The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has refused for more than two years to allow its agents to cooperate with a Los Angeles Police Department investigation into the death of a drug suspect shortly after he was arrested in a DEA operation, according to LAPD records.
The LAPD’s homicide investigation has effectively stalled, and officials said in documents reviewed by The Times that without assistance from the DEA they cannot determine how the man’s fatal injuries were inflicted.
An autopsy found that the suspect’s ribs had been fractured in 21 places and coroner’s officials concluded that the injuries were caused by “blunt force.” The fractures led to internal bleeding, which ultimately killed the man, the coroner found.
The LAPD believes DEA agents may have caused the injuries when they placed the suspect on his stomach while handcuffing him, according to the documents. But without being able to interview the DEA agents who made the arrest, it’s impossible for the detectives to determine whether the excessive force was used.
FOR THE RECORD:
Hobbled LAPD probe: An article in the Dec. 21 Section A about an L.A. police investigation into the death of a man after he was arrested by federal agents said that, according to an LAPD report, agents from U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte’s office agreed to assist the LAPD in its investigation. The report did not say the federal agents were from Birotte’s office. —
Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for the DEA, said the U.S. Justice Department’s own Office of the Inspector General is conducting an investigation into the death to determine whether DEA agents broke federal civil rights laws by using excessive force when arresting the man. Dearden said the DEA has provided the LAPD with some information and documentation about the incident.
“However, it is not uncommon for an agent under multiple ongoing investigations to decline specific law enforcement interviews until an inspector general investigation is completed,” she said.
LAPD officials said they need to conduct their own homicide investigation. Chief Charlie Beck outlined the department’s struggles with the case in a report recently submitted to the L.A. Police Commission. Beck reports to the civilian panel on all serious use-of-force cases and in-custody deaths.
Beck wrote that his detectives had made “numerous requests” to the DEA for interviews with the involved agents but have repeatedly “been met with negative results.”
The incident began on a July night in 2010 in a parking lot a few blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. For months, DEA special agents had been working the area to arrest drug dealers and gang members, according to the report. On this night, an informant working with the DEA had arranged to meet two suspected dealers to purchase 10 ounces of crystal methamphetamine, the report said.
The informant, wired with a hidden microphone, approached the suspects’ car and received the drugs from Alberto Arriaga, who remained in the passenger seat throughout the exchange. Drug agents moved in and are believed to have pulled Arriaga from the car, laid him face down on the pavement and handcuffed him, according to the LAPD report.
Eventually, officers from the LAPD were called in to take Arriaga and the other suspect to a nearby station to be booked, the report said. A station supervisor asked the men if they had any medical issues. Arriaga complained of leg pain from a previous injury but mentioned nothing else, the report found. The men were then placed in a holding cell together.
Sometime later that night, after the booking process had been completed, detention officers tried to move Arriaga, 45, to another jail facility. He told the jailers he was having abdominal pain “and had been beaten up by the DEA agents who arrested him,” the report said. Arriaga was taken by ambulance to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. There, according to coroner’s records, he waited 16 hours without receiving medical attention despite his worsening condition and then died.
The coroner’s autopsy revealed that Arriaga’s fractured ribs had caused internal bleeding in his chest that led to respiratory failure. Because the ribs had been broken by “blunt force injuries” that came from the back, the coroner classified the death as a homicide.
The exam also found that Arriaga had cirrhosis of the liver, a condition that can impair the blood’s ability to clot and so could have exacerbated the internal bleeding.
As it does with all in-custody deaths and cases involving serious force by officers, the LAPD deployed a team of specialized investigators to look into Arriaga’s death. Such investigations typically focus on LAPD officers and determine if they violated any department rules or committed any crimes.
However, the Arriaga case was complicated. Pursuing the theory that Arriaga’s ribs were broken while he was being taken into custody, the investigators found that no LAPD officers had been involved in the arrest or even had been present to witness it.
An LAPD detective who had been briefed on the arrest by a DEA agent told investigators he had learned that Arriaga “was not cooperative in coming out of the vehicle, was subsequently pulled out of the vehicle and then placed on the ground,” according to the LAPD report.
The report concluded that Arriaga’s wounds were not inflicted by LAPD officers when he was custody — a finding corroborated by the Police Commission. The report did not address whether he could have been beaten by a fellow inmate but noted that the department is working to have better video surveillance of the lockup facilities.
The investigators asked the DEA repeatedly for permission to interview the agents involved in the arrest, but were rebuffed, according to the report.
At first DEA officials told the LAPD that the agents needed some time to find attorneys who would accompany them.
Then, once legal counsel was arranged, the DEA said the interviews would have to wait until after Arriaga’s autopsy results were completed, which occurred a short time later. Still, the agency did not make the agents available.
Frustrated by the DEA’s inaction, LAPD investigators went for assistance to local prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, who concluded they did not have the authority to compel federal agents to cooperate with a local police department’s investigation.
Several months later, the LAPD turned to U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte for help getting the agents to talk. According to Beck’s report, agents from Birotte’s Los Angeles office agreed to conduct the interviews with the DEA agents. Those interviews were put on hold, however, and have never occurred.
Times staff writer Frank Shyong contributed to this report.