A Rampart Division CRASH officer pursuing a case against a 15-year-old accused of a fatal double shooting attempted to arrange the deportation of a high-profile neighborhood activist whose testimony could clear the youth of murder charges, the activist says.
The Los Angeles Police Department has not disputed that it arrested the activist and turned him over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. An arrest specifically for deportation purposes violates departmental policy on cooperation with the INS.
Alex Sanchez, who is being held at the federal immigration detention facility in San Pedro, said his Jan. 21 arrest by Rampart Officer Jesus Amezcua came after months of threats and harassment against him and other activists in Homies Unidos, a group working to end gang violence.
Federal authorities said they were blindsided by the arrest and mystified by an LAPD news release that said the INS had been "actively looking for Mr. Sanchez."
Sanchez and others say Jose Rodriguez, the teenager accused of murder, was at a Homies Unidos meeting at the time the shooting took place in August. Sanchez said Amezcua, who built the case against Rodriguez, "really wanted me bad. He knew I was a witness. He took it real personal."
The arrest of Sanchez--whose detention has made him something of a cause celebre--is the most recent example of what critics say is Rampart Division officers' use of immigration issues to eliminate troublesome witnesses by having them deported. The division polices neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of immigrants, many of them in the country illegally.
In transcripts of his testimony in the unfolding Rampart scandal, Rafael Perez, who worked as an anti-gang CRASH officer in the division, describes how police would attempt to induce immigration authorities to deport people--a practice that violates a city policy barring police from engaging in immigration enforcement.
In Sanchez's case, deportation would remove one of the key witnesses who say they were with Rodriguez at the Homies Unidos meeting when the shooting occurred. Sanchez and other alibi witnesses, such as theater instructor Thom Vernon, say they have not been interviewed by authorities about the case against Rodriguez, who faces a sentence of 50 years to life if convicted of the murder alone.
Vernon, co-artistic director of Arts Expand, which directs Homies Unidos' theater and poetry workshops, said the young man was acting in a skit with him at the time the murder reportedly took place Aug. 12, 1999. The workshop ran from 7:40 to 9:40 that night, he said. Police say the shooting occurred at 8:30.
"I was absolutely with him the whole time," Vernon said of Rodriguez, who was 14 when he was arrested but is to be tried as an adult. "I don't even think he went to the restroom."
Federal authorities said they could not document any recent INS communication with the LAPD about Sanchez, though they said it was possible that in the past several years his name had appeared on an INS list of deportable gang members provided to the CRASH unit.
Capt. Bob Hansohn, Rampart area commanding officer, denied that the arrest was made at the whim of one officer.
"I don't think you're talking to the right people," he said. "If they weren't looking for him, why did they take him? My officers said they are working with . . . some [INS] field agents who were looking for this individual."
Assistant U.S. Atty. Shannon Wright said U.S. Atty. Alejandro Mayorkas decided Tuesday not to prosecute Sanchez for reentering the country illegally after deportation--he had been sent back to his native El Salvador in 1994. She said Mayorkas made the decision "based on equitable considerations and all of the information he learned in the past few years about Mr. Sanchez."
Sanchez is "in INS proceedings, and they're going to determine independently what to do in terms of his immigration status and whether he will be deported," Wright said.
Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the Western region of the INS, said all removal proceedings against Sanchez are on hold pending further review of his request for special immigration status based on special grounds she declined to detail.
In an interview, Sanchez said he and Amezcua were well-acquainted by the time the officer arrested him. Last summer, Amezcua stopped him and photographed him, saying he looked suspicious, Sanchez said.
A few weeks later, on Aug. 6, Amezcua kicked open the door at a birthday party for Sanchez's fiancee, along with another officer who shoved a girl's face against the wall several times and hit Sanchez in the head with a baton, Sanchez said.
He said he next saw Amezcua after the slaying, at a Juvenile Court hearing for Rodriguez. After that, according to Sanchez, Amezcua began to stop him routinely on the street and search him, sometimes punching him in the groin, telling him: "We'll see who wins the court trial--his gang or our gang."
Sanchez and others said Amezcua was one of the officers who regularly harassed many members of Homies Unidos, stopping them on their way to and from the group's Thursday night meetings at Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard.
He said Amezcua was one of several officers who went to the church in September just hours before state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) was to hold a nighttime hearing on harassment of the group. Sanchez said the officers asked if they could hide in the church during Homies Unidos meetings.
Church custodian Victor Cosme said LAPD officers did show up at the church one day in September, but he could not remember the day or their names.
"They wanted to hide in a room where a meeting was taking place, perhaps in a closet. I said no," he recalled. "They asked where Homies Unidos met. I showed them the room. I never saw them again."
A group of LAPD officers, including Amezcua, appeared that night at the Hayden hearings, where Sanchez testified, according to Rocky Rushing, Hayden's chief of staff.
When Amezcua saw Sanchez on the street later, he said "he was going to see me behind bars, and he gave Homies Unidos six months to live," Sanchez alleged.
The Rev. Frank Alton of Immanuel Presbyterian said he sent a letter to Hansohn in October complaining that police were "hanging around the church and responding to the homies who were in this group. It felt like they were targeting them for being gathered there."
Hansohn said he does not believe his officers are harassing anyone or targeting Homies Unidos but said the matter is under investigation.
"If you talk to a gang member, any time they are stopped by police it's harassment," he said. "We have a duty to talk to them and gather intelligence."
Not long before his arrest, Sanchez said, Amezcua searched him and a friend, Ricardo Hernandez, who was arrested on a minor charge and then held because of his own illegal immigration status.
Then at 8 p.m. Jan. 21, Amezcua stopped Sanchez and told him he was wanted by the INS, saying: " 'It's over. You can take Homies Unidos and shove it. . . . Exact words," Sanchez said.
When they reached the Rampart station at Union Avenue and 3rd Street, police "said they were going to call the INS and see if they wanted me. Since they already told me the INS wanted me, I found it kind of strange," Sanchez alleged.
He said Amezcua refused to let him call a lawyer or Hayden's office. He was taken to Men's Central Jail but not booked, then transported to Parker Center, he said.
Amezcua told some of the other officers that "I was [Rodriguez's] alibi. They thought it was really funny. They started laughing," Sanchez alleged.
It was not until the next morning--12 hours after his arrest--that an INS official arrived to pick him up, according to Sanchez.
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Our tough-on-crime stance is at the root of the scandal, columnist Shawn Hubler writes. B1