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Officers Blame Series of Errors in Kidnap Case

Hearing: Police face disciplinary board's questions on why they did not follow up on report of abduction, which led to teen's death.

November 20, 2001|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Los Angeles police officers accused of botching the investigation of a fatal kidnapping testified Monday that a witness had told them 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz had escaped.

Appearing at a Board of Rights hearing, the Los Angeles Police Department's equivalent of a trial, Officers Brent Rygh and Donovan Lyons described a series of mistakes--not all of them theirs--that led them to conclude the incident was probably a fistfight among teenagers and that the victim had walked away.

In fact, Markowitz of West Hills was beaten by a group of young men, thrown into a white van and taken to Santa Barbara, where he was shot to death two days later. But despite two 911 calls reporting the Aug. 6, 2000, abduction, including one that related the van's license plate number, police failed to pursue the case as a kidnapping.

Rygh and Lyons told the three-member disciplinary panel that a woman who witnessed the incident and called 911 never said the boy had been forced into the van.

"She said that there were four guys fighting with one guy outside a white van . . . and that all of them stopped fighting and got into the van," Rygh testified. "They drove down the block and one guy got out of the van and walked down the block, and the van drove away in another direction."

Rygh, an eight-year LAPD officer, said he and his partner searched the area for the vehicle or the victim. Finding nothing, they did not take a police report or try to track down the van's owner, who lived a few blocks away.

Lyons, a seven-year LAPD veteran who trains other officers, said he agreed. "I trusted my partner's judgment," he said, although the men had not worked together before that day.

There were several holes in the information the officers received, according to police investigators. The gaps were compounded by Rygh's and Lyons' own admitted errors.

First, LAPD dispatchers mishandled both 911 calls they received. One operator mistakenly coded the initial call as a "code 2, high" assault with a deadly weapon, with the subjects still on scene. It should have been dispatched as a more serious "code 3" assault in progress, said LAPD Sgt. John Mumma, who is serving as a defense advocate for Lyons.

A few minutes later, the operator who handled the second call released an "information only" radio broadcast rather than calling it a kidnapping.

Police Chief Bernard C. Parks suspended both operators for three days. The department declined to release their names because they are civilian employees.

Rygh testified that he used his personal cell phone to call witness Pauline Mahoney for more details as Lyons drove toward the scene. It was during that three-minute call, he said, that Mahoney said the "one guy" who was being beaten had walked away from the van. Mahoney, who has repeatedly refused to speak to reporters, declined to appear at the Board of Rights hearing.

The second 911 caller, Rosalia de la Cruz Gitau, gave police a location for the abduction that was several blocks from the spot Mahoney reported. But Rygh and Lyons never heard that call, they said, because Rygh was on the phone with Mahoney when the information was broadcast and Lyons was driving and scanning the streets for suspects.

LAPD Capt. Bruce Crosley, a Board of Rights member, sharply questioned Lyons about that oversight. "You're a training officer. Isn't listening to the radio one of the things you harp on [with your trainees] more than just about anything else?" he asked.

Rygh also said he mistook the name of the van owner's street--McLaren Avenue--for a road miles away.

After almost six hours of testimony, the panel adjourned until today. If Rygh and Lyons are found guilty, they face discipline ranging from a written reprimand to dismissal. Both officers remain on duty, but Lyons now works in the Foothill division.

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