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LAPD Shaken by Officer's Slaying

February 22, 2004|Jill Leovy and Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writers

Noise and activity normally fill Los Angeles police station houses on weekend mornings. But at LAPD's Newton station early Saturday, there was an eerie quiet as officers mourned the loss of one of their ranks, who was shot to death while responding to a domestic violence call Friday.

Officer Ricardo Lizarraga, 30, was shot allegedly by Kenrick Johnson, 32, as Lizarraga and his partner confronted Johnson in a South Los Angeles apartment. Lizarraga died Friday afternoon after surgeons at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center fought to save his life.

The slaying of Lizarraga was the beginning of a sad and busy 24 hours for the LAPD. On Saturday afternoon, an angry LAPD Chief William J. Bratton announced that a second officer had been slightly wounded in another shooting earlier that morning.

An unidentified undercover officer suffered a graze wound when he and a colleague tried to break up a fight. The scuffle, which included gunshots, had spilled into the street from a party near the intersection of 84th Street and Broadway in South Los Angeles, Bratton said.

The officers, who were searching for a murder suspect, had been watching the party from a van. They were shot at as they identified themselves as police. The officers fired back, killing one suspect who had tried to flee and wounding another. The names of the suspects were not released.

At a Saturday afternoon news conference, Bratton said he was incensed by the gunfire directed at members of the force. He said that LAPD officers had been shot at eight times so far in 2004, in addition to 40 such incidents last year.

The police chief blamed a number of factors, but said the primary problem was "so many people with guns and they're not reluctant to use them -- [they're] sociopaths."

The suspect in the Lizarraga killing was being held Saturday in Men's Central Jail on suspicion of homicide and violating his parole from a prior robbery conviction, police said.

Bratton said that Johnson was being uncooperative and that police were still trying to find the weapon he allegedly used.

Lizarraga's death was the first on-duty homicide of an LAPD officer since 1998, and the first in the Newton Division since 1945. The division covers the part of Los Angeles directly south of downtown.

In interviews Saturday, fellow officers described the 30-year-old Lizarraga as a cheerful, soft-spoken, hardworking officer with a stocky build and a distinctive bald head, who loved his job and in April had landed an assignment on a fledging special problems unit in the Newton division.

He leaves a wife, Joyce. His mother arrived from Mexico at 2 a.m. Saturday after hearing the news of his death. Nearly his entire recruit class from the Police Academy showed up at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after word of the shooting spread, said Deputy Chief Gary Brennan.

Lizarraga was born and raised in Los Angeles and went to Hamilton High School. He attended Santa Monica College and worked for the Ralphs supermarket chain before fulfilling a longtime goal of joining the LAPD in September 2001.

Lizarraga's day-shift colleagues showed up for roll call as usual at 6:45 a.m. Saturday, where they were met by Bratton, clergy members, a psychologist and other LAPD officials.

Bratton talked to them about the many police funerals he had attended, and told them, "they are all tough ... this week will be tough," according to Brennan. Other superiors spoke to the officers about strength, cohesiveness and supporting each other through grief.

Lt. Marty Cotwright of the Newton Division said the atmosphere was extremely somber, and some officers were in tears. The officers then asked to be left alone, without the psychologist, and they remained together with the doors shut until nearly 10 a.m., extending the half-hour roll call by more than two hours.

Most then took the day off, officials said. The station house remained hushed as officers from other divisions took over their duties.

Cotwright said one image has stayed with him since Friday: the expression on Officer Joel Ruiz's face when he was told that his partner had died. Ruiz just sat with a "look of horror" on his face, Cotwright said.

A relatively inexperienced officer who grew up on the city's Westside, Lizarraga -- known as Rick -- was often assigned the least desirable patrol jobs: manning checkpoints along perimeters, for example, or handling questions from the public at the station's front desk.

The latter job, viewed as a wearisome chore by many officers, was one at which Lizarraga excelled. He displayed considerable patience as he dealt with a variety of concerns.

Although fellow officers said that Lizarraga was of Mexican descent, he did not speak Spanish, and Cotwright remembered him frequently combing the station for Spanish speakers and "physically dragging them to the desk" to help people.

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