If the group of young Los Angeles police cadets accused of stealing department vehicles had any fear of getting caught, they certainly didn’t show it.
For weeks, according to documents, the teens drove to and from LAPD-related events and on joyrides as far away as Corona and Santa Clarita. Some of the cadets used the cars to perform “doughnuts” behind an Inglewood store, and one drove a stolen LAPD vehicle to his job at a Ross Dress for Less store.
There were other blatant actions: A high-ranking cadet described as “the ringleader” of the group asked someone to film him driving a cruiser, and they often drove with lights flashing and sirens blaring — in one instance racing through South L.A. to Hawthorne to move one teen’s personal vehicle before it was towed.
Still, it took Los Angeles police nearly two months to discover the cadets’ alleged misbehavior and take action.
The new details about the alleged activities are contained in a search warrant recently obtained by The Times.
As police continue to investigate the cadet scandal, the key question is less why the youths took advantage of their positions, but why their actions went undetected for so long.
“What they were doing was stupid, but they weren’t exactly stupid,” Deputy Chief Horace Frank said. “They were smart enough to try to hide their activities to the best of their knowledge.”
Frank said that LAPD personnel who might have seen the cadets driving the police cars could have reasonably assumed they were simply younger officers.
”When you look back, you can say, ‘Well, how come no one noticed that?’” Frank said. “We have a lot of young-looking officers. … There’s so many officers that are looking like that, we’re at that stage where it’s not that odd until after the fact.”
The new disclosures are contained in court papers related to Robert Cain, a now-former LAPD officer accused of having sex with a 15-year-old female cadet. Luis Carrillo, the girl’s attorney, said the delay in uncovering the alleged transgressions showed the department needed much closer supervision of the teens.
“You can’t have cadets in uniform leaving in a patrol vehicle with so many officers around, so many officers patrolling,” Carrillo said. “This would be highly noticeable the minute they drive out of the station.”
The department expects to present findings about the cadet’s activities to Los Angeles County prosecutors next week.
Capt. Robert Long, who heads the LAPD’s Major Crimes Division, confirmed that the cadets first took a police vehicle on April 28, weeks earlier than the department had previously disclosed.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has acknowledged flaws in how the cadet program was run. The scandal led to investigations by the LAPD and its inspector general that revealed lax oversight of the cadets and training for the officers involved in the department’s signature youth program. The LAPD made a series of changes, tightening supervision and training, and limiting officers’ social media and phone contact with cadets.
The Times is not identifying the cadets named in the warrant because many of them were juveniles at the time of their alleged misdeeds. Those cadets either declined to comment for this article or did not respond to messages left by reporters.
The controversy exploded June 14, when three teens led police on a pair of wild car chases that ended in crashes in South L.A. In a subsequent investigation, Cain, a 10-year LAPD veteran assigned to the 77th Street station’s equipment room, was arrested by Beck himself. In July, L.A. County prosecutors charged him with oral copulation of a person under the age of 16, lewd acts upon a child and unlawful sexual intercourse.
Cain is in jail in San Bernardino County awaiting trial on weapons charges stemming from a search of his Rancho Cucamonga home.
In all, seven cadets were arrested and accused of taking police cars and other LAPD equipment, including Tasers, radios and a bulletproof vest. Some were also accused of stopping other drivers while in the police cars.
According to the warrant, several cadets told detectives the vehicles were used to ferry teens to and from locations where LAPD officers were present. On May 27, one cadet drove a police car to the 77th Street station, then used an unmarked police vehicle to drive several other cadets to a party for Newton Division cadets, the warrant said.
The teens also used police vehicles to drive other cadets to an event for the cadet color guard on June 8, according to the warrant. Long confirmed LAPD personnel were present at both events.
The alleged ringleader told other cadets he had special permission to drive the cars, according to the warrant. Another cadet said he was given access to a vehicle by the officer who ran the equipment room at the station, but did not mention Cain by name.
The LAPD has said Cain was complicit in the thefts but has declined to offer details. His attorney, Bill Seki, has denied his client had any knowledge of the thefts.
One cadet told detectives that some members of the group used the vehicles to stop drivers in Huntington Park and Inglewood, according to the warrant. During one of the stops, the cadets pulled over a member of the El Segundo Police Department’s cadet program. Two of the cadets wore modified uniforms meant to resemble the darker shade of blue worn by LAPD officers,the warrant said.
An LAPD officer told detectives she noticed a person she later believed to be a cadet stopping another driver on June 13, according to the warrant. The traffic stop seemed “odd,” she recalled, because one of the police cars was stopped in front of the vehicle that had been pulled over. But the car pulled away before she got a closer look, she said.
Long, the LAPD captain, said that after the June 14 car chase, other officers reported similar incidents in which they thought they had seen cadets driving department vehicles.
The cadets’ carelessness may have played a role in their arrests. After the cars were discovered missing, the warrant said, LAPD investigators traveled to the South L.A. home of one of the teens, hoping to interview her.
Not long after they arrived, two vehicles carrying cadets pulled up, according to the warrant. The car chase started soon after.
Frank and Long said the investigation, which included nearly 100 interviews and required half a dozen detectives to scour social media and cellphone records, revealed Cain was the only officer who knew about the thefts before the car chase. No other LAPD officers have been accused of criminal wrongdoing, they said.
Given the length of the time the cadets had access to LAPD vehicles and equipment, Long said the department wanted to make sure the teens had not done anything beyond what they were already accused of.
“We started this as ‘OK, what’s the worst they could have done with what they had available to them?’” Long said. “We’re back down to just the basic facts of taking the police cars and no other serious crimes.”
Times staff writers Richard Winton and Marisa Gerber contributed to this report