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California and the West

Taking a Stand for Witnesses

California's New Protection Plan Is Among the Broadest--Some Say Too Broad--of Any in U.S.

April 19, 1998|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For two nights, he struggled. Struggled with two pieces of terrible knowledge.

He knew who had murdered a young garment worker in Santa Ana. Yet he knew this as well: If he told police, he too could end up with a bullet in his chest.

That was the code of the streets, his streets. You snitch, you die. Simple.

Still, he kept thinking of the young man who had been killed, shot down while chasing a purse snatcher.

So he told the police who did it. Then the threats began. He picked up the phone and heard a gunshot. He caught two thugs on his balcony. "They wanted me," he said.

But prosecutors wanted him, too--alive and able to testify about the 1996 killing. So they hustled the 40-year-old father to a new home in secret. "Without their help," he said, "I'd be dead."

Instead, he is applying for computer courses from his hide-out --and watching with satisfaction as an ambitious new state effort protects other witnesses.

Launched in January, the California Witness Protection Program helps relocate endangered witnesses, some of whom are also victims. Many counties had offered piecemeal protection, like that provided to the 40-year-old father, but the state program allows prosecutors everywhere to help those in danger without draining local budgets.

The program can pay rent in state or out. It can cover grocery bills, medical costs and even psychological counseling. Witnesses can get armed escorts when they go to court to testify or, when warranted, periodic police surveillance of their homes.

Critics contend that the program gives county prosecutors too much discretion about what services to offer with state money. And it's nowhere near as extensive as the federal witness protection program, which fashions identity make-overs for ex-mobsters and the like.

Still, California's fledgling program is one of the most comprehensive offered by any state and is being cited as a national model.

"When we ask a witness to come into the game, we need to protect him," said Sergio Robleto, a former Los Angeles police commander who helped draft the program. "If we don't commit to that principle, we're as bad as the bad guys."

It's hard to say just how many people the new program might serve, because witness intimidation is impossible to tally. After all, if people are too scared to report what they know about a murder, they are unlikely to tell police they have been bullied into silence.

Attempting to quantify the problem, officials estimated in the early 1990s that 40% of gang killings in Los Angeles County go unsolved because witnesses are afraid to talk. Last year, before state reimbursement was available, the county spent $260,000 to relocate 185 witnesses who did speak up--and then feared for their lives.

The intimidation they face can be as subtle as a drive-by glare or as brazen as a firebomb--or as final as a bullet. Robleto once saw 10 witnesses killed in a single year just in his South Bureau division.

"Society has to be educated as to what's going on here," said victims advocate LaWanda Hawkins, her voice hard and her eyes pained. "It's worse than anyone could imagine."

Hawkins' teenage son was slain two years ago, and the killer has never been caught. Hawkins is sure one neighbor knows who did it. But the neighbor will not come forward. And mad as she is, Hawkins understands. "Witnesses," she said, "don't trust the police" to keep them safe.

The state program aims to rebuild that trust.

It has paid for 26 protection efforts in the past three months. Analysts expect the pace to pick up as more prosecutors realize they can tap the state fund for cases ranging from organized crime to domestic violence.

Despite the program's broad scope, law enforcement officials have noted some limitations.

For one, the program will not establish fresh identities. So witnesses such as Michael Cotrich can never feel completely safe.

Cotrich, 32, said he believes that gang members have tracked him from one neighborhood to the next for two years, ever since he identified them to police as the thugs who beat him unconscious one night in Panorama City. Los Angeles police detectives declined to discuss the case.

Cotrich agreed to be quoted by name because his pursuers already know who he is. "There's no way for me to get out of this," he said, "unless they change my name and ID."

The best the state can do, however, is refer him and others to the federal government. Local prosecutors are frustrated that the state has not yet set up a promised liaison with the federal witness program.

Critics also complain that the state is trying to micro-manage witnesses. The grocery allowance, for instance, cannot be used on items the state considers frills--including dog food, beer, cigarettes, cat litter and hardcover books.

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