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New Wealth in Rampart's Red Glare

March 18, 2001|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The day the police planted a gun in his handcuffed hands, Roberto Candido couldn't afford a Happy Meal. Three years and a prison term later, Candido, 26, found himself in the Wells Fargo Beverly Hills branch, about to deposit his share of an $860,000 settlement check from the city of Los Angeles.

It was Friday evening last December, and the bank had stayed open three hours past closing to accommodate an unusual group of new customers--about 18 onetime convicts and family members who, like Candido, had been framed by anti-gang police officers in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, wrongly imprisoned, then freed. Referred to the bank for financial advice by their attorney, Gregory Yates, they had just received settlement checks for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It was like a party in there," recalled financial consultant Calhoun Chappell. "They were very excited." Some wanted cash that night for Christmas presents. Some needed reliable transportation immediately. One man wanted to withdraw $80,000 for pocket money.

Encouraged by Chappell to think about the future, some also envisioned helping family members, moving to a better neighborhood, opening a business. Of course, Chappell said, "there were some issues we had to work through."

Many had never had a bank account before. Some had neither Social Security cards nor drivers' licenses for identification. A handful were not legal residents and faced possible deportation. One man, Chappell said, was so angry at the system--every large institution from police to banks seemed suspect--that he could not bear any talk of investment portfolios or tax implications. Candido listened carefully, however, and eventually used his money to buy stocks and a used 1987 Cadillac. He moved to Norwalk with his sister, 15, to live with relatives. Now a student at Cerritos College, he lives off the interest.

His sudden shift in fortune has sparked a religious awakening, he said. "I'm not telling you I'm a saint, but I'm trying to get closer to God," he said. "I know he does everything for a reason, and I know I've got to repay him."

Collecting amounts ranging from $25,000 to $15 million, the victims of the ongoing Rampart police corruption scandal are riding a rags-to-riches roller coaster operated by the justice system. So far, 44 people--rival gang members, businessmen, immigrants, both legal and illegal, girlfriends and even two children--have settled claims with the city over anti-gang police officers who twisted the law in the name of protecting the community. About 100 convictions based on planted evidence and false testimony have been overturned, 185 civil claims and lawsuits filed and about $34 million approved in settlements. The city expects to spend at least $125 million eventually on settling Rampart cases. Up to a third of the tax-free settlement money, sometimes paid in installments, is generally used for attorneys' fees.

The recipients of these millions are unique among the nouveau riche. The majority come from an insular immigrant neighborhood where three-quarters of household incomes fall below $15,000, where three-quarters of the residents have not completed high school and only one-third are working full time. Many have had previous convictions from murder and rape on down, some have grown used to life in institutions.

In some ways, they face all the familiar issues of sudden wealth: whether to blow it on instant gratification or invest in long-term security; whether to trust new "best friends" or competing attorneys. But many also fear reprisals from other ex-convicts or police, along with depression over injustice, deportation, and the sad paradox that they must leave home to take advantage of the opportunity that fortune has brought them.

In the three months since banking their net share of the settlements, some Rampart victims have begun new lives in the suburbs. They have invested in stocks, residential property and businesses. Some have opened offshore accounts, or purchased property for themselves or their families in their native countries.

Others, as cynics predicted, have gone back to the gritty neighborhoods decorated with gang graffiti to display their wealth with new cars, DVDs, and fat wallets. At least two, police said, have been shot by rival gang members.

A few, attorneys say, suffer emotional problems so severe that no amount of money will ever resolve them. Some have succumbed to addictions. At least three are back in prison.

"Any time you hand someone a lot of money, it can either be a ticket to a bright future, or it can be tantamount to a loaded gun," said attorney Yates, who has about 60 Rampart clients. "The individual makes the choice. All we can do is give them some options."

*

On the surface, life has improved dramatically for Ruben Rojas in the four months since he received his $1 million settlement. In his heart, though, Rojas is sad. "No matter how much they compensate you, it's not satisfying," he said.

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