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Widespread Corruption in Narcotics Squads Told

March 19, 1992|VICTOR MERINA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An ex-Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, convicted earlier of skimming drug money, testified Wednesday that corruption was widespread among narcotics officers and said he took part in beatings, thefts and perjury through much of his 14-year career as a deputy.

Testifying in the federal money-skimming trial of two sheriff's deputies, Eufrasio G. Cortez told jurors that he and other deputies often brutalized prisoners, used excessive force on suspects and routinely lied to protect fellow officers.

Cortez, appearing as a government witness, also said that a money-skimming scandal that has shaken the Sheriff's Department began with narcotics officers taking "a few dollars off the top" to buy law enforcement equipment or dinner after a successful drug raid--but quickly spiraled out of control.

Deputies began taking hashish pipes, drug scales and other paraphernalia as memorabilia from drug raids, he said, a practice "that was widespread throughout the Narcotics Bureau" in the 1980s when Cortez worked there.

Narcotics officers also began stealing seized property, including television sets, stereos and jewelry that had been confiscated during raids, he said. Before long, officers also were skimming hundreds of dollars, then thousands, in cash.

Cortez, serving a five-year prison term, told jurors that he received his first sizable share of stolen cash after a 1985 drug raid, when a fellow deputy handed him an envelope containing $1,500.

"He said, 'If you don't want it, then give it back, but you'll never see it again,' " Cortez testified. "I put it in my pocket."

Cortez said he soon joined in regularly skimming drug cash, and he testified that he and other deputies--who called themselves the Five Fingers--shared in several thefts. He said $8,000 was stolen during one raid and $10,000 from another seizure of money.

The deputies named by Cortez as members of the Five Fingers have either retired or been relieved of duty and are under investigation by federal and local authorities in the money-skimming scandal.

The two deputies now on trial--Tyrone Powe and Robert Juarez--were not among that group of narcotics officers. But when Cortez takes the stand again today he is expected to testify against both men, who worked with him as members of the same anti-drug team in the late 1980s. In addition, Cortez worked with former deputy Daniel M. Garner, whose wife, Yhvona, is also on trial on money-laundering and tax charges.

Cortez, convicted in a 1990 money-skimming trial, had been scheduled to stand trial with the three other defendants until pleading guilty last month to theft and income tax charges. Saying his case was not unusual, Cortez told jurors that he not only helped steal drug money as a deputy but engaged in years of misconduct that began shortly after he joined the Sheriff's Department in 1975.

During his first assignment in the custody division, Cortez said, he and other officers often would beat prisoners, taking stubborn inmates to a "recalcitrant cell" where deputies would take turns beating the handcuffed men or shoving their heads into a toilet.

While a trainee and on patrol duty, Cortez said, he learned that he was expected to "back up" his fellow officers even when they were involved in misconduct. In one case, Cortez said, he watched fellow deputies beat two teen-agers but did not report the incident and was "accepted for keeping my mouth shut."

On one occasion, Cortez said, he and other officers took a 17-year-old suspect to their Hall of Justice office, "roughed him up a little and threatened to throw him down from the ninth floor" until he cooperated with deputies. In another case, Cortez said, he had to revive a suspect who had been choked with a wet towel by a fellow deputy.

In addition, Cortez said he learned how to alter search warrants and modify facts in the documents to obtain a judge's signature. Other times, he said, deputies carried marijuana or other narcotics to use as evidence to strengthen a case or provide a reason to conduct a raid or make an arrest. And he said he learned to lie about where narcotics were found on suspects to bolster a case.

Cortez said he was promoted to one of the sheriff's elite anti-drug teams in 1982 because of his willingness to help narcotics officers "fill in some of the holes in their investigation" with fabrications.

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