Former officers guilty in string of robberies
Two brothers who worked as police officers were convicted Wednesday of participating in home invasion-style robberies staged to look like legitimate law enforcement raids, prompting the judge to say that the case underscored the need for aggressive outside oversight of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“I’ve never heard testimony like I’ve heard in this case,” said U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess, who has practiced law since 1974 and was appointed to the federal bench 12 years ago.
Feess then disclosed to jurors that he is also the judge who oversees the federal consent decree imposed on the LAPD in the wake of the 1999 Rampart corruption scandal.
“People may now have an understanding of why we have that decree,” he said.
Feess also reiterated his commitment to the police reforms “to see that this sort of thing never happens again.”
The convictions of William and Joseph Ferguson capped a six-year probe by the FBI and LAPD and represented a major victory for prosecutors.
William Ferguson, 35, a former LAPD officer, showed little emotion as Feess read aloud the verdict. Prosecutors say he faces a minimum of 87 years in federal prison.
His younger brother, who had appeared confident and jovial only minutes earlier, seemed stunned at the verdict. He sat with his hands folded in front of him and looked toward his wife, who had begun sobbing in the front row of the courtroom gallery. Joseph Ferguson, 33, who is suspended from the Long Beach Police Department, played a lesser role in the robbery ring and faces a minimum of five years in prison but could be sentenced to more than 50 years, prosecutors said.
“The judge said on the record that he takes this case very seriously,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Doug Miller, who prosecuted the case along with two civil rights lawyers from the U.S. Justice Department. “Whatever sentence he imposes is likely to reflect that.”
The brothers, both of whom have young children, were disappointed with the verdicts, according to their attorneys, who are considering filing appeals.
William Ferguson’s attorney, Philip Deitch, said he had not yet determined how many years his client would face under the mandatory minimum dictated by federal sentencing guidelines.
“I’ve got to sit down and do the math,” he said. “It’s not going to be fun.”
The Ferguson brothers were found guilty of conspiring to deprive people of their constitutional rights under color of law and possessing narcotics with the intent to distribute.
William Ferguson was found guilty of 17 counts of the government’s 34-count indictment. Joseph Ferguson was found guilty of three of the nine counts with which he was charged. Jurors could not reach a decision on some counts and found the pair not guilty of others.
The verdict followed a three-week trial during which prosecutors produced a parade of witnesses who described being robbed at gunpoint by people claiming to be police officers conducting narcotics raids.
Authorities allege the ring committed as many as 40 robberies, attempted robberies or burglaries between 1999 and 2001, netting about $1 million in drugs and cash.
Many of the victims made only tentative identifications of the suspects or could not identify them at all. But prosecutors buttressed their claims with the testimony of several cohorts who had already pleaded guilty and were cooperating with the government in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence.
“This case exposed a dark world of corrupt law enforcement officers who defiled their badges and compromised the good work of their colleagues,” U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien said in a statement.
The government’s key witness was disgraced LAPD Officer Ruben Palomares, the admitted ringleader.
During two days of testimony, Palomares described how, while working as a police officer, he began plotting with an old friend who was a drug dealer to rip off rival drug dealers in exchange for a cut of the seized drugs or money. He said he recruited friends, family and fellow officers, including the Ferguson brothers, to assist in the bogus drug raids.
Palomares testified that he and William Ferguson stole patrol cars from the LAPD academy to use as props during the robberies to help convince their victims that they were really police officers.
He described William Ferguson, whom he met while the two worked together in the Rampart Division, as his primary partner in the robberies. Palomares said the two would use their police training to control their victims and search for drugs and money.
He told the jury that he used to refer to William Ferguson as “a bloodhound” because he was so adept at sniffing out the cash and narcotics.
Joseph Ferguson drove his older brother and him to the police academy to steal cars for the robberies and also conducted surveillance on several of the “jobs,” Palomares said.
He also implicated the younger Ferguson in placing a fake 911 call that resulted in the arrest and eventual imprisonment of a ring member who had fallen out of favor with Palomares.
William Ferguson sat impassively throughout the trial and did not take the witness stand in his own defense.
Joseph Ferguson testified that he drove his brother and Palomares to the LAPD academy to get police cruisers on several occasions, but that he believed the officer used the cars to make “collections as part of legitimate off-duty jobs. He denied involvement in any of the crimes Palomares described.
He admitted placing the bogus 911 call but said he had done so because he had been told the man was beating his wife and needed to be behind bars.
Prior to the verdicts being read, Joseph Ferguson was upbeat as he strode down the hall to the courtroom with his wife early Wednesday, quipping to a reporter, “You know, when I walk out of this thing [a free man], I’m going to give you an exclusive.”
When he walked out of the courtroom a short time later, he approached the reporter again.
“I’m walking out, but not the way I wanted to,” he said.
As his wife wiped away tears and clung to his shoulder, Joseph Ferguson said his reaction to the verdict was “utter shock.”
The brothers are scheduled to be sentenced April 21.