December 8, 2005 latimes.com : California Print E-mail story Most e-mailed Change text size
2 Charged in Slaying at Central Jail
L.A. County prosecutors allege that inmate Chadwick Cochran was killed Nov. 16 by gang members who thought he was an informant.
By Richard Winton and Stuart Pfeifer, Times Staff Writers
Los Angeles County prosecutors on Wednesday said two inmates could face the death penalty for torturing a fellow inmate for up to half an hour, then killing him while they were locked together in an unsupervised room at the Men's Central Jail — all over what authorities now believe was a misunderstanding.
Prosecutors believe that gang members targeted Chadwick Shane Cochran, a 35-year-old with mental problems who was placed in jail for a nonviolent offense, because they saw him being escorted by deputies and wrongly concluded that he was a jailhouse informant.
Christian Perez, 18, and Heriberto Eddie Rodriguez, 24, were charged with Cochran's torture and murder Wednesday.
The gang members, along with Cochran and 27 other inmates, were placed by deputies in a room at the Men's Central Jail on the evening of Nov. 16. Deputies could not see into the room because the windows were covered with metal sheeting.
With no deputies around, the assailants knocked Cochran to the ground and then stomped on his head, neck and chest, prosecutors said. The beating continued as they screamed "Snitch!" When Cochran lost consciousness, they allegedly dragged him about 10 feet by his hair and revived him by splashing water on his face, officials said.
They then allegedly dragged him back, beating him with metal food trays and again stomping on him. When they thought he was dead, an inmate dragged him behind a small wall in an apparent effort to hide the body from deputies, officials said.
The other 27 inmates stood by as the beating took place and did not attempt to stop it.
"It was a very brutal killing," said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
Cochran's slaying marked the eighth killing in the Los Angeles County jail system in two years. It has captured particular attention because jail officials believed he suffered from mental problems but they nonetheless placed him with violent inmates.
The jail's policy is to segregate inmates with possible mental problems from the rest of the inmate population.
The brutal details of the crime were revealed a day after county supervisors criticized Sheriff Lee Baca for not following through on recommendations a year ago to begin segregating violent inmates from nonviolent ones.
Baca aides said Tuesday that the Sheriff's Department was now working on a plan to segregate violent gang members.
Sheriff's investigators originally suspected that Cochran had been killed because he cut to the front of the line at dinner, angering the gang members.
But based an interviews and other evidence, prosecutors believe the assailants thought Cochran was an informant.
The gang members apparently based this on the fact that deputies escorted Cochran before the beating, prosecutors said.
It was unclear why deputies did this, and jail sources described it as unusual.
But both Robison and Sheriff's Capt. Ray Peavy, who investigated the case, stressed that Cochran was not an informant.
"This was an extremely callous act," Peavy said.
Both suspects have a history of violence, officials said. Perez is awaiting trial for a slaying he allegedly committed when he was 17. Rodriguez is a San Fernando Valley gang member who is awaiting trial on kidnapping and carjacking charges, court records and prosecutors said.
Perez and Rodriguez were both classified as violent criminals while Cochran was a less-dangerous inmate, officials said.
Merrick Bobb, the special monitor who advises county supervisors on Sheriff's Department matters and wrote recommendations last year for improving the safety of inmates, said he was alarmed at the mistakes that appear to have contributed to Cochran's death.
"I haven't investigated this myself, but what it suggests to me is a cascade of errors. If so, it's very much like the five inmate deaths that led to the 2004 report. It wasn't just one guy messing up one thing, it was a systemic failure," Bobb said.
Bobb said he was disappointed that the Sheriff's Department has not followed some recommendations, particularly a recommendation that the department stop mixing medium-level and high-risk inmates.
"It's extraordinarily dispiriting," he said.
Jody Kent, jails project coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the most significant mistake by jail officials appears to have been their decision to leave those inmates alone in the holding room.
The sheriff's Office of Independent Review is now trying to determine why this happened.
"The bottom line is the inmate would not have been killed had there been proper supervision. We'll have to see what the investigations show," Kent said.