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Baca Explains Suicide in Jail to L.A. Group

March 19, 2004|Jose Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

Addressing community concerns that a suspected cop-killer from South Los Angeles might have been murdered while in custody, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials explained Thursday at a church meeting how Kenrick Johnson hanged himself.

The meeting at Lewis Metropolitan CME Church was called by pastors and public officials seeking to get answers for a community historically distrustful of law enforcement.

"There is no benefit in trying to spin," Sheriff Lee Baca told about 70 people. "This tragedy needs to be understood, and we've tried to explain it the best that we can."

Johnson, 32, was arrested Feb. 20 on suspicion of killing Los Angeles police Officer Ricardo Lizarraga. According to officials, Lizarraga had responded to a domestic-violence call in the 1700 block of West 48th Street when Johnson emerged from a home and shot him.

Some community members became suspicious when officials said Johnson had hanged himself Feb. 24.

On Thursday, Lt. Ray Peavy told the audience that Johnson was being held in a cell alone and that deputies, who had been checking on him every half-hour, last saw him alive at 8:30 p.m.

Peavy said Johnson had been wearing an Ace bandage around his leg to treat a bite he got from a police dog during his arrest.

Johnson apparently climbed on a table to reach a high metal bar. He tied the bandage to the bar and wrapped it around his neck, officials said. He was found 10 minutes before his next scheduled check at 9 p.m.

Several community members asked why Johnson was not under a suicide watch.

"I'm interested in seeing what is the specific policy. How do you determine whether someone has a suicidal tendency?" asked the Rev. James Thomas of the Living World Community Church.

Officials said Johnson was not put on suicide watch because he had not shown signs of being suicidal.

Undersheriff William Stonich invited a delegation from the community to visit the Men's Central Jail to read the policies on suicide watches, see the cell and examine other evidence.

He said the coroner's office is investigating the death.

Some residents saw the meeting as a positive step toward improving the relationship between the community and law enforcement.

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