Rampart Case Far From Closed

By MATT LAIT and SCOTT GLOVER, LA Times Staff Writers

July 9, 2000      The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is preparing to charge a fourth LAPD officer with criminal misconduct this week in connection with the city’s ongoing police corruption scandal, law enforcement sources said Saturday.
Prosecutors also are planning to file additional criminal counts against two other officers who already have been charged with corruption-related crimes arising out of the investigation into the LAPD’s Rampart Division, sources said.
The pending charges do more than add one officer to the growing roll of those who face criminal trials in the scandal. They also demonstrate that the district attorney’s office, though quiet in recent weeks, in fact is continuing to expand its effort as it sorts through a mountain of allegations that LAPD officers planted evidence, falsely arrested people and then committed perjury to win convictions. Sources say still more officers are expected to be criminally charged before the summer is over.
What’s more, the officer who is expected to be charged this week, Michael Buchanan, has a special place in the litany of accusations involving the scandal.
Buchanan, 30, is expected to face perjury and conspiracy charges stemming from a pair of 1996 arrests, sources close to the investigation said. Buchanan would be the fourth current or former Rampart officer to face trial since ex-officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez began cooperating with authorities in September. Attorney James Trott, who represents Buchanan, said in an interview Saturday that his client denies any wrongdoing.
What sets Buchanan apart is that LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks has been especially vocal in his desire to see the district attorney press charges against the officer. Parks has argued that the best way to break the case open in new directions is to prosecute officers and use the prospect of prison time to leverage their cooperation in pursuing others. The chief has publicly singled out Buchanan as an important part of that strategy.
Meanwhile, as the growing number of charges and accused officers suggests, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and his team of prosecutors continue to pursue an overarching conspiracy case against numerous officers who worked in Rampart’s anti-gang CRASH unit.
Tensions have run high for months between the LAPD and the district attorney’s office over how to proceed with the criminal investigation and who should be charged.
To date, prosecutors have charged two sergeants and one officer with crimes for their roles in the arrest of an 18th Street gang member, who allegedly was framed on a weapons charge in April 1996. Sgts. Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy and Officer Paul Harper have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for a preliminary hearing July 18. Lawyers for Liddy and Ortiz, who are expected to face new charges this week, could not be reached for comment Saturday. Both attorneys, however, have previously stated that their clients deny any wrongdoing in their actions as police officers.
Liddy and Ortiz, according to prosecutors, figure in one of the arrests in which Buchanan is accused of framing two innocent men.
In that case, Buchanan and then-Officer Liddy claimed in a July 19, 1996, arrest report that two gang members, Raul Munoz and Cesar Natividad, attempted to elude an arrest by fleeing in Munoz’s pickup truck. The officers said Munoz drove directly at Buchanan and intentionally hit him, knocking him onto the hood of the truck and into the windshield. Buchanan then rolled off the truck onto the ground, court documents state.
Then, as the vehicle approached Liddy, Natividad–who was in the passenger’s seat–opened the passenger door, striking Liddy and knocking him to the ground, court documents say. Munoz then stalled the truck and he and Natividad were arrested on charges of assaulting the officers. Ortiz was responsible for supervising the officers’ actions on that arrest and approved their report, sources said.
The officers’ version of events, which Buchanan later testified to in court, is flatly contradicted by Perez–the man at the center of the LAPD corruption scandal who has been cooperating with authorities in exchange for a lighter sentence on his cocaine theft convictions.
“None of that actually occurred,” Perez told investigators during a Nov. 17, 1999, interview, a transcript of which was obtained by The Times. “That’s what we decided to come up with after they were all taken into custody, in order to arrest them.”
Perez told investigators that he witnessed the incident and said the truck never struck Buchanan or Liddy as it traveled down the alley. Perez’s account, as well as the accounts of Liddy and Buchanan, also are described in court documents submitted by prosecutors in February when they successfully asked a judge to overturn the convictions of Munoz and Natividad.
Perez told investigators that the officers were standing in an alley when the driver of the truck drove past them, forcing Buchanan to move out of the way. When he did, he fell, scraping his leg, Perez said.
After the truck passed them, the driver lost control of the vehicle and hit a tree. Perez said the officers concocted the false account to arrest Munoz and Natividad for assault.
Perez said Ortiz was at the scene and “directed” Buchanan to break the truck’s windshield to fabricate evidence that the truck struck him. Buchanan tore his trousers to add to the appearance that he had been hit by the truck, Perez said.
Perez also scoffed at the account in the police report that Liddy had chased down one of the suspects.
“Officer Liddy is a very heavyset officer,” said Perez, who “couldn’t run a half a block to save his life.”
In addition to the charges arising out of that incident, Buchanan is expected to be charged in connection with another case in which prosecutors alleged that Nabil Hasan was framed on a gun possession charge on Sept. 18, 1996.
According to a civil suit filed by Hasan, he and some friends were driving eastbound on Burns Avenue about 6 p.m. that day when an unmarked blue police car traveling in the opposite direction abruptly swerved in front of Hasan’s car, cutting him off.
Perez and his then-partner, Nino Durden, got out of the car and approached Hasan, the lawsuit claims. Perez told Hasan to leave the keys in the ignition, and then instructed Hasan and his passengers to get out of the car and line up against a nearby wall.
Without Hasan’s consent, the lawsuit states, Perez began searching his 1963 Cadillac convertible. He used the keys to open the trunk, where he found a registered, unloaded handgun.
Hasan said he acknowledged that the gun belonged to him. Perez asked him where the registration was, and he told Perez it was in the same bag as the gun.
At that point, Hasan’s suit claims, Perez told the passengers to leave. Perez then placed Hasan under arrest, later writing in his report that the gun was actually loaded. According to the lawsuit, Perez and Buchanan later testified falsely about the circumstances of the incident, indicating that Hasan had consented to the search and that the gun had already been loaded when Perez found it.
During a debriefing with authorities last October, Perez had difficulty remembering some details of the arrest. Initially, he could not recall whether the gun had been loaded when he found it. Eventually, he concluded that it had not been, as Hasan claimed.
But Perez was insistent that Buchanan, who he contends was at the scene, did not see him find the weapon.
“That’s a lie,” Perez said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Rosenthal asked Perez why Buchanan would have lied about witnessing the recovery of the gun.
“If I remember correctly, the [prosecutor] . . . wanted somebody else to be able to testify that, you know, they saw me recovering the gun instead of it just being a one-on-one,” Perez said. “He wanted to know if there was somebody else . . . and Buchanan said, ‘Yeah, sure. I’ll testify.’ ”
During a second interrogation, however, investigators confronted Perez with the fact that Buchanan’s work schedule showed that he was on vacation that day. Perez maintained that he recalled the officer’s being there.
According to Hasan’s lawsuit, despite the officers’ testimony, his first trial resulted in a hung jury. He was acquitted in a second trial.
Buchanan is also under investigation in the March 21, 1998, drug arrest of Walter Rivas. According to court files, Buchanan testified that he observed Rivas and another man selling drugs in the 500 block of South Rampart Street.
But Perez told corruption task force investigators in October that he suspected Buchanan had planted drugs on Rivas and then falsely testified against him.
Perez told detectives he based his suspicion on a conversation he overheard after Buchanan received a phone call from a deputy district attorney asking for a second officer to testify in the case.
According to Perez, Buchanan had already told the prosecutor that another officer who had worked the case with him would be available to testify.
But when Buchanan approached that officer about going to court, he refused, Perez said.
“I remember . . . a lengthy discussion, more like an argument, with him and his partner,” Perez said in the interview with investigators.
“[His partner] was upset about how things happened in that case,” Perez said. “[He] is one of those guys who knew about things that were going on, but didn’t participate in any of those things. And I remember [Buchanan’s partner] saying, ‘You know, you guys do all your–you know, your shady stuff. I’m not with that. You know, you guys handle it. I’m not going down there to testify on this.’ ”
Detectives from the LAPD’s corruption task force then interviewed Rivas in prison, and he confirmed Perez’s suspicions. He told investigators that Buchanan initially asked him about a man who had apparently dropped some drugs on the ground near where Rivas and a friend were standing.
Rivas said that when he told Buchanan he didn’t know anything about the drugs or the man he was referring to, Buchanan decided to book him for the drugs instead. He said the officer then taunted him about his chances in front of jury if he chose to dispute the charge.
“Who do you think they are going to believe? Are they going to believe you or me?” he quoted the officer as saying.
Rivas’ conviction, now tainted by the alleged police misconduct, was overturned in February.

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