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LAPD Shaken by Officer’s Slaying

Times Staff Writers

Noise and activity normally fill Los Angeles police station houses on weekend mornings. But at LAPD’s Newton station early Saturday, there was an eerie quiet as officers mourned the loss of one of their ranks, who was shot to death while responding to a domestic violence call Friday.

Officer Ricardo Lizarraga, 30, was shot allegedly by Kenrick Johnson, 32, as Lizarraga and his partner confronted Johnson in a South Los Angeles apartment. Lizarraga died Friday afternoon after surgeons at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center fought to save his life.

The slaying of Lizarraga was the beginning of a sad and busy 24 hours for the LAPD. On Saturday afternoon, an angry LAPD Chief William J. Bratton announced that a second officer had been slightly wounded in another shooting earlier that morning.

An unidentified undercover officer suffered a graze wound when he and a colleague tried to break up a fight. The scuffle, which included gunshots, had spilled into the street from a party near the intersection of 84th Street and Broadway in South Los Angeles, Bratton said.

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The officers, who were searching for a murder suspect, had been watching the party from a van. They were shot at as they identified themselves as police. The officers fired back, killing one suspect who had tried to flee and wounding another. The names of the suspects were not released.

At a Saturday afternoon news conference, Bratton said he was incensed by the gunfire directed at members of the force. He said that LAPD officers had been shot at eight times so far in 2004, in addition to 40 such incidents last year.

The police chief blamed a number of factors, but said the primary problem was “so many people with guns and they’re not reluctant to use them -- [they’re] sociopaths.”

The suspect in the Lizarraga killing was being held Saturday in Men’s Central Jail on suspicion of homicide and violating his parole from a prior robbery conviction, police said.

Bratton said that Johnson was being uncooperative and that police were still trying to find the weapon he allegedly used.

Lizarraga’s death was the first on-duty homicide of an LAPD officer since 1998, and the first in the Newton Division since 1945. The division covers the part of Los Angeles directly south of downtown.

In interviews Saturday, fellow officers described the 30-year-old Lizarraga as a cheerful, soft-spoken, hardworking officer with a stocky build and a distinctive bald head, who loved his job and in April had landed an assignment on a fledging special problems unit in the Newton division.

He leaves a wife, Joyce. His mother arrived from Mexico at 2 a.m. Saturday after hearing the news of his death. Nearly his entire recruit class from the Police Academy showed up at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after word of the shooting spread, said Deputy Chief Gary Brennan.

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Lizarraga was born and raised in Los Angeles and went to Hamilton High School. He attended Santa Monica College and worked for the Ralphs supermarket chain before fulfilling a longtime goal of joining the LAPD in September 2001.

Lizarraga’s day-shift colleagues showed up for roll call as usual at 6:45 a.m. Saturday, where they were met by Bratton, clergy members, a psychologist and other LAPD officials.

Bratton talked to them about the many police funerals he had attended, and told them, “they are all tough ... this week will be tough,” according to Brennan. Other superiors spoke to the officers about strength, cohesiveness and supporting each other through grief.

Lt. Marty Cotwright of the Newton Division said the atmosphere was extremely somber, and some officers were in tears. The officers then asked to be left alone, without the psychologist, and they remained together with the doors shut until nearly 10 a.m., extending the half-hour roll call by more than two hours.

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Most then took the day off, officials said. The station house remained hushed as officers from other divisions took over their duties.

Cotwright said one image has stayed with him since Friday: the expression on Officer Joel Ruiz’s face when he was told that his partner had died. Ruiz just sat with a “look of horror” on his face, Cotwright said.

A relatively inexperienced officer who grew up on the city’s Westside, Lizarraga -- known as Rick -- was often assigned the least desirable patrol jobs: manning checkpoints along perimeters, for example, or handling questions from the public at the station’s front desk.

The latter job, viewed as a wearisome chore by many officers, was one at which Lizarraga excelled. He displayed considerable patience as he dealt with a variety of concerns.

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Although fellow officers said that Lizarraga was of Mexican descent, he did not speak Spanish, and Cotwright remembered him frequently combing the station for Spanish speakers and “physically dragging them to the desk” to help people.

Lizarraga was only of medium height, but he had bulky shoulders and a solid build. Bratton said that Lizarraga -- who lifted weights -- was strong enough to run down the apartment stairs after being shot twice.

“He could look intimidating, but all you had to do was talk to this kid,” said Capt. Fabian Lizarraga of Newton, who is not related to the fallen officer. “He was very nice, very quiet ... and it belied his stature.”

Capt. Lizarraga said their common last name drew his attention to the young officer early on. But the first time he met him, and cracked a joke about the coincidence, Officer Lizarraga was so shy he barely answered.

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Later, the captain grew to know him better, and once asked him if he was ribbed by fellow officers in the division as being the apparent beneficiary of nepotism, or the illegitimate son of his boss. “Constantly, sir!” he recalled the young officer replying.

Officer Lizarraga was less quiet with those he knew well, said fellow officer Reginald Guy, who recruited him to the LAPD football team. He was especially outgoing with his partner and close friend Ruiz, Guy said.

Eyes downcast, an emotional Capt. Lizarraga recalled Saturday how fears that an officer might soon be hurt came to him while he was at a luncheon for the Police Memorial Foundation on Friday afternoon, just before the radio call went out about an “officer down.”

The organization helps families of felled officers, and listening to the speeches at the luncheon, Lizarraga was musing that he had yet to lose an officer under his command.

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“Not a minute later, my cellphone beeped,” he said.

An instant later, the cellphone of another commander sitting near him also beeped -- and then another. “And I got that sinking feeling,” he said.

For several veteran LAPD officers, the shooting brought back memories of other LAPD deaths, prompting reflections ranging from anger to resolve.

Lizarraga’s death triggered new resentment by Sgt. Ray Garvin at what he said was the sparseness of the city’s patrol force.

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Lizarraga was killed during a period Friday when South and Central bureau officers were stretched especially thin, running between so many calls that the suspect’s girlfriend had called police several times to no avail when she finally flagged down Ruiz and Lizarraga’s patrol car, police said.

The two officers wouldn’t have been there had they not been assigned out of their usual area shortly before because LAPD South Bureau officers, who would normally respond to calls in the area, were swamped.

“It’s frustrating. There is this perception that maybe this wouldn’t have happened if there were more police officers out there, that some dynamic might have been different,” Garvin said.

There will be a candlelight vigil Monday at 7 p.m. at the LAPD’s Newton Division station at 3400 S. Central Ave. All members of the community are welcome.

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Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Hector Becerra contributed to this report.


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