Advertisement

A Second Look at an ‘Ambush’

Share via
Times Staff Writers

The three LAPD officers described it as an ambush. Suspects fired at them from the balcony of an apartment building, they said, forcing them to run for cover. The officers then shot back, wounding two of the assailants.

Long before Officer Involved Shooting No. 1-96 came under scrutiny in the Rampart scandal, high-ranking police officials knew there was no evidence to support the officers’ claim of self-defense.

But the brass did not share that knowledge with the Police Commission. Instead, they let the officers’ story stand unchallenged. The commission ruled the shooting “in policy.”

Advertisement

The incident occurred just after midnight on Jan. 1, 1996. Rampart Division officers Brian Hewitt, John Collard and Daniel Lujan said they were searching for New Year’s Eve revelers firing guns into the air when, suddenly, they came under attack.

Without provocation, gunmen unleashed a barrage from the second-floor balcony of an apartment building west of downtown, the officers said. They said they ducked behind a parked car and a pillar as the suspects blazed away at them. Three men were later arrested.

When the facts were presented to the Use of Force Review Board — a panel of high-ranking LAPD officers — board members were troubled to learn that investigators had not found any bullet marks on the parked car or the pillar.

The evidence does “not support officers’ belief they were under attack,” according to handwritten notes taken by staff officers during the review board’s secret deliberations. “We now know suspects were not shooting at officers.”

Statements taken from the suspects that night also cast doubt on the officers’ story.

Demetrio Delgado, 18, and his brother, Vicente Roman, 28, both Mexican citizens, said they had fired not at the officers but into the sky to celebrate the new year. Their father, Sebastian Delgado, 51, said he had not fired a weapon at all.

None of the men had criminal records. Three relatives who were in the apartment supported their accounts.

Advertisement

In the summer of 1996, the case went before the Police Commission. In finding the officers’ actions “in policy,” the commission relied on an LAPD summary that made no mention of the suspects’ statements, the review board’s concerns or the absence of bullet marks.

Demetrio Delgado and Roman pleaded no contest to negligently discharging a weapon. They were sentenced to probation. A judge dismissed the charges against Sebastian Delgado.

That probably would have been the end of the matter. But in 1999, Rafael Perez, the corrupt anti-gang officer at the heart of the Rampart scandal, told investigators that it was the Mexicans, not the police, who had been ambushed.

Perez, who arrived at the scene moments after the shooting, said his fellow Rampart officers told him they had watched the Mexicans fire into the air, waited for them to stop, and then opened fire on them.

The department was now obliged to take a second look at the case. Bernard C. Parks, the police chief at the time, had served on the review board that examined the shooting. So had LAPD Cmdr. Daniel Schatz.

Parks named Schatz to lead an investigation into Perez’s numerous allegations of police misconduct, including the New Year’s shooting.

Advertisement

But the investigation languished. Police did not submit their findings to the district attorney’s office until June 2003. This past August, prosecutors said they had decided not to file charges against the officers because of insufficient evidence.

Schatz, now the police chief in Prescott, Ariz., said he remembered little about the case. Parks, now a city councilman and mayoral candidate, declined to comment.

None of the three officers was ever disciplined for his actions that night.

Advertisement