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FBI Opens Probe of Shooting by SIS

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

At the request of the U.S. attorney general’s office, the FBI opened a preliminary civil rights investigation Thursday into the deaths of three alleged robbers and the wounding of a bystander by an elite squad of Los Angeles police detectives in Northridge on Tuesday.

“We’ve received information from various sources . . . that there have been allegations that the shooting incident may have been a violation of federal civil rights,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Gennaco.

The squad, the Special Investigations Section, has been the subject of controversy for years. It was also the target of a federal probe in 1995, when the case was submitted to a federal grand jury. No indictments were returned.

LAPD spokesmen said the department will cooperate with the FBI investigation, but defended the actions of the SIS detectives.

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The detectives were secretly following an alleged group dubbed the “Cocktail Bar Bandits” because they needed more evidence to arrest them, the spokesman said, and had to open fire when one of the group pointed a gun at pursuing officers after the armed holdup of a Northridge bar.

But the shootings have renewed criticism of the unit’s strategy of tailing suspects and allowing them to commit crimes before arresting them.

The Los Angeles City Council will meet in closed session today to discuss the shooting. It will focus on whether the city should pay the medical bills of the wounded man, who has no health insurance and will probably be moved to another hospital, and to explore whether attorneys inappropriately solicited families and victims to sue the city after the shooting, a city government source said.

Stephen Yagman, a civil rights attorney, filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday on behalf of Grover Wilson Smith, the 20-year-old bystander wounded by police. Yagman said Smith faces surgery today on his shattered right leg.

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Smith was swept up in the police action Tuesday evening after detectives swarmed his neighborhood. They were pursuing an alleged armed robber who escaped after the shooting that left three other suspects dead or fatally wounded in the wake of the robbery at the ClassRoom Bar.

Meanwhile, prosecutors filed murder and robbery charges Thursday stemming from the Northridge robbery and deaths against Michael Smith, the only suspect to survive. He is not related to Grover Smith. The murder charges are based on the deaths of his three alleged accomplices--including his half sister, Kim Benton, as well as Kirk Deffebaugh and Eric Fields--under the law that holds criminals guilty of murder if the crime they committed results in a death.

LAPD officials said that they are conducting an internal investigation of the shootings and that the SIS officers involved had been taken out of their regular jobs--a normal practice after shootings.

The SIS officers named in the complaint against Michael Smith are Charles Bennett, Rod Rodriguez, Phil Wixon and R. Kraus.

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Meanwhile, Sylvia Bentley, Deffebaugh’s mother, struggled to reconcile the short life of her 22-year-old son as a gang member and a criminal with his bloody and violent end. She said her son had a daughter who is a month old today. “I’m not upholding what they did, but they were young,” Bentley said from her North Hills apartment. “They hadn’t even had a chance to experience life yet. They could have just arrested them.”

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Times staff writers Solomon Moore and Ann W. O’Neill contributed to this story.


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