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S. Pasadena Is Tired of Vernon Politics

Times Staff Writer

The woman drove out of her driveway in South Pasadena, and without knowing it, straight into Vernon’s election-related surveillance of people.

The two cars with tinted windows and no license plates followed her as she weaved along streets and zipped through yellow lights to shake them. At stops, men in the cars videotaped her, she said. Panicked, she called police as she drove.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 17, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday April 17, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Vernon surveillance: An article in Saturday’s California section about surveillance in South Pasadena by private detectives working for the city of Vernon said that Robert Lampers, who allegedly drew a gun on a South Pasadena resident, feared he could lose his private investigator’s license. Lampers is licensed as a private patrol operator.

“They asked whether there was any reason why I would have private investigators following me. I said I had no idea,” according to the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But I told them I’m going to break every traffic law there is because these guys are following me for no reason, and you better protect me.”

The Feb. 13 incident marks another twist in the increasingly bizarre municipal elections in Vernon, a small industrial town south of downtown Los Angeles.

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South Pasadena police accuse private detectives working for Vernon of drawing their weapons, harassment and reckless driving as they followed people challenging the incumbents. The department called Vernon officials to complain about the investigators’ conduct and to tell them they are not welcome in the city, Sgt. Mike Neff said.

Officer Tony Abdalla recalls one conversation he had with an attorney for Vernon.

“I suggested to him that the surveillance was of no value because the focus of his investigation, all of these people, obviously knew that they were being watched,” Abdalla said. “He was adamant that they needed quote-unquote ‘eyes on these people to monitor their activity.’ ”

Abdalla said that for about three weeks, it became routine to receive two or three calls per shift related to the surveillance. At times, people from both sides got out of their cars and argued with one another, he said. Neighbors reported unfamiliar vehicles in front of their homes, Abdalla said.

South Pasadena police said the behavior seemed less like undercover work and more like intimidation because it was so brazen. After repeated complaints, the surveillance seemed to stop.

“What we were concerned about was that it was escalating,” Neff said, “to a point where people were not just driving dangerously and we were concerned someone would get into an accident. Now people were pointing guns at other people. They even got mixed up over who they were following.”

Vernon officials could not be reached for comment.

The surveillance is part of the city’s aggressive response to Vernon’s first contested election in a quarter-century. It began in January, when eight people took up residence in a boxy commercial building. Within days, three of the newcomers filed petitions to run for City Council, challenging incumbents who have been in office for up to 50 years.

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Almost immediately, the challengers began to be followed by private investigators, and utility crews turned off their power. The building they shared was red-tagged by inspectors. Eventually, police and other officials drilled holes in the locks of the property and evicted the office-seekers.

The city accused the newcomers of being part of a takeover plot by Albert Robles, a convicted felon who as treasurer of nearby South Gate nearly bankrupted that city. The eight residents’ voter registrations were rescinded, and the incumbents voted to cancel the election and reelect themselves. But a judge ruled that officials had acted illegally and reinstated the election.

Since then, both sides have accused the other of misconduct. Vernon has fewer than 100 residents, but it has seen a 50% surge in its election rolls in recent weeks. Both sides accuse the other of bringing in ringers to vote in Tuesday’s election.

On election night, the city clerk abruptly decided not to count the ballots until various legal challenges were settled.

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South Pasadena plays into the drama because one of the challengers’ advisors, Cris Summers, lives there and the candidate frequently visited her house.

On Jan. 29, a private investigator allegedly aimed a gun at David Johnson, one of three council candidates, and another man at a gas station at 740 Mission St. in South Pasadena. Earlier this month, prosecutors charged Mark Summerhays, 38, of Bakersfield, with drawing a gun.

But the first surveillance-related arrest took place almost a week later on April 4. According to police reports, Summers and her husband, Garry, were leaving their home on Orange Grove Avenue when a vehicle began following them.

Police said the vehicle followed them as they drove around South Pasadena. At one point, Neff said, Garry Summers got out of his car, walked up to the private investigator’s vehicle, banged on the window and asked why he was being followed.

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Neff said Robert Lampers, 26, allegedly drew a gun. The couple called 911 and began to follow Lampers before police arrested him.

Lampers is set for a June 1 pretrial hearing on charges that include drawing a firearm, police said.

In an interview with The Times, Lampers -- who works in private security -- said he felt threatened by Garry Summers after he punched his window.

“I thought what Garry did was wrong and he should have been arrested for it, and based on prior incidents, I was in extreme fear for my life. But had I been in his shoes, and somebody was following my wife, I don’t know that I’d act any different,” Lampers said.

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Lampers said he felt South Pasadena police did not side with him because they were already angry about previous incidents related to the surveillance.

According to Lampers and the police report, he was contracted by Homeland Security Services, a company in Anaheim, to watch Cris Summers. Officials from the company could not be reached for comment.

But Lampers said the private investigators’ ultimate employer was Vernon. Surveillance took place in other cities, including South Gate and Alhambra, he said. After his arrest, Lampers said, he met with officials on the upper floor of Vernon City Hall’s parking structure.

Lampers said he was told that he would be put back to work. But he said that officials from Homeland Security Services told him that he had become a liability.

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“As I understand, the city of Vernon wanted to separate themselves as far as they could,” said Lampers, who added that he has not gotten any legal help.

Looking back on things, Lampers said that if he had a chance, he would never have gotten involved in the matter.

He said he fears that among other things he will lose his private investigator’s license and face considerable jail time.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said. “I worked for one government agency and another one arrested me. I thought I was doing a lawful investigation. There were elements of a lawful investigation. But it was not prudent in retrospect.”

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