Federal authorities Tuesday began investigating possible criminal charges against two Riverside County sheriff's deputies captured on videotape clubbing two suspected illegal immigrants--while a national debate erupted about whom to blame more, the baton-wielding officers or the fleeing Mexicans.
The 15-second beating touched off a sort of national soul-searching. From the governor's mansion to the White House, from radio talk shows to FBI conference rooms, emotional questions about institutional racism, police brutality, illegal immigration and high-speed chases coalesced into a passionate discussion.
"This is an international incident," Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez said, noting that the tape has aired around the world. "It is our country's image that's at stake. It's our country's soul that is being judged."
The two deputies involved in the incident--Kurt Franklin, a 20-year veteran of the force, and Tracy Watson, a five-year veteran--remained on paid administrative leave while the U.S. Justice Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigated their actions.
Franklin and Watson were captured on videotape Monday beating two occupants of a rusty blue pickup truck that had evaded a border checkpoint and led law enforcement officials on a wild 80-mile chase. The video, shot by hovering television news helicopters, showed other passengers bolting from the truck and dashing for cover in a nearby plant nursery.
Law enforcement officials captured 19 of the runaways, including the two beating victims. But they acknowledged Tuesday that they may not have found everyone. Trees near the Peck Road offramp in South El Monte, where the chase ended, may have shielded some of the escapees.
"We got most of them, but not all of them," said Rosemary Melville, deputy director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Los Angeles district. "We're not even sure we have the driver in our custody."
Watson, who cracked his baton first on a cringing man and then on a woman crawling out of the truck window, was investigated last July after shooting and seriously wounding a suspected car thief in the city of Corona. In that case, Watson opened fire after warning the alleged thief several times to put up his hands or be shot, Corona Police Sgt. Jim Raasveld said. Witnesses said the suspect appeared to reach down to grab something just before Watson began shooting. Riverside County prosecutors investigated the shooting and found it justified.
Longtime deputy Franklin--who struck the woman once as she lay on the ground--has a reputation in the largely Latino neighborhood he patrols as a heavy-handed officer, several local activists said.
"He's known for roughing up Mexican Americans and harassing the hell out of them," said Gilbert Chavez, director of the Centro de Aztlan.
Franklin's attorney expressed outrage at the community's "rush to judgment." John D. Barnett, who represented one of the Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney G. King five years ago, blasted the press and public officials for assuming guilt before the investigation has begun.
"It's just shocking that so many people would fail freshman civics and be so willing to be so certain of an opinion which is based on incomplete evidence," Barnett said.
The evidence that trickled in Tuesday included sometimes-conflicting reports from the INS, the Mexican Consulate, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and private lawyers working with the immigrants. Most of the 19 detainees were being held in the Los Angeles Federal Building as potential witnesses.
Leticia Gonzalez Gonzalez, 32, was treated at San Pedro Peninsula Hospital for a contusion apparently caused by the beating and also for an underlying disease, believed to be cancer, Melville said. Her attorney, David Ross, said Gonzalez told him she felt that "someone was trying to kill her" after she clambered out the truck window, apparently because the passenger-side door was stuck.
"She was beaten so badly she has practically been in shock," Jose Angel Pescador Osuna, the consul general of Mexico, told a press conference after Gonzalez was released from custody.
Gonzalez's companion, Enrique Funes, was clubbed when he tried to come to her aid as she struggled with the door. Even as the other men fled from the pickup, Funes scrambled around the side, where Watson met him with the baton. The deputy struck Funes about the back and shoulders. Funes hunched as though to shield himself, then fell to the ground as the blows continued. He was briefly treated for unspecified injuries.
As the video spooled over and over on television sets everywhere, public outrage bounced from fury at the illegal immigrants to outrage at the beatings to fear about an upsurge in racism. The incident tugged into a single, vexing whole the issues that have preoccupied Californians for years, and that now top agendas in Congress as well.