No Drug Link to Family in Fatal Raid, Police Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The El Monte Police Department has no evidence that anyone in the family of Mario Paz--a 65-year-old man fatally shot in the back by an El Monte officer during a search of his home Aug. 9--was involved in drug trafficking, nor did officers when they shot their way into the house in the nighttime raid, a senior police official said.

El Monte Assistant Police Chief Bill Ankeny said he was unsure if his department's narcotics unit even knew whether the family was living at the Compton home when it was raided by the SWAT team. He said the team of up to 20 officers--who shot the front and back doors open as the family slept--was looking for evidence that could be used in a case against Chino drug suspect Marcos Beltran Lizarraga, who had been released on bail the morning of the raid.

"We didn't have information of the Paz family being involved in narcotics trafficking," Ankeny said in an interview Thursday. "To my knowledge, right now, we don't have any information that the Paz family was dealing in narcotics. To our knowledge they were not."

Ankeny said El Monte police asked for the warrant to search the home after some phone bills, Department of Motor Vehicles records and other mail bearing the family's address was found among Beltran's possessions. The family says Beltran lived next door in the 1980s and persuaded Paz, a father of six and grandfather of 14, to let him receive mail at the Paz home.

Paz was shot to death in the back in full view of his wife, Maria Luisa, by an officer who entered their bedroom during the raid.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which is investigating the killing as an officer-involved shooting, has provided three different explanations for why Paz was shot, though sheriff's investigators interviewed the family and the SWAT officers intensively after the shooting.

The first explanation, given in a statement read to the news media until as recently as Monday, was that El Monte officers believed Paz to be armed. The second, offered Wednesday by sheriff's homicide investigator Lt. Marilyn Baker, was that the officer who shot Paz thought he saw him reaching for his gun--a suggestion hotly disputed by the family. The current explanation, in a statement dated Thursday at 1:30 p.m., is that Paz was shot when he began to reach for a nearby drawer where police say they found guns.

Baker was not available Friday and could not be reached to clarify the changes in the explanations.

Sheriff's spokesman David Halm said he was not familiar with the details of the probe, but "sometimes as an investigation progresses, things are learned that differ slightly from the original information."

El Monte police reported finding three pistols--two of them, they say, in a drawer on the floor near Paz--and a .22-caliber rifle in the home. The weapons were seized as evidence. The rifle and the third pistol were found in the corner of the bedroom, the Sheriff's Department bulletin said Thursday.

"I personally think that four weapons are a lot for one person to have next to the bed," Baker said. "If you had one, would you keep it next to your bed? Probably. But four?"

The family said Mario Paz, who came to the United States as part of the bracero agricultural labor program in the 1950s, kept firearms safely stored away in a dresser drawer to protect the family in the high-crime neighborhood. They adamantly rejected the suggestion that he would have turned a gun on a police officer--or that their family is anything but hard-working and law-abiding.

"My father's name means peace, and he stood for that," said Maria Derain, who works for a lithographer, during a news conference at the Paz home Friday. She said the shooting has "taken someone who was dearest to me."

Brian Dunn, an attorney for Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s firm who is representing the family in a planned lawsuit against El Monte police, criticized the agency for linking the family to a suspected drug trafficker.

"What the El Monte Police Department has not told you," he said at the news conference, "is that Mario Paz has never been suspected of committing a criminal act."

El Monte Assistant Chief Ankeny said the officers believed there might be armed people at the Paz address because they had found three high-powered rifles in a search of another home linked to Beltran. The warrant said officers also found $75,000 and 400 pounds of marijuana at two other homes linked to Beltran.

Ankeny said police went to the Paz home--where no drugs were found--"in furtherance of their narcotics investigation case" against Beltran.

"I don't know whether they expected to find the Paz family living there or not," Ankeny said. "I don't even know if they expected to contact the family when they went in. I don't know if [the Pazes] were owning or renting. [The officers] were looking for evidence of narcotics trafficking--drugs, or money from sales. But when we search, we don't always find what we expect."

Ankeny said he "can't say absolutely that the [Pazes] were not involved in narcotics trafficking. To our knowledge they were not. But all that has to come out with the continuing investigation."

El Monte police also seized $10,000 in cash at the Paz home, which the sheriff's investigators say was taken as evidence. El Monte officers initially said they would try to have the cash forfeited in a civil procedure as ill-gotten gains, but Ankeny backed off from that position late Thursday. The family has described the money as their life savings.

"That's usually the way it goes--[authorities] would file a civil action to try to have the money forfeited," Ankeny said. But "if they can't develop information that the proceeds of the money was [from] narcotics trafficking, it will be given back to the family. [Authorities are] not going to proceed unless they have evidence."

Ankeny said he had "the greatest sympathy for the family and their loss. Loss of life is a tragedy."

Another officer probing the shooting, sheriff's homicide investigator Susan Coleman, said that the El Monte police warrant to search the Compton home had been legally obtained and that police "made the proper commands and announcements. It's not out of the ordinary. You don't know all of the reasons they went into that house."

Times staff writers Peter Y. Hong and Tina Daunt contributed to this story.

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