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Suit in Slaying Leads to Apology

Settlement: The family of a man killed by El Monte police during a drug probe will get $3 million. Deal includes department reforms.

September 26, 2002|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The city of El Monte agreed Wednesday to pay $3 million to the family of a 65-year-old man who was fatally shot in the back after officers stormed his bedroom during a narcotics investigation.

The city also agreed to comply with 15 conditions--including apologizing to the man's wife and a series of reforms for its Police Department.

The wrongful-death settlement at Compton Superior Court appears to climax a case that began three years ago when the El Monte Police Department's SWAT team went to the Compton house of Mario Paz looking for evidence in a wide-ranging narcotics investigation.

The investigators came to the Paz house armed with a search warrant because one of their suspects was known to have received mail there. In the chaos of the drug operation that night, Paz was shot.

The settlement was announced by attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. at his offices in Los Angeles. He was joined by eight members of the Paz family, including the dead man's widow, Maria Paz.

"Paz means peace and my father was truly a man of peace," said Maria Derain, one of his children. "The Paz family will begin the healing process."

Cochran said two of the conditions--the apology and changes to make sure that police officers treat relatives of shooting victims sensitively after such incidents--were keys to preventing the case from going to trial.

"We think this is a unique settlement," Cochran said. "This family has been relentless ... in trying to change the way this department does its work."

He acknowledged El Monte officials for agreeing to the conditions.

"This is unprecedented," he said. "We have to give credit to the lawyers on the other side, the City Council of El Monte."

El Monte settled primarily to avoid additional litigation costs for a case whose outcome was too uncertain, said Eugene Ramirez, the special attorney who represented the city.

As for the concessions, some are established policies already or practices that now will become part of the Police Department's written record, according to city officials.

The department's policies are "constantly being reviewed and updated ... for the protection of our community members," said Clarke Moseley, El Monte's city attorney.

Regarding the apology, the city did not deny that the officers were involved in "a series of actions" that resulted in the death of a person.

"We don't view it as whether we were liable for his death," Moseley said. "The city of El Monte regrets the loss of any life. We did not have any difficulty in expressing our concern for the loss of a family member."

City officials also noted that long before the civil suit was settled, the incident was investigated by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and the U.S. Justice Department--both of which declined to file charges against the officers involved.

By agreeing to the conditions in the civil suit, El Monte officials said, the city is showing progressive thinking.

The shooting on Aug. 9, 1999, occurred during an investigation into suspected drug dealers Marcos Beltran Lizarraga and Paul Lizarraga.

A few days before the Paz shooting, officers had searched a home in Chino connected to Marcos Lizarraga and found $75,000 in cash. Then they searched his home in Valinda and found 400 pounds of marijuana and three loaded assault rifles.

The investigators, who believed that Lizarraga received mail at the Paz home, acquired a warrant and went to the Compton house.

The officers burst into the house about 11 p.m., finding several members of the family at home, including the older Paz and his wife in their bedroom.

Initially, the officers' explanation for the shooting varied--that they believed Paz was armed or that he was reaching for a weapon.

The officers found $10,000 in cash and weapons.

Despite the settlement, El Monte police officials still believe there was enough connection to the Paz home to suspect someone in the house was involved in narcotics.

Officials said that mail sent to the Paz home for Lizarraga was found in Lizarraga's possession at the other houses searched. They point out that three weapons found in the Paz house were stolen.

"We believe the family was involved to some extent," Moseley said.

The family has denied involvement throughout the case. No family member was ever charged, and the money was returned to the family.

According to the conditions, El Monte's mayor or chief of police must apologize within 10 days of the settlement.

Other key conditions address some of the family's main concerns about the events that night.

They include the training of officers on how to give commands in Spanish--members of the Paz family said they did not understand that police had entered their home and feared they were being robbed.

Another condition says police may not "unreasonably" delay getting medical help for a person who has been shot.

They call for better communications when El Monte police travel to other cities to conduct operations and for the officers to make reasonable efforts to find out who is in a house targeted for a high-risk warrant.

One of the key conditions, though, is that the city "implement a policy ensuring the humane treatment of individuals and particularly family members who have witnessed and suffered the [loss] of a loved one as a result of a police officer's use of force."

This condition was prompted, Cochran said, by the hours of interrogation the family of Mario Paz was put through after some of them witnessed the patriarch's death.

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