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FBI Opens Civil Rights Probe of SIS Shootings

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 and was the target of a previous federal probe in 1995, when the case was submitted to a federal grand jury but no indictments were returned.

Los Angeles Police Department spokesmen said the department would cooperate with the FBI probe, but defended the actions of the SIS detectives.

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The detectives were secretly following an alleged group of “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, with particular focus on whether the city should pay the medical bills of the wounded man, who has no health insurance, and to explore whether attorneys inappropriately solicited families and victims to file suit against the city after the shooting, a city government source said.

Stephen Yagman, a civil rights attorney who has sued the SIS for clients in the past, on Thursday filed suit in federal court on behalf of Grover Wilson Smith, the 20-year-old bystander wounded by police.

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Yagman said he is seeking, among other things, that the elite unit be disbanded and that it be declared a racketeering organization. He is also requesting that the city be prevented from paying damages for SIS officers found guilty of misconduct.

“I think that the forever odious death squad finally has done the inevitable: They’ve shot an innocent person,” Yagman said.

Smith remains in the intensive care unit at Northridge Hospital Medical Center with a shattered right leg and will undergo surgery today, Yagman said

Smith was swept up in the police action Tuesday evening after detectives swarmed his neighborhood in pursuit of an alleged armed robber who escaped after the shooting that left three others--two men and a woman--dead or fatally wounded after the robbery at the ClassRoom Bar.

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Yagman said that Smith, seeing patrol cars pouring into his neighborhood and a police helicopter overhead, initially feared that he was being sought for unpaid traffic warrants and hid behind a tree. When he calmed down and realized he was not the target, Yagman said, Smith walked toward officers with his arms raised and said, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.’ ”

He was shot in the leg. Police said officers fired because Smith reached toward his waistband, as if he had a gun.

“We certainly have a messy, terrible incident on our hands,” said Councilwoman Laura Chick, who heads the council’s Public Safety Committee. Even if the shooting of an uninvolved bystander is found to have been unavoidable and not a violation of department policy, she said, “How do you call the shooting of an innocent person a ‘good’ shooting?”

Meanwhile, prosecutors on Thursday filed murder and robbery charges against Michael Smith, the only suspect to survive. He is not related to Grover Smith.

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The murder charges are based on the deaths of his three alleged accomplices--his half-sister, Kim Benton, plus Kirk Deffebaugh and Eric Fields--under the law that holds criminals guilty of murder if the crime they committed caused any deaths.

The charges were filed as Smith’s second “strike” under the state’s three-strikes law, meaning he would serve 85% of any sentence he received. Smith’s earlier conviction occurred in 1994, for an assault causing great bodily injury; details of that case were not available.

Smith appeared briefly before Municipal Judge Leland B. Harris, but his arraignment was postponed until March 13.

Deputy Public Defender Michael Duffey indicated he would seek a court order for independent photographs of Michael Smith’s injuries, believed to include a bite by the police dog that tracked him down as he hid from police after the shooting of his alleged accomplices.

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His father, George Smith of Los Angeles, said he came to court to learn more about Tuesday’s events. As he spoke with reporters, Smith expressed regret over Benton’s death, saying, “I hate what happened to Kim. I raised her up since she was a little girl.”

He said his son and Benton were close, as are all members of his family. “We’re like this,” he said, holding up two crossed fingers.

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

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

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“We are just beginning our investigation and we will go through the investigation with a fine-tooth comb to determine whether there was any misconduct,” said Cmdr. Tim McBride, the chief LAPD spokesman.

According to Lt. Tony Alba, an LAPD spokesman, the SIS became involved in the investigation of a string of 20 bar robberies because Van Nuys police detectives lacked positive leads, such as an informant’s tip or a positive identification by a witness.

“It has never been the policy of this department to follow suspects whom we could arrest at the time based on probable cause,” Alba said. “SIS only follows people who we have not successfully identified.”

Police said the suspects involved in Tuesday’s shooting were part of a larger ring of 20 people, some of whom were involved in the Topanga Plaza bank robbery several weeks ago. As police launched their review, family members and friends of the victims sought to prepare for funerals and possible litigation.

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Sylvia Bentley struggled Thursday to reconcile the short life of her 22-year-old son, Kirk Deffebaugh, as a gang member and a criminal with his bloody and violent end. She said her son, who had eight siblings, also had a daughter who is 1 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.”

Police said they opened fire on the car containing the three only because someone inside pointed a gun out the window at officers in another car.

Two years ago, Deffebaugh was convicted of car theft and released on parole in April 1996. A month later, police picked him up as a possible suspect in a robbery; the case was dismissed, family members said.

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However, that encounter with police counted as a parole violation and he was taken back to jail until Dec. 5.

Deffebaugh’s girlfriend, Latasha VanHeflin, 18, cradled their daughter, saying: “I feel I was cheated out of my happiness and my daughter was cheated out of her chance to know her father.”

She said she knew her boyfriend was a gang member. “I worried every single time he went out with his friends,” she said. On Tuesday evening, she said, Deffebaugh kissed her and said he would return in half an hour.

“He never came back,” she said. “Maybe if I had kept him there a few more minutes, they would have left without him.”

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Relatives of the other 22-year-old killed by police, Eric Fields, said he too had a troubled past. “Yes, Eric was no saint,” said his mother, Carla Fields. “But Eric did not hurt anybody. They didn’t hurt anybody that night.”

Police said the Cocktail Bar Bandits usually robbed all the customers of bars they hit, as well as the till, pointing guns at patrons and demanding their wallets and handbags.

“The thing I’ll miss the most is him saying, ‘Mommy, I love you,’ ” Fields said, adding that her son had a 6-month-old baby. “He said it when he called me on the phone the day before he died.”

But Fields said she is worried about scraping together enough money to pay for a funeral--let alone to hire an attorney.

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“How in the hell am I going to bury my child?” she asked.

Even some bar patrons who were robbed at gunpoint by the alleged robbers struggled to square their own feelings.

“I’m upset they’re dead,” said Amanda, a North Hollywood resident who feared giving her full name. She was in the Fox Fire Room in North Hollywood when it was robbed Sunday. But also, she said, “I go to sleep every night with the thought of a man sticking a .45 in my face.”

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

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