffrey L. Jones as she ordered the Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy to stand trial on eight criminal counts.
“In my long judicial career, I have never heard in any one case testimony about false arrest reports, planted evidence, altered evidence, destruction of evidence . . . and death threats,” Municipal Judge Glenette Blackwell said at the close of Jones’ preliminary hearing.
The prosecution’s star witness, ex-Deputy Aurora Mellado, offered a detailed litany of allegations, saying that Jones had falsely entered six bags of marijuana as evidence against one suspect, ordered her to flush cocaine down the toilet in another case and routinely doctored arrest reports to justify stopping minorities in South Los Angeles.
The judge said she was so outraged by the evidence--which she said portends a “great likelihood of conviction” before a jury--that she took the unusual step of sending Jones back to jail until he can post $50,000 bail. Jones had been free on his own recognizance since his February arrest on charges of falsifying police reports and other related offenses.
“I could not sleep tonight, I could not live with myself with this defendant on the street,” Blackwell said. “He’s a danger. This is a serious offense. It’s reprehensible.”
The judge’s comments came despite a tough cross-examination of Mellado. During an afternoon-long grilling by defense attorney Richard G. Hirsch, the ex-deputy said repeatedly that she could not remember details about some of the half-dozen cases in question and offered several apparent contradictions in her testimony against Jones.
With his family in the audience, Jones sat impassively throughout much of the day, shaking his head and scowling on occasion over the latest salvo from the stand. He refused comment outside court, except to say that Mellado should not be considered a credible witness.
“She has a real checkered past in the department,” Jones said.
The accusations became public days after Mellado resigned her post last December. She said she and her husband, also on the force, had come under threats from fellow deputies--and had their home fired upon--for breaking the “code of silence” that ensures loyalty between fellow officers.
She is pursuing a civil suit against the department over her treatment, and Hirsch suggested in cross-examination that this was the impetus behind her allegations. “It’s clear that she has a motive. She has a financial interest in this case in recovering damages,” he said.
But Mellado testified that she spoke out only after realizing that her training officer had engaged in a pattern of “crimes” last summer on the beat they shared, which included Lynwood, Willowbrook, Rancho Dominguez and unincorporated areas around Watts and Compton.
Mellado’s tales of racism and corruption in the department echo allegations that sheriff’s officials hoped were behind them. A key witness in a notorious money-skimming case, which surfaced in 1989, testified that he would frequently arrest African Americans who were simply out walking. And the landmark 1992 study by the Kolts Commission found that minorities had been particularly victimized by deputies’ brutality, leading to widespread reforms.
The Sheriff’s Department is continuing to monitor the Jones case, officials said Wednesday, but it has already led authorities to reexamine several criminal prosecutions stemming from arrests made by the deputy.
Because of concerns about how evidence was gathered, Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan F. Steinfeld said, prosecutors have thrown out all or most of the charges against four defendants, and others may meet the same fate.
Mellado was given immunity to testify in the prosecution of Jones. Steinfeld led her through a detailed examination Wednesday of six incidents handled last August when she was learning the patrol routine, and Jones was serving as her training officer.
In one case, Mellado testified, Jones took six bags of marijuana from one stop and ordered her to book them into evidence against a Latino man arrested later in the day in the Firestone area in an unrelated incident.
Another time, Mellado said, she and Jones got a call about a group of “male Hispanics” loitering on a residential street. Cruising the area, they spotted a group of blacks holding what looked like beer bottles in brown paper bags and, based on a possible violation of open-container laws, they searched the group and found a stash of drugs.
But it took some fudging to make the stop look justified, Mellado indicated.
The beer was in fact sealed, she said--yet by the time one bottle reached the patrol car as evidence, it had been opened and partially emptied. A second problem was overcome, she testified, when Jones called the dispatcher and had him change the original call to “five male blacks” instead of “five male Hispanics.”
Hirsch, the defense attorney, challenged Mellado’s recollection of these and other incidents.
In one case, the ex-deputy was unable to explain an apparent contradiction in her testimony about a Latino drug suspect who reached up to touch his swollen eye after Jones had allegedly struck him. The man, Mellado testified earlier, had his hands cuffed behind his back.
As his client was sent to jail, Hirsch said he found the day’s turn of events “outrageous.” He and the judge, Hirsch said, “are 180-degrees apart on this.”