L.A. to pay man cleared of murder

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council agreed Wednesday to pay $320,000 to settle a lawsuit by a man who was cleared of murder when footage shot for the HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” showed him at a Dodgers game when the crime occurred.

Juan Catalan had filed a police misconduct suit against the city after spending nearly five months in jail for a crime he did not commit -- a point his lawyer proved after producing outtakes from the television show.

In the scene, which ended up on the cutting room floor, Catalan could be seen eating a hot dog in the background.


Catalan, 28, was arrested in the May 2003 murder of Martha Puebla, 16, outside her Sun Valley home, even though he told detectives that he was innocent and had been at a Dodgers game with his 6-year-old daughter at the time of the crime.

Catalan’s defense attorney, Todd Melnik, went through footage of crowd shots from the televised game between the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves, but he did not find his client. Then he learned that the HBO comedy starring former “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David had been shooting at the ballpark that day.

HBO allowed Melnik to look through the footage, and he found a shot of Catalan with his 6-year-old daughter and two friends. The footage was time coded, confirming that Catalan was at the ballpark shortly before the time of the slaying 20 miles away in the San Fernando Valley.

“There he was in the outtakes,” said Gary S. Casselman, the attorney handling Catalan’s lawsuit. “He’s glad it’s over. It’s terrible to be in jail, and he thought he would never see his daughters again.”

Catalan, who worked at his family’s machine-tool business in Sun Valley, became the focus of the police investigation into the slaying of Puebla because she had testified in a murder case in which Catalan’s brother, Mario, was a co-defendant.

Someone else is now being prosecuted for the slaying, Casselman said.

Records of a cellphone call, made from Dodger Stadium, between Catalan and his girlfriend also helped persuade a judge to release him, but the footage from the comedy show cemented his alibi.


Catalan was not a fan of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” before his time in jail. “He is now,” Casselman said.

On Wednesday, the City Council also agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a lawsuit by Valentine Garcia Sr., alleging that the police used excessive force against his son, who was shot to death by two police officers at the Greyhound bus station in Los Angeles in July 2004. That incident was captured on videotape by surveillance cameras.

Council President Eric Garcetti said the two cases demonstrated that in a high-tech media age, actions by the police are subject to oversight by cameras.

“There is a real positive element to video,” Garcetti said. “It’s one of the reasons we are putting video cameras in police cars. It doesn’t lie. It doesn’t always tell the whole story, but it’s a good way of ensuring that all of our officers are held accountable.”

The bus station death of Erick Jerome Garcia, 36, was called a “problem shooting” by Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton because at the same time the fatal shots were fired, a third officer decided to use a less-than-lethal weapon, a stun gun, on the man. Later, the Police Department ruled that the shooting was within policy because Garcia was brandishing a 6-inch metal rod resembling a tent spike that he refused to drop.

Garcia was struck as he crawled through an opening for a baggage scale beneath a ticket counter. The surveillance cameras enabled investigating officers to view the shooting from five different angles. Parts of the videotape were shown to the City Council in a closed session Wednesday.