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Bratton Says LAPD Failed to Heed Tips About Faith Healer

The police chief orders an investigation to find out why detectives didn't check out complaints dating to May 2001.

November 02, 2002|Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Friday he has ordered an investigation to determine why detectives failed to check out complaints about a Van Nuys faith healer charged this week with the death of a customer who collapsed after receiving two injections.

Bratton said the department had received several complaints from a woman caller dating back to May 2001 about possible illegal activities being conducted by Reina Isabel Chavarria, 48. Detectives tracked down the caller and interviewed her Friday morning.

"We had received some information about these women more than a year ago," Bratton said. "I am concerned, very concerned ... about how the tip was handled and processed within the department."

The woman caller also placed at least two calls to the Police Department's narcotics division downtown, police said. The information was written up and sent to the Van Nuys-based Valley narcotics unit, sources said.

But after that, it's unclear what happened.

Bratton said he is not looking to place blame or conduct "a witch hunt." Rather, he said, he wants to know whether the department's actions were a personnel failure or a systematic problem within the LAPD.

"We will do everything in our power to learn what actions the department did take, what it didn't take and whether those actions may have, in any way at all, contributed to possible prevention of the death of this man," he said.

A key element of the investigation, Bratton said, will focus on whether reassignments of narcotics detectives to homeland security details following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to a communication breakdown.

The chief's press conference underscored his pledge this week to create a "transparent" department, allowing for more public scrutiny in a bid to enhance credibility and improve the quality of policing.

"It is not easy to come here this morning and indicate there may be problems with the department's handling of this matter," he told reporters Friday. "But what we are going to try and convince the public of our sincere interest in determining what went wrong."

Bratton dispatched Van Nuys Division Capt. Bob McNamara to offer condolences to the family of the victim, Roberto Caceres, 54, on behalf of the chief and the department.

Caceres and his wife traveled from Santa Ana to Chavarria's home in the 15700 block of Marlin Place after learning of her practice through a popular Spanish-language radio station. Caceres was seeking treatment for a rash that had spread all over his body.

Police said the first time Caceres went to Chavarria's house, he paid $310 and was given ointments and pills. These didn't cure the rash, and he returned Monday for two injections.

After the shots, Caceres went into convulsions and died minutes later at Valley Presbyterian Hospital, police said.

An autopsy was conducted Friday, but toxicology tests are not expected to be completed for about six weeks, said Craig Harvey, spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office. Examiners said, however, that Caceres received two injections, one containing vitamin B-12 and the other with the steroid B-Methasone, used to treat allergic disorders.

Chavarria and her assistant, Margarita Montes, 28, who police said administered the injections, were charged this week with involuntary manslaughter and the unauthorized practice of medicine causing death. If convicted, each defendant faces up to nine years in prison.

According to city records, Chavarria has lived at the Marlin Place address at least since 1997. Neighbors said they observed a constant flow of mostly working-class Latino families, with people lining up in front of the house as early as 4:30 a.m.

One neighbor said he called police when he noticed men and women leaving their children in their cars while they went into the home. Another resident said he complained by phone to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski's office about an illegal business being operated and that it was creating a parking and litter problem.

Sandy Kievman, an aide to Miscikowski, said she could not recall such a complaint.

The city's Building and Safety Department received a complaint in 2000 that the Marlin Place home was possibly being used as a "massage parlor and medical office," said Bob Steinbach, chief inspector for the agency.

"We did a subsequent investigation, and there was no evidence of either," he said.

*

Times staff writers Jean Guccione and Wendy Thermos contributed to this report.

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