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For Killer, Shackles Aren't Enough

Courts: Security is tight for convicted slayer accused of another murder in Los Angeles. He's HIV-positive with a history of violence.

August 17, 2001|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies aren't taking any chances with convicted killer Benjamin Pedro Gonzales.

Considered one of the most dangerous inmates in the California penal system, Gonzales arrived this week from Corcoran State Prison to face murder charges in the 1989 stabbing death of a 22-year-old Cerritos College student.

Authorities have spent about $25,000 to remodel cells for him in the Men's Central Jail, where he is housed by himself. For court appearances, he is outfitted with a mesh hood--or "spit shield"--to prevent him from spewing saliva or HIV-infected blood on attorneys, deputies or anyone else nearby. He is shackled and guarded by several sheriff's deputies whenever he is moved from the jail.

"We just want to be careful," said Sheriff's Capt. Jay Zuanich. "He is HIV-positive and a very violent man. We want to make sure that there is proper security and that none of our people are bit or scratched."

The Los Angeles County Grand Jury handed down an indictment on murder charges against Gonzales on July 20. If he is convicted of killing Dondi Johnson, he could face the death penalty because of a prior murder conviction.

Gonzales, 41, appeared for the first time Thursday in the downtown Criminal Courts Building for his arraignment, which was continued to Aug. 30.

"This is a highly unusual situation," Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler said during the half-hour court session. "There are going to be extraordinary security precautions."

Fidler received a security briefing from the Sheriff's Department on Gonzales. So he locked the courtroom doors and cleared the inmate holding cell before calling the defendant's case. He also warned attorneys and court personnel to keep their distance.

Gonzales was convicted three years ago of first-degree murder for killing a Livermore goat rancher in 1992. He has also been indicted in the 1991 killing of a stripper in New York.

Now he faces charges in the stabbing death of Johnson, a student who also worked at the Bicycle Club card room in Bell Gardens.

Prosecutors believe Gonzales has followed a pattern, because his alleged victims, all women, were stabbed in the face, eyes, neck and chest.

He is currently serving a sentence of 29 years to life for killing the Livermore woman, and for two acts that occurred behind bars: stabbing his former attorney and brutally beating a fellow Santa Rita Jail inmate.

The Sheriff's Department is doing everything possible to prevent anything like that from happening in Los Angeles. Sheriff's officials are still deciding how to equip the courtroom where Gonzales will eventually be tried. As for the jail, Sheriff's Capt. Rick Adams visited Corcoran State Prison and then remodeled three Central Jail cells to resemble those at the prison, where Gonzales was held in segregated housing.

The cells, located in a high-security area of the Men's Central Jail, have mesh-covered bars and double-locked food slots so Gonzales cannot grab guards or throw out items. Adams said the extra cells have been prepared in case Gonzales tampers with the locks on the first.

The inmate will eat in his cell, Adams said, and will be allowed out only for exercise three hours a week, the minimum allowed for inmates at the jail.

"Because of his documented history of spitting and being unruly, we have prepared a plan as to how he is to be handled," said Adams, who briefed deputies on Gonzales' past. "He doesn't scare me, but his history concerns me."

As Thursday's court appearance began, two deputies--wearing protective gloves--held Gonzales by the arms as they walked him into the courtroom. Five other deputies stood nearby.

Gonzales, a short man with thick, braided hair, appeared in the hood, shackles and an orange jail jumpsuit. His demeanor was restrained as he asked for his AIDS medication, which he said was being doled out to him in jail. After Judge Fidler read his violent past into the court record, Gonzales said, "I'm not looking for no trouble."

Gonzales' public defenders asked to continue the arraignment so they could make sure their office does not have a conflict and so they could begin reviewing more than 5,000 pages of police reports, witness lists and transcripts of previous trials.

Deputy Public Defender Tamar Toister, who represented Gonzales Thursday, said later she wasn't bothered by all the precautions.

But she said she would warn other public defenders assigned to the case that, "If you are his lawyer, you would want to maintain distance."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Douglas Sortino recently detailed three incidents that occurred while the defendant was behind bars in Alameda County.

The first occurred in 1994, when Gonzales escaped from his Santa Rita Jail cell and severely beat an inmate in the shower. The next year, Gonzales asked to talk to his attorney in a locked stairwell in the courthouse, where he then stabbed him in the neck and head with a pencil. And in 1998, he allegedly hid a razor blade in his mouth and slashed another inmate's face as they were being transferred from court back to jail.

Alameda County authorities labeled him the most violent criminal in the county, Fidler said.

"From a custodial standpoint," said Sortino, "Gonzales is an extreme security risk."

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