Nineteen people, including five former police officers, have been criminally charged in connection with a string of daring and sometimes violent robberies in Southern California, which were staged to look like law enforcement raids as the suspects used police badges and equipment to fool victims, federal authorities said Thursday.
Though the scope of the nearly five-year investigation was first made public in 2004, new details emerged with the arrests this week of a California prison guard -- taken into custody Thursday -- and of former Los Angeles and Long Beach police officers. Three other suspects remain at large, authorities said.
The group committed more than 20 robberies and burglaries in Los Angeles and neighboring communities over a span of 2 1/2 years until its ringleader, a Los Angeles police officer, was arrested in 2001 on drug charges.
“What makes this case so disturbing is that the defendants include five sworn law enforcement officers who abused their badges, their uniforms and their oaths of office to engage in criminal conduct under the pretense of conducting real police operations,” said Thomas O’Brien, head of the criminal division for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. “While this story sounds like a script from ‘The Shield’ or ‘Training Day,’ it actually happened.”
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton focused his comments on the three former LAPD officers who allegedly were part of the crew. The officers, he said, “are traitors to the badge that the men and women of this department so proudly wear, traitors to their fellow officers and, most importantly, traitors to the public.”
Most of the participants secretly pleaded guilty to their roles in the crime spree, which lasted from January 1999 to June 2001. Their pleas, in which they agreed to cooperate with authorities, had been kept confidential to protect the ongoing investigation.
The mastermind of the criminal enterprise, officials said, was former LAPD Officer Ruben Palomares, 36, a former Golden Gloves boxer who sparred with top-notch fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley. His cohorts were friends, co-workers and relatives, authorities said.
One member was a former female boxer who trained with Palomares, they said.
In addition to the five sworn police officers implicated in the ring, at least four other crew members had ties to law enforcement. Two were graduates of a police officer training program at Rio Hondo Community College.
Another worked as a civilian custodial officer at the Garden Grove Police Department and yet another was an LAPD Explorer Scout who sought a job with the department but was turned down.
Authorities said Palomares’ crew was highly sophisticated and organized. They wore police uniforms and badges during many of the robberies. They used LAPD squad cars and unmarked police vehicles during some of the heists, court records show.
During the crime spree, they stole more than 700 pounds of marijuana and 50 kilos of cocaine from drug dealers, which they then sold, court papers state. In addition, they stole cars, money, firearms and jewelry. In one particularly bold robbery, crew members identified themselves as police officers as they commandeered television sets from the back of a truck on a street in Montebello, the documents show.
Some incidents turned violent, with victims being kicked and beaten. At least one victim was shot with a stun gun.
According to court papers, the thieves used law enforcement tactics during the robberies. Some crew members were assigned surveillance duties, watching for police and potential witnesses. Other members -- dubbed the “entry team” -- would burst into locations. Victims often were handcuffed.
“Once inside the target locations, various co-conspirators would assault and beat the occupants to obtain information, search for narcotics, money and other valuable property,” the 54-count indictment unsealed Thursday stated.
Authorities arrested three of the remaining suspects this week: Ex-LAPD Officer William Ferguson, 33, and his brother, ex-Long Beach Police Officer Joseph Ferguson, 31, who were both arrested Wednesday, and Rodrigo Duran, 35, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy and now a state prison guard.
The federal investigation of the criminal enterprise began on June 8, 2001, when Palomares and four other men were arrested in San Diego after having paid $130,000 to undercover DEA agents for 10 kilos of cocaine.
At the time, authorities searched Palomares’ Diamond Bar home and seized 13 firearms -- including six unregistered semiautomatic assault rifles, 150 boxes of ammunition and a money-counting machine.
One of the men arrested that day, Alvin Moon, immediately began cooperating with authorities. In addition to the robberies, Moon told authorities that he had witnessed Palomares and another crew member assault a young man after an argument at a restaurant.
Moon alleged that Palomares punched the 23-year-old man several times before Oscar Loaiza fatally stabbed him. Sources close to the investigation said Thursday that they have largely corroborated Moon’s account and that the case remains under investigation.
Soon after the San Diego arrest, sources close to the investigation have said, LAPD internal affairs investigators began tailing William Ferguson. Within days, he loaded up his boat and towed it to San Diego, ostensibly to go fishing, the sources said.
Suspicious about the timing, investigators wondered whether Ferguson was planning to dump evidence into the ocean. They tailed him to the dock, but were unable to make arrangements to watch him at sea. State Department of Fish and Game agents searched the boat at the behest of police when it returned to shore, but found nothing.
Feeling the pressure from the joint FBI, LAPD and Long Beach Police Department investigation, other members of Palomares’ crew began to cooperate, hoping to minimize their prison time. Two years ago, Palomares -- who by then had been sentenced to 15 years in prison on the San Diego drug charges -- agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with authorities. Though he faces a potential life sentence, he hopes that his cooperation will result in a reduction.
Two months after Palomares began cooperating, Jesse Moya, 29, another former LAPD officer involved in the crime ring, pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate as well.
The Ferguson brothers have made no such deals. Even before joining the LAPD, records show that William Ferguson had five felony arrests on suspicion of theft and burglary.
While at the LAPD, he was the subject of numerous misconduct complaints, including one stemming from a 1999 on-duty shooting for which he was eventually fired. The city later paid $1.7 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging that the shooting was unjustified and subsequently covered up.
In addition to Palomares, Moya, Duran, Moon, Loaiza and the Ferguson brothers, others charged with crimes were: Armando Contreras-Lopez, 35, of Paramount; Gabriel Loaiza, 30, of Montebello; Michelle Barajas, 38, of Paramount; David Barajas, 32, of Paramount; Jessica Treat, 31, of Whittier; Jesus Estrada Dominguez, 40; Pablo Estrada, 29, of La Puente; Manuel Hernandez, 25, of Pico Rivera; Manuel Godinez Martinez, 25; Juan Mendoza, 29, of Muscoy in San Bernardino County; Steve Quintero, 30, of Montebello; and Geronimo Sevilla, 32, of Whittier.
Oscar Loaiza, Michelle Barajas and Contreras-Lopez are fugitives, authorities said. Attorneys representing those charged either did not return calls or could not be immediately reached for comment.
For years, Palomares enjoyed an excellent reputation in the LAPD, receiving glowing reviews from his supervisors.
“A leader with a reputation for excellence,” one captain wrote in the mid-1990s. “Another year of stellar service,” wrote another captain.
The first hint that Palomares may have been a problem officer came from Rafael Perez, the disgraced ex-officer whose allegations of widespread corruption and brutality launched the Rampart scandal in 1999.
During his then-secret debriefings with investigators, Perez said Palomares, who also worked in Rampart, had intimated that he had been involved in a bad shooting in 1998 as well as other misconduct.
“I would look at everything Palomares has done,” Perez told investigators, “every arrest that he’s made.”