Los Angeles police investigators say the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles is reluctant to prosecute the killers of a Panorama City apartment owner in an attempted carjacking, even though President Bush recently signed a statute making carjacking a federal crime and urging federal agencies to cooperate with local police to combat it.
"The law said the weight of the federal government should be applied to this crime," said Los Angeles homicide Detective John Edwards. "People are being killed and we have one of the classic examples of that and we are not getting any cooperation."
The U.S. attorney's office and the FBI would not comment on how they planned to treat the crime but said they were investigating.
Edwards said he has identified about 25 gang members and others as suspects in the Oct. 31 carjacking incident that resulted in the deaths of popular Blythe Street apartment owner Donald Aragon as well as one of his suspected assailants.
Gang members surrounded Aragon's truck as he was leaving his building and demanded that he give up the vehicle.
Instead, he reached under his seat for a revolver and a gunfight began.
Aragon and a 19-year-old gang member were killed and a 17-year-old alleged assailant was wounded.
Edwards said that if the Justice Department made a commitment to prosecuting the case, the FBI would be more likely to assist him in his investigation.
He said a federal prosecution also would make it more probable that the assailants could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the maximum penalty under the new federal carjacking statute for incidents that result in deaths.
In response to questions about prosecuting the case, Assistant U.S. Atty. Alfredo X. Jarrin, who is assigned to it, said: "The Justice Department is investigating the matter, but I cannot comment on any particulars."
FBI spokeswoman Karen Gardner said only that "we do have an ongoing investigation into this as a carjacking with an eye toward a federal prosecution." She declined to comment further.
Edwards and other detectives said that if the Justice Department decides to treat the incident as a federal crime, it will result in greater FBI interest in the case.
"If the U.S. attorney says they are not going to prosecute, then the FBI is not going to commit the time, money or manpower to the case," Los Angeles Police Detective Steve Fisk said.
"The U.S. attorney I spoke to was unsure whether we had an airtight case and didn't want to proceed without one. I said I can't get an airtight case unless the FBI can help."
In response to an increase in violent carjackings, Congress passed and Bush signed a law that made carjackings resulting in a death punishable by a maximum sentence of life in federal prison.
The bill also urged federal law enforcement agencies to assist in investigating and prosecuting such crimes.
The bill was passed by Congress Oct. 6 and signed by Bush Oct. 25. It became effective Oct. 27, four days before the attempted carjacking that resulted in the two deaths.
No one has yet been prosecuted under the law.
Edwards said Jarrin of the U.S. attorney's office did not want to be the first to undertake such a case because of uncertainty over how federal judges would react to the new law.
But "if we decide not to enforce the laws that people want, then we're bordering on anarchy," Edwards said.
Apartment owners and residents have demanded aggressive police action after Aragon's slaying on Blythe Street, just west of Van Nuys Boulevard.
Earlier this week, police announced a multi-pronged offensive against the gang that residents say virtually controls the strip of buildings, intimidating residents into silence and peddling cocaine to passersby.
The city attorney's office said that it would seek a Superior Court restraining order to make illegal otherwise legal activities that help the gang commit crimes, such as standing around together on the streets.
Police also vowed to arrest everyone involved in the killing.