Detectives on the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart corruption task force have reopened an investigation into a 1998 shooting in which two undercover narcotics officers fatally shot a man while they were searching for a drug dealer.
Carlos Perez Vertiz was shot to death May 19 in the basement laundry room of the apartment building where he lived in the 200 block of South Kenmore Avenue when he allegedly pulled a shotgun on the officers, according to police records.
Police at the time portrayed Vertiz as a "well-known drug dealer" who gave officers no choice but to shoot when he leveled the weapon at them, according to friends and family of the dead man.
But Vertiz, 44, had no previous arrests involving drugs or violence, records show. He worked steadily as a painter and carpenter in the years before he was slain.
Tim Shaw, a robbery homicide detective assigned to the task force, declined to comment on the probe.
But several witnesses interviewed by Shaw and other detectives said investigators appear to be pursuing a theory that Vertiz was killed in a case of mistaken identity.
"Some things just don't add up," one witness quoted a detective as saying.
Vertiz's killing is one of more than half a dozen questionable shootings under review by the Rampart task force. At least two shootings have been characterized as "dirty" by former LAPD officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez, the man at the center of the corruption probe. He has alleged that officers assigned to Rampart shot unarmed men and then planted weapons to cover their tracks.
In the Vertiz case, Officers Frank Galindo and Ruben Palomares--neither of whom is among the more than 12 Rampart officers who have been removed from active duty in connection with the probe--fired 10 rounds, hitting Vertiz multiple times, according to police documents.
Vertiz, who allegedly provoked the shooting by aiming a sawed-off, 12-gauge shotgun at Palomares, never fired the weapon. The gun's chamber was empty, according to police documents, but there were four rounds in the gun's magazine. An examination of the gun later revealed that its serial number had been obliterated. A similarly modified firearm was planted on a young, unarmed gang member, who Perez says he and his former partner Nino Durden shot and then framed for assaulting them.
The shooting was found "in policy" by the department earlier this year. Galindo, who is still assigned to the Rampart Division, declined to comment for this story. Palomares, who has since been transferred to another LAPD division, could not be reached for comment.
According to internal LAPD documents, Galindo and Palomares were working an undercover narcotics detail May 19, 1998, when they received a tip from an informant that a drug dealer was expecting a delivery of cocaine from "a wholesaler" within the hour. The informant told Palomares that the drug dealer was a man in his 30s, and was wearing a black tank top shirt, according to police documents. The wholesaler drove a taxi and was going to make the delivery in the 200 block of South Kenmore Avenue, the documents state.
The two officers decided to survey the area from a three-story apartment building at 246 S. Kenmore Ave. Just after 7 p.m., they allegedly ascended to the roof of the building and then worked their way down, floor by floor, checking for gang members and drug dealers who could pose a threat to their safety, as they watched for the expected drug deal.
The officers cleared the first three floors without incident, the police report states. Then they reached the basement laundry room. There they saw a man later identified as Vertiz in a black tank top standing in the corner, his back to the officers, the police report states. Galindo and Palomares, according to their account, saw a shotgun tucked under Vertiz's right arm. Both his hands were in front of his body, and he appeared to be fidgeting with something.
The officers immediately drew their guns, identified themselves as police and ordered Vertiz--in English and Spanish--to put his hands in the air. Vertiz turned clockwise, the report states, raised the barrel of the shotgun and pointed it at Palomares.
Palomares, fearing that he was about to be shot, fired six rounds at Vertiz. Galindo, also fearing for his safety and that of his partner, simultaneously fired four rounds at Vertiz. Vertiz, hit by multiple shots, fell to the ground. He died at the scene.
Police said they recovered a plastic container holding 2.76 grams of cocaine next to Vertiz's body. A toxicology test performed after Vertiz's death found no drugs in his system, according to a source who has reviewed the report.
Those who knew Vertiz said they find the purported circumstances of the shooting implausible.
"Something is wrong," said Teresa Arriaga, Vertiz's girlfriend of 16 years, who was with him in his third-floor apartment minutes before he was shot. "But it's our word against the police's word."
Now, however, Arriaga and others say they think the police are beginning to listen.
Arriaga said she has been interviewed twice by Shaw and another detective. Michael Lipson, who often employed Vertiz over the years, and Jose Santos, a family friend, also have been interviewed.
All three witnesses said detectives repeatedly asked if they knew a man who went by the nickname "Chapin," slang for Guatemalan, who the detectives said was known as a major drug dealer. Specifically, the detectives wanted to know if "Chapin" and Vertiz were friends.
All three told The Times that they did not know any "Chapin."
"A lot of people believe the police were looking for [Chapin] and got him confused with [Vertiz]," said Santos, the family friend.
Santos said that on the day after the shooting he talked to a tenant in Vertiz's building who disputed some aspects of the police account.
The unidentified tenant told Santos that he saw two undercover officers enter through the front of the building, not the rear. He said the officers were running, as if they were pursuing someone. A short time later, the man said, he heard the shots in the basement.
Arriaga, speaking through an interpreter, said she was tidying up Vertiz's third-floor apartment when she heard the shots. She came downstairs to investigate, she said.
When she reached the lobby, she said, she was met by a man dressed in blue jeans and a short-sleeve shirt who told her in Spanish to leave the building because there had been a shooting and police were investigating. She said the man, who she assumed was an undercover police officer, held a walkie-talkie and was spattered with blood. Behind the man, gun smoke wafted up from the basement below.
At the time, Arriaga said in a recent interview with The Times, she had no idea that Vertiz had been shot. She said he left the apartment no more than five minutes before she heard the shots, saying that he was going outside for a smoke.
Arriaga said she is convinced that Vertiz never had a gun, much less aimed one at police.
"He didn't like guns. He was scared of guns," she said.
Lipson, who employed Vertiz on and off for six years, agreed.
"Carlos was a wonderful worker and a good human being," said Lipson, who wrote a letter to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, raising questions about Vertiz's death. "He was not the sort of individual who would have a reason to have a weapon."
Although Vertiz apparently had trouble paying his rent from time to time, the former manager of the apartment building said Vertiz was a good person liked by many in the building and was not known to be a drug dealer.
Lipson scoffed at the notion that Vertiz was a drug dealer or drug user. He said that he and his wife, who employ Arriaga as their maid, left Vertiz alone to work in their Fairfax district home on numerous occasions and never had a problem.
"He was a very good soul," Lipson said.
Lipson said two different detectives on the case have made comments to him indicating that they have questions about the shooting. He said it was Det. Shaw who told him, "Some things just don't add up." Another detective told him: "There just might be something to this."