Shooting Scenes Rigged, Perez Says

Thursday, February 10, 2000

Scandal: Police planted gun while victim bled to death, according to informant.

By MATT LAIT and SCOTT GLOVER, Times Staff Writers

As a 21-year-old man shot by police lay bleeding to death in the hallway of a shabby Mid-City apartment building, Los Angeles Police Department officers intentionally delayed calling an ambulance while they planted a gun near where he had fallen and concocted an elaborate story to justify the shooting, according to disgraced former officer Rafael Perez.
“Everything [was] straightened out, cleaned up, whatever,” Perez said, according to transcripts of interviews with detectives and prosecutors obtained by The Times. “That’s what happens.”
The 1996 shooting, from which Juan Saldana ultimately died, is one of three in which Perez now says he or fellow anti-gang CRASH officers in the LAPD’s Rampart Division unjustly wounded or killed suspects.
In one case, Perez told investigators, CRASH officers opened fire on unsuspecting New Year’s Eve revelers who were shooting bullets into the air to celebrate. Perez said one of the officers involved, Daniel Lujan, confided to him that the officers fabricated a story that they were being fired on to cover their tracks.
In the Saldana shooting, Perez said, he was running down the hallway in an apartment building at 676 S. Shatto Place when he heard Officer Kulin Patel shoot.
“Boom. And it’s a gang member. . . . He gets one right in the 10 ring,” Perez said.
“In the what?” asked the court reporter, who was transcribing the interview.
“In the 10 ring. I’m sorry. It’s a center mass. Or right in the center of the chest,” Perez said, alluding to the corresponding spot on a firing range target.
Perez, who testified that he was just a few steps behind Patel when Patel fired, reached the victim in a matter of seconds. “And I’m looking at the guy. And I know there’s no gun there. There’s–there’s no gun.”
Just then, Perez said, fellow Rampart CRASH Officers Brian Hewitt and Doyle Stepp appeared at the bottom of the stairs, where Saldana had fallen. The two officers had been chasing the gang member through the building after they and other CRASH officers received information that gang members were planning a retaliatory attack for a drive-by shooting that occurred the day before.
Perez said the two officers looked down at the fatally wounded Saldana and one of them said, “Oh, shit. . . . We got him.”

Gun Placed Near Victim
He said the two officers ran back upstairs and returned within seconds, Stepp gingerly holding a gun with the tips of his fingers. Perez told investigators the officer placed it on the first step next to Saldana.
Perez alleged that Hewitt, who since has been fired from the LAPD for an unrelated beating, and Stepp, who has been relieved of duty in connection with the scandal, later said “that the guy had dropped the gun already when they were running after him.”
At this point, Perez said, Saldana “seems perfectly fine. He’s talking. He’s like, ‘Man, what’s going on?’ ”
But Perez said several minutes passed as the officers stood nearby and got their stories straight. Saldana’s condition steadily deteriorated, and he collapsed at the door of the apartment building. He died a short time later at County-USC Medical Center. An autopsy revealed that he had suffered two fatal gunshot wounds, one in the chest and one in the back.
Perez told investigators that he suspects Saldana–if he was armed to begin with–had dropped his gun before Stepp and Hewitt shot him, but that he had no proof of that.
“I believe that he had already dropped the gun, just by little talks we were having,” Perez said. “I remember joking around with Stepp and Hewitt about how many rounds they had fired and . . . I remember it was something that was said, some little jokes that were being made.”
Perez, who in November led investigators on a predawn videotaped walk-through of the shooting scene, said he did not have personal knowledge of the wounding of Jose Perez, a second man shot by police at Shatto Place. But Rafael Perez denied the official police story that Jose Perez pulled a gun before running into the building.
“I can tell you emphatically . . . I was looking right at them [Jose Perez and other gang members]. No one pulled a gun.”
Perez told investigators about a second allegedly unjustified shooting that occurred early New Year’s Day, 1996. According to an LAPD shooting report, Officers Lujan, Hewitt and John Collard were working a so-called gunfire-suppression detail on New Year’s Eve west of downtown, and they heard multiple shots about 10 minutes after midnight.
As they searched for the source of the gunfire in the 1300 block of Linwood Avenue, their report on the incident states, they came under attack by two men who had been shooting their weapon into the air from a second-story porch. The officers, fearing for their lives, returned fire, the report alleges.
But Perez said Lujan told him at the scene that it was the other way around: The police staged the ambush.
“When I arrived there, Officer Lujan began explaining what had occurred, what had actually occurred,” Perez told investigators. “They had set up on the location where they were hearing the shots. And when the guys came back out shooting up in the air, they [the police] stepped out from where they were hidden and began firing at them.”
Perez said Lujan told him to start picking up the shotgun shell casings from the rounds he had fired, but that Lujan and the others didn’t think they had hit anyone they were firing at and they were not going to report the shooting.
“Then they decided to go up there and check and on the porch there was blood up there,” Perez said. “When we saw blood, we said, ‘Let’s take them into custody.’ ”
Then-Chief Willie L. Williams found the shooting “in policy” in 1996, but found that the officers made a tactical error in trying to apprehend suspects who were clearly armed and dangerous without calling for backup. In reality, Perez said, the officers knew there was no need for such precautions.
“It wasn’t one of those things where, ‘Oh, my God, they’re shooting at us, take cover’ . . . and now we need SWAT to come get them out. We went right in and just took these people into custody.”
A 51-year-old man and his 18-year-old son were wounded in the shooting. Charges against the father were dismissed when a judge found there was no evidence he had ever picked up a weapon that night, much less aimed it at police. The 18-year-old and his 27-year-old brother pleaded guilty to discharging a firearm in a grossly negligent manner and were sentenced to probation.
A second judge found that there was no conclusive evidence that either man had shot at the police. In an interview with The Times last month, a lawyer for an LAPD officer relieved of duty in connection with the corruption probe described the New Year’s Eve shooting as “hunting” after being briefed by his client.

Failure of Probe Being Questioned
Why LAPD’s shooting investigators did not find problems with the officers’ version of events is part of the ongoing criminal corruption probe, sources said. The physical evidence, or lack thereof, should have raised serious questions about the veracity of the officers’ account, they said.
Perez, on numerous occasions during about 50 hours of interviews with a task force of LAPD and district attorney’s investigators, suggested that shootings involving officers were not seriously investigated, and that even if they were, the deck was stacked against the investigating detectives.
As an example, he offered the case of Javier Francisco Ovando, an unarmed 19-year-old Perez says he and his partner, Nino Durden, shot and then framed for attacking them by planting a gun on him. Perez said his sergeant, Edward Ortiz, had no interest in what really happened, just in trying to make it come out clean. Perez said that he didn’t think Ortiz knew they had planted a weapon, but that the sergeant actively participated in fabricating a story surrounding the circumstances.
“So, you’re setting up the shooting scene, what’s favorable to you and Officer Durden?” one investigator asked during Perez’s interrogation.
“Right,” Perez responded.
“That’s what this is about?” the investigator asked.
“That’s what the meetings are usually about,” Perez responded. “When we meet, we discuss how do we make this look as good as possible. . . . You know how everybody thinks that the officers are split up and you go sit in one room and you go sit in another room? I’ve never seen it happen.”
The standard practice after a shooting, Perez said, is to “celebrate.” The night Saldana was killed, Perez, Stepp, Hewitt and other officers partied “till 6 or 7 a.m.” at the Shortstop bar on Sunset Boulevard, a popular police hangout near Dodger Stadium.
“We were there late,” Perez recalled. “You know, [the bartender] closes the bar, but he lets us stay in there.”
As usual, Perez said, the officers talked about what had just happened, but in a private code.
“You talk in sort of riddles, you know, you kind of just make innuendoes about what happened,” Perez told task force investigators.
For example, at one point, he said, another officer made a comment about the fact that the Rampart CRASH officers had just been in a shooting.
“And Stepp is describing and Hewitt is describing the shooting . . . I know for a fact they placed the gun there. We would look at each other,” Perez said. “Without saying too many words, you’re telling each other–or you acknowledge, you know what really happened.”

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