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Hernandez Drug Probe Unfolded Over Months

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The investigation that ended Thursday night with the arrest of Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez on suspicion of cocaine possession began with a tip more than two months ago, unfolded in extreme secrecy and was capped by a late night search of the councilman’s City Hall office that turned up cocaine residue on his desk, according to police and City Hall sources.

Hours after his arrest, Hernandez, a former bail bondsman, posted $10,000 bail and checked into a drug rehabilitation facility, leaving his constituents dumbfounded, his colleagues saddened but supportive, and his once-promising political career in peril.

Hernandez did not comment Friday, but his office released a statement expressing his deep regret and admitting that the councilman suffered from “an illness” exacerbated by the recent death of his mother.

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“However, that is no excuse,” the statement continued, “and the councilman recognizes that he needs treatment and for that reason he has voluntarily checked himself into an appropriate treatment facility.”

Hernandez’s lawyer, Charles English, declined to elaborate on the statement.

Details of the highly delicate probe that led to the councilman’s arrest trickled out Friday, even as the city’s leaders gathered to celebrate the swearing in of Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. Hernandez had planned to attend but was absent, the only council member to miss the affair. His case was not mentioned during the 50-minute ceremony.

At City Hall and at police headquarters, however, sources provided details of the investigation, which many top city officials learned of late Thursday. Pieced together with public records and a statement by the councilman’s staff, they reveal an intense effort by an obscure law enforcement task force.

That group, selected in part because of the probe’s politically volatile nature, found an official whose personal finances were in disarray and who was battling what police described as a “$150-a-day” cocaine habit.

According to officials close to the case, the inquiry began in June when a tipster informed an area law enforcement agency that Hernandez was a regular cocaine purchaser, who had a habit of making buys on paydays. Although the tip was given to a different agency, the information was passed to the LAPD, where Cmdr. Scott LaChasse, who heads the Narcotics Group, took over the probe.

At the LAPD, investigators initially devoted their energy to checking out details of the informant’s account to see if the tip seemed reliable. Among other things, the tipster identified the area where Hernandez allegedly was making cocaine buys. Some reports identified that area as MacArthur Park, but officials said it was an apartment building in Pacoima.

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When those details checked out, officials said, the LAPD was left in an awkward position--needing to investigate the case so that it could either clear Hernandez or arrest him, but fearful of the political ramifications of appearing to target a sitting council member. In order to escape that quandary, the LAPD searched for an agency to take the case off its hands.

“We went shopping,” said LaChasse.

The department lighted upon an obscure group known as L.A. IMPACT, short for the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force. That group took over the investigation in July, and by Thursday night’s arrest, sources said, the team had videotaped Hernandez about six times with cocaine and had obtained five search warrants, one of which was for an apartment belonging to a woman who has worked for Hernandez. Another was for the councilman’s City Hall office.

At the office, police found cocaine debris on the councilman’s desk, two officials said.

No search warrant was obtained for Hernandez’s home, officials added, because the councilman seemed to be living out of his car and office. Other warrants were served on several locations associated with suspected drug dealers, however.

Jose Gallardo, 34, was taken into custody at his apartment and arrested on suspicion of possessing cocaine for sale moments after Hernandez left. Jess Alvara Ramirez, 47, was arrested at his house in Los Angeles, also on suspicion of possessing cocaine for sale.

Jim Christian, special agent in charge of the task force, said the two suspects had about 11 grams of cocaine between them, and that both had been observed selling cocaine to Hernandez over the past month. A cache of handguns and rifles, including at least one stolen weapon, was also found at Ramirez’s home, Christian said. Another law enforcement source added that nearly $10,000 was recovered there as well.

According to that source, Hernandez was followed to Gallardo’s apartment earlier Thursday evening and was presented with a warrant as he left. Sources said a search turned up 1/8 ounce of cocaine on Hernandez, about $300 worth. Police then searched Gallardo’s apartment and arrested him.

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LaChasse said the councilman’s regret and contrition were evident immediately after his arrest. Hernandez, he said, was taken to a downtown booking area, where he praised police for their work and admitted that he needed help.

“He said he had a problem,” LaChasse said. “We actually got him the information about rehab places and made the arrangements for him.”

Throughout the months leading up to Thursday’s arrest, the Hernandez investigation was a closely guarded secret shared by a handful of city officials and law enforcement leaders. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and his staff worked closely with the investigators, and Garcetti was kept abreast of developments, as were Interim Police Chief Bayan Lewis and Parks.

Beyond that, the circle of those who knew of the inquiry was small. Council President John Ferraro said he did not learn about it until Thursday night, and other council members, as well as members of the city’s Police Commission, said they too were taken by surprise.

Even Mayor Richard Riordan was unaware of the probe, though a top staffer to the mayor had been confidentially informed of its existence.

As details of the Hernandez investigation became clear Friday, public records also provided evidence that the councilman seemed to be wrestling with financial troubles. That was echoed by police sources, who said they believed Hernandez generally made his cocaine buys on payday because that was when he had money to spend.

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Public records indicate that Hernandez has been flirting with financial disaster for the last three years. Eight times in the last three years, lenders have initiated foreclosure proceedings on the four-bedroom duplex near Cypress Park that he and his wife own. Hernandez has managed to hang on to the house but at one point, just two months ago, came within hours of losing it at a foreclosure sale.

In 1995, the California Franchise Tax Board filed a $4,409 lien against the property for taxes the board said Hernandez owed from 1993.

Hernandez also has been sued for failure to pay consumer debts. Sears won a $1,728 judgment against him in Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1995. Sears said he had owed the money for merchandise since late 1993.

A process server for Sears attempted to give Hernandez a copy of the lawsuit by going to his home but said in a sworn declaration that she was told in November 1994 that he no longer lived there. Sears then served Hernandez by mail at his City Hall office, court records show. Hernandez paid off Sears in May 1996, listing his family’s East Los Angeles bail bond business as his address.

A video rental store won a Small Claims Court judgment against him in 1994 for $360. Mel Regalario of Silver Lake Video said in a complaint that the councilman had failed to return four videotapes that he had rented from the store.

Hernandez is also a defendant in a lawsuit filed this month, stemming from his alleged failure to make any payments since February on his $4,089 BankAmericard debt.

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Those problems and the expense of maintaining an addiction as significant as the one from which police allege Hernandez suffers has created some concern about the integrity of his official staff budget, sources say. City Hall officials quietly are preparing to audit his officeholder and campaign accounts.

Riordan said there was no need for haste in those inquiries, however.

“These are things you look at later,” the mayor said. “Right now, you have someone with a really incredible illness. Right now, this guy is in a tremendously difficult situation.”

The evidence against Hernandez will be submitted to the district attorney for a possible criminal filing. The councilman faces a felony charge; if convicted, it would be his first offense. That, combined with the relatively small quantity of cocaine he was carrying, makes Hernandez a likely candidate for diversion to a drug treatment program rather than jail.

That procedure, known as a deferred entry of judgment, allows the defendant to avoid a felony conviction pending successful completion of time in rehab. And if that occurs, the law says, the felony charge will be dismissed no sooner than 18 months and no longer than three years after the defendant is referred by the courts to a rehab program.

Diversion and the dismissal of the felony charge could allow Hernandez to avoid the loss of his council seat, though the arrest is sure to cause him political pain. Already, one of his opponents from the 1991 campaign has called for him to resign.

Garcetti said his office will neither show favor toward Hernandez nor go harder on him than any other person facing similar allegations.

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“He will be handled like any other first-time offender,” Garcetti said.

Times staff writers Beth Shuster, Josh Meyer, Jodi Wilgoren, Greg Krikorian and Jeff Leeds contributed to this story.

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