Seven months after the Los Angeles Police Department's unfolding Rampart scandal prompted the district attorney's office to reactivate its mandatory review of police shootings, an undercover LAPD vice officer was charged Thursday with shooting an unarmed motorist in the back after a dispute over a traffic ticket.
Officer Ronald Orosco, 30, of the department's 77th Street station, pleaded not guilty to charges of assault with a deadly weapon and firing into an occupied vehicle in connection with the June 14 shooting of 66-year-old Charles Beatty.
If convicted, Orosco faces a possible sentence of 25 years to life in prison, prosecutors said.
According to prosecutors, Orosco and his partner, Gorgonio Medina, were on patrol near the intersection of Central and Florence avenues about 7 p.m. when they pulled Beatty over for allegedly crossing the yellow line in the roadway.
The officers issued Beatty a citation despite his protests, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Hector Guzman.
"There was a heated argument between Mr. Beatty and the officers. He was saying it wasn't a good stop and that he'd see them in court," said Guzman, who, as part of the D.A.'s "rollout" program, was dispatched to the scene immediately after the shooting.
What happened next, according to Guzman and Deputy Dist. Atty. John Gilligan, is in dispute.
Beatty says that after the two officers wrote him a ticket, he thought that he was free to leave, and got in his car and tried to drive away, according to law enforcement sources.
But he said the officers tried to stop him, the sources said. When he saw Orosco reach for his gun, he became frightened and tried to flee.
At that point, Orosco opened fire.
He shot four times, striking Beatty once in the back.
Officer Medina, who never fired his weapon, said Beatty was so angered by the citation that he challenged the officers to a fight--a claim the older man denies, Guzman said. But the officer said Beatty "never raised his hand and never moved toward the officers" and that the situation had de-escalated before the man was shot.
Medina, who has not been charged in the shooting, could not be reached for comment.
William J. Hadden, Orosco's defense attorney, declined to comment, saying he was not yet in command of the details of the case.
Orosco, who surrendered in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Larry P. Fidler, where an indictment handed up Wednesday was unsealed, was expected to be released from custody Thursday evening on $100,000 bail.
The four-year veteran of the LAPD has been relieved of duty pending the outcome of the case. A pretrial hearing is set for Dec. 4.
"This indictment makes it very clear that we are not going to tolerate criminal misconduct by police officers," said Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. "And when there is sufficient evidence, we are going to aggressively prosecute.
" . . . It is disappointing that an officer of the law chose to dishonor the badge."
The indictment by the county Grand Jury alleges that Orosco "willfully, unlawfully and maliciously" fired at Beatty's vehicle.
Orosco is the second Los Angeles police officer facing charges for an on-duty shooting. Officer Nino Durden, a key figure in the department's corruption scandal, is awaiting trial on a charge of attempted murder in connection with the 1996 shooting of a gang member who was then allegedly framed on an accusation of attacking police and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
To have two shooting cases against LAPD officers pending at the same time is rare.
The last on-duty shooting that resulted in charges against an LAPD officer was in 1992, according to the district attorney's office. In that case, Officer Douglas Iversen was charged with murder after he shot a tow-truck driver near the intersection of Florence Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard. Prosecutors were bitterly divided over whether to charge Iversen in that case, which ultimately was dismissed.
The district attorney's so-called rollout program was started in 1979 to ensure thorough, objective and unbiased investigations of officer-involved shootings throughout the county. The program was eliminated in September 1995 because of budget cutbacks.
Garcetti reactivated the program in February after allegations that LAPD officers had covered up unjustified shootings. The charges against Orosco are the first since the program was reestablished.