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The State

A homicide case takes a back seat to a theft ring

August 15, 2007|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

Officially, the slaying of 23-year-old Erick Mendoza is considered unsolved by the Huntington Park Police Department.

But that's not for lack of evidence.

Police believe they know who is responsible for the December 2000 killing, and they've known it for more than six years.

But the case has taken a back seat to a larger government interest: the successful prosecution of a gang of home invasion-style robbers, some of whom just happened to have been Los Angeles Police Department officers.

The ring leader, former LAPD Officer Ruben Palomares, and 12 other people have pleaded guilty and are serving sentences in federal prison, but two others have denied the charges and are scheduled to go on trial next month.

Palomares and two of his cohorts are expected to be the government's star witnesses in the case. But they also are suspects in Mendoza's stabbing death, according to several investigators who spoke on the condition that they not be named because the case is pending.

So prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office find themselves in the awkward position of seeking to shield the three men from the murder allegations despite compelling evidence that they committed the crime.

The prosecutors don't want their key witnesses portrayed as killers -- or perceived as liars, if they deny the allegations -- in front of the jury. Nor do they want defense attorneys to suggest that prosecutors are dragging their feet on the killing as part of an unwritten deal to secure the men's cooperation.

Prosecutors have filed court papers seeking to bar the accused officers' defense attorneys from mentioning or asking questions about the Mendoza case.

"To do so would only serve to besmirch the government's witnesses and cast them in a negative light," wrote Assistant U.S. Atty. Douglas M. Miller in a recent court filing. "They have never even been charged with [Mendoza's] murder, much less convicted."

A hearing on the matter by U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess is to continue Aug. 28.

What's strange about Miller's characterization is that neither he nor anyone else in law enforcement familiar with the case could have much doubt that Palomares, his cousins Gabriel and Oscar Loaiza, and Alvin Moon played some role in the assault on Mendoza.

The U.S. attorney's office had been considering charging Palomares and the others but decided it did not fit within the framework of the home-invasion robberies case, which was a federal civil rights prosecution based on the notion that the suspects were acting under color of authority when they committed the crimes. Because the slaying was seen as unrelated, it was referred to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

There, it bounced from prosecutor to prosecutor before it was assigned to then-Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Andrew Chung in May 2006. Two months later, he left to become a Superior Court judge.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, said the Mendoza case remained open and was assigned to a prosecutor in the Major Crimes Unit. She hinted there would be more activity.

"Justice delayed is not always justice denied," she said.

The following account is based on a review of court documents and the Huntington Park Police Department's "murder book" of evidence as well as interviews with investigators and attorneys in the case:

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'Let's go get him'

Shortly after 4 am. on Dec. 9, a beige BMW went screeching into the parking lot of Las Playas restaurant, a popular late-night hangout in Bell. Erick Mendoza was behind the wheel.

Mendoza had entered the United States illegally with his uncle when he was a teenager to find work and send money to his family in a remote and impoverished village in Mexico. When the uncle suddenly decided to return to Mexico, Mendoza was left behind and was taken in by a local family.

He attended Bell High School and earned a letter in wrestling. After leaving school, he landed a job at a tire store, where his skill as a salesman translated into a salary of about $3,000 month.

Along the way, though, Mendoza had begun using drugs and alcohol; as one girlfriend put it, he did "stupid things" when he was drunk.

The night he pulled into the lot at Las Playas, Mendoza had been drinking and snorting cocaine. He stumbled as he got out of his car and began staring at a group of men near a black SUV, a security guard at the restaurant later told police.

"Is there a problem?" Mendoza asked the men.

"Yeah, you're in our way. Move," the security guard, Glenn Quevedo, recalled one of the men near the SUV saying.

Quevedo said the man also pulled out a gun and pointed it at Mendoza.

"Should I break him?" the man asked Quevedo, referring to killing him.

Thinking he was about to witness a killing, and then be killed himself, Quevedo responded, "No, don't break him."

The guard said Mendoza got back in his car and tore out of the parking lot.

"Let's go get him," one of the men near the SUV said as they all piled into the vehicle and gave chase.

Quevedo called 911.

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The trail goes cold

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