Originally published 02/08/2013.
In the late 1990s, the corruption of the LAPD Rampart Division’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) anti-gang unit came to light. Disgraced officers were convicted of offenses such as planting false evidence, stealing, dealing illegal drugs, bank robbery, and perjury. Cops were proven to have committed unjustified beatings and shootings.
The scandal surfaced because of a road rage incident. On March 18, 1997, cop Frank Lyga, working undercover in a Fu Manchu mustache, ponytail, and cap sporting a marijuana logo, waited three hours in a Buick for a drug deal to take place. It was called off and he drove toward a police station. At a red light, he glanced at the car next to him and saw a black man with shaved head and goatee. Thinking the man stared, Lyga rolled his window down and asked, “Can I help you?”
The man replied, “Ain’t nobody looking at you, punk.”
Lyga assumed the man was gang-affiliated. When the man challenged him to a fight, Lyga verbally accepted, suggesting they both pull over. The man pulled over and Lyga drove off. The man gave chase.
Lyga phoned for police help.
The other man appeared to raise a weapon so Lyga raised his. He shot and killed the man.
Police soon discovered that the dead man was an undercover Los Angeles police officer too. He was Rampart CRASH Officer Kevin Gaines. Lyga was reassigned to desk duty while his story was investigated. Since Lyga was white and Gaines black, some feared racism motivated the shooting.
Witnesses supported Lyga’s claim that he shot in self-defense. Also investigation revealed disturbing details of Gaines’s life. He had a history of road rage and domestic violence and was one of several cops who worked off-duty as a security guard for Death Row Records owner Marion “Suge” Knight.
Lyga was exonerated in 1998 by investigators’ conclusion that the shooting was “in policy.”
The Gaines family, represented by attorney Johnnie Cochran, sued the city of Los Angeles for wrongful death asking for $25 million in damages. The city settled for $250,000.
On November 7, 1997, two bank robbers stole $722,000 from an L.A. Bank of America. Investigators suspected that bank manager Errolyn Romero was in cahoots with the robbers because she had ordered more cash than necessary delivered. She confessed and investigators asked who was behind the robbery. Terrified, she could answer neither verbally nor in writing. From her purse, she showed officers a business card with an LAPD shield. It was that of her boyfriend, David Mack.
Convicted of bank robbery, Mack refused to reveal where the money was. While imprisoned, he reportedly joined the Bloods gang that has ties to Death Row Records.
While investigating the robbery, police learned that, in the days after it, Mack had enjoyed a weekend of gambling in Las Vegas with two other cops. One of them, Rafael Perez, became a key figure in the Rampart Scandal.
On February 26, 1998, LAPD CRASH Officer Brian Hewitt brought gang member Ismael Jimenez to the Rampart station for questioning. Jimenez alleged that while he was in custody, Hewitt beat him. An investigation concluded that Jimenez was telling the truth and Hewitt’s was fired. Jimenez sued the city which settled with him for $231,000.
Officers in an LAPD property room discovered on March 27, 1998 that six pounds of cocaine seized as evidence were missing. They suspected the aforementioned CRASH Officer Rafael Perez.
LAPD Chief Bernard Parks suspected that a rogue group of CRASH officers was committing crimes. Parks observed, “Perez is a good friend of David Mack’s, both were good friends of Gaines’s. I think the picture reflected that we had some people on this department that were, in a coordinated effort, involved in some very serious criminal misconduct.” Parks established the Rampart Corruption Task Force to investigate.
Perez was arrested on August 25, 1998. He was brought to trial in December 1998 for possession of cocaine with intent to sell, grand theft, and forgery. The trial ended in a hung jury.
Rather than having to go through a re-trial, Perez pled guilty to stealing cocaine and agreed to provide information about other criminal cops. Perez was sentenced to five years in prison and given immunity from prosecution for crimes less serious than murder.
Perez said he and partner Nino Durden shot and framed gang member Javier Ovando in 1996 when Ovando surprised them during a stakeout. Perez said Durden shot Ovando. As he lay bleeding, they discovered he carried no weapon. Perez recalled that Durden took a gun wrapped in a “very dirty shirt” and planted it near Ovando. They concocted the story that Ovando burst in on them brandishing the gun.
Ovando was paralyzed because of the shooting. At trial he claimed he had no gun but Perez testified to the concocted story. The jury believed the officer. The judge sentenced Ovando to 23 years in prison.
The District Attorney’s Office filed a writ of habeas corpus to overturn Ovando’s conviction. He was released in September 1999 after serving over two years.
Based on Perez’s revelations, more than 100 convictions were overturned. Perez spoke of the anti-gang unit as a kind of quasi-gang boasting a logo of a skull sporting a cowboy hat surrounded by playing cards arranged in what is called a “dead man’s hand” in poker.
Perez said he knew Officer Brian Hewitt, fired for beating Jimenez, as someone who “gets off” on beating suspects. Perez alleged that Hewitt would frequently beat a suspect “to a pulp” and allow the beaten person to go without getting arrested.
Although Perez and Mack were close friends, Perez denied any knowledge about the bank robbery.
Chief Parks established a Board of Inquiry to analyze the Rampart Scandal. It released a report in 2000 citing loose departmental management and making many recommendations to reduce the likelihood of similar wrongdoing. In March 2000, Parks disbanded CRASH units and established fresh anti-gang units.
The Police Commission formed the Rampart Independent Review Panel in April 2000. It included people outside the LAPD such as lawyers and educators. Its November 2000 report recommended tighter officer supervision and other actions to prevent future abuses.
On July 28, Nino Durden was arrested for attempted murder in the Ovando shooting. Durden was also charged with robbery, filing false police reports, and perjury. He pleaded not guilty to all charges in November 2000.
At the request of the Police Protective League, Professor Erwin Chemerinksy of the University of Southern California analyzed the Board of Inquiry report. PBS writes, “He concluded that the LAPD minimized the magnitude of the Rampart scandal and failed to acknowledge the extent to which its internal culture allowed corruption to fester. Chemerinsky’s report recommends more aggressive independent reviews and a permanent special prosecutor to investigate police misconduct.”
On September 19, 2000, the L.A. City Council voted to accept a consent decree permitting a federal judge acting for the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee reforms within the LAPD for five years. The Justice Department agreed not to pursue a civil rights lawsuit against the city.
The first criminal case tried because of Perez’s allegations was against Sgt. Edward Ortiz, Brian Liddy, Paul Harper, and Michael Buchanan, all of whom had been in the Rampart CRASH unit. They were charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice, perjury, fabricating arrests, and filing false police reports. All pleaded not guilty. On November 15, 2000, Ortiz, Liddy, and Buchanan were convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and filing false police reports. Harper was acquitted on all charges.
The largest police misconduct settlement in L.A. history, $15 million, was awarded to Ovando on November 21, 2000. Ovando was arrested four months later in Nevada for possession and trafficking of illegal drugs.
Gang member Ruben Rojas, who Perez had framed on drug charges, won a $1 million settlement.
On December 22, 2000, Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor overturned the convictions of Ortiz, Liddy, and Buchanan because in post-trial interviews jurors admitted to being swayed by reports not made at trial. District Attorney Steve Cooley announced in January 2001 that he would appeal Connor’s decision. However, in December 2004 the District Attorney’s Office announced that the trio would not be retried.
CRASH officers Ethan Cohan, Manuel Chavez, and Shawn Gomez were indicted on March 23, 2001 for assaulting two gang members and filing false police reports. Chavez and Gomez made plea agreements. Cohan pled not guilty.
Durden made a deal on March 30, 2001. He pleaded guilty to ten charges and agreed to cooperate with authorities.
Perez was paroled on July 24, 2001 after serving three years. On December 17, 2001 he pleaded guilty to federal civil rights and firearms offenses in the Ovando shooting. The plea agreement required him to serve two years in a federal prison.
In February 2003, Cohan made a plea deal. He pled guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and filing a false police report. He agreed to a sentence of one year in county jail. The District Attorney dropped the assault charges.
Defense attorney Gerald Chaleff was instrumental in negotiating the Justice Department’s consent decree that provided federal monitoring for Rampart Scandal motivated reforms. Asked about the LAPD’s reconstituted and freshly named “Special Enforcement Unit-Gangs,” Chaleff said, “It has greater oversight by its sergeants, lieutenants, captains and commanders, and the rules are set out more clearly. I think they’ll be able to accomplish their mission but within the rules.”
Sources on following page.