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Suit Alleges Harassment of L.A. Gang Peace Group

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five prominent Los Angeles attorneys filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Friday charging that Los Angeles Police Department officers in the scandal-tarnished Rampart Division have harassed and beaten members of a group that works to end gang violence.

Lead counsel Paul Hoffman told a news conference at Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard that the primary goal of the lawsuit is to win an injunction prohibiting LAPD officers from interfering with Homies Unidos. The group offers current and former gang members employment assistance, arts classes and a high school equivalency program.

“We’re the mirror image of a gang injunction,” Hoffman said, referring to court orders that can severely restrict the activities of gang members. “We want the police to stop acting like gangs.”

The suit also seeks unspecified damages for its four plaintiffs--Homies Unidos acting director Gerardo Lopez, Appolonio Vargas, Alex Sanchez and his wife, Christina Garcia. The plaintiffs allege that they have been searched without warrants, stopped on baseless charges or beaten by LAPD officers.

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The suit names the city of Los Angeles, LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks and two Rampart officers--Mario Marquez and Jesus Amezcua. It charges that Marquez and Amezcua were among those who unlawfully detained, questioned and brutalized the plaintiffs. The acts, the lawsuit charges, often occurred when the victims were going to or leaving Homies Unidos meetings at Immanuel Presbyterian.

An LAPD spokeswoman said neither the department nor the two officers could discuss the lawsuit.

“We can’t comment on any pending litigation,” said Capt. Sharyn Buck.

The suit says Homies Unidos members have been victimized by warrantless LAPD forays into their homes, baseless charges and sexual harassment. Vargas said he has been beaten or roughed up by CRASH Officer Amezcua 10 times in the last few years after leaving Homies Unidos meetings.

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“Once he kicked me in the stomach and told me he would kick my teeth out,” Vargas said.

Lopez said former Rampart CRASH Officer Michael Buchanan, who has since been implicated in the corruption scandal, beat him on his way to a Homies meeting shortly after the group began meeting in Los Angeles in 1997.

“They’ve intimidated a lot of dangerous minds that could have become positive minds,” Lopez said.

Activists said the more recent alleged abuses show that many LAPD police practices have not changed substantively since last fall, when accusations emerged of beatings, shootings of unarmed suspects and planting of drugs to frame innocent people in the Rampart Division. The Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums anti-gang unit in which most of the abuses allegedly occurred was disbanded this year.

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“They say CRASH was dissolved, but its officers are still working the same neighborhoods,” said Magdaleno Rose-Avila, the founder of Homies Unidos. “You can call a Doberman pinscher a Chihuahua, but it’s still a Doberman pinscher.”

The lawsuit arose partly from the Jan. 21 arrest of then-Homies Unidos director Sanchez. Sanchez says he was harassed by Amezcua for months before being picked up on a charge he called baseless. At the time, he said, he had an alibi for a 15-year-old Homies Unidos member who was pursued by Amezcua for a gang murder the youth said he did not commit.

Sanchez, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, said Amezcua arrested him and turned him over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS is holding Sanchez at its San Pedro detention center while his lawyers seek his release.

The murder charge against the youth, Jose Rodriguez, was later dropped after several alibi witnesses came forward.

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“Arresting an exculpatory witness is something that’s a throwback to Soviet Russia, and it has no place in the Los Angeles of 2000,” said Mark Geragos, the other lead attorney in the case.

The lawsuit says the harassment of Sanchez included an incident in which Amezcua, Marquez and other LAPD officers burst into an Aug. 6 surprise party for Christina Garcia that was thrown by Sanchez and other members of Homies Unidos.

The suit says that Marquez pushed Sanchez against a wall with a club and that people at the party were detained without justification, photographed and had their names entered into a gang database.

“When it comes to Alex Sanchez and Homies Unidos, there is no forgiveness,” said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles). “They are punished for what they have been. He and Homies Unidos were trying to save lives. It’s as if it’s Los Angeles’ dirty little secret that we treat certain people as if they’re outside the Constitution.”

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