"Ready for dinner"
The meeting that could have prevented the Los Angeles Police Department’s blockbuster Rampart scandal took place in Chief Bernard Parks’ office at the department’s Parker Center headquarters in the second week of September 1998. Officer Rafael Perez, whose tales of police brutality, unjustified shootings and false arrests would later trigger the worst scandal in LAPD history, had been arrested two weeks earlier on charges of stealing cocaine confiscated as evidence. But so far, none of Perez’s chilling story had become public.
On that September day two years ago, Detective Russell Poole, the Robbery-Homicide Division veteran who had sniffed out Perez and personally arrested him, met with LAPD brass to brief them on another investigation. This one involved a disturbing station-house beating that happened to take place at Perez’s station, Rampart Division.
Had Chief Parks listened to Poole that day, the LAPD might have cleaned up the troubles at Rampart before they became a national scandal. Instead, Poole charges, the chief made him suppress the evidence of corruption he had uncovered — a pattern of protecting bad cops that the respected veteran detective says was common practice under Parks, despite his pledge to clean up the department. A full year would pass before the scandal finally erupted in the headlines, when Perez cut a deal for leniency and the media rushed to tell the tale of the Rampart Division’s so-called rogue cops.
At the Parker Center meeting, Poole explained the details of the beating case to the chief and other assembled brass. Officers Brian Hewitt and Daniel Lujan Jr. of the Rampart station had picked up a local man named Ismael Jimenez, who was reputed to be a gang member, and brought him to Rampart headquarters without apparent cause. There Hewitt punched the handcuffed, helpless Jimenez until he vomited blood. Lujan and another officer, Ethan Cohan, knew what happened but apparently helped cover up the beating.
Jimenez’s complaint about the beating triggered an LAPD investigation, which was referred to Detective Poole. Poole’s Robbery-Homicide Division handled all major crimes in L.A., as well as police shootings and other complaints of violence by LAPD officers.
But Poole’s investigation revealed something far bigger than the details of the Jimenez beating. He uncovered an alarming pattern of misbehavior on the part of Rampart cops assigned to the anti-gang CRASH unit (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), who routinely detained, intimidated and sometimes assaulted gang members and gang associates without cause. Poole found that at least four lawsuits were pending against Rampart officers. One beating victim, Gabriel Aguirre, said his arm was broken by Officers Cohan and Perez.
Poole learned from interviews with gang members that Rampart cops frequently rousted them without filing log entries or gang intelligence index cards, a red flag to a seasoned investigator like Poole, indicating officers were probably engaged in activities they’d rather not record. Those who complained were targeted for retaliation, Poole learned: Jimenez himself had been picked up without probable cause as retaliation for the filing of a prior complaint against the police. After the beating, several Rampart cops showed up at the hospital where Jimenez was treated to intimidate him.
There were other disturbing signs of corruption: Gang members told Poole they were constantly being pressured by Rampart cops to provide them with clean — untraceable — guns. In fact, Jimenez claimed Officer Hewitt beat him because he wouldn’t find him a gun. Poole wasn’t sure what to make of those claims until he served a search warrant at Officer Perez’s home, where he found a cardboard box marked “CRASH, Secret, Confidential.” Inside were half a dozen replica toy and pellet guns, all of which looked very real. They turned out to be “laydown” guns — guns the CRASH officers used to plant on suspects, to justify violence against them.
And there were increasingly obvious connections between a growing number of bad cops: Perez’s friend and former partner, David Mack, had been arrested less than a year earlier for the armed robbery of a bank. Mack, who later admitted to being a member of Los Angeles’ notorious Bloods street gang, was in turn connected with Kevin Gaines, another cop with troubling gang ties whom Poole had investigated. Mack was also suspected of having been involved in the unsolved 1997 murder of gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, which Poole also investigated.
At the Parker Center meeting, which included Poole’s supervisor, Lt. Emmanuel Hernandez, a commander and two deputy chiefs, Poole presented Chief Parks and his top brass with a timeline of events demonstrating a pattern of brutality and misconduct at Rampart. He didn’t mince any words: “Chief, it’s more than just this case. It goes a lot deeper than that. You’ve got a group of vigilante cops at Rampart Division.”
Everybody in the room fell silent, Poole vividly recalls. Also present were his partner, Detective Beatriz Cid, and another member of the special task force that was formed to investigate the Perez case, Detective Brian Tyndall. Poole pressed on, telling Parks that to present a solid case to the district attorney’s office in the Jimenez beating, he needed to reinvestigate some other complaints that had been filed against Rampart officers, including one that charged Perez with assault with a deadly weapon. Some of these complaints, which involved some of the same officers, had languished or not been properly investigated.
But according to Poole, Parks cut him off. “No!” the chief barked. “Limit your investigation to the Jimenez case. Don’t add any of that.”
Shocked and disturbed, Poole went to work on his report.
But when he tried to limit his focus to the Jimenez case, he found he couldn’t. The beating was a retaliatory act, and the D.A. needed to know that. In fact, the D.A. needed to know everything Poole had uncovered. Poole knew that keeping information out of a criminal report could constitute a crime, obstruction of justice.
Poole ended up producing a 40-page report on the Jimenez matter, plus an eight-page timeline of complaints against Rampart cops. He felt certain his work would provide the district attorney’s office with an airtight case to prosecute officers Hewitt, Cohan and Lujan and open up another case against Perez — as well as trigger a much-needed probe of the Rampart Division.
But Poole’s report never saw the light of day. Lt. Hernandez chided Poole for ignoring Parks’ instructions. “He said, ‘We can’t hand this in. The chief doesn’t want this,’” Poole recalls. Hernandez ordered Poole to give him the report, and the computer disk it was stored on. (Poole provided a copy to Salon.) His 48-page work was then replaced with a two-page report written by Lt. Hernandez and Detective III Supervisor Ron Ito, which was sent to the D.A.
Poole refused to put his name on it. “I told them, ‘I’m not going to be involved in that.’ I knew it was wrong, because I had dealt with the D.A.’s office many times on murder cases. You give the D.A. everything — the good, the bad and the ugly. If I were caught doing that, I’d go to prison for obstruction of justice.”
Not surprisingly, given the dearth of evidence in the two-page report, the district attorney’s office declined to press criminal charges against officers Hewitt, Lujan and Cohan. Poole then decided to go over his lieutenant’s head, complaining to higher-ups, who heard his tale but did nothing. The veteran detective realized the decision had already been made at the top, by Parks himself, a notorious micromanager — there was no bucking it.
“It was always, ‘No, they don’t want to go there,’ and ‘We just want to concentrate on this,’” says Poole. “Fact was, they did not want the stigma of another major scandal, which was in the brewing.”
Poole began to feel that his clashes with his superiors were hurting his career. He failed to receive a long-promised promotion to detective level II, despite repeated glowing reviews from supervisors. He left the investigative task force and went back to South Bureau Homicide, where he had spent eight years as a detective. There, he watched quietly as Perez’s first trial was bungled and ended in a mistrial in December 1998, and as the D.A.’s office twice rejected filing criminal charges in the Jimenez beating because of a lack of evidence.
Then Perez turned state’s evidence before his second trial in September 1999, and Poole watched as the LAPD’s pattern of protecting bad cops became a national embarrassment.
The following month, Poole resigned from the department he had served with distinction for 19 years. “The issues and circumstances have to do with how some investigations I was involved in were handled,” he wrote in his resignation letter, dated Oct. 25, 1999. “My concerns were addressed to my superiors, but were swept under the rug.”
“I was really hurt, betrayed, angry,” recalls Poole. “I’d had a year of sleepless nights over this. I couldn’t live with the fact that a department I loved for so many years asked me to keep information away from the D.A.’s office. I thought, I’m not going to be put in a position where I have to lie in a court of law. That’s why I’m gone — for the sake of my kids, my family, my own well-being.”
Before he left, Poole met with the LAPD’s internal affairs office and told it his story. After he left, he went to the D.A.’s office and told it as well. He also supplied prosecutors with his documents.
Now, a year after his resignation, Poole is going public with his charges. He has provided Salon with extensive documentation of his claim that Chief Parks and other top LAPD officials covered up the Rampart scandal and often refused to investigate corrupt police officers.
As Salon went to press, Poole sued Parks, the LAPD and the city of Los Angeles for, among other things, violating his First Amendment rights to publicly report the criminal activity he witnessed, as well as violating state labor statutes protecting whistle-blowers.
Requests for interviews with Chief Parks and other top LAPD brass as well as Parks’ co-workers were denied. “Unfortunately, they will be unable to comment due to ongoing investigations,” said a department spokesperson. Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s office, which has for many months been preparing a conspiracy case against Rampart CRASH cops, also refused to comment on Poole’s charges or its pending case. But a number of confidential sources confirmed that the D.A. has Poole’s information.
“Russ Poole’s day will come,” says one knowledgeable source in the Los Angeles legal community, who asked not to be identified. He characterized Poole’s allegations as “a mine in the water — and the chief knows it.”
“If [Poole's] information is true, serious charges could result, including indictments for obstruction of justice,” says a Los Angeles County official who also asked for anonymity. “That’s about as serious as anything that could happen.”
Poole’s charges are politically explosive because the LAPD and the district attorney’s office have been feuding over who’s to blame for the Rampart scandal, with each side claiming the other didn’t take the warning signs of corruption seriously enough.
In fact, after the Rampart story broke, Chief Parks criticized District Attorney Garcetti for not filing charges against Officer Hewitt for his role in the Jimenez beating. “They [the LAPD] were happy the D.A. rejected that case until Perez spilled his guts,” says an incredulous Poole. “Now they’re trying to blame Garcetti for not filing a case. Well, I know for a fact the D.A. didn’t have all the information. That’s why they didn’t file charges.”
Now the D.A.’s office is seeking additional interviews with Poole about his allegations, says his attorney, Leo Terrell. But for now, Terrell has put them off. After months of waiting for law enforcement officials to act, Poole’s busy talking to his legal team and the media. “Now they’re threatening him with a subpoena,” Terrell chuckles.
It’s not the way he imagined it, but Russell Poole is relieved his story is finally being told.
The Rampart Division polices one of the most densely populated urban areas in the West, home to tens of thousands of Hispanic immigrants and at least 30 gangs. Officer Rafael Perez’s confession to the D.A., which ran more than 3,200 pages, alleged that Rampart gang unit CRASH officers were as out of control as the gangs they policed.
According to Perez, he and his colleagues engaged in evidence planting, false arrests, witness intimidation, beatings, theft, drug dealing and perjury. Rampart cops dropped gang members out of windows and used them as human battering rams. They set up bachelor pad apartments where they had sex parties with hookers, drug dealers and informants. Perhaps the most chilling admission by Perez was that he and his partner shot an unarmed gang member, paralyzing him for life, and then framed him for assault. So far, 30 officers have been suspended or fired in the ongoing Rampart probe and 40 more are under investigation.
The D.A.’s office, which is preparing criminal indictments, is also reviewing hundreds of cases possibly tainted by Rampart officers’ false testimony. So far, more than 100 cases have been overturned and more are likely to follow. City officials are bracing for a wave of lawsuits that some say could bankrupt the city. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has forced the LAPD into a consent decree that cedes departmental oversight to the federal government.
And the shocking revelations keep coming. Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported that one of Perez’s ex-girlfriends claims she saw Perez and David Mack murder two people at the Rampart cops’ crash pad. She also claims she witnessed “a major cocaine transaction” between the two cops. Investigators from a joint FBI/LAPD corruption task force told the Times “there is some corroboration.” Perez’s credibility, which has already been seriously undermined by other witnesses, could be totally destroyed if these allegations prove to be true.
Throughout the fall of 1999, Detective Poole watched as daily headlines verified what he had told Chief Parks a year earlier. Worse yet, he watched as Parks took credit for “exposing” the Rampart mess — a scandal that in fact might never have been revealed if Perez had simply kept his mouth shut and done his time. Poole also decided he couldn’t remain silent. If he did, wouldn’t he be part of the coverup?
Poole has a box of documents to back up his story, but the credibility of his allegations against Parks and the LAPD’s brass comes down to his reputation. Testimony from his colleagues and numerous citations in his file point to a stellar police career. One of the Robbery/Homicide Division’s elite, Poole was regarded by his peers as one of the LAPD’s best detectives.
The son of a 27-year L.A. County sheriff, Poole never wanted to do anything but be a cop. He joined the LAPD in 1981 and became a detective trainee three years later. Before being picked for RHD in 1996, he spent nine and a half years as a homicide investigator at South Bureau and Wilshire Division. He served as primary investigator on 135 murder cases (taking a case all the way through trial), and assisted on 500 more.
Poole took on some of L.A.’s highest profile homicides, including the murder of Notorious B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace, and Bill Cosby’s son Ennis. He was evidence coordinator for the 1997 police firefight with the heavily armed robbers of the North Hollywood Bank of America, the largest crime scene in the history of the LAPD, an entire square mile. One LAPD evaluation report described Poole as “truly a crime scene expert” and cited his “motivation, dedication, investigative capabilities and crime scene expertise” in the solving of “several complicated murders” that “would have surely remained unsolved without Detective Poole’s efforts.”
The evaluations in his file are filled with glowing praise: “courteous,” “professional,” “a definite asset to the department,” “sincerely cares,” “sympathetic and extraordinary in dealing with victims,” “excellent interviewer and interrogator,” “hard working,” “loyal, productive, thorough and reliable,” “first rate,” “diligent,” “goes that extra mile,” “exemplary dedication to duty,” “compassionate.” One squad leader concluded: “You can only hope that everyone assigned to your squad will be of the caliber and character of Officer Poole.”
Lt. Sergio Robleto, now retired, was Poole’s supervisor at South Bureau Homicide. Sixty-five detectives at his division handled as many as 429 homicides in one year — three times the workload of other divisions. Robleto describes Poole as “honest, hardworking, thorough, caring, one of the best.” He laughs at the notion that Poole might be mistaken in his recollection of his discussions with Chief Parks and other LAPD officials about the Rampart case. “Everything he does he writes down,” says Robleto. “You’re not going to catch him lying!”
Robleto says he reviewed hundreds of murder investigations at South Bureau Homicide, dozens of which were handled by Poole. “Sometimes you get a bad feeling that somebody might be stretching it or something like that. Not with Russ,” says Poole’s former supervisor. “He never did that. I never found anything wrong with any of his investigations.”
“The department lost one of their best when Russell Poole resigned,” concludes Robleto.
Allan Walsh, a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney who worked with Poole on a number of murder cases, is even more effusive: “Russell Poole is one of the most talented and skilled investigators, most honest and forthright detectives I have ever known. During my career, I had contact with every single big-time LAPD homicide detective. He was the best — from dealing with victims to handling witnesses to following up leads. There isn’t anybody whose honesty, character and principles I would vouch for more than Russell Poole.”
Deputy D.A. George Castello, who also worked on murder cases with Poole, concurs. “He was one of the best detectives I’ve come across. He got to the bottom of an investigation, followed through and put a solid case together. He’s a guy you could really count on — a solid, level-headed detective who does not exaggerate, who is extremely credible.”
Since leaving the LAPD, Poole has lost the friendship and support of most of his fellow cops, who are unaware of the circumstances behind his unexpected resignation. Now 44, married with three kids and happily engaged in a new career, he initially felt he had put everything behind him by resigning from the department. But as the Rampart scandal continues to unfold, he believes he has one final duty to perform for his department: He has to get his story on the record.
Poole is the only Rampart investigator to go public with his account of how the LAPD handled the probe. Throughout his tour with the Rampart task force, he charges, his superiors refused to investigate dirty cops, even when obvious clues pointed to them. What happened when he tried to investigate cops at Rampart Division, Poole says, was typical of the way the LAPD handles complaints against cops.
Critics have long decried how Chief Parks manipulates his department’s disciplinary process to keep its dirty laundry hidden. Parks once ran the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Division, so he knows the drill well. IAD investigators have a pattern of taking “compelled statements” from cops suspected of corruption, in which they are forced to answer IAD questions or lose their jobs. Cops can be fired for what they reveal, but they can’t be prosecuted, because their statements to the IAD cannot be used in criminal proceedings.
Parks has fired more than 100 officers since he became chief, most for offenses unrelated to Rampart. Sources say many of these cops were guilty of crimes or had criminal associations the public will never know about because they were never brought to trial. In effect, the process allows the chief to sweep his dirt out the back door without anybody knowing about it.
“The D.A. does not file charges against officers because the department doesn’t give them all the information,” Poole says. “Internal Affairs files enough to get a person fired, but then the D.A. doesn’t have enough to go after him because they used compelled statements. And the department knows that.”
Because he immediately realized the Jimenez beating was a criminal case — “assault under the color of authority” — Poole says, “I didn’t use compelled statements. I read people their rights. Their attorneys were shocked: ‘Aren’t you going to compel my client to answer?’ they’d ask. ‘No.’ I interviewed and taped people and put together a solid criminal case, with everything documented. When I turned in the report it was too revealing.”
Poole also prepared photos, charts and computerized diagrams for his Rampart report. “When you go the D.A., you have to paint a picture for them,” he says. “That’s exactly what I did. And I didn’t write half of what I should have in my report because I was ordered not to. The D.A. looked at the two-page report they gave him and he couldn’t figure out what happened. They can’t sift through dozens of interviews and put everything into context. That two-page report didn’t help them at all.”
Officers Hewitt, Lujan and Cohan, the Rampart cops accused in the Jimenez beating, were all brought before a board of rights, a departmental disciplinary hearing. After the board acquitted Lujan, the department called Poole to testify at the hearings for Hewitt and Cohan. “It was evident the board captains did not have all the information,” Poole recalls. Following Poole’s testimony, Hewitt and Cohan were dismissed from the force. Poole was told a deal had been made not to pursue criminal charges. “Losing their jobs is punishment enough,” a commander told him.
To this day, Poole seethes at the memory of his suppressed report and the full-scale Rampart investigation it should have inspired: “I demonstrated a pattern of ongoing activity that needed to be investigated in its totality rather than individual incidents. And the chief knew from experience that if Perez was stealing and dealing cocaine, we had to be naive to think no other officers were involved.
“But it started snowballing and the chief didn’t want anything to do with a big conspiracy at Rampart Division — the reason being that all the managers would get burned, not just the police officers. There was a major supervision problem, starting with the sergeants up to the lieutenants, captains, commanders, deputy chiefs and the chief for not bringing this forward.
“These young, unsupervised officers at Rampart were embarrassing the entire department,” he continues. “We needed to get rid of everyone involved. There was a conspiracy going on. If you didn’t get with the program at Rampart, you were crucified. They’d dig into your personal life and rumors would get spread around that you were a lying scum. That’s why there was a code of silence. The good officers saw what was going on and transferred out. That’s why they had so many transfers at Rampart. I saw that something was wrong and I brought it forward. But then my own chief suppressed it.”
The scandal only came to light when Perez decided to cop a plea for leniency. (He is serving a prison term of only five years for his rogue police career.) Yet by allowing Perez to trade information for immunity, the LAPD and D.A.’s office gave the dirty cop power over how the investigation proceeded.
“Now, Perez is calling the shots,” Poole complains. “The worst thing the D.A. could have done was to give immunity to Perez. But the D.A.’s office was duped. Had the D.A.’s office had all this information from the beginning, they would never have given that deal to Perez. They could have gotten him on 25-to-life. Now Perez and his attorneys are running the show.”
The Rampart case was not the first time Poole had been prevented by his department from investigating bad cops. The trail to Rampart began a year before Perez was arrested, when Poole and his partner at Robbery/Homicide, Fred Miller, were assigned to investigate the March 1997 Studio City shooting of LAPD officer Kevin Gaines. Gaines was killed in a “road rage” dispute after he brandished a gun at another motorist.
That motorist happened to be an undercover cop, Detective Frank Lyga, who pulled out his own gun in self-protection and shot Gaines through the heart. While investigating the shooting, Poole learned that Gaines had a history of bullying and intimidating motorists and attacking cops. At the time of his death, he was already being investigated by Internal Affairs for calling in a phony crime report and staging a confrontation with the responding officers. Had he not been killed, according to Internal Affairs documents, he would have been fired from the department. (The license plate on Gaines’ car read “ITSOKIA,” which was widely believed to be a taunt to Internal Affairs.)
Poole also learned that Gaines had ties to L.A.’s gang scene. He had been living with Sharitha Knight, rap star Snoop Dogg’s manager and the ex-wife of imprisoned Death Row Records mogul Marion “Suge” Knight. He was living large in the L.A. and Las Vegas nightclub fast lanes, sporting expensive clothes, cars and girlfriends. Poole turned up a credit card receipt showing that Officer Gaines had recently dropped nearly a grand for lunch at Monty’s Steakhouse in Westwood, a Death Row hangout.
An informant told Poole that Gaines and other cops were moving money and drugs for Suge Knight. Gaines told many of his friends he was being followed by the FBI. A Death Row insider informed Poole and his partner that Gaines and another cop, David Mack, were “confidants” of Knight’s who were frequently seen at Death Row functions. Informants reported that both Mack and Gaines were Blood gang members who worked for Knight, who was also a Blood.
Despite what he uncovered, Poole’s LAPD superiors prevented him from investigating Gaines any further. “He was dead, and they didn’t want to know anything more about him,” says Poole. “Here he is at some gangster hangout buying lunch for $952. Don’t you think the department should want to find out a little more? I wanted to do a financial investigation on Gaines. You know what the department said? ‘No, he’s dead. This case is closed.’”
Chief Parks also kept evidence about Gaines from public view by agreeing to a settlement with attorney Johnnie Cochran, who filed a $25 million wrongful death suit against the city on behalf of Gaines’ family. Despite strong evidence that Lyga was acting in self-defense, the Cochran suit alleged that Lyga was “an aggressive and dangerous police officer” and implied there was a racial motivation to the shooting. Officer Lyga is white, while Gaines was black. Lyga urgently wanted to fight the suit, but city attorney James Hahn structured a deal so that the three plaintiffs — Gaines’ wife and two daughters — each received compensation below the $100,000 monetary threshold that required City Council approval.
City Council member Laura Chick called this backroom deal “deplorable and unacceptable.” The judge called it “political.” Frank Lyga, rather than having his name cleared, was hung out to dry, as the public was led to believe the city was covering for him. In fact, the LAPD and City Hall were burying embarrassing information about Officer Kevin Gaines. (Lyga remains on the job, having been cleared of any wrongdoing at two departmental board hearings.)
Poole’s superiors also didn’t want him to investigate Officer David Mack, or Mack’s best friend and former partner, Perez. Mack was arrested in December 1997 for the armed robbery of $722,000 from a Bank of America on Jefferson Boulevard. Two masked accomplices of Mack’s remain at large and the money remains unaccounted for. Mack was later convicted and sentenced to 14 years. Perez, another cop who was living way too large, celebrated with Mack at a Vegas hotel after the heist. (In testimony to the D.A.’s office, Perez acknowledged partying with Mack in Vegas after the robbery, but says he didn’t know about his friend’s crime.)
Perez finally got caught in the first place as a result of connections made by Russell Poole. A special task force, including Poole, had been formed to investigate Perez because IAD suspected him of stealing 6 pounds of cocaine evidence that disappeared in March 1998 from a police storage room.
While conducting a close audit of narco-evidence, the task force found something interesting. On Feb. 6, 1998, an additional 2 pounds of cocaine evidence, submitted by narcotics detective Lyga, had been stolen from the downtown Evidence Control Unit. This drug theft occurred one month after Lyga was cleared in his final board hearing on the Gaines shooting. Somebody ordered up Lyga’s evidence, using the specific division report number, and had it delivered to Rampart station. When task force detectives talked to the property manager, she identified the caller as Perez — who had signed out the dope at Rampart under yet another name.
Poole and his fellow investigators concluded that Perez had targeted Lyga’s cocaine haul as an act of retaliation for killing Gaines. As Poole would learn, retaliation was the Rampart Way. Over the next six months, task force investigators tailed Perez and concluded that he was dealing drugs through a girlfriend. Poole finally slapped the cuffs on Perez in August 1998 and charged him with stealing a total of 8 pounds of cocaine and some police radios.
A year later, when Perez made his deal with the D.A.’s office, he denied knowing anything about the crimes of his friend Mack. He also denied knowing Lyga. “I don’t even know who Lyga is,” he told his interrogators.
“He’s lying,” says Lyga, who worked with both Perez and Mack a few years before the Rampart scandal broke. For a while, Lyga supervised a narcotics operation that Perez worked on. “There’s no way he doesn’t remember me,” says Lyga.
One of the biggest crimes Poole says he was prevented from adequately investigating, for fear the trail would lead to a cop, was the murder of Notorious B.I.G. While investigating the Gaines shooting, Poole received a tip that the rogue cop might be involved in the killing of the rap star, who was shot one week before Gaines himself was shot dead. Poole conferred with detectives at the LAPD’s Wilshire Division station and before long he was given the Notorious B.I.G. case as well. He and his partner eventually pursued over 250 leads in the case, some of which involved Mack.
Once again, they were kept from following those leads because they implicated a cop. “They told me, ‘We’re not going to get involved in that.’ Their attitude was, ‘Mack had already gone down for bank robbery. Let’s not get involved in more controversy.’”
After he resigned, Poole attempted to go public with his story of the suppressed report, and the LAPD’s failure to investigate cops, by going to the L.A. Times. But selective reporting by the Times landed him in the middle of a bizarre media firestorm.
Reporters Matt Lait and Scott Glover chose to write only about the Biggie killing, revealing some but not all of the 20 clues that Poole had uncovered linking Mack and his friend, Amir Muhammed (also known as Harry Billups), to the crime. Lait and Glover ran a story saying the LAPD was looking for Muhammed/Billups as a suspect in the Biggie killing. But months later, another L.A. Times reporter, Chuck Philips, wrote that the LAPD was in fact not looking for Muhammed. (Philips located Muhammed, who said he was a mortgage broker who had nothing to do with the crime). Brill’s Content online jumped on the story of the dueling Times stories, and in the ensuing imbroglio, Poole was identified as Lait and Glover’s source — and dismissed in one local weekly as a “disgruntled” former cop.
But Poole’s entire story had not been told. In fact, he’d explained to Lait and Glover that the LAPD wasn’t looking for Muhammed/Billups — not because he’d been cleared, but because of his ties to a cop, David Mack. Muhammed and Mack were neither exonerated nor proved to be involved in the killing, Poole says, because the LAPD cut its investigation of them short. And Lait and Glover’s partial telling of his tale, Poole says, obscured the truth. “They’ll say I’m disgruntled,” says Poole. “Well, anyone who was placed in my position would be disgruntled. I left because the department literally wanted me to lie and keep things from the D.A.’s office.”
Poole says he expects to be attacked by the LAPD for going public with his charges. He predicts that the department will try to undermine his credibility and even smear his reputation. He believes that Chief Parks has already circled the wagons. The police officials who attended his September 1998 meeting with Chief Parks will be muzzled, says the former detective. (They all refused to comment for this story.) Asked who could confirm his recounting of the meeting, Poole responds, “Beatriz Cid, my partner, would be your best chance. I can’t believe she would lie about it. But she also won’t be able to comment. Nobody will. Not unless the D.A. first grants them immunity.”
Detective Cid is now working at the LAPD’s Hollenbeck Station. Approached there at the front desk and asked about Russell Poole’s allegations, Cid became frightened and defensive, waving the reporter away. “It’s not for me to say. I can’t say anything. I can’t comment about anything,” she said, before walking away.
Law enforcement experts outside the LAPD who were asked to review a copy of Poole’s report told Salon it seemed solid and credible. Scott Landsman, a nationally renowned police expert and recently retired LAPD training officer, concluded that it is “thorough and professionally done. Nothing looks manufactured or trumped up. He did everything by the book and the evidence pops up by itself. That’s how a good investigation is done.”
Landsman also said that if Poole’s superiors thought the report was not up to department standards, the proper procedure would have been to send it back to him to do it over. “By no means should it have been withheld from the D.A.,” says Landsman. Other LAPD sources concurred.
According to Joseph McNamara, a retired police chief of San Jose and Kansas City who has written extensively about the LAPD, the department’s handling of Officer Perez is a textbook case of damage control getting priority over the truth. “They should have run a sting operation after they got him,” says McNamara. “They could have spread the net. Instead, they nailed one guy and that’s the end of it. Time and time again they do that and let some of the worst bastards get away. Then, when the guy rats out everybody else, he makes a deal and gets off easy. That’s the terrible ethical immorality of what they do over and over.” According to Poole, they did it over and over: with Kevin Gaines, David Mack, Rafael Perez.
A research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, McNamara is author of the forthcoming book “Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America’s War on Drugs.” He testified before the L.A. City Council after the Rodney King riots, calling for then Chief Daryl Gates to resign and sat on the screening board that helped select Gates’ successor, Willie Williams.
McNamara says the LAPD suffers from an institutional, militaristic attitude about control — of information as well as of the streets. “It’s a very macho organization and it always has been,” says McNamara. “It isn’t something that was formed by Parks.” Despite reform efforts, he says, the LAPD culture hasn’t changed. “Both Williams and Parks missed the boat. They had a mandate to do that. You need to constantly fight against the tendency of the police to become a secret, closed organization.”
McNamara says the problem is not unique to the LAPD. “I’ve discovered ‘Rampart’ characteristics in almost every major police department in the country,” he says. “There’s no way that can exist without a strong code of silence. The mayor and police chief put their spin on the scandal for damage control, describing it as a few rotten apples, when in fact it’s endemic. The chief reason is the lack of political accountability ”
According to retired LAPD Deputy Chief Steve Downing, “The corruption of Rampart would have been uncovered and brought to an end at least a year earlier if the natural leads in the cases of Gaines, Mack and Perez had been followed. Firing 100 cops is no badge of courage,” says Downing, referring to the 100 officers Chief Parks has dismissed during his tenure. “Have those cops been further investigated? Where did all these crooked cops come from? That’s the question nobody will address.”
However bad things are at the LAPD, however, McNamara believes the city is making matters worse by entering into a consent decree with the Justice Department. “The federal government doesn’t know how to run anything, especially police departments,” says McNamara. “The record of federal law enforcement agencies is even worse. This tendency to give all power to the feds makes things worse and you spend more money. The tradition of local policing is really a sacred one for a free society, but we seem willing to trade it away. The FBI is not accountable like a local force. Willie Williams got fired and L.A.’s new mayor will probably fire Bernard Parks. On a local level, at least there is some degree of control and accountability. But who controls the Justice Department? No one.”
It’s hard to believe any entity would handle the scandal worse than Parks and the LAPD did. “Rampart was staring [the LAPD] right in the face for years,” Poole says. “They knew the seriousness of what was going on but they just let it go. Their excuse was that these [gang members] were terrorists running the streets. But it turned out the cops were worse. They were running their own little enterprise and taking the law into their own hands. It comes down to a lack of leadership. The supervisors had no courage. They all knew this stuff was happening, but nobody had the courage to say, ‘Wait a minute!’
“From Day 1, this investigation was always about containment, not about exposing the truth,” Poole charges. “Because they suppressed my report and purged documents from the D.A.’s package, I believe they are guilty of obstruction of justice. Plain and simple. All the way up to the chief of police. Had I or any other officer tried to do what the chief and my superiors ordered me to do, they would be in jail right now for obstruction of justice.”
Jan Golab is an award-winning freelance journalist who has been writing about the LAPD for Los Angeles and other magazines since 1982. He is the author of "The Dark Side of the Force: A True Story of Corruption and Murder in the LAPD." He is working on a book on the LAPD Rampart scandal.More Jan Golab.