Gang Killings Exceed 40% of L.A. Slayings
More than a thousand gang killers are walking the streets of Los Angeles.
Witness intimidation helps keep them there.
Witnesses have been killed and many more threatened, as frustrated police have been unable to protect them.
Many residents of gang-dominated neighborhoods are too terrorized to come forward, and their reluctance feeds a deadly cycle.
Without reliable witnesses, police and courts are powerless. More and more gang killers--responsible for about 40% of Los Angeles County’s murders--remain free.
It is no wonder, as a Times study of the county’s homicides found, that gang cases are among the hardest to solve.
As gang killings have soared, police and prosecutors increasingly have taken steps to break the cycle.
They have set up special units to investigate such cases.
They have taken extraordinary measures to protect witnesses. Hundreds have been relocated--one Los Angeles Police Department bureau even keeps its own moving van.
And police and prosecutors have learned to settle for less evidence.
In gang prosecutions, having only one witness is not necessarily a sign of a weak case. “In my business, that’s a great case,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Lentz. “At least we have somebody. . . . God bless that person.”
Lentz’s cases have been cursed. In three of her prosecutions, a witness has been killed. In one of those, two were slain.
Police officials are generally reluctant to discuss witness killings because doing so could frighten off potential witnesses.
High-level officials say such incidents happen several times each year--a tiny number compared to the hundreds of gang murders plaguing the county. Nevertheless, the incidents occur often enough to frighten many would-be witnesses out of cooperating.
Two years ago, a police administrator in South Los Angeles reported eight witness slayings and two attempts.
“The results of those blatant executions [have] been a reduction in witness cooperation and a reluctance on the part of some investigators to produce witnesses in dangerous cases,” the supervisor wrote in a memo to his superiors.
Police believe one exceptionally violent gang was responsible for several of these witness executions:
* Gloria Lyons and Georgia Jones witnessed the 1993 slaying of Willie Bogan by a gang member. Both told police what they saw. Both were killed in 1994.
* After Albert Sutton saw four gang members shoot his brother, gang members repeatedly tried to dissuade him from becoming a witness. Despite the pleas, Sutton testified in September 1992. Three days later, he was shot to death.
* Four people standing on a street corner were wounded and one man died in South Los Angeles in 1994 when, police concluded, gang members tried to retaliate against a teenager who had identified a killer. The teenager had walked away seconds before the drive-by attack.
The study of Los Angeles County homicides from 1990 through 1994 found that, other things being equal, gang murders were less likely to be solved by police than other murders and cases were more likely to fall apart before trial.
Witness intimidation is not the only problem that makes gang cases so difficult.
The gang culture prizes vigilantism over legal remedies when gang members are the victims. And gang members will not talk to police because they fear being labeled “snitches.”
In addition, the slayings of gang members provoke little sympathy from residents or police. And their murders usually occur on the streets, leaving police with few physical clues.
To compensate for the difficulties inherent in gang cases, the entire system has made a series of accommodations:
* Police often build cases on the word of unreliable gang members whom they have persuaded to talk against other gang members.
* Prosecutors use police to identify the defendants as gang members and tell jurors about gang behavior and turf alignments, even when defense attorneys complain that such evidence sheds no light on the motive for a murder and is used only to scare jurors.
Prosecutors say judges only allow such testimony when it establishes motive or other relevant aspects of the case.
* Gang prosecutors are routinely allowed to prove their cases based on statements that witnesses have disavowed.
In gang cases, witnesses routinely come into court and deny ever incriminating the defendant--and jurors are told that is par for the course. Jurors are left to decide whether the witnesses told the truth in court or in previous interviews with police.
* Increasingly, prosecutors also try to protect witnesses from retaliation in gang cases by hiding their names. In exceptional cases, they try to keep the witness anonymous even at trial.
The accommodations are not without cost. Defense attorneys say the adjustments accentuate an aura of danger and raise the likelihood that a gang member will be convicted of a murder he did not commit.
“It goes to this whole hysteria that we have about gangs,” said defense attorney Cynthia Barnes, an appellate attorney who frequently is appointed to represent gang members. “Once you hold up somebody and say it’s a gang case, people assume they’re guilty.”
Michael Genelin, who supervises gang prosecutions in the district attorney’s office, said the office policy, first set under Ira Reiner, is to use all available legal measures to protect the community from gang crimes.
Gangs exist primarily to commit crimes, Reiner wrote in the policy directive. Therefore, he wrote, “the objective of the policy is basic: to incarcerate gang members for as long as possible.”
Genelin said: “We never attempt to lock up innocent people. It’s anathema to do that.”
The Search for Proof
In the early 1990s, the study found, murders involving gang members accounted for 38% of slayings countywide. Law enforcement officials say the problem is getting worse, with gang slayings now comprising more than 45% of all killings--more than double the percentage of a decade ago.
In gang cases, police often find themselves with a body in the street, a few shell casings and no willing witnesses. The easy part is using intelligence reports about turf rivalries to identify the gang that was responsible. The hard part is proving which gang members did the killing.
When police found the body of 19-year-old Darryl Modisett lying in a North Hollywood street in late 1992, they could guess what had happened. Two gangs--one African American, the other Latino--were feuding. So police figured that Modisett, who was black and worked as a cook at Universal Studios, had been mistaken as a rival.
A “confidential reliable informant” gave detectives the names of four gang members he said he heard bragging about the killing.
The four were arrested but were quickly released because the informant’s story did not hold up. One of the suspects had been in jail when the killing took place.
Then police got a break. They caught a gang member selling drugs and linked his gun to bullet casings from the death scene. The suspect admitted under questioning that he and two other gang members had hunted down Modisett after mistaking him for a rival.
Prosecutors charged Efrain Perez, but the case was fatally flawed. Before implicating himself, Perez had asked for a lawyer. Yet police persisted in their questioning, a tape recording shows.
The prosecutor concluded that the confession was obtained improperly and could not be used in court. So he offered a deal: Plead guilty to armed assault and to the drug charge and get 10 years instead of a possible death sentence for an ambush killing. Perez accepted.
Three years later, Modisett’s mother, Joi Singleton, still grieves. She is stung not only by the death of her son but by the criminal justice system’s failure to punish his killers.
“All I wanted was justice,” Singleton said. “I wanted to see those guys caught.”
‘Revenge Killing’ Unpunished
Six years before he was shot to death by a member of his own gang, Marco Melgar had testified against another member of their gang in a murder case.
To police, the shooting of Melgar after a party in Hollywood in 1995 was retaliation against a witness--a case that went right to the heart of the criminal justice system and one they badly wanted to solve.
There was no mystery about who had killed Melgar. His girlfriend was wounded in the shooting but survived, and identified the killer for police.
But the police could not find him. So they did the next best thing: They arrested other members of the gang, and charged four of them with murder or conspiracy in Melgar’s death. The problem was proving the charges.
Only one of the four gang members who were charged had been present when Melgar was shot. And the victim’s girlfriend told police that this man had not participated in the shooting.
In fact, she told police, he appeared shocked when the killer opened fire.
Defense attorney Henry Hall, representing that suspect, called the case a travesty. “The police had no credible evidence to tie the defendants to this murder,” he said in an interview. “This was nothing more than using a prosecution to try to squeeze the defendants into helping the police.”
Prosecutors insist that they had a factual basis to charge and try the gang members. Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Hum said Hall’s statement “is a totally inaccurate characterization of what this case was about.”
Hum said the heart of the case was evidence that the gang members had been involved in planning the murder.
That evidence was bolstered before trial by a man who contacted police from jail to say he had evidence against the defendants. He said that before he was arrested he had heard the defendants discussing plans to murder Melgar.
In return for his cooperation, the prosecutors let him walk out of jail, despite a range of charges from drug dealing to aggravated assault to threatening a witness.
Jurors were unimpressed with his testimony, however. All four defendants were acquitted.
A Question of Priorities?
In a county where police make difficult choices about how to use their time, the deaths of gang members who have tried to kill police officers may not always top the list of priorities.
Defense attorney Frederick Brennan says that is why the slaying of “Crazy” Ray Nichols received so little time and attention. “I’ve had cases of petty theft that were investigated more,” the defense lawyer said.
LAPD Det. John Berdin and his partner had no trouble identifying Nichols when they went to the hospital in August 1994. His left inner arm bore the tattoo “Crazy,” his right, “Ray.”
Nichols was known as an intimidator, Berdin said. One time, his homeboys fired shots that whistled past Berdin and another partner as they questioned Nichols in a park. Another time, Nichols and others were accused of luring detectives down a street, then opening fire on them.
Police began the investigation of Nichols’ death at a disadvantage. Nichols did not die for two hours after he was shot in the parking lot of an Avalon Boulevard liquor store, and nobody notified homicide detectives until the next day. No one had bothered to secure the crime scene either, so physical evidence may have been lost.
The parking lot was a hangout day and night. Yet detectives had trouble finding anyone who admitted witnessing the shooting.
They heard that Nichols’ brother witnessed the killing. But they did not go talk to him for a week.
He told detectives he had seen a gang member named Eddie Harris shoot his brother. He also provided a motive, saying the two had been in a fight a week earlier.
To Berdin, the brother may not have been the perfect witness but his description of the murder seemed to fit the physical evidence. “You can’t pick and choose your witnesses, obviously,” he said.
Despite hearing the brother’s testimony, jurors acquitted Harris last year.
Defense attorney Brennan had successfully argued that there were deficiencies in the investigation:
Detectives never talked to the resident on whose porch Nichols collapsed after staggering from the parking lot.
It took them a week to talk to the victim’s brother, and two more weeks to arrest Harris outside his mother’s house. They did not go inside to look for a murder weapon.
Finally, it took six months for them to submit a bullet extracted from Nichols’ body for ballistics testing.
After the trial, Brennan described his view of the police attitude: “We have a scumbag killed. It’s pest control; let’s rustle the bushes. Somebody tells us a motive and says that they saw it--we’re done. The case is closed.”
Berdin said neither he nor his partner gave the case less attention because of any grudge against Nichols.
The investigation, Berdin said, might appear thin on the surface. “But the thing is, you can beat that case to death and there’s nothing there.”
A Successful Skirmish
In the war on gangs, one LAPD officer made a telling observation about who is winning: “When we’re there, we are. When we’re not, they are.”
For years, Lamar Barnwell was a case in point--a walking advertisement for lawlessness in his South Los Angeles neighborhood. People had seen him commit mayhem and murders but were too frightened to come to court and testify.
Police were powerless to act on their suspicions that Barnwell was an enforcer for his gang until late one night in 1992, when, by pure luck, they found themselves in a position to solve their problem.
A patrol car happened to be passing by a closed tire store while, inside, Barnwell was putting bullets into four people’s heads.
The first two bullets drew the attention of a patrol officer, who saw Barnwell kill the last two victims. If the officer had taken a left turn instead of a right, the odds are overwhelming that Barnwell, instead of waiting on death row now, would have been free to kill again.
“There’s no question he would have gotten away with it, just like he’s gotten away his entire life,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. George Castello, who prosecuted Barnwell for the tire store murders. “If the police hadn’t confronted him, there would have been absolutely no link to this man. . . . He had killed every witness.”
In July, after Barnwell was convicted of the murders, he faced a hearing before jurors who would decide whether he should live or die. Finally, police convinced a parade of people who witnessed his earlier crimes to come forward.
The mother of one of Barnwell’s childhood friends related a 1987 incident, in which she said Barnwell broke her arm and shot at her over a $5 drug debt. The charges were dropped when she suddenly stopped cooperating. Only this year did she explain that she had received what she considered a death threat.
Another woman testified that a gang member she ran into at a convenience store pointed out Barnwell as someone who was “going to kill him.” The man was murdered the next day. At the time, the woman told police that she could not identify Barnwell’s photograph. Only this year did she admit that she had been too scared to incriminate him.
An ex-crack user testified that she saw Barnwell shoot a rival drug dealer to death. She declined to identify him at the time, afraid that if she did, she would be next.
Even with Barnwell behind bars, some people remained too frightened to testify. As a result, another murder charge--the 1988 beating and stomping death of Clarence Gaston Jr.--had to be dropped. Police said they found a witness in 1995 who heard Barnwell confess to that murder--but refused to come forward.
Changing the Rules
Because reluctant witnesses make gang cases hard to prove, prosecutors have tried a different way to solve their problem: Change the law to make it easier to win cases.
Genelin, the top gang prosecutor, said the office is “trying to carve out more exceptions” to its duty to disclose information about its witnesses to the defense.
They have gotten permission in some cases to hide the identities of witnesses from defense attorneys until the eve of trial and, in extraordinary cases, have sought such protection at trial.
Defense attorneys say such protections make it difficult to gather evidence about the witnesses’ past that may discredit their testimony.
Gang prosecutors have also come to rely every day on a court ruling originally fashioned to address an exceptional circumstance--when a witness disavows at trial an account previously made to police.
Courts strictly limit the circumstances when attorneys can rely on things witnesses say out of court, because such statements cannot be cross-examined. But 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Los Angeles drug case that prosecutors could build their cases around what witnesses told police before trial, even if the witnesses disavowed the statements.
Without that court ruling, Genelin said, “we’d be in a dreadful state.”
What made the murder case against Carlos Munoz unusual is that his conviction was based on nothing but this kind of evidence.
Munoz was accused of participating in the 1992 drive-by slaying of a rival gang member in Hollywood.
Witnesses said Munoz’s gang had committed the drive-by murder, and that the next morning Munoz was seen with the man who owned the car.
But the only evidence linking Munoz directly to the murder were statements to police by two rival gang members, who had picked his photograph from a police display.
By the trial, both had retracted their accounts.
One insisted that he had not seen anything, and had never claimed otherwise to police.
“I just don’t want to get innocent people locked up for no reason if they don’t--probably didn’t even do it,” he said.
The second gang member, the girlfriend of the victim, insisted that she had never been certain of her identification. She admitted that she had not wanted to come to testify because she feared being labeled a snitch. But she insisted that the man who killed her boyfriend was not in court.
Both witnesses were contradicted by detectives who said the witnesses had identified Munoz. A detective said the girlfriend had warned him that she would not follow through and identify Munoz in court.
Munoz testified and presented his alibi: Eight fellow gang members, family members and friends testified that he was with them at a party at the time of the killing.
The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Debra Cole-Hall, told the judge at one point outside the jury’s presence: “I don’t know what the truth is. I am just presenting the evidence and the jury decides what the truth is.”
But Cole-Hall argued that to find Munoz not guilty “you’d really have to say . . . that these police officers made up all of this.”
After Munoz was convicted of second-degree murder, he appealed because California law says no one can be convicted on an out-of-court identification without corroboration.
An appeals court turned him down, concluding that the out-of-court identifications corroborated each other.
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About This Series
Sunday: A System Overwhelmed
With almost 2,000 homicides a year in Los Angeles County, the criminal justice system is overwhelmed. Charges are filed in only one in two cases, and someone is convicted in one in three.
Monday: Police Battle Odds
Homicide detectives face mounting obstacles, including scant physical evidence and deteriorating support services. From crime scenes to crime labs, they struggle with limited resources.
Tuesday: The Role of Race
Justice is not always even-handed: Harshest punishments go to killers of whites and Asians, and in publicized cases. Police agency and courthouse make a difference, too.
Wednesday: Wrongly Accused
Innocent people are wrongly arrested and charged with murder. Some are jailed for weeks and months, often because of shoddy police work.
Today: Toughest Cases of All
Gangster killers roam the streets because intimidation and witness killings make gang slayings toughest to solve. Terrorism forces adjustments, from station houses to courthouses.
FRIDAY: A Question of Truth
When cases are haunted by allegations of police misconduct, questions often linger about whether the actions were intentional or were innocent mistakes.
Saturday: A Week of Tragedy
In a typical week, 32 people were slain in the county. Who were they? How and why were they killed? Where and when were the killings? And what has happened since?
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Gang Killings in City of Los Angeles
Gang homicides in Los Angeles are solved less frequently than other types of killings and the cases fall apart more often, The Times found. Between 1990 and the end of 1994, records show, the Los Angeles Police Department solved 60% of its gang slayings, compared to 64% of its non-gang slayings. About 30% of completed gang cases collapsed in dismissals or acquittals, compared to 20% of non-gang cases.
8. West Los Angeles
9. Van Nuys
10. West Valley
12. 77th Street
15. North Hollywood
GANG HOMICIDES SOLVED / UNSOLVED
Dismissed/not guilty: 33%
Dismissed/not guilty: 31%
Dismissed/not guilty: 31%
Dismissed/not guilty: 17%
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