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Long Arm of Law Cuffs the Wrong Man, Costs State Police an Apology : Enforcement: Officers briefly seized Alex Vargas, the director of the Santa Fe Springs city attorney's program for crime victims, in a case of mistaken identity.

September 16, 1990|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA FE SPRINGS — State police officers needed about 30 minutes to determine that they had frisked and handcuffed the wrong man during a raid here two weeks ago.

They didn't realize how wrong.

Instead of arresting Armando Vargas and his wife, who are wanted on suspicion of tax evasion, officers had seized Alex Vargas, the director of the city attorney's assistance program for crime victims.

And then, Vargas said, the officer who had interrogated him stomped off without apologizing.

The Aug. 28 incident began when Vargas, 43, was watching a police thriller on TV. Vargas looked out his living room window and saw a live officer waving.

"I thought he needed my help with something," he said.

Vargas said he opened his door and was confronted by six officers, some with handguns drawn and pointed.

"I thought, what did I do?"

The officers, having been warned that their suspect might be uncooperative, frisked Vargas for a concealed weapon--even though he was dressed in shorts and thongs. Then they handcuffed him and said the investigating officer would deal with him shortly.

Vargas mentally listed his possible transgressions. "I do a lot of traveling for the state," Vargas said. "Maybe I put in $5 too much for my travel expenses. I admit I drive my Porsche too fast."

By this time about two dozen neighbors had gathered nearby to watch.

"God, this is embarrassing," Vargas said he remembers thinking. He motioned toward his 1983 sports car. "My neighbors see a Latino with a Porsche and the police, and they add it up to drugs," he said.

Vargas produced his personalized checks and a letter as identification. No, the officers needed photo IDs.

He showed them his card for the city attorney's office and his driver's license. Officers insisted on more checking.

Inside the house, his wife, Velia de Vargas, was helping the couple's 9-year-old daughter wash her hair in the shower. She assumed that the sounds of a law-enforcement raid came from the TV.

"I heard, 'Please come out. This is the police,' " said De Vargas, a 32-year-old social worker.

At first, "I didn't pay attention to it, because I knew what my husband was watching on the TV," she said.

Finally, 20 to 30 minutes after the incident began, the senior investigator admitted the mistake. But Vargas said the interrogating officer stated that he had made no error, that he had nothing to apologize for.

A week later, the interrogating officer, California State Police Detective Martin Hagans, wrote a letter of apology after Vargas complained to Hagans' superiors.

A series of unlucky coincidences led to the raid, police said.

First, a police computer matched the Santa Fe Springs couple with the couple being sought on suspicion of tax evasion. City official Alex Vargas and suspect Armando Vargas are about the same height and weight, both have brown eyes, and their spouses have the same first name, Velia, State Police Capt. Robert Donnalley said.

Armando Vargas and his wife remain at large, Donnalley said.

De Vargas said she believes that officers could have done more checking, because Vargas is a common Latino name.

Also, she said, her husband is well known both in local law-enforcement circles and the neighborhood, where he has lived all his life.

Vargas, whose office counsels, assists and often seeks judgments on behalf of crime victims, said he has no plans to file suit but insisted that the officers return to deliver a letter of apology in person and explain to neighbors what happened.

The apology was delivered a week later, but neighbors said they were not contacted.

Donnalley, pointing out that Vargas was neither harmed nor detained long, said the department would like to put the incident to rest.

"There are hundreds of people arrested each day on names and physical descriptions and so forth," he said. "Most of the time, they are who they are supposed to be."

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