Prosecutors decline to charge LAPD sergeants in death of Omar Abrego

Lawrencia Colding, center, protests at 65th Street and Broadway in South Los Angeles on Jan. 3 over the death of Omar Abrego, who died hours after being arrested by police last year.

Lawrencia Colding, center, protests at 65th Street and Broadway in South Los Angeles on Jan. 3 over the death of Omar Abrego, who died hours after being arrested by police last year.

(Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

Prosecutors announced Thursday that they would not charge two Los Angeles police sergeants in connection with a violent arrest of a South L.A. man who died the next day.

In a seven-page letter outlining the decision, the district attorney’s office said it believed the two gang sergeants “used only the force necessary with the narrow purpose” of arresting Omar Abrego in August 2014.

An autopsy showed Abrego, 37, died from the effects of cocaine but listed the “physical and emotional duress” caused by the altercation as a contributing factor. Prosecutors said they could not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that any such duress “resulted from excessive force.”

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“To the contrary, we conclude that Sergeants Jeff Mares and Robert Calderon used reasonable force in their efforts to detain Abrego,” the memo said.

Last summer, the Los Angeles Police Commission cleared the sergeants, saying they acted within department policy during the arrest.

The decision from prosecutors comes 18 months after the Aug. 2 encounter, which drew attention from local activists protesting killings by police. Abrego died about a week before Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man, was fatally shot by officers just a few blocks from where Abrego was taken into custody.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said Thursday that prosecutors were still reviewing whether to charge the officers who shot Ford.

Abrego’s family is suing the LAPD in federal court, alleging the sergeants used “unreasonable and unlawful force.” An attorney representing Abrego’s wife and three children criticized the decision by prosecutors, but said he wasn’t surprised.

Calling the D.A.'s review of the case a “whitewash of the facts,” attorney Steven Lerman said the sergeants’ “inability to control the situation” led to Abrego’s death.

“This was not justified by the facts or the law,” Lerman said. “The Abrego case remains a significant blemish on the LAPD.”

According to a report LAPD Chief Charlie Beck sent police commissioners last year, the sergeants who arrested Abrego were driving on Broadway when someone flagged them down and told them about a suspicious white vehicle in an alley. The sergeants noticed a white van run a stop sign and nearly hit a pedestrian, according to the report.

The sergeants followed the van, which they told investigators was driving erratically, and pulled up next to it when it came to a stop on South Main Street, the report said. Abrego then jumped out of the van’s back doors, the report said.

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The sergeants told Abrego to get down on the ground, the report said, but he ran. One of the sergeants followed Abrego, the report said, before Abrego stopped and turned toward the sergeant. The sergeant then “grabbed Abrego in a bear hug.”

Abrego resisted the sergeants, punching one in the chest, the report said. The sergeant punched him three times in the face as the altercation continued.

The sergeants took Abrego to the ground as he “continued to be combative and resist,” the result said. Ultimately, the sergeants and backup officers were able to handcuff Abrego and hobble his legs.

The sergeants told investigators they believed Abrego was under the influence of drugs because he was sweaty, wide-eyed and “seemed agitated,” according to the report.

The letter released by the district attorney’s office redacted the statements made by Mares and Calderon, but included statements from three witnesses who saw parts of the encounter. One man said Abrego was giving the officers “a run for their money.”

“They just could not seem to get this man under control. He was just not going to stop,” he said. “It was just sad to see a man so dysfunctional and for it to take all those cops to tame him.”

An EMT who first saw the struggle from a bus, said he saw blood on Abrego’s face before a sergeant hit him. A second man also saw blood on Abrego’s face but said he did not see the officers strike him.

Abrego continued to resist police even after he was handcuffed and taken to a hospital, the prosecutors’ memo said.

Abrego was treated at the Inglewood hospital for renal failure and a toxic breakdown of muscle issue, according to his autopsy report. He also had a severe concussion, cuts, bruises and “cocaine intoxicity.”

He died the next morning.

Follow @katemather for more LAPD news.


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