Two Los Angeles police officers sought to cover up their contact with a 16-year-old gang member who was shot to death on the border of a rival gang's territory just minutes after the officers released him from their patrol car, according to a district attorney's review of the case.
Neither officer, one of whom was accused of dropping off the same youth in rival gang territory as punishment a month earlier, documented the encounter with the victim on the day he was killed.
"It appears, based on this investigation, that [the officers] intentionally withheld information from the homicide detectives, internal affairs investigators and their chain of command," wrote Deputy Dist. Atty. Laura L. Laesecke, who investigated the officers as part of the Rampart scandal. "Not only does their lie obstruct justice, but it also calls into question the veracity of the rest of their ... statements" about the case.
Ultimately, Laesecke concluded that the officers could not be prosecuted for obstructing justice because the best evidence against them came from so-called compelled statements in which they were ordered to cooperate with authorities or face termination from the Los Angeles Police Department. Such statements cannot be used in court against those who made them.
Additionally, Laesecke wrote, the statute of limitations on such a charge had expired. Both officers, Mario Rios and Michael Montoya, deny any wrongdoing and remain on the job.
Montoya, now assigned to the community relations office in Northeast Division, seemed resigned to the criticism he and other officers have faced in the wake of the Rampart scandal.
"This is not the first bad thing that's been said about me. They're not true," Montoya said in a recent interview. "But what can be done about it?"
Montoya and Rios, now assigned to Southeast Division, were charged administratively by LAPD officials with making false statements about the case during an internal affairs investigation.
They were cleared of wrongdoing after they presented a declaration from a retired homicide detective who said he recalled Montoya mentioning that he knew the victim as a police informant, but did not remember whether the officer acknowledged having any contact with him on the day he was killed.
The detective refused to testify at the officers' hearing. In a recent interview with The Times, he declined to comment at length, saying only that he could not recall what the officers told him about their interaction with Eric Vega, known on the streets as "Baby Happy."
The incident, which was documented along with more than 80 other cases recently rejected for prosecution by the district attorney, came to light as part of the investigation into the Rampart scandal, launched in 1999 following the admissions and allegations of corrupt ex-cop Rafael Perez.
The Vega case itself, however, was never mentioned by Perez. Instead, investigators came upon it as they looked into allegations of officer misconduct in another Rampart case.
According to police reports, Montoya and Rios were working an "observation post" in the 1200 block of South Lake Street on Nov. 5, 1996, looking for suspicious gang or drug activity, when they spotted Eva Garcia dealing drugs. Based on their observations, other officers from the Rampart anti-gang CRASH unit swooped in and arrested her.
What the police reports do not state -- and what officers admitted years later during compelled interviews with detectives -- was that while Garcia was being arrested, Vega also was handcuffed and put in the back of Montoya and Rios' squad car.
The officers said later that Vega was not arrested but actually was a police informant who wanted to pass on information to them. He was handcuffed, the officers said, only so that his fellow gang members would not become suspicious of his cooperation.
After a few minutes of driving around with Vega in the car, the officers said, they concluded that Vega did not have any significant information and asked him where he wanted to be dropped off. Vega, they said, asked to be let out near a gang hangout known as El Castillo, where his mother was staying. The officers said they dropped him off there.
Moments later, at 4:39 p.m., Montoya and Rios received a radio call about a shooting. Within a minute, they were at the scene -- the first officers to arrive. The victim, they discovered, was Vega.
The killing occurred on the border of a rival gang's territory and was a couple of blocks from where the officers allegedly released Vega. Witnesses later implicated a rival gang member in the killing, but no arrests have been made.
Montoya said he told a sergeant and the lead homicide detective that night about their contact with the shooting victim. Like the detective, the sergeant said in a recent interview that he had no recollection of any such conversation.