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No Charges Filed in Bell Gardens Inquiry

Politics: Questions remain despite end of probe into ex-official's contention that mayor hit him with SUV.

January 09, 2002|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly seven months after a former Bell Gardens city councilman alleged that the mayor had tried to run him down with a vehicle, an investigation has ended with no criminal charges filed.

But the issue refuses to die, as the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and Sheriff's Department feud over the handling of the probe, and residents complain that questions remain unanswered.

The case's lead prosecutor and sheriff's investigator agree that insufficient evidence has been found to charge Mayor Ramiro Morales with deliberately striking former councilman Rogelio Rodriguez with his SUV last June.

Rodriguez contended that he suffered a severely bruised shoulder when he was hit by the side-view mirror of Morales' SUV as he left the City Hall parking lot.

But although Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Wilson wants further investigation into hit-and-run allegations, the lead investigator on the case said none is warranted.

"All I can do is the old Joe Friday thing. Just give them the facts," said Sgt. Thomas Thomas of the Sheriff's Department's traffic services unit. "If [Wilson] can't string a hit-and-run from that, then I don't think even Sherlock Holmes can."

Wilson, however, said that Thomas' report was incomplete, and that he decided reluctantly to close the case.

"I thought it merited further investigation to determine why the mayor left . . . the scene of an injury caused by a car," Wilson said. "Maybe [Thomas] should think about what else may be involved."

The incident in June had capped a tense day at City Hall, where residents had gathered to demonstrate against then-City Manager Maria Chacon, who had just been charged with conflict-of-interest violations.

The confrontation occurred when Morales, a Chacon supporter, was leaving the City Hall parking lot and encountered an anti-Chacon group that included Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said Morales gunned the engine of his sport-utility vehicle and bolted forward, striking Rodriguez so hard that the side-view mirror was torn from the vehicle.

But Morales said Rodriguez stiff-armed the mirror intentionally. Morales told investigators that he left the scene because he feared the protesters.

The probe was handled by the Sheriff's Department at the request of Bell Gardens Police Chief Manuel Ortega, who wanted an outside agency involved because of the political nature of the incident.

Thomas and Wilson concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge Morales with assault with a deadly weapon. A study determined that the vehicle was traveling at less than 5 mph, making it unlikely that Morales acted deliberately, Thomas said.

He said he didn't consider it a hit-and-run case because the mayor called police within 10 minutes of leaving the scene. But Wilson said drivers are obligated to stop.

Rodriguez's supporters expressed frustration Tuesday.

"Somebody's not doing their job well," said Rodriguez's daughter, Jennifer. "This is a serious case. It's not something that you leave floating like that."

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