As former Los Angeles Police Officer Rafael Perez faced his second trial on drug theft charges earlier this year, the confident swagger of the tough anti-gang cop was gone.
LAPD investigators, who had been dogging him for more than a year, had come up with new evidence that could put him behind bars for 12 years. He was haunted by his past misdeeds as a cop. And now authorities were suggesting that they might even go after his wife, a woman who had stood by him despite not only his alleged crimes, but also a string of extramarital affairs.
“He was a broken man,” said one detective on the task force investigating Perez.
Jury selection in the retrial already had begun when Perez decided it was time to cut a deal. He wanted a reduced prison sentence on the drug case, immunity for crimes and misconduct in which he was about to implicate himself, and an assurance that authorities would not make trouble for his wife, a civilian LAPD employee. In return, Perez promised to finger other corrupt officers in the department’s Rampart Division as part of the deal.
Initially, prosecutors were resistant, insisting that Perez would not be given immunity for any crime in which someone had been seriously injured.
But that changed when Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Rosenthal heard what the ex-cop had to say. The prosecutor’s jaw dropped as the details spilled out: Perez and his partner had allegedly shot an unarmed 19-year-old man and then planted a gun on him to cover it up. Rosenthal would later learn that the officers then allegedly perjured themselves to frame their victim on assault charges.
Whether driven by his conscience, as he claims, or motivated merely by self-interest, Perez lifted the lid on a Pandora’s box of alleged police crimes and misconduct that has become the worst LAPD corruption scandal in more than 60 years.
LAPD detectives thought that convicting Perez of the drug charges would be the bittersweet end of an 18-month investigation into one of their own gone bad. Instead it was only the beginning.
Perez Mistrial Would Lead to Revelations
Sitting in the audience at Perez’s first trial on charges of stealing cocaine from an LAPD evidence room in December 1998, Cmdr. Dan Schatz looked on as the former officer testified with textbook perfection.
He was confident and articulate and stared straight into the eyes of the jurors. The hard-charging street cop and former Marine wept as he confessed to being unfaithful to his wife.
“He was excellent on the stand,” Schatz recalled. “He was a lying son of a bitch, and we were squirming in our seats.”
With good reason, as it turned out: A third of the jury believed Perez, and their doubts about the prosecution’s case forced a mistrial.
Angered at first, Rosenthal and the team of detectives assigned to investigate Perez then dug in their heels, Schatz recalled. “The mistrial was probably a blessing in disguise,” he said.
Had it not been for the hung jury, authorities say, detectives probably would never have uncovered additional incriminating information against Perez, prompting him to cooperate with prosecutors.
“We got pissed off,” said one source close to the investigation. “We wanted to pressure him into cooperating or slam him--if he didn’t--for the maximum possible time.”
The new artillery for what would have been the second trial consisted mainly of Perez’s financial documents. Rosenthal was prepared to call a financial expert to the stand who would testify that drug dealing was the most probable source of tens of thousands of dollars in unexplained income.
Also, since the first trial, detectives had uncovered the theft of two more pounds of cocaine, leading to additional charges.
“We were going to put on a case where no juror would have an excuse to acquit him,” one task force member said.
Perez’s attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, who successfully defended the ex-cop in his first trial, said he was confident that his case was stronger too. It was so strong, he said, that he urged Perez not to cut a deal.
The confession “was something he wanted to do to clear his own conscience, for no other reason,” McKesson said.
Parks Tells Task Force to Press On
Perez’s disclosures blindsided the task force detectives: Drug theft was one thing. What had happened to young Javier Francisco Ovando--the man Perez and his onetime partner allegedly shot and framed--was quite another.
Brian Tyndall, the top detective on the task force, tried to explain what he and his fellow investigators were feeling as they built a case against another cop: “We were disappointed that a police officer would cross the line,” said Tyndall, a brawny robbery-homicide detective whose formidable appearance belies his good nature.
“But after a while, he’s just not a police officer anymore,” added Schatz, the task force commander.
It was Schatz, a taut, silver-haired LAPD veteran, who was left with the chore of informing Chief Bernard C. Parks of Perez’s confession. He pondered this as he made the five-minute drive from the task force’s semi-secret headquarters at the MTA building near downtown to Parker Center, and as he rode the elevator to the chief’s office on the sixth floor. There was no easy way, Schatz decided.
When he finally sat across from Parks, he just blurted it out.
“It was a gut shot,” Schatz recalled.
There was no visible crack in Parks’ stoic demeanor, but Schatz said he could tell the news hurt. The upshot of the meeting, though, was that Parks told Schatz to chase leads wherever they went. The task force, which had been expected to disband after Perez’s trial, would press on.
Two blocks away, at the district attorney’s office, some top prosecutors did not share Rosenthal’s indignation over the Ovando case. After Tyndall interviewed Ovando in prison and the gang member corroborated the key elements of Perez’s confession, Rosenthal, a by-the-book prosecutor known for his uncompromising ethics, argued for his immediate release.
Other top district attorney’s officials were resistant, sources said. Perez was a thief and liar, they argued. Why should he be believed now? No prisoner should be released before there was a thorough, if time-consuming, investigation.
In the end, Ovando was released when he was, sources said, because Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and his top advisors learned that Parks was planning to call a news conference on Perez’s admission about the shooting.
Parks hastily arranged the news conference only when he became convinced that The Times was planning to publish a detailed account of the Ovando case in the next morning’s paper.
Ignoring the counsel of some advisors, Parks went before reporters and told them of Perez’s admission. He also announced that 11 officers had been relieved of duty in connection with the ongoing Rampart investigation.
The news conference, the chief’s top command officers say, was a political move to show that the department was out in front of the corruption scandal, as opposed to responding to a story in the newspaper.
The next day Rosenthal filed a writ of habeas corpus seeking Ovando’s immediate release from state prison--at the time, an unprecedented act in the history of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Probe Explodes in Scope
In ensuing weeks, detectives put boxes of Perez’s old case files in front of the ex-cop during lengthy debriefings at a secret location. Perez told investigators that he and his partner, Nino Durden, had so often planted drugs or otherwise framed suspects that he needed to see the files to be reminded of all the tainted cases, according to sources.
As Perez talked, task force detectives began crisscrossing the state in department planes and helicopters, interviewing prison inmates and attempting to corroborate or disprove Perez’s startling admissions and allegations.
The task force swelled from nine detectives to nearly 30. They needed more desks, more computers and more money. The probe, even though focused on fellow cops, shared the characteristics of any other big investigation: long days, fast food, neglected loved ones, stakeouts and gallows humor. And, inevitably, politics.
In the beginning, TV news crews and reporters from across the country waited outside Parker Center for each development in the case. Chief Parks and other city officials went on national news talk shows to assure the public that the department could police its own and was not only pursuing the criminal investigation, but also launching a massive internal inquiry to look at systemic problems within the institution.
But the chief also sought to control the damage, telling people not to assume the worst and wait for the inquiry to be complete before condemning the entire LAPD.
Garcetti, the county’s other top law enforcement official, facing a reelection challenge, was more vocal about the scope of the problem, calling it “potentially the most important case” his office has ever handled.
In news conferences, he stressed that his top priority would be setting the innocent free. But although nearly a dozen cases have been overturned, those actions were taken only with the reluctant approval of some top district attorney’s officials, sources said.
Up to 30 Officers May Be Fired
To date, what has become known as the Rampart corruption scandal includes allegations of “bad” shootings, beatings, drug dealing, evidence planting, false arrest, witness intimidation and perjury.
Officers from the Rampart Division’s anti-gang CRASH unit have been portrayed as mimicking the street gangs they police. Some of the officers maintained a “crash pad” apartment near the station where they partied like fraternity boys and sometimes had sex while on duty, sources say. Two of the suspended officers were accused of raping a suspected drug user they stopped while on duty. Criminal charges were never filed, but one of the officers admitted having what he called consensual sex with the woman as his partner stood by. Both officers were given suspensions.
More than a dozen officers have been suspended since September in connection with the investigation, which has been fueled largely by Perez’s allegations.
Sources say that number is almost certain to grow. By the time the probe is concluded, they say, “a handful” of officers could be charged with crimes. As many as 30 may be fired.
Prosecuting the officers, however, won’t be easy.
Consider Durden. Perez has implicated him in the shooting of Ovando, as well as a string of arrests in which Durden allegedly fabricated evidence and then perjured himself on the witness stand.
But Durden, though suspended from the LAPD, remains a free man. Parks, tormented by the department’s badly tarnished image, has been clamoring for an arrest to show that he is serious about rooting out corruption within the LAPD. One task force detective was recently ordered to formally request that the district attorney file charges against Durden, even though the detectives and prosecutors actually working the case knew it was premature, according to a source.
One reason for the slow going is that detectives are scrambling to corroborate the allegations made by Perez, realizing that his drug theft conviction and past perjuries make him a vulnerable witness at best.
So far, Perez’s sentencing, at which the terms of his time-shaving plea agreement would be consummated, has been postponed three times.
McKesson, who has been credited with securing a surprisingly favorable deal for his client, is growing impatient as well.
He knows that while investigators are attempting to corroborate his client’s allegations, they are also on the lookout for any errors and omissions in Perez’s statements that could allow the deal to fall apart.
McKesson insists that Perez has been forthright with investigators since he began to cooperate last fall, and that as a result of his cooperation, the ex-cop “will be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life.”
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LAPD Scandal Timeline
March 2: Six pounds of cocaine is checked out from property room at LAPD headquarters, ostensibly for use as evidence in a drug trial.
March 27: Police officials, concerned that the cocaine has not been returned to the property room, launch an internal investigation.
Aug. 25: LAPD Officer Rafael A. Perez is arrested on suspicion of stealing the cocaine.
Dec. 23: Perez’s trial on cocaine theft charge ends in a hung jury.
Sept. 8: As a jury is being selected for his second trial, Perez pleads guilty to stealing eight pounds of cocaine from LAPD facilities. He enters into a confidential plea agreement with prosecutors in which he is expected to receive a reduced sentence on the drug charges in exchange for identifying other police officers involved.
Sept. 13: Ex-LAPD Officer David A. Mack, a former partner and friend of Perez, is sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for a Nov. 6, 1997, bank robbery in which he and two accomplices escaped with about $722,000, most of which remains unaccounted for. Perez and Mack partied together in Las Vegas, spending thousands of dollars, two days after the bank heist.
Sept. 15: In the first public airing of the Rampart corruption scandal, Chief Bernard C. Parks calls a press conference in which he announces that Perez has implicated himself and another officer in the shooting of an unarmed man, Javier Francisco Ovando. Parks says that 12 officers have been either assigned to home or fired in connection with the ongoing corruption investigation.
Sept. 16: Ovando, the man shot by Perez and his partner and later framed for assaulting the two officers, is freed from prison after serving three years of a 23-year sentence. The Times reports that Perez has identified a second allegedly dirty shooting in which one man was killed and two others were injured. The FBI, meanwhile, launches a civil rights investigation.
Sept. 20: In a jailhouse interview, Perez calls corruption at the Los Angeles Police Department a cancer ... that has gone on a long time without being treated. That same day, prosecutors announce they are immediately suspending enforcement of two sweeping anti-gang injunctions affecting more than 100 members of the notorious 18th Street gang.
Oct. 4: Two Los Angeles police officers linked to the Rampart corruption probe are subpoenaed to testify before a criminal grand jury focusing on two allegedly unjustified shootings by Rampart officers.
Oct. 13: Ovando files a lawsuit against the city. Many legal observers say that the city’s liability is greater in the Ovando case than it was in the case of beaten motorist Rodney G. King.
Nov. 9: Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti calls the corruption probe potentially the most important case we’ve ever had.
Nov. 10: In a flurry of court action, a judge overturns criminal convictions against four men and dismisses a case against another. All of the actions are taken at the prosecution’s request after Perez says the defendants were framed.
Nov. 17: A court commissioner, acting on a defense attorney’s motion, orders the release from state prison of Ruben Rojas. Perez admitted framing Rojas on a drug charge. Rojas claimed he was targeted because he was having sex with one of Perezs mistresses. Perez countered that he framed the gang member because he thought Rojas was planning to have him killed.
Nov. 30: Judges overturn criminal convictions against four more men, each of whom was allegedly framed by LAPD officers.
Dec. 14: Officials reveal that about 3,000 criminal cases involving LAPD officers connected to the Rampart scandal will have to be reviewed.