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Perez's Ex-Partner Pleads Guilty, 'to Tell the Truth'

Rampart: Former Officer Nino Durden appears downcast in federal court. He faces a prison term and has agreed to cooperate in probe of the LAPD.

April 03, 2001|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His voice meek, his head slightly bowed, disgraced former police Officer Nino Durden pleaded guilty Monday to federal charges stemming from his role in the Rampart police corruption scandal.

Once a burly, swaggering member of a Los Angeles Police Department anti-gang unit, Durden appeared downcast, his cheeks sunken, his neatly pressed charcoal suit hanging on a gaunt frame.

Durden, who resigned from the LAPD last month, is the former partner of Rafael Perez, the ex-officer at the center of the scandal that emerged from a Rampart Division CRASH unit assigned to battle street gangs in the crowded, crime-plagued neighborhoods just west of downtown.

Together, Durden and Perez have admitted to lying, stealing, dealing drugs, committing perjury and arresting innocent people--even, in one case, shooting and framing an innocent man, Javier Francisco Ovando, who now uses a wheelchair.

Durden, 32, pleaded guilty as part of an agreement with federal and state prosecutors under which he is expected to serve a seven-year, eight-month sentence in federal prison. In exchange, he has agreed to cooperate with the investigation into other officers' alleged crimes.

Durden entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder, who peppered him with dozens of questions intended to ensure that he was acting freely and was aware of the consequences of his decision.

"Yes, your honor," he answered countless times in a voice so soft that Snyder had to ask him to step closer to a microphone so she could hear. When she asked him why he had decided to plead guilty, his voice seemed to crack slightly. "I wanted to tell the truth, your honor," he said.

The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Mary Andrues, read excerpts from a five-page summary of Durden's crimes. As she described how he and Perez shot Ovando, planted a gun on him and rehearsed a fabricated story of how he tried to shoot them, Durden stared straight ahead, blinking frequently and periodically wiping his face.

State and federal prosecutors are hoping that Durden's cooperation will help them break open the Rampart case and bring charges against other officers. U.S. authorities reportedly hope that Durden's testimony will help them bring federal charges against Perez for the Ovando shooting, despite a 1999 plea agreement between Perez and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Durden admitted to three counts of civil rights violations and one of illegal firearms possession, the last count related to the assault rifle that he and Perez admitted planting on Ovando on Oct. 12, 1996. In addition to the federal charges, Durden has admitted to state crimes that include perjury, conspiracy, grand theft and filing false police reports.

The federal charges would ordinarily carry a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and a $1-million fine. Snyder set sentencing for Oct. 15.

Prior to appearing before Snyder, Durden was arraigned Monday before U.S. Magistrate Rosalyn M. Chapman, who set bail at $50,000 and set conditions that included an unusual waiver of a standard prohibition on firearms. Asked later about the waiver, Andrues said she did not want to discuss it. Durden's attorneys declined to comment on any aspect of the case.

As he emerged from Chapman's courtroom, Durden stepped into a hallway filled with reporters and turned to stand directly in front of a polished granite wall, his feet nearly touching it, his back to the crowd. There he remained for an uncomfortable minute until he was gently pulled away by a lawyer.

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