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D.A. Finds No Evidence That Police Planted Gun

Claremont: Officers say man they shot in 1999 was armed. Controversy over the slaying prompted weekly protests at City Hall.

September 28, 2000|TIPTON BLISH and LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Trying to cap a volatile case that has haunted Claremont for nearly two years, the Los Angeles County district attorney on Wednesday concluded there is no evidence that police planted a gun on a young black man who was shot after a traffic stop.

Allegations that the Colt .45 found at the feet of Irvin Landrum Jr. was planted to justify the police shooting erupted earlier this year when community leaders learned the weapon was last registered to the late Ontario Police Chief Wayne Campbell Simmons.

Officers Hany Hanna and Kent Jacks, who stopped Landrum for speeding on Baseline Road about 1 a.m. on Jan. 11, 1999, have always insisted that the victim was armed.

But inconsistencies in the case moved hundreds of college students, academics and clergy in this college town to stage weekly demonstrations and candlelight vigils at City Hall to protest the shooting and the city's handling of the controversy.

Taking the offensive against critics, the city released the criminal record of a key organizer of the protests. The tension in the community was heightened even more when Claremont City Manager Glenn Southard named Jacks and Hanna the city's employees of the year for 1999.

Hanna remains on the force. Jacks, 37, retired late last month after 13 years with the Claremont Police Department.

Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who a year ago concluded that neither officer was criminally culpable for Landrum's death, yielded to community concerns and launched an investigation into the peculiar circumstances surrounding the gun.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Claremont Interim Police Chief William Ellis, James L. Cosper, Garcetti's assistant head deputy, said, "taking all of the evidence from this investigation into account, it is our conclusion that there is no merit to the conjecture that either Hanna or Jacks planted a gun at Landrum's feet in order to justify their shooting."

"The fact that the weapon possessed by Mr. Landrum was once registered to Chief Simmons appears to be pure coincidence and nothing more," he said.

Claremont city officials welcomed the district attorney's finding, but doubted it would bring an end to the controversy.

"I don't think it is going to make some people in the community happy," said Mayor Karen Rosenthal, "but I don't think they would be happy with any answer. . . . Some people just can't let go."

Eugene Ramirez, who is defending the city against two civil suits filed on behalf of Landrum's two daughters, was more direct.

"It confirms what our officers have said all along: Mr. Landrum pulled the gun on them," he said.

Irvin Landrum Jr.'s mother, Tracy Lee, declined to comment, citing a gag order imposed in her wrongful death suit against the city and the police officers.

But through a spokesman, Pitzer College black studies professor Halford Fairchild, she said the statements of a witness who claims to have seen a gun in Landrum's car prove nothing. In any case, she added, simply because the witness saw a gun there "doesn't justify the officers taking my son's life."

Cosper gave this account of the gun's history:

The widow of the Ontario police chief, Joann Simmons-Walker, told sheriff's investigators that she gave her late husband's uniform and duty weapon to her daughter, Stacey Simmons, shortly after his death in 1989. Simmons, however, denied receiving such a gift from her stepmother, Cosper said.

Also interviewed was Ontario Police Det. Byron Lee, who helped Simmons-Walker inventory and then sell her husband's gun collection. Lee said he had never seen the gun in question, which he easily would have remembered because of unique alterations to its wooden handgrip.

Moreover, Lee said he did not know Hanna or Jacks, and never sold them firearms.

Separately, Garcetti's office found no evidence that the officers had somehow obtained the gun from Simmons, his widow or his daughter. It also determined that "it would have been virtually impossible" for either officer to have planted the weapon at Landrum's feet.

The most persuasive evidence that the gun was Landrum's, Cosper said, was a tape recorded statement by Teresa Ramirez, Landrum's former girlfriend and mother of their child. She told investigators that she and Landrum "used to always argue because he carried one [a gun] in his car."

Her description of the gun matched the one found near Landrum's body, Cosper said.

She also told investigators that she borrowed Landrum's car a week before his death and found a loaded gun in a holster under the driver's seat.

Given that the statement was recorded before she learned of the shooting, it was "inherently trustworthy," Cosper said.

Beyond that, investigators found nine live rounds of Colt .45-caliber ammunition in Landrum's pants pocket, the exact type found in the gun. In addition, Officer Jacks tape-recorded a portion of the traffic stop with Landrum on which he can be heard to say, "He's got a gun." After the sounds of gunfire, an emotional Jacks can be heard requesting assistance.

"I know that the death of Mr. Landrum has been the source of great concern for the city of Claremont," Cosper said. "While our conclusion will probably never satisfy all members of your community, we nonetheless believe it to be the correct one, given the overwhelming nature of the evidence known to this office."

City Manager Southard described Wednesday's letter as good news for a city that has been labeled insensitive, particularly to minorities.

"It is always nice when the facts show that everything was done properly," he said. "I am pleased for the officers who have gone through a very difficult time over the last year."

Fairchild, however, vowed that the weekly protests at Claremont City Hall will continue.

"What will end this for us is to tell us unerringly how the gun got from Stacey Simmons to Baseline Road [where Landrum was shot]," he said.

In the meantime, city officials are looking at ways to make the city and its Police Department more accountable and improve race relations.

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