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California and the West

No Tipster Reward, San Diego Council Decides

September 13, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The case of an alleged hate crime against elderly Latino migrants became a political issue Tuesday when a sharply divided City Council rejected a proposal to pay $10,000 in public money to tipsters whose help led to the arrest of eight teenagers.

Soon after the July 5 attack, two council members, at an emotional news conference, decried the unprovoked beating and promised the city would contribute $10,000 to a reward fund.

But when it came time to pay up, their council colleagues worried that allocating the money would set a bad precedent of the Police Department buying information in high-profile crime cases.

Tuesday was the third time that the council debated the reward issue in recent weeks. Two previous votes had deadlocked 4-4. Tuesday's vote was 5-3.

Councilman Juan Vargas urged that the $10,000 be taken from the Police Department budget. "I think it's important to show that the city is behind this," he said.

But Councilwoman Judy McCarty, who voted against the measure, said she was worried about setting a precedent.

McCarty has said that the allocation could set up vexing questions about why the city offers a reward in one case but not another. She said it would be difficult for her to explain to constituents why no reward was offered, for example, in the mistaken-identity murder of a 19-year-old man in her district.

"There are issues of fairness," she said.

Two payments have already been earmarked for the anonymous tipsters: $10,000 from Crimestoppers Inc., a private group that works with law enforcement, and $8,000 from the county Board of Supervisors.

The supervisors provided the money to the Anti-Defamation League, which will ensure that the tipsters are paid.

The ADL had joined the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the Chicano Federation of San Diego in decrying the attacks, in which the men in their 60s were kicked, beaten and subjected to racial slurs.

Morris Casuto, director of the ADL office, said the council's decision is "troublesome because people have a right to expect that when an official makes a promise, their agency will back them up."

The council's action was not unprecedented.

An official with the Southern California-based WE TIP organization said it is common for individuals, companies and even governmental agencies to promise to pay for information in high-profile crimes and then, for various reasons, not follow through with the cash.

"People are big with promises, but you really have to have the money in hand before you say anything" about a reward, said Susan Aguilar, national director for the group, which for 28 years has worked with law enforcement nationwide.

Although it has rejected giving public money to the tipsters, the council, in reaction to the migrant-beating case, established a tipster fund for hate-crime cases, to be funded by private donations.

Councilmen Harry Mathis and Byron Wear have since raised $10,000 for the fund from private donors, including the San Diego Padres. Whether that money will go to the tipsters in the beating case has yet to be decided.

Wear and Vargas had suggested after the beating that the city would contribute $10,000 to the reward fund. On Tuesday, their bid to tap the Police Department was supported only by Mayor Susan Golding.

Information from tipsters helped police arrest eight teenage boys from the affluent Rancho Penasquitos neighborhood in the July 5 attack on five elderly victims living in a makeshift camp in a desolate canyon east of Del Mar.

Police were also led to a dilapidated trailer covered with racist and anti-Latino graffiti. While under surveillance, some of the teenagers visited the trailer, located close to the migrant camp.

The beating case, which has received massive media coverage in San Diego County, may become a test of the constitutionality of a new law giving prosecutors greater authority to charge juveniles as adults.

Under Proposition 21, adopted by voters in March, Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst has decided to charge the eight as adults. Felony charges of assault, robbery, committing a hate crime and elder abuse have been filed.

Defense attorneys have challenged the constitutionality of Proposition 21 on the grounds that it illegally strips judges of the power to decide whether minors should be treated as adults. But Superior Court Judge Geary Cortes, sitting in Juvenile Court, rejected that argument Tuesday.

"Whether the electorate's decision was wise is a political question, not a judicial one," wrote Cortes, ruling that the case will be transferred to Superior Court, setting the next hearing for Sept. 21.

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