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Trutanich hazy on details of gang attack, but campaign is not

It’s a heroic narrative that Carmen Trutanich has used while running for election: As a young prosecutor nearly three decades ago, he was investigating a murder in a South Los Angeles park when he was surrounded by gang members who fired shots at him.

“Even faced with the gang members, Carmen Trutanich wasn’t afraid,” retired district attorney’s Senior Investigator Jim Bell says in an online campaign video titled “Tru Stories.”

Trutanich has touted that experience of coming under fire in a voter mailer, at a candidates’ debate and on campaign videos during his campaigns for city attorney and now district attorney.

But the dramatic account of Trutanich’s derring-do is not the only version he has told over the years.

When questioned about the incident under oath in a legal proceeding in 2008, Trutanich said he had only a hazy recollection and described an encounter in which his investigator saw somebody with a gun in Green Meadows Park. He never mentioned coming under gunfire or being surrounded by gang members at the park.

In a recent interview with The Times, he said his memory has improved since the deposition.

Although he wasn’t surrounded by gang members, he said he did see a gun emerge from the window of a passing car while he was alone in the park and heard shots as he hid. “I have the distinct recollection of it being a long gun,” he said.

Asked why he had not mentioned such details in his sworn testimony four years earlier, Trutanich said he could not be sure he saw a firearm.

“I saw the car. Was it a gun? Was it a hand? It looked like a gun to me, but I can’t be sure, OK? I know one thing. I heard pops, and I left,” he said. “It’s one thing talking about it to you guys, one thing talking about it under penalty of perjury. The stories are the same.”

Bell, the former district attorney’s investigator who now works for Trutanich in the city attorney’s office, says in the recent campaign video for his boss that he had heard over his police radio that shots were being fired in the park. When he pulled up, he saw Trutanich was surrounded and being shot at.

Bell told The Times he returned fire at the assailants, a detail that also was not mentioned in Trutanich’s deposition. A 2009 voter mailer for Trutanich’s successful city attorney campaign described the incident as a “shootout where members of the ‘Bloods’ gang tried to kill him before the trial.”

The Los Angeles Police Department said it could find no record of a shooting involving Bell and Trutanich at the park while they were working on the murder case. Trutanich, in the recent interview, acknowledged that he had not immediately reported the shooting at the time. He said he told an LAPD detective informally about the incident a day later. That detective is dead.

District attorney’s spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said her office also could find no record, though she said some documents from that era have been destroyed. She said a review of Bell’s personnel file showed that Trutanich wrote a commendation for the investigator for his work on the case involving the Green Meadows Park murder. “There was no mention of a shooting,” she said.

Trutanich and Bell said they had no documents that would show what occurred in the park or corroborate the campaign’s version of events.

In February 1985, while prosecuting the reputed leader of a South Los Angeles gang for murder, Trutanich did refer in court to having had a bad experience at the park. He did not detail what happened but said the judge was aware of it. The judge recently told The Times that she did not recall the incident and the two defense attorneys on the case are dead.

Trutanich’s 2008 deposition was part of a legal proceeding brought by the man he convicted in that murder case.

In his testimony, Trutanich said he and Bell were together at the park when a car drove by. He testified that the investigator warned him that somebody had a gun and then pulled Trutanich to the ground. He said Bell refused to stay in the park without law enforcement backup.

“We got the hell out of there,” he testified. “I don’t remember a whole lot about it…. I just remember being scared at the time. I didn’t sign on to get shot, you know.”

In the interview with The Times, Trutanich said it was “splitting hairs” to suggest there were differences in his versions of the events that day.

“It’s been 30 years, guys, cut me a little slack,” Trutanich said.

He said his testimony that he “didn’t sign on to get shot” was proof that his accounts have been consistent. Asked why he didn’t say during the deposition that he had come under gunfire, he said: “Maybe I was inarticulate.”

One of Trutanich’s campaign strategists accused The Times of “taking small discrepancies in the accounts from 28 years ago to smear a couple of local heroes’ reputations.” In an email, Dave Jacobson also wrote that “the current district attorney’s office has conveniently misplaced” Trutanich’s personnel file, which might have records documenting the incident. Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who is retiring this year, has endorsed his chief deputy, rather than Trutanich, to succeed him.

The district attorney’s spokeswoman said Trutanich’s personnel file is one of many missing from that era and that its disappearance was first noted when Trutanich was running for city attorney, when he had Cooley’s support.

Bell, whom Trutanich hired at the city attorney’s office shortly after the 2009 election, said he had forgotten many details about the incident but was adamant that shots were fired at Trutanich and that he returned fire.

“The one thing I can definitely tell you is that it did happen. I was there,” Bell said.

Joe Holmes, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department gang investigator who also appears in Trutanich’s district attorney’s campaign video, said he recalled Trutanich telling him during the mid-1980s that he had been shot at by gang members. Trutanich did not go into details about the shooting other than to say Bell had been with him, he said.

Trutanich answered questions about what occurred at the park during a meeting with a Times reporter and editor that was also attended by several of his supporters, including his wife, Holmes and Trutanich’s top manager in the city attorney’s office.

Trutanich’s wife, Noreen, said she first heard there had been a shooting in 2000, about 15 years later.

“I didn’t say a word” to her when it happened, Trutanich said. “She was already crying and screaming at me about my job and how unsafe it is.”

William Carter, currently the chief deputy city attorney, said he worked alongside Trutanich and Bell in the same unit of the district attorney’s office in the mid-1980s. Carter said that both men told him previously that Bell had saved Trutanich’s life but did not provide details. Carter said the first time he heard that the incident had involved gunfire was in 2000, when he read a story in The Times about Bell winning a $1.8-million verdict in a civil lawsuit.

The article which quoted Trutanich and Bell, said the investigator saved Trutanich’s life during a 1985 shootout in Green Meadows Park. Out of gratitude, Trutanich represented Bell in the civil trial against Santa Monica after two of the city’s police officers seriously injured Bell when they mistook him for an unemployment-check fraud suspect, the article said. As a result of the injury, the county required Bell to take a medical retirement from the district attorney’s office.

In that civil trial, Bell was asked about the stress of his career in the district attorney’s office, including his work protecting a key witness in the Green Meadows Park murder case, a contract put out on his life by a gang during that trial, and his collaboration with Trutanich, according to court transcripts. There was no mention of a shooting.

The trial transcripts show that Santa Monica’s attorneys were provided with Bell’s personnel records as well as documents from a workers’ compensation claim detailing the stress Bell was under. The lawyers who represented the city said they received no records about a shooting.

Trutanich says now that it was not his idea to make the Green Meadows Park incident part of his campaign, but that one of his election strategists learned about what had happened from Bell and asked to use it.

Looking back, Trutanich said, he is embarrassed about what happened in the park and said he should have waited for a police escort rather than venturing into the area alone.

“The bottom line is that this whole incident, if I had my druthers, would have been forgotten in 1985,” Trutanich said.

jack.leonard@latimes.com


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