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Two Officers Are Sued Over Teen's Slaying

Mother says they are to blame for death of son, who they left on border of a rival gang's turf.

March 11, 2003|Matt Lait and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

The mother of a 16-year-old gang member who was killed on the border of a rival gang's territory just minutes after two Los Angeles police officers released him from the back of their patrol car filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Monday against the officers, alleging they were directly responsible for her son's death.

The Nov. 5, 1996, shooting death of Eric Vega, whose street name was Baby Happy, was the focus of a district attorney's investigation during the Rampart corruption scandal.

Prosecutors concluded last year that the two officers -- Michael Montoya and Mario Rios -- lied about their involvement with Vega just before his slaying and accused the officers of obstructing justice.

Prosecutors, however, did not file criminal charges against the pair because the best evidence in the case came from "compelled statements" that could not be presented in court. Additionally, the statute of limitations on the alleged crimes by the two officers had expired. The lawsuit by Vega's mother, Blanca Prudhomme, seeks unspecified monetary damages.

"We want justice," said Alma Vega, Eric's sister. "We want the person who did this to my brother to pay for what they did. We want to get to the bottom of this.'

Alma Vega, a 30-year-old nurse, said she and her mother believe that Eric would be alive today were it not for the police. "I blame them 100%," she said.

Attorney Gregory A. Yates, who represents Prudhomme and her daughter, said prosecutors were "right on target" in finding that Montoya and Rios "lied and obstructed justice when they covered up the circumstances surrounding Eric Vega's death."

He accused the Los Angeles Police Department of failing to investigate a complaint lodged by Prudhomme the day after her son's death in which she said police were somehow connected to his murder.

That same day, Vega's girlfriend told police that Rios and another officer had taken Vega away about a month earlier and dropped him in rival gang territory. She said Vega told her the officers let him out of the car and then shouted to nearby gang members that Vega was one of their rivals. She said Vega told her that the gang members chased him and ripped his shirt, but were not able to stop him.

Allegations of officers dropping off gang members in rival territory as a form of punishment or harassment was a common theme in the Rampart investigation.

Lt. Horace Frank, an LAPD spokesman, called Vega's death a "tragic incident," but declined comment on details of the lawsuit, saying it was against department policy to discuss specifics of pending litigation.

Montoya and Rios are under investigation by the U.S. attorney's office for potentially criminal conduct in connection with the 1996 shooting of Javier Francisco Ovando, an unarmed gang member who was shot and subsequently framed by police. The two officers who actually shot Ovando -- Rafael Perez and Nino Durden -- have told authorities that Montoya and Rios went along with a cover story to make the circumstances surrounding the shooting appear more tactically sound.

Montoya and Rios, through their attorneys, have denied wrongdoing in both the Vega and Ovando cases.

On the day Vega was killed, according to police reports, Montoya and Rios were working an "observation post" in the 1200 block of South Lake Street when they spotted a woman named Eva Garcia dealing drugs. The officers radioed nearby "chase units," who swooped in and made an arrest. What the police reports from that day do not indicate is that at the same time Garcia was being arrested, Vega also was handcuffed and put into the back of Montoya's and Rios' squad car.

Years later, during interviews with internal affairs investigators, the officers admitted taking Vega away in their police car. But they said he was not being arrested. Rather, they said he was an informant, and the handcuffs were just for show so that his friends would not get suspicious.

After driving around for a few minutes, it became clear that Vega did not have any significant information, the officers told investigators. They then dropped him off in front of an 18th Street gang hangout known as "El Castillo," where he said his mother was staying.

Moments after letting Vega out of their car, the officers received a radio call about a shooting. They were at the scene within a minute and found that the young man they had just dropped off was the victim.

Vega was gunned down on the border of a rival gang's territory, about two blocks from where the officers said he had been released. Witnesses later implicated a rival gang member in the killing, but no arrests have been made.

Neither Montoya nor Rios documented their contact with Vega in paperwork they filled out after he was killed. Nor was his detention mentioned in the report prepared by the Rampart Division homicide detective who responded to the scene.

"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 Laesecke, the prosecutor who reviewed the case for a potential criminal filing against the officers. "Not only does their lie obstruct justice, but it also calls into question the veracity of the rest of their ... statements" about the case.

District attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons declined comment on the lawsuit.

Montoya and Rios were accused of misconduct by the LAPD in connection with the Vega case, but both officers were cleared of wrongdoing by a departmental disciplinary panel.

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