Secret LAPD Testimony Implicated Nine Officers

An ex-Rampart unit member also suspected many others routinely committed crimes.

By Matt Lait and Scott Glover
Times Staff Writers

February 27, 2003

In interviews with state and federal authorities, the onetime partner of corrupt ex-Los Angeles Police Officer Rafael Perez accused nine fellow officers of serious misconduct and said he suspected that many officers in the Rampart Division’s anti-gang unit routinely committed crimes, according to confidential transcripts.

Former Officer Nino Durden, in sometimes tearful testimony, said sergeants in two different shootings instructed officers to lie about the circumstances of the incidents to make their actions appear more tactically sound when reviewed by police superiors. The officers, he said, went along with the fake stories to protect themselves and colleagues from possible administrative charges.

One of those shootings involved Javier Francisco Ovando, an unarmed gang member who was shot by Perez and Durden and subsequently framed for attacking them. Ovando spent three years in prison before being released because of Perez’s disclosures.

Four of the officers implicated by Durden in misconduct remain at work with the LAPD.

The details of Durden’s account could provide grist for future prosecutions, as federal authorities continue to comb the Rampart scandal for evidence of crimes by Los Angeles police officers.

They come to light just one day after Police Chief William J. Bratton, who was not in office when the events at Rampart unfolded, expressed unhappiness with the LAPD’s internal accounting of the scandal and urged city leaders to consider asking an outside panel to conduct a review.

To date, the misconduct allegations collectively known as the Rampart scandal have cost city taxpayers more than $40 million to settle claims by victims of police abuse. More than 100 convictions of alleged gang members and others arrested by the LAPD have been overturned. In addition to Perez and Durden, seven officers have been prosecuted. Three pleaded guilty or no contest; three others were convicted by a jury, but their convictions were overturned by a judge and that case is on appeal. One officer was acquitted.

Although Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced last year that his office has concluded its investigation of Rampart cases, work continues at the U.S. attorney’s office, which still could charge officers with federal offenses.

“These matters are still definitely on the table,” said one federal official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Though Durden eventually pleaded guilty to crimes he committed with Perez and is serving a five-year prison sentence, the contents of his debriefings with investigators have not been made public because of the ongoing federal probe. The interviews were conducted in February and March 2001; those present included state and federal prosecutors, as well as representatives of the FBI and Durden’s two lawyers.

For the most part, Durden’s statements to investigators were less sweeping and detailed than those made by Perez. A self-described loner who spent less than a year in Rampart’s anti-gang unit, Durden said that if other officers engaged in crimes, they didn’t do it in front of him or confide in him.

“Do I believe that other things were occurring in the seven or eight months that I was there? Yeah, I do,” Durden said, according to the transcript, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. “I didn’t feel like what was happening was just exclusive to Perez and myself.”

The interrogation of Durden centered on crimes and misconduct he committed with Perez. Like his former partner, Durden admitted that they routinely planted evidence and framed gangsters and drug dealers. He also acknowledged that they stole money and drugs from suspects. But whereas Perez was an effusive witness, volunteering information on scores of officers, Durden was far more reticent, and his accounts occasionally shifted.

For example, when he was asked how many guns he and Perez had planted on suspects, Durden initially said that had occurred only about four or five times. When pressed again, he said it might have been seven or eight occasions. Finally, he conceded the number could be as high as 10.

After several days of questioning, one frustrated interrogator challenged Durden’s truthfulness when he was unable to explain why he would run serial numbers of guns through police records before he and Perez planted them on suspects.

“I’m gonna tell you straight out, I’m struggling right now believing you,” the questioner said. “Hot guns are run. You run them. And you don’t know why they’re run. Help me. Help me out. Explain to me how that can possibly be…. You go into a woman’s house. Your partner takes her gun. You call back to the police station and have the gun run. And your partner walks out the door with this woman’s gun. And you think nothing of it? I find that absolutely unbelievable.”

“I never said that I thought nothing of it,” Durden replied.

“Well, what did you think of it?” the interrogator asked.

“I don’t know,” Durden said. “I really don’t know.”

Finally, Durden said the records were checked to see if the guns were stolen or had been used in a crime.

“This isn’t a game of cat and mouse,” the questioner responded. “It’s your job to answer the questions truthfully. Now let’s start answering the questions truthfully.”

Durden told authorities he was a young, inexperienced officer when he joined Rampart CRASH — Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums — in 1996 and was partnered with Perez. Fellow officers and supervisors told Durden he was lucky to be paired up with a such a solid officer, one responsible for many arrests. From the start, Durden said, he looked up to Perez, whom he described as one of the unit’s leaders. He remembered Perez telling him that he was now “in the big leagues” when he first arrived.

He had never done anything illegal before he joined CRASH, Durden said. But soon after Perez became his partner, Durden was committing crimes on an almost weekly basis, he told prosecutors. He said their misconduct started out with them falsifying probable cause to arrest people they knew were guilty and continued until they were planting guns and narcotics on people and stealing money from drug dealers.

“It was just gradual,” he said. “Just kind of twisting the truth, bending it, and, I mean, it just snowballed into something else. Just out of control.”

Authorities asked Durden, who was a top cadet in his police academy class, why he didn’t report Perez when he started committing misconduct.

“I just was happy to be in the unit. And, I mean, it was something that, at the time, I thought was really important to me in my career and I just didn’t say anything,” he said.

At one point, Durden was asked if he knew what was meant by the term “code of silence.”

“Yes,” Durden replied.

“Did you believe in that?”

“I’d have to say yes, to a certain extent,” Durden said.

In many arrests, Durden said, he and Perez may not have seen suspects discard drugs or guns but would “embellish” their observations in reports to say they had.

“How many embellishment cases did you engage in when you were a police officer?” one interrogator asked.

“Oh, boy. That one is tough. Um, I really don’t know,” Durden said.

As for stealing from suspects, Durden said he “kind of rationalized it in my mind as it’s not their money. They didn’t earn it. I’m not taking something from somebody that went to work and actually earned it.”

The questioning of Durden stretched over eight days, and he was often emotional as he described his misconduct; the transcripts reveal his interrogators frequently pausing to allow him to calm himself.

“It’s just hard,” he said at one point, “to sit here and spill your guts and talk about things that you’re not proud of…. Looking back at that period of my life, I mean, it was terrible.”

Most of the questioning focused on events in which Durden participated and in which he allegedly witnessed wrongdoing by others. In two instances, however, he told authorities about alleged misconduct that he did not see but that Perez allegedly told him about. In one case, he said, Officer Humberto Tovar improperly fired his gun, not because he was in danger but merely in order to make it appear that he was backing up his partner, Perez. In the other, Durden said, Perez told him that he and Officer Sammy Martin had beaten up a gang member.

Investigators spent far more time probing the circumstances of the Ovando shooting.

In Perez’s 1999 debriefing with investigators, he said Durden shot the unarmed suspect as he walked into a vacant apartment the two officers were using as an observation post to monitor gang activity on the streets below. Following Durden’s lead, and believing Ovando was armed, Perez said he too opened fire on the suspect.

When the officers realized Ovando was not armed, Perez said, Durden ran down to their police car and retrieved a gun from which he had removed the serial number and laid it on the ground next to Ovando to cover up their mistake.

Authorities later found evidence that Durden had run the serial number of the weapon through an LAPD computer before it allegedly wound up in Ovando’s hands — a key piece of evidence in the case prosecutors were building against Durden before he decided to plead guilty.

In Durden’s debriefings with authorities in 2001, he said Perez had asked him to run the gun through the computer without telling him why, and that it was Perez who planted the weapon, which Perez had carried to the apartment in a black bag that he often carried while on duty.

That discrepancy aside, Durden’s account matched Perez’s in several key areas. Durden, for instance, corroborated Perez’s contention that there was a secret radio code in Rampart CRASH that would bring other anti-gang officers to the scene of a shooting without alerting others monitoring the airwaves that one had occurred and inviting unwanted attention. Durden said he used the code after the shooting that night.

Like Perez, Durden said he and Perez were not separated after the shooting, as LAPD policy requires. Instead, according to both officers, they were driven back to the station together in the same car. After they arrived, they were placed in a room together and left alone for hours before being interviewed by investigators. They used the time to rehearse their story and get it straight, Durden and Perez both told authorities.

Also intriguing to prosecutors was what Durden had to say about the involvement of other officers that night.

Like Perez, Durden told authorities that although no one was aware that he and Perez had planted a gun on Ovando, their supervisor, Sgt. Edward Ortiz, concocted a story to make the circumstances surrounding the shooting appear more palatable to department investigators. That false account was later backed up in written reports by CRASH Officers Michael Montoya and Mario Rios, he said.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Durden said, Ortiz realized that he might be criticized for allowing the officers to work alone in an observation post — so he told Perez and Durden to alter their account.

“OK, here’s the deal,” Durden quoted Ortiz as saying in the hallway of the abandoned apartment building where Ovando lay bleeding on the floor. “When you guys told me that you guys were gonna do the [stakeout], I assigned Montoya and Rios as your chase unit. They were there the whole time. They were with you guys.”

“You got it?” Ortiz asked, according to Durden.

“I told him, ‘Yeah,’ ” Durden said he replied.

Durden said he did not recall whether Montoya and Rios were present when Ortiz came up with the story, but believed they must have compared notes to make sure their logs matched for the night of the shooting and the night before, when they were also supposed to have been working as partners.

At one point in the interview, when Assistant U.S. Atty. Mary Andrues showed him a copy of a daily log Montoya and Rios had prepared regarding the night of the Ovando incident and the night preceding it, Durden apparently broke into tears.

“Mr. Durden, you appear to have an emotional reaction to this particular [report], and the circumstances surrounding it. Why is that? Do you consider this [report] to be part of the cover-up?”

“Yes,” Durden replied.

Montoya and Rios, who were called before a federal grand jury to testify about their roles in the case in 2001, denied through their attorneys any wrongdoing in connection with the Ovando shooting. The officers were found not guilty of misconduct at an LAPD administrative hearing last year, even though members of the LAPD board that heard the case were aware of Durden’s allegations.

Attorney Ira Salzman, who represents Officer Montoya, dismissed Durden’s account as “total lies.” Sgt. Ortiz could not be reached for comment.

In a later interview with federal authorities, Durden alleged that another sergeant fabricated the circumstances of a different shooting to make it appear as though the officers’ tactics were sound during that incident too.

According to the official police account of that shooting, Perez, Durden, two other officers and a sergeant went to a house in South-Central Los Angeles on June 2, 1997, to arrest a suspect wanted in connection with an assault. The officers tried to surround the house to prevent the suspect’s escape. Two officers, Brian Hewitt and Doyle Stepp, climbed on top of a garage roof because there was a dog in the backyard, the police report says.

Suddenly, a man in the yard fired at Stepp. Stepp returned fire and the man fled into the garage, where he was arrested.

Durden said the shooting was justified, but Sgt. Alfonso Guerrero was concerned about the officers’ tactical plan, so he told them to lie about how they were deployed.

Durden said Guerrero told them to say that Hewitt was with Stepp on the garage when in fact he was on the ground.

Guerrero was concerned that they could be criticized by LAPD superiors because partners had split up and were not staying together, which is considered a better tactic, Durden said.

Durden said the officers all agreed to lie.

None of the officers involved in that incident remain on the job. Hewitt was fired for beating a gang member at the police station, Stepp and Guerrero resigned amid the Rampart investigation, and Perez and Durden are in prison.

Stepp, in an interview Wednesday, denied any wrongdoing. Guerrero and Hewitt could not be reached for comment.

Gary Wigodsky, an alternate public defender who has recently seen Durden’s statements, said Durden’s account of that shooting “speaks volumes in corroborating Perez that lying was rampant.”

“It just shows how routine it was,” he said. “None of them seemed to bat an eye about it when they were told to lie. It never crossed their minds to say that was a lie and they shouldn’t do it.”

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