A deputy U.S. marshal was arrested Friday in the fatal shooting of a man who intervened in a late-night argument between the off-duty lawman and his wife in a Fairfax area alley more than four years ago.
Matthew Itkowitz was taken into custody a day after being secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles on civil rights and obstruction of justice charges that carry a potential life sentence. He was arraigned in the same downtown Los Angeles courthouse where he reports to work each day.
The filing of criminal charges against a law enforcement officer for use of deadly force is rare, and such cases are typically difficult to prove. The case against Itkowitz represents a bold move by U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr., who, prior to being appointed U.S. attorney, spent six years scrutinizing alleged police misconduct as inspector general of the Los Angeles Police Department.
"The public has got to believe in the integrity of its law enforcement officers," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Meghan Blanco, the lead prosecutor on the case. "These cases are rare because most police officers are law abiding. As the evidence shows, this is a particularly egregious case — the type of case that should go to a jury."
Federal authorities took over the case after the L.A. County district attorney's office declined to prosecute Itkowitz in 2010, despite concluding that his account of the shooting was "patently inconsistent" with video footage captured by a wall-mounted security camera in the alley.
Itkowitz, dressed in khakis and a short-sleeved button-down shirt, showed little emotion as he entered a plea of not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles F. Eick. The deputy-turned-defendant at one point chuckled as he spoke to a fellow marshal standing guard in the courtroom.
Eick ordered Itkowitz, 43, released on $250,000 bond, but also placed him under house arrest. He was ordered to stay away from the courthouse and any potential witnesses after the prosecutor on the case said there was evidence that Itkowitz had engaged in attempted witness tampering.
Itkowitz, who had been drinking before the incident, told police he acted in self-defense when he shot Ryan Gonzalez on March 5, 2008, in an alley off Melrose Avenue. Gonzalez intervened in the argument between Itkowitz and his wife after the woman ran up to him and several others standing behind a tattoo parlor and asked for help.
The couple, both in their 30s, were walking home from dinner at a Mexican restaurant where Itkowitz acknowledged having "four or five shots" of tequila.
Itkowitz would later tell police that Gonzalez confronted him in the alley, saying "Why are you yelling at the lady? Why are you treating the lady like that?" He said Gonzalez then produced a gun and threatened to kill him, according to law enforcement records.
Witness accounts vary over who was the initial aggressor, but the confrontation soon came to blows.
According to Itkowitz, he shot Gonzalez immediately after Gonzalez punched him and knocked him to the ground.
"In a split second," Itkowitz told police, he lifted up his shirt, drew his .40-caliber service weapon and opened fire. "I popped up … and I just started firing."
The video footage, however, shows that the shooting did not occur until after the men had separated and began walking in separate directions in the alley. As Gonzalez walks back in the direction of the tattoo parlor, Itkowitz can be seen removing a gun from the waist of his pants and holding it behind his right leg.
Still walking toward the tattoo parlor, Gonzalez turns back toward Itkowitz and motions for him to leave. When he doesn't, Gonzalez walks several steps back in Itkowitz's direction. He was about 10 to 12 feet away when Itkowitz raised his gun and fired.
The off-duty marshal shot Gonzalez five times as he chased him down the alley. Three rounds struck Gonzalez in the back, an autopsy revealed.
When LAPD officers arrived, they found Alexandra Itkowitz hiding under a parked car. She told officers "she thought that Itkowitz was going to shoot her next."
The LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division, which specializes in complex and potentially high-profile crimes, took over the investigation and submitted the results to the district attorney two months later. Prosecutors in Steve Cooley's office conducted a "substantial independent investigation," calling several witnesses before a grand jury.
Cooley's office issued a 10-page report saying that Itkowitz's statements were at odds with the video footage and that his wife had changed her story in a way "that strongly suggests that she has been influenced to support the statement [her husband] made to the police."
Nevertheless, prosecutors concluded "there is insufficient evidence to prove that Itkowitz did not act in self-defense." .” A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said a gun allegedly belonging to Gonzalez was found in the alley.
FBI agents and federal prosecutors in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. have been working on the case ever since.
Itkowitz was indicted Thursday on charges of deprivation of rights under color of law, using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence and obstruction of justice. The obstruction charges stem from his alleged mischaracterization of the shooting and from telling a supervisor on the night of the incident that he was "attacked by two Hispanics."
Attorney Michael Grobaty, who represents Gonzalez's mother in a civil suit against Itkowitz and the marshal's service, said she and his stepfather felt vindicated by the charges.
"They are ecstatic that the Department of Justice has finally done the right thing in deciding to prosecute the man who wrongfully killed their son," he said.