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Former LAPD Officer Suspected of Running a Ring of Robbers

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

Federal authorities believe a former LAPD officer organized friends, relatives and police officers into a network of thieves who stole drugs, money and property during home-invasion robberies, sometimes while in uniform, according to law enforcement documents and people with knowledge of the investigation.

Ruben Palomares, a former Rampart Division officer who is awaiting sentencing on drug trafficking charges in San Diego, is being investigated for allegedly overseeing the ring, which is suspected of committing dozens of robberies in Southern California over several years, sources familiar with the case said.

Palomares, 33, and his cohorts had keys to squad cars parked at the Los Angeles Police Academy and would use those vehicles during their crime sprees, authorities said. Palomares' crew would go on rampages in which they indiscriminately beat up blacks, according to a statement taken from one group member by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Current or former officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, Long Beach Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department are under scrutiny as part of the probe. Other members of the network, which authorities believe numbered more than a dozen people, allegedly included security guards and a professional female boxer.

Attorney Mike Lackie, who represents one of those under investigation, confirmed that prosecutors have told them of the probe and of their intention to charge his client, a prison guard and former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy named Rodrigo Duran. "They told me my guy was definitely going to be indicted," Lackie said. He added that his client has done nothing wrong.

Palomares came to the attention of authorities during the LAPD's interrogations of former Officer Rafael Perez, who described extensive police misconduct as part of a plea bargain that reduced his sentence on cocaine charges in return for information about corrupt officers. In those debriefings, Perez told authorities that Palomares once intimated that he had been involved in an unjustified shooting and had covered it up.

While the LAPD investigated those allegations, Palomares was committing other crimes, according to federal prosecutors and agents.

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Drug Bust

On June 6, 2001, Palomares was arrested for buying 10 kilograms of cocaine from undercover DEA agents in San Diego. Another man arrested at the same time implicated Palomares in a string of robberies and an unsolved murder in Huntington Park, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in the case.

Following up on Palomares' arrest, agents searched his home; prosecutors said in court that those agents found semiautomatic assault rifles and a money-counting machine, among other things.

FBI agents, with the assistance of LAPD internal affairs investigators, are continuing to explore Palomares and his associates. Some of his associates are cooperating with the federal grand jury investigation, sources said.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas O'Brien, who is heading the probe, declined to comment about the case other than to confirm that there is a civil rights investigation underway.

Several alleged members of Palomares' crew, personally or through their attorneys, acknowledged that they have been questioned by federal authorities in connection with the case. One indication of the seriousness of the probe is that on several occasions officials with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., have flown to Los Angeles to participate in interviews with some of those under investigation.

Palomares, a onetime Golden Gloves boxer who sparred with such fighters as Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley, is expected to be sentenced Wednesday in connection with his drug arrest in San Diego. He pleaded guilty in the case last year. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Palomares is expected to receive about 15 years in prison.

"I made the worst mistake of my life," Palomares said in a written plea for leniency submitted by his lawyer, David H. Bartick. "I turned away from everything I knew to be true and steadfast, a decision I will regret every day for the rest of my life."

Palomares said he has turned his life over to God and wants to become a minister.

In court documents, he describes his transformation from police officer to criminal as one that began with an injury.

About a year before he was arrested in San Diego, Palomares said, he underwent surgery for a shoulder injury and was placed on disability from the LAPD. While off-duty, he said, he began abusing alcohol and pain pills.

As the months wore on, Palomares said, he was running out of disability payments and becoming distraught over how to provide for his five young children with two women, one of whom is an LAPD officer.

In desperation, Palomares said, he went to work for drug dealers, collecting bills for them, according to a report prepared by a psychologist after his arrest.

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