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A Penny Exposes Jail’s Weak Points

Times Staff Writer

How hard was it for Francisco Puemas to escape from the 77th Division police station earlier this month?

He took a penny, sharpened it and chipped at a holding cell wall, digging a hole and fleeing less than an hour after entering the cell.

On Monday, Los Angeles Police Department officials outlined how profoundly broken the police station’s detention system is.

The 20-year-old burglary suspect was able to escape from the jail because the station’s holding cell walls, unlike those at other stations, were not reinforced with sheet metal or made of cinderblock to prevent escape. While officials reacted with surprise at the June 9 escape, documents released Monday show the city was aware that the holding cell was not secure when the station was built in 1997.

Originally, officials planned to build the cell with two pieces of drywall that sandwiched empty space around a metal frame. At the last minute, the city ordered wire mesh installed between the drywall as a security measure, documents show.

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But officials acknowledge the mesh would do little to stop an inmate bent on escaping.

Since then, the holding cells have been closed as officials work to reinforce the walls with sheet metal.

In addition to the penny, Puemas also chatted incessantly with police officers and asked “inane” questions, apparently in order to lull them into ignoring him, said LAPD Capt. Bill Murphy.

“He would say all kinds of stuff, like ‘Hey, I want food.’ He engaged whoever he could in conversation” Murphy said. “He was real smart, he was really street smart. He knew how to engage people and aggravate them. That was part of his plan.”

Murphy said Puemas cut a hole 15 inches by 9 inches into the front of the holding cell, crawled through and made his way down a corridor about 18 feet from the watch commander’s office.

He went through two interior doors and then through a fire door with an alarm that has not worked in more than a year, Murphy said.

“That door, unfortunately, led into 77th Street,” he said.

He added that Puemas, who was picked up a day later, was rather proud of his escape, and eagerly shared with police details about how he did it.

The walls are only one of the station’s many problems, which have already cost the city about $700,000 in repairs and could cost at least $1 million in further repairs and improvements.

“Where do I start?” LAPD Lt. Paul Von Lutzow said when asked about the problems.

Sprinklers in the jail cells are situated low enough that inmates have climbed their bunk beds and kicked them loose, causing flooding. The flooring of the jail ward showers is buckling.

And the panic button does not work in the jail ward. “The idea is that you hit that button and patrol comes to your aid. If it doesn’t work, the jailers could be in a world of trouble,” said Murphy, the commander in charge of the 77th Division’s patrol division. “It’s scary. We shouldn’t allow that.”

At a meeting Monday of the Los Angeles City Council public safety committee, Councilman Dennis Zine asked how a relatively new station could be plagued with so many problems.

“Why have we had so many failures with jail wards, ... video cameras and basically the whole operation itself?” Zine asked. “Every time I go down there, honestly, I find more problems.”

Gail Kennard, president of the firm that designed the building, said the problems at the station were the result of poor “maintenance and housekeeping.” She added that the design, which was done by her late father, Robert Kennard, involved input and approval from the LAPD and city agencies and that to “say that we kind of willy-nilly did this on our own would be a mischaracterization.”

“I strongly defend the design that was completed more than 10 years ago,” Kennard said.

Zine responded that the station had too many problems to be blamed on poor maintenance.

“The longevity of the jail doors, the longevity of the gun lockers, the longevity of the equipment that was put in the facility,” Zine said, “I don’t believe this is part of maintenance.”

City officials said it was hard to place blame for the problems at 77th Street station on any one person or entity because the project was a collaboration between the architect, the LAPD and the city.

On Monday, city leaders talked about hiring an independent auditor to do an examination of the police station.

“Let’s go through this facility from the outside, and do a top-to-bottom” evaluation, said city engineer Gary Lee Moore. “After we find the scope of work [needed], we can talk about the apportionment of blame, if there is any associated with these problems.”

Officials were not sure whether the city would have to foot the repair bill or whether the design firm and the construction company could also be made to pay.

Most of the building’s repair warranties have already expired, city officials said. It would cost about $100,000 to do an evaluation of the station, but officials don’t yet know where the funds will come from.

LAPD officials said many of the station’s problems involve basic layout issues.

Zine said the 77th Division station is unique in that it requires arresting officers to walk through several stairwells and corridors to the watch commander’s office and back to the jail to book an inmate. He said this presented a potential lawsuit risk for the city because this circuitous path exposed officers to a greater risk of confrontation and handcuffed suspects to potential injury.

But Moore said that reversing layout issues such as these would be difficult.

“I’ve got to be honest with you, you would have to have a drastic interior remodeling of the entire facility,” he said.

LAPD officials have admitted that their staff and the architects didn’t work well together in designing the holding cells and other parts of the station.

The last station built for the LAPD before the 77th Street station was the Southeast Division station in Watts in 1978. Yvette Sanchez-Owens, head of the LAPD’s facilities management office, said a lack of building experience may have played a role in the construction flaws.

Deborah Weintraub, deputy city engineer, said that since then, projects have been subject to a far more rigorous commissioning process to ensure that a building is designed and built correctly.

The station is also the only one in which the watch commander’s office is not close to the front desk, where supervisors often need to help resolve disputes.

“We can’t even see the desk,” said Von Lutzow, a watch commander. “That’s one of the reasons we have a lot of citizens’ complaints. Sometimes they get into arguments with the officers, and if the watch commander’s office was built where it should have been built, you could intervene in arguments and supervise. You can’t do that right now.”

Monday’s hearing coincided with the release of a civil grand jury report that was critical of three LAPD lockups.

Of the 63 jails inspected by grand jurors over the last year, only three didn’t meet the standards jurors set. All three were LAPD jails. They included Harbor Community, Foothill Community and the jail facility at 77th station.

“These Los Angeles Police Department facilities were found to be in need of cleaning, improved sanitation, new paint and miscellaneous repairs,” the report said.

LAPD officials said they have not had a chance to study the report, but said they would act accordingly to improve any deficiencies that might exist.


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