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Mother of Suspect Killed in Fiery Standoff Files Claim

Courts: She says sheriff's deputies used excessive force on her son, who fatally shot an officer.

April 10, 2002|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The mother of James Allen Beck, the former Arcadia police officer who died in a fiery shootout in Stevenson Ranch last year, has filed a wrongful-death claim against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, lawyers said Tuesday.

In her claim, Donna Beck accuses the department of using excessive force against her son, who officials say shot and killed a sheriff's deputy during the standoff. The mother alleges that deputies let his two-story house burn down while he and his dog were inside, prevented firefighters from saving him and later altered evidence.

The county counsel's office has rejected the claim on the grounds that the documents were not filed by the six-month deadline. But Beck's attorney, Carol A. Watson, said the claim was filed on time.

Such claims commonly precede a lawsuit.

"In order to cover up the wrongful death of James Beck, deputy sheriffs and others tampered with and destroyed physical evidence at the scene, failed and refused to maintain the scene intact for coroner's investigators, and razed the residence before permitting [Donna Beck] or her agents or investigators to have access to it," the claim says.

Beck is seeking unspecified damages for the loss of her son, his funeral expenses and her anguish over his death.

The Sheriff's Department denied her allegations.

"There was no attempt to cover anything up," said Capt. Frank Merriman of the sheriff's homicide bureau. "We didn't tamper with anything."

The department was criticized a few months ago for the way it handled the investigation into Beck's death.

Coroner's investigators had said they were frustrated because deputies kept them from Beck's remains for a day after the Aug. 31 shootout and then required them to sift through the crime-scene debris at night.

Merriman acknowledged Tuesday that sheriff's investigators "weren't totally familiar" with the coroner's protocol that calls for investigations to be conducted in daylight.

"We will do it that way next time. That was just a misunderstanding," Merriman said. "Nothing was lost. Nothing was damaged."

But a coroner's report said that "because of mixing of debris at the scene prior to the arrival of coroner personnel ... information was lost." A coroner's official could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The coroner's report did not include a cause of death because it said Beck's body was too badly burned.

Beck, a 35-year-old felon who had a history of stockpiling weapons, opened fire at sheriff's deputies and federal agents who tried to serve him with a search warrant. During the three-hour shootout, Beck shot and killed Deputy Hagop "Jake" Kuredjian, officials said. After deputies lobbed a hot tear-gas canister into an upstairs bedroom, the house became engulfed in flames.

County firefighters sprayed water on adjacent homes but didn't try to save Beck or his house because they believed it would be too dangerous, officials said.

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