Slaying of witness spurs LAPD changes

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Department officials have reassigned a homicide detective and will train others to be more careful in protecting witnesses in light of the slaying of a teenage girl after officers disclosed her name as part of a ruse during an interrogation.

The detective, Martin Pinner, was removed from working homicide cases by supervisors earlier this month after The Times reported the 2003 slaying of 16-year-old Martha Puebla, said LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck. The article detailed how a member of a notorious San Fernando Valley gang had Puebla killed after Pinner and his partner lied and told him that the girl had identified him as the killer.

Starting last week, training for all new and veteran detectives was changed to include clearer instruction on how to balance the often aggressive push to extract confessions from suspects with the need to protect witnesses -- actual or otherwise.


“It became clear [after the article] that we needed to add more pieces to our training,” said Beck, who recently took over the department’s detective corps. “We have never had this issue arise before, and we certainly do not want it to arise again.”

The response comes nearly six years after Pinner, 41, and his partner at the time, Det. Juan Rodriguez, were assigned to the 2002 investigation of a young man gunned down in the middle of the night as he sat in his car outside Puebla’s Sun Valley house.

The detectives’ prime suspect was a 19-year-old member of the Vineland Boyz gang, Jose Ledesma. Ledesma fled to Mexico but was quickly caught and returned to the LAPD’s North Hollywood station.

Before interrogating him, the two detectives doctored a photo “six-pack” -- an array of mug shots police often show to witnesses and victims of crimes. They circled Ledesma’s photo, writing “Those is the guy who killed my friends boyfriend,” and signed Puebla’s name. In fact, Puebla had told the detectives very little, saying that she had been expecting Ledesma to visit her the night of the murder but that he had never appeared.

Pinner, with Rodriguez looking on, grilled Ledesma. He showed him the fake six-pack and repeatedly told the suspect that Puebla was cooperating with police. Ledesma did not confess. The next night he called another gang member on a pay phone from his jail cell and ordered him to kill Puebla because she was “dropping dimes” -- gang slang for snitching.

Puebla was killed five months later when a Vineland Boyz member shot her at close range in the face. Ledesma and other members of the Vineland Boyz eventually confessed to having a role in the killing as part of plea deal to avoid the death penalty.


Puebla’s parents told The Times that no one from the LAPD ever warned their daughter that she might be in danger.

In addition, a detailed log the detectives kept of their investigation obtained by The Times shows no indication that they had contact with Puebla or her parents after they used the girl to bait Ledesma during the interrogation.

Tragically, the detectives could have known the killing had been set in motion: A secret microphone had recorded Ledesma’s phone call, but the recording was not transcribed until after the girl was dead.

Citing a lawsuit recently filed by Puebla’s parents against the city and the detectives, Beck declined to comment on the case.

Lying to suspects is legal and, in general, Beck said, LAPD detectives are not forbidden from using a person’s name during an interrogation if they believe the move is needed to gain a confession.

In the past, Beck said, detectives were largely taught that ruses were permitted unless, in the detective’s opinion, it would lead an innocent person to confess.


Now, he said, that training has been bolstered to make clear to detectives that they must weigh the benefit of lying to a suspect against the potential danger the lies may create. The new training will also emphasize that detectives have an obligation to offer police protection to someone they believe they have placed in danger.

“We obviously do not want to be doing more harm than good,” he said. “We need to ensure that we are not endangering innocent people and that, if we must, that we know how to deal with it.”

Capt. Sharyn Buck, the commanding officer of the North Hollywood area, said Pinner had been reassigned to cases involving juveniles. Pinner declined to comment. His partner Rodriguez was transferred to an auto fraud detail in 2004 and is currently assigned to a vice unit.

Members of the civilian Police Commission said the oversight body has begun its own examination of the department’s use of ruses and could make changes to current policies.

“The department needs to fill us in on these ruses,” commissioner John Mack said. “How are they used? Where do they draw the line? We will certainly be probing all of this.”