Suit Over Slaying of LAPD Officer Settled Quietly


The city of Los Angeles has reached a $250,000 out-of-court settlement with the family of a police officer who was shot to death two years ago during a traffic dispute with a fellow LAPD officer.

Although the controversial Studio City shooting, which involved an off-duty officer and an undercover narcotics detective, was the focus of many news stories at the time, officials with the city attorney’s office minimized public scrutiny of the 6-month-old settlement by structuring the agreement so that the three plaintiffs each received compensation below the monetary threshold that requires City Council approval.

As a result, some members of the council and the Los Angeles Police Commission were unaware that the high-profile case had been settled.


Under a city ordinance, the council must approve all settlements over $100,000. That threshold, however, applies to each plaintiff and not an entire lawsuit, a nuance even some council members said they did not know. Although the total settlement reached $250,000, none of the plaintiffs--Officer Kevin Gaines’ widow and the couple’s two young daughters--received more than $100,000.

Some council members said they were concerned about the settlement and wondered why the city attorney agreed to settle the case when police and the district attorney had concluded that the slain officer was at fault. They also criticized the city attorney’s office for the manner in which the settlement was handled.

“The idea that the city attorney’s office would orchestrate a settlement payout that seeks to avoid full council involvement is unacceptable and frankly deplorable,” said Councilwoman Laura Chick, who heads the council’s Public Safety Committee.

“We sign the checks, we’re responsible for taxpayers’ dollars. We need to be part of the decision-making process,” Chick said.

Chick added that she would like to know how many times multiple plaintiff cases were settled by the city attorney’s office for a total of more than $100,000, but never approved by the entire City Council.

Councilman Joel Wachs added: “I think it’s an absolute outrage. It’s an abuse of authority to not allow the council to decide such an extremely important public policy issue.”


The only council member consulted about the settlement was Richard Alatorre, who, in his role as the Budget Committee chairman, is authorized to approve settlements below $100,000. Officials with the city attorney’s office said Chief Bernard C. Parks, who ruled last year that the shooting was “in policy,” was also briefed on the settlement and raised no objections. Police Commission President Edith Perez was also aware of the settlement, a city attorney said.

Parks declined to comment.

Judge Wrote Protest Letter

Chief Assistant City Atty. Thomas C. Hokinson, who helped negotiate the out-of-court agreement, said the settlement was a sound decision, minimizing the city’s potential financial liability. He said the city attorney’s office handled the case properly and did not attempt to circumvent council oversight.

Hokinson said the city believed it had a strong case, but that there was no guarantee a jury would see it the same way.

Retired Superior Court Judge R. William Schoettler, who presided over the settlement negotiations, wrote to Parks stating that he thought the settlement was political and meant to dispel significant adverse publicity for the city and the Police Department, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Times.

“Had the matter been submitted to me for a determination, I would have found in favor of the city of Los Angeles,” the judge wrote. “However, the matter was presented to me for settlement purposes and both sides indicated a desire to resolve the matter without the publicity attendant upon a court or jury trial.”

The shooting, which occurred March 18, 1997, was an embarrassing incident for the LAPD because it pitted two officers against each other in what appeared to be a case of road rage. It also heightened racial tensions within the department because Gaines was black and the other officer, Frank Lyga, is white.


According to police accounts, Lyga was working an undercover narcotics operation at the time he became involved in a traffic dispute with Gaines, who was off duty. Apparently, neither man knew the other was a police officer.

Gaines allegedly pulled a gun on Lyga to threaten him. Lyga, fearing for his life, shot Gaines. According to a district attorney’s review, Gaines allegedly was involved in four road rage incidents in the 12 months before his encounter with Lyga. Those incidents, however, only came to light after the publicity from the shooting and three of the complainants had ties to law enforcement.

In his letter, Judge Schoettler said he believed “Det. Lyga acted in accordance with LAPD guidelines at all relevant times.”

Before the shooting, Lyga had been the focus of four complaints of excessive force. In each of those incidents, the officer was either exonerated or the charges were ruled unfounded or not resolved.

Gaines’ survivors were represented by attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who some city officials privately contend wields considerable clout with City Atty. James Hahn and Chief Parks.

Hokinson said Cochran’s contacts with the city attorney’s office, where he once worked, had no influence on the settlement.


According to court records and interviews, Gaines was a troubled officer. When he wasn’t cruising the streets of Los Angeles in an LAPD black and white, he drove a Mercedes 420 SEL. The vanity tag read: “ITS OK IA,” an apparent reference to the fact he thought he was being investigated by LAPD’s internal affairs.

He may indeed have presented a tempting target:

On a police officer’s salary, Gaines would show up for work in his luxury car wearing Versace shirts and tailored suits.

Dating Estranged Wife of ‘Suge’ Knight

At the time of his death, he was dating Sharitha Knight, then the estranged wife of Death Row Records chief Marion “Suge” Knight, who is in prison for an assault conviction and who recently was identified by police as a suspect in the slaying of New York rapper Notorious B.I.G.

“He was kind of flashy, overabundantly flashy for a police officer,” Sharitha Knight said in her deposition in the civil lawsuit.

Through his association with Sharitha Knight, he worked off-duty as a bodyguard for rapper Snoop Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, and arranged for several other LAPD officers to do the same.

None of the officers involved had the required department permits for the work, and the department probably would not have issued them, given Broadus’ background and the potential for a conflict of interest in working for him.


Gaines met Sharitha Knight in 1993 at a Chevron gas station at La Brea Avenue and Adams Boulevard. Gaines and his partner pulled up next to Knight’s Mercedes and she and Gaines began to chat. She told him who she was and about her lavish hillside home above the Cahuenga Pass. He bet her a dinner that she was exaggerating. He lost. They went to dinner, and eventually began dating exclusively.

Confrontation in Las Vegas

The relationship led to a confrontation with Suge Knight in Las Vegas, Sharitha Knight said in her deposition. Gaines, Sharitha and several of Sharitha’s relatives had just come out of a performance when Suge Knight appeared. Sharitha Knight said her estranged husband pushed his way into the van, driven by Gaines, in which she and her family were riding.

She said Suge Knight, who had another man with him, asked for a ride to their hotel.

“Where you guys want to go?” asked Gaines, who had put his gun in his lap, according to Sharitha Knight’s testimony.

“I’ll tell you. Just keep driving,” Suge Knight replied, according to the deposition.

“Kevin’s driving. In the back Suge is in my ear, threatening me basically,” Sharitha Knight testified. “By now [Suge is] really mad. . . . So we’re driving to this deserted spot.” Feeling threatened, she said she told Knight: “That man is a police officer, and I don’t think we’re going to play games with you.”

She then told Gaines to turn the van around, which he did. They dropped Suge Knight and his friend at their hotel. After an argument between Sharitha and Suge Knight, the incident ended. Gaines immediately boarded a plane and flew back to Los Angeles.

In the latter stages of his relationship with Sharitha Knight, shortly before his death, Gaines told her he had received a death threat via an e-mail and was convinced he was being followed by helicopters.


At one point, Sharitha Knight testified, Gaines was at her house in Studio City and pointed to the sky.

“See, there’s a helicopter right there,” he reportedly said.

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this story.