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Officials in S.D. Left on Sidelines in Camarena Case Announcement

January 07, 1988|JANE FRITSCH | Times Staff Writer

U.S. Atty. Peter Nunez was understandably pleased to hear that nine men have been indicted in the torture-slaying of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena.

He was less pleased, however, by the way he received the news of the indictments, which are the culmination of an important Justice Department investigation.

"If it hadn't been for the press, I don't think I would have known about the indictments," Nunez said Wednesday.

The announcement came at a crowded Los Angeles news conference with Robert Bonner, U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, and John C. Lawn, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Nunez, the chief federal prosecutor for the southern district of California, was not invited.

The scene at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles underscored an apparent bureaucratic victory for Bonner, whose office quietly took over the case some months ago, even though federal prosecutors here assumed the murder indictments would be brought in San Diego.

Their assumption was bolstered by the fact that the Justice Department disbanded a Washington grand jury investigating the killing and sent a prosecutor from its general litigation section to San Diego to set up an office and work with a grand jury here. That prosecutor, James Wilson, was not invited to the press conference either, Nunez said.

"The general litigation section was sitting down here thinking it was their case," Nunez said. "Then it disappeared into the mist, or I guess I should say disappeared up the freeway. The facts are pretty clear. There's a group of lawyers working on an investigation down here in San Diego, and boom, the thing disappears."

"All I can tell you is that I've known for some time that Los Angeles was going to proceed in this case," Nunez said. "My original understanding was that it was going to happen in December. No one has told me anything between then and now."

Nunez said his office had not been sent copies of the indictments, which include new charges against Rene Martin Verdugo, who is in custody in San Diego while awaiting trial on federal drug charges. The new indictments charge Verdugo in Camarena's slaying and kidnaping, and call him "a high-level lieutenant" in the Mexican drug operation believed responsible for killing Camarena.

Bonner late Wednesday played down the apparent prosecutorial infighting.

"The important thing is the case be brought," Bonner said. "And frankly I think it's immaterial whether it's in the federal district court of San Diego or Los Angeles or anyplace else."

Bonner said Los Angeles investigators had been working on the Camarena investigation since April, 1986.

"These things do evolve, of course, and of the three people in custody, two of them were individuals who were in Los Angeles," Bonner said. "And so the natural evolution of things was that our investigation here gathered momentum, so it was decided through the Department of Justice that this would be the appropriate venue to bring the case."

Federal agents and prosecutors in San Diego have been working intensively on Camarena-related drug cases since shortly after the agent was kidnaped and slain in early 1985. Warren P. Reese, the most senior assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, has been working on the drug-related Camarena cases full-time for more than two years, Nunez said. During that time, between 50 and 60 indictments have been brought here stemming from the Camarena investigation.

The center of the investigation was moved to San Diego in 1986 after the arrest of Verdugo, when evidence began to emerge that Verdugo was involved in the killing itself, Nunez said.

"Our role was to focus on the drug end of it," Nunez said. "One of those people happened to be Rene Verdugo. . . . The working assumption was that, if sufficient evidence were developed, he would be indicted (in connection with the murder) in San Diego. At some point that plan changed."

Verdugo was indicted in Los Angeles "without the participation" of Wilson, the Justice Department lawyer sent here from Washington, Nunez said.

Asked why the center of the murder investigation was moved to Los Angeles, Nunez said, "That seems to be the $64 question."

Nunez said the decision was made by his superiors in Washington.

"The people in Washington are free to make any decisions they wish. I feel that I have been fairly treated," Nunez said, but paused and added, "I almost feel like an outsider."

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