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Police give detailed account of death

Officers and the parolee who died in custody had a `knock-down, drag-out fight,' a captain says.

February 08, 2007|Jessica Garrison and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

The captain at the Los Angeles police division where a 31-year-old man died in custody over the weekend said Wednesday that the dead man and officers engaged in a "knock-down, drag-out fight."

"This was not pretty," said Capt. William Fierro. "However, it was necessary."

The altercation between officers and Mauricio Cornejo lasted more than 15 minutes, as police chased, wrestled with and eventually corralled the man outside the Ramona Gardens housing project in Boyle Heights.

Fierro said that a preliminary coroner's report found that Mauricio Cornejo had not suffered any blunt-force trauma to the head, although his body had "superficial wounds." The cause of death was still pending, he said.

Police held a news conference after days of intensifying questions about Cornejo's death, which occurred about 45 minutes after officers pulled him over for a broken taillight at Ramona Gardens. It came after internal investigators briefed Police Chief William J. Bratton on their initial probe.

Some witnesses have said they saw officers hitting Cornejo on the head with a baton after he was handcuffed -- a charge Fierro denied Wednesday. Another witness said she saw police kick Cornejo after he was brought to the station. Fierro said that did not happen.

In the Police Department's most detailed account yet of the incident, Fierro said officers stopped Cornejo about 6:45 p.m.

Cornejo presented a phony driver's license, but officers recognized him as a wanted parolee, Fierro said. Cornejo was asked to get out of the vehicle, which he did, but then he ran, Fierro said. Officers chased him and used their batons "numerous times." Along the way, he said, Cornejo tossed a .45-caliber handgun.

Cornejo was knocked down a few times but jumped back up, which suggested he may have been on drugs, Fierro said.

Confirming witness accounts, Fierro said Cornejo was pleading for help at the time. Eventually, he said, more officers arrived and "jumped on him." Police punched Cornejo in the face during the struggle, but Fierro insisted that he was not struck in the head with a baton or kicked.

Cornejo continued to put up a fight even after he was in handcuffs, Fierro said. But the captain said officers did not hit him once he was in handcuffs.

At 7:03 p.m., police loaded Cornejo into a squad car and took him to Hollenbeck Station, arriving at 7:13 p.m.

In the car, Cornejo appeared to experience medical difficulty, and officers had to carry him into the station. Within a few minutes, officers summoned paramedics.

They pronounced Cornejo dead at 7:30 p.m.

Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger, who oversees the department's operations, agreed that officers had acted appropriately.

On Wednesday, Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the area, pleaded for peace. "We need to have calm at this time," he said. "Let's not let the rumor mill heighten our excitement."

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