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Year Brings Little Progress in 2 LAPD Shooting Probes

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

More than a year after former LAPD Officer Rafael Perez told investigators about a pair of allegedly improper police shootings, detectives on the department’s corruption task force have yet to interview the victims and other key witnesses, despite public pledges to get to the bottom of Perez’s allegations.

The shootings generated questions even before Perez suggested possible wrongdoing. The city paid the victims substantial sums--$425,000 in one case, $135,000 in the other--to settle lawsuits. Authorities challenged some aspects of the officers’ accounts of both incidents at the time they occurred, and, in one case, a prosecutor went so far as to alert colleagues responsible for bringing criminal charges against police.

The officers who fired their weapons remain at work in the Los Angeles Police Department.

The slow pace of the LAPD investigation, which grows out of Perez’s allegations of widespread misconduct, has already had consequences: Because one of the shootings occurred in 1995, the statutes of limitation on some of the most serious alleged criminal offenses have expired and the officers involved can no longer be prosecuted on those charges.

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After inquiries from The Times, Cmdr. Sharon Papa, the LAPD’s spokeswoman, said the shootings were not considered “high priorities,” in part because the officers who fired the shots in the two cases are not believed to be major players in the corruption scandal. The LAPD, she said, was focusing its efforts principally on officers who are thought to have played important roles in alleged corruption.

Detectives, she added, were deluged with seemingly more promising leads, making it unfair to second-guess the way task force investigators have prioritized their caseload.

“Now, someone may look at these and think maybe they should have been up higher on the list,” she said. “But they weren’t. We can’t go back and fix that.”

Nevertheless, Papa, who acknowledged that detectives have not interviewed the officers involved in the two shootings, stressed that police are still chasing leads and have not brushed the allegations aside. “Nobody has done anything intentionally to hide this,” she said. “They’re trying to do a good job.”

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The 1995 shooting has received virtually no scrutiny from the LAPD corruption task force, Papa confirmed.

Papa said that detectives investigated the second shooting, which occurred in 1998 in the 77th Street Division and that the results of their probe were submitted to the district attorney in a report last fall.

Without interviewing the victim, Anthony Dickson, or other eyewitnesses in that case, the investigators concluded that “there is no evidence to indicate criminality by members of the department.”

Investigators based that conclusion in part on a bullet recovered at the scene. The bullet, they said, was linked to a gun used by an acquaintance of Dickson in a nearby shooting the same day. To the detectives, that suggested that Dickson was armed with the same weapon when confronted by police. The gun was never recovered.

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Long before Perez made his allegations, authorities armed with the accounts of other witnesses were skeptical of the officers’ stories in both incidents, according to documents and interviews.

In the 1995 incident, for instance, a detective investigating the shooting at the time repeatedly asked Officer Daniel K. Widman, then a rookie working in the Rampart Division, if he was sure the shooting hadn’t been accidental. When Widman insisted it had not been, the detective pressed him.

“OK, Dan. We are going to go over this again,” said Det. Jerry Stephens, according to transcripts of the interview. “You think these questions are tough, wait until two or three years down the line and you get in front of the judge and the jury . . . and you are going to have to explain to them why you shot this guy. And that is what we are trying to get out of you right here.”

In the other case identified by Perez, Dickson, a reputed gang member facing 20 years in prison for allegedly pointing an assault rifle at officers in the 77th Street Division, accepted a plea agreement and was set free after just 10 months in jail. The prosecutor concluded that the questionable evidence in the case made it “very near unwinnable.”

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In fact, Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Katz was so concerned by the officers’ “curious and troubling” version of events that he referred the matter to the district attorney’s Special Investigations Division for potential prosecution of the officers, according to a December 1998 memo about the case.

Although different officers were involved in the two cases, one who was present for both was Sgt. Edward Ortiz, described by Perez as someone who “fixed” shooting scenes to protect officers from misconduct charges.

Ortiz was convicted of corruption-related crimes in an unrelated case in November, but that conviction has been overturned. The district attorney’s office is appealing the judge’s reversal of the jury verdict.

Through his lawyer, Ortiz declined to comment.

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Perez was not present at either shooting. But he told detectives that both were widely discussed at Rampart--and widely viewed as cover-ups.

Shooting Called a Rookie’s Error

Four years after Jose Vega was shot Oct. 15, 1995, Perez told corruption task force detectives what he said had been an open secret in Rampart for years: The shooting was a mistake by a scared rookie.

Perez said he was told during a meeting of the anti-gang officers that the sergeants who responded to the scene that night helped concoct a story to justify the shooting so Widman--then a probationary officer--would not lose his job.

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One element of the story, Perez said, is that officers said they mistook ketchup on the wall of an apartment for blood, thus heightening their sense of danger.

“They wanted to save the kid’s career,” Perez said. “They asked him, ‘What do you got?’ And he goes, ‘I don’t know. I just shot him.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ ”

According to the official police version of events, it was close to midnight when Widman and partner John Bertino were dispatched to an apartment in the 1700 block of South Catalina Street to investigate a domestic violence call.

A woman had called 911 and complained that her husband had hit her. When the officers arrived, they found the apartment dark and the metal security door ajar, police said.

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Widman knocked on the door and Elvia Vega answered, according to police reports. The officers asked her to step onto the porch, and she told them that her husband had struck her and that he was still inside the apartment, police reports state. She also said her husband was unarmed.

The officers then told her to wait on the porch as they went inside to find her husband, Jose Vega. With his gun and flashlight drawn, Widman took the lead in searching the darkened apartment, while Bertino followed closely, according to the police account.

During their search, the officers shined their flashlights on a wall in the living room and “saw a large amount of what appeared to be blood smears,” the police report states.

“That is when the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I was thinking that this was serious,” Widman would later tell investigators.

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According to the police report, Widman was continuing his search for the husband when a bedroom door flew open, setting off a flurry of events.

Widman pointed his flashlight toward the door. There, Jose Vega allegedly held his hands near his waist. In them, police said, was “something shiny.” The officer also heard a loud “boom” and “saw a quick flash of light, which he believed to be a muzzle flash,” the police report says.

Widman said he saw the flash and believed he had been shot. He then fired one round at Vega, striking him in the abdomen.

After the officers handcuffed the wounded man, they began looking for the weapon they believed he had. None was found. Instead, they found a hand mirror on the floor, the report says.

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The officers, their supervisors--including Ortiz--and, later, officer-involved-shooting detectives pieced together this scenario:

The “boom” Widman heard was the sound of Vega opening the bedroom door and slamming it against a dresser; the shiny object Widman saw at Vega’s waistline must have been the hand mirror; the muzzle flash was the reflection of the officer’s flashlight on the hand mirror.

As for the blood the officers saw in the living room, that turned out to be ketchup, apparently spattered there in the altercation that drew police to the scene.

From the start, however, there were doubts. Some witnesses--neighbors and family members interviewed by police at the time--contradicted elements of the officers’ story--details such as where officers and others were when the shooting occurred.

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Despite the investigators’ skepticism and the witnesses’ statements, then-Chief Willie L. Williams ruled that the shooting had been within departmental policy.

The circumstances of the shooting--in particular, the undisputed fact that Vega had been unarmed--were troubling enough to the city attorney’s office that it settled a lawsuit filed by the Vegas for $425,000. Among the issues raised in the course of that lawsuit: Officers had claimed to be alarmed by what turned out to be ketchup splattered on a wall, but some witnesses say they saw a ketchup bottle just inches away.

Years later, Perez’s statements to investigators bolstered the notion that there had been a cover-up. The former Rampart officer said he was told after the incident that the officers involved huddled and devised a plan before being questioned by investigators.

“They came up with some idea of a little mirror,” Perez recalled during one of his then-secret debriefings. “They made it very clear to us that that was just what they did to save [Widman’s], you know, his job. . . . Cover it up. Fixed it.”

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When contacted by The Times about the shooting, Widman, who remains on duty at the North Hollywood station, declined to comment. “I don’t think it’s in my best interest” to talk, he said.

In a lawsuit recently filed by an LAPD colleague, Bertino was accused of ordering that officer to fabricate a police report. Bertino, whom Perez described as being “in the loop” of Rampart officers who allegedly committed crimes and is now assigned to the department’s elite Metropolitan Division, declined to comment for this article.

Victim’s Account Has Shifted

In contrast to the Vega case, Perez gave investigators comparatively little to go on in relation to the shooting of Anthony Dickson. Perez didn’t even know the name of the officer who pulled the trigger, just that he was from the 77th Street Division’s CRASH anti-gang unit.

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“It was a chase,” Perez said. “The guy falls or something, gets shot and then they clean it up.”

Other documents and witnesses--including the sometimes shifting account of Dickson himself--flesh out the story.

The events leading to the shooting began to unfold about 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 21, 1998, according to police documents. Two 77th Street CRASH officers--Scott Murray and Andy Luong--had just finished investigating a report of an assault with a deadly weapon in the 4500 block of South Gramercy Place when they saw a car turn onto the street just south of them.

Murray, police documents say, recognized the two men in the back seat as Dickson and 17-year-old Ismael DePaz, alleged members of the 46th Street Crips.

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According to their report, the officers noted that the blue Toyota Camry did not have license plates and that neither Dickson nor DePaz was wearing a seat belt. Dickson and DePaz allegedly pulled over in front of DePaz’s house, got out of the car and walked onto the front lawn.

Murray and Luong reportedly got out of their police car and ordered Dickson and DePaz to put their hands on their heads. But the two young men ignored the officers’ command and walked toward DePaz’s house, police documents state.

Dickson then turned toward the officers, walking backward toward the house, the reports say, adding that Murray saw “the brown wooden stock of a rifle protruding from under [Dickson’s] shirt.”

Murray warned his partner that Dickson was armed, and the suspect suddenly ran toward the back of DePaz’s house, according to police, with both officers giving chase.

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As Dickson came to a wooden gate leading to the backyard, he stopped momentarily to open it, at the same time removing his right hand from his shirt and displaying an assault rifle, the police reports state. In the backyard, according to police, Dickson spun around and pointed the weapon at Murray.

Murray fired two rounds at Dickson, striking him once in the leg. Dickson managed to climb over a wooden fence into an alley. The officers, who had taken cover in the backyard as Dickson leveled the rifle at them, briefly lost sight of him as he scaled the fence, according to police.

Murray and Luong cautiously approached the fence, peering over it to make sure Dickson was not waiting to ambush them on the other side, police reports say. Then they saw the wounded suspect running down the alley. When Dickson reached 48th Street, he collapsed.

Dickson was unarmed at the time of his arrest, and officers were unable to find a gun when they returned to the scene of the shooting a few minutes later. Police speculated that someone in the neighborhood had removed the weapon.

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Sgt. Ortiz, however, spotted a key piece of evidence lying in the alley where the suspect and the officers had scaled the fence: a high-capacity “banana” magazine, a kind used with an assault rifle.

Lying next to it was a single live round that investigators, after hearing Perez’s allegations, would match with shell casings recovered from a shooting earlier in the day. That bullet, according to LAPD documents, was also recovered by Ortiz.

But several LAPD officers, including Murray and Luong, now say another officer recovered the evidence.

Murray, in an interview with The Times, said he was surprised and angered by Perez’s allegations. He said the shooting was justified and that he was unaware of any misconduct by officers during the incident.

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“I’m the one caught in the middle,” Murray said. “I’ve never met Rafael Perez. I didn’t do anything wrong here. And depending on how this is looked at by the public or the department or my peers, it could put me in the same boat as him--and that is what I don’t want.”

Luong, who works for another police department, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

In recent interviews with The Times, Dickson offered a markedly different--and on one point conflicting--account of his encounter with Murray and Luong.

Dickson, who had just landed a job at a nearby burger stand, said he was walking across the street when the car pulled up. According to Dickson, he was never in the car and did not have a gun.

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Saying he feared being harassed by police that evening, Dickson admitted that he ran when he saw them. He was midway over the fence into the alley when he heard gunshots and felt a sharp pain in his leg, he said. He hobbled down the alley with his hands in the air, collapsing as he emerged onto 48th Street.

Other witnesses backed up aspects of Dickson’s version of events.

In her statement to police, Karen DePaz, the driver of the car, told officers that Dickson had not been in the vehicle.

Neighbors also told investigators that Dickson had not been in the car that day, but rather had come from his house, as he claimed. The neighbors did not recall having seen Dickson with a gun.

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Ismael DePaz’s accounts of the evening have not always been consistent. He initially denied that Dickson had been in the car, then contradicted that in an interview with The Times, then returned to his original recollection.

Dickson also has changed stories. He has given conflicting reasons--in interviews and in a letter to the Police Commission’s inspector general--for why he ran from police. After first saying he was afraid of being harassed, he admitted carrying the magazine and said he had fled to avoid being caught with it.

Still, though DePaz and Dickson’s credibility is subject to question, Dickson’s attorney argues that the physical evidence speaks for itself.

If the officers’ account were accurate, lawyer Daniel Rodriguez argued, the bullet that entered Dickson’s leg, which he said failed to hit any bone that might have abruptly changed its course, should have come out the other side and struck the fence immediately behind him. Likewise, the round that missed should have hit the fence, Rodriguez said.

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But investigators failed to find impacts from either round or to recover the slugs themselves. The bullet that hit Dickson entered the side of his leg, just above the knee, and exited from the front of his leg just below the hip. The trajectory, according to Rodriguez, suggests that Dickson was shot from behind as he scaled the fence. Rodriguez hoped to prove that theory using X-rays--and police say they too believe those X-rays are important evidence and could bolster or undermine Perez’s allegations. However, the hospital apparently has lost them.

In a report to the Police Commission, Chief Bernard C. Parks, while criticizing Murray and Luong for their tactics, found the shooting itself “in policy.”

Dickson was arrested and charged with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer and two counts of drawing and exhibiting a weapon in the presence of a police officer. He faced the possibility of more than 20 years in prison, but agreed to a plea bargain that set him free after 10 months.

Steve Katz, the prosecutor assigned to the case, explained his rationale for offering the deal in a memo obtained by The Times through a public records request:

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The case was plagued by “numerous problems of proof, including: physical evidence that undermines arresting officers’ contention that arresting officer fired at defendant while defendant was pointing a rifle at arresting officers,” Katz wrote in the Dec. 12, 1998, report.

The prosecutor was so troubled by what he saw as discrepancies that he shared his concerns with a colleague in the Special Investigations Division, an arm of the D.A.'s office that at the time prosecuted crimes committed by police officers. No charges were filed at the time, but the case has since been reopened as a result of inquiries by The Times, the district attorney’s office said.

Dickson has since settled his civil suit against the city for $135,000. Cory Brente, the deputy city attorney who defended Murray and the Police Department in the case, said he settled largely because he thought the allegations that have come out against Ortiz in the Rampart scandal would raise doubts in jurors’ minds about his discovery of the key piece of evidence in the Dickson case.

Although Dickson adamantly insists that he was set up by police, he acknowledges that he has not always told the truth about what happened. In retrospect, Dickson said, he was frustrated at trying to draw attention to his charges and desperate to right what he said was a wrong.

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“You’ll say anything,” he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Shooting Scene

Police say that when they entered a house Oct. 15, 1995, to investigate a domestic violence call, they became alarmed when they spotted what looked like blood in the living room. It turned out to be ketchup. At least one officer moved to the bedroom, where Jose Vega was shot in the midsection. Vega was unarmed, but police say he held a mirror that reflected their flashlight. In the dark, they say, the flashlight looked like a gun going off. Vega denies holding a mirror.

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*

“They wanted to save the kid’s career . . . . They came up with some idea of a little mirror . . . . That, supposedly, the [suspect] had a little mirror like this in front of him. So that when he opened the door and . . . he heard a ‘boom’ and [the officer] turned on his flashlight . . . there was a reflection on that little mirror in front of him . . . which made [the officer] believe that the ‘boom’ and light was actually that guy shooting at him. Which is why he fired.”

--From interrogation of ex-LAPD Officer Rafael Perez


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