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Rogue cop case to get its first full airing

Brothers are accused of staging police 'raids' to steal from drug dealers.

January 05, 2008|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

Sitting handcuffed at the witness stand, a former state corrections officer on Friday pointed his finger -- both figuratively and literally -- at a disgraced Los Angeles police officer accused of participating in a series of home-invasion-style robberies staged to look like legitimate police raids.

Rodrigo Duran, the former prison guard, told a federal court jury that he witnessed ex-LAPD officer William Ferguson commit several crimes while dressed in his police uniform, riding in a patrol car stolen from the police academy.

When asked to identify Ferguson for the record, Duran raised his cuffed hands and pointed a finger at the defendant, who sat impassively in a dark suit next to his attorney.

Ferguson and his brother Joseph, a suspended Long Beach police officer, went on trial this week for their alleged involvement in a band of rogue officers and others accused of committing more than 30 robberies or attempted robberies at locations across Southern California.

The admitted ringleader in the case -- former Los Angeles police officer Ruben Palomares -- and 14 other defendants have already pleaded guilty, and many have begun serving sentences in federal prison.

The Ferguson brothers are the only defendants to fight the charges detailed in a 54-count indictment alleging civil rights violations. Their trial, which promises the first full airing of facts in the 6-year-old case, began earlier this week in front of U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess and is expected to last several weeks.

William Ferguson is accused of posing as Palomares' partner during many of the robberies, in which the officers and others allegedly stole drugs, money and other valuables while pretending to conduct narcotics raids between 1999 and 2001.

Joseph Ferguson is accused of driving his brother and Palomares to the LAPD academy to steal cars to be used in the robberies and of acting as a lookout outside some of the locations while they were being robbed. He is also accused of making a fake 911 call that resulted in the arrest and eventual imprisonment of one of the drug dealers who had been providing information to them but was asking for a larger share of the take.

Prosecutors plan to call victims from at least 15 of the robberies to testify, according to a 43-page trial memorandum by Assistant U.S. Atty. Douglas M. Miller, the lead prosecutor on the case. They also plan to call Palomares to testify against his alleged former cohorts, but Miller declined to say when he was to take the stand.

Much of the testimony this week came from victims of robberies, who described people dressed as police arriving at their residences, saying they were there to search for drugs. Some said they were held at gunpoint or handcuffed as their houses were searched. One man wiped away tears as he described a 2001 encounter in which he said he was beaten with a baton and hit over the head with a sap because the "officers" didn't find the drugs they were looking for.

Some of the witnesses, however, appeared to back off from what prosecutors had deemed positive identifications of those involved.

One woman, the victim of an attempted robbery, was shown a photo "six-pack" in which she had supposedly circled William Ferguson's photo and signed her name next to it, indicating that he was one of the would-be robbers.

But under questioning, she said Ferguson merely looked like one of the assailants.

"I didn't circle it," the woman testified through a Spanish language interpreter. "I just put my name down because I was told to put my name down."

William Ferguson's attorney, Philip Deitch, asked during cross-examination whether it was the police who told her to put her name down. "Exactly," she said.

But the most dramatic testimony came Friday afternoon when jurors began hearing from Duran, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors. He faces a potential life sentence but stands to receive a significant reduction as a result of his cooperation.

Duran said he was recruited to join the ring by Palomares, a former high school buddy in Huntington Park.

Duran said Palomares told him that another old friend -- this one a drug dealer -- was tipping him off to where rival dealers had stashes of drugs or cash.

Under the deal they had worked out, Duran said, Palomares and his companions would show up at the locations dressed as police and say they were there to serve a search warrant for drugs. If they found any, they would turn them over to his dealer friend and her husband to sell and then get a cut of the profit. If they found money, they would split it.

"He said we'd be able make some money by doing the jobs she wanted us to do," Duran recalled under questioning by prosecutor Jeffrey S. Blumberg from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C.

Duran described several "jobs" he participated in along with Palomares and other crew members, including William Ferguson. Duran said Palomares and Ferguson would wear their LAPD uniforms, along with guns and badges, and employ police tactics while conducting the robberies.

At one point, Duran said he looked on as the two officers, both in uniform, loaded a stolen 50-gallon drum filled with marijuana into the back of pickup truck owned by Palomares' cousin. Duran said the drugs were later sold and he received a $3,500 cut of the profit.

Blumberg asked Duran, who had no previous criminal record, why he accepted Palomares' invitation to become involved in the ring.

"Greed," he said. "It was all about trying to help myself out because I was hurting financially."

"Did you think you'd get caught?" the prosecutor asked.

"Never," Duran replied.

"Why's that?" Blumberg asked.

"Because we were law enforcement."

Duran is expected to resume his testimony on Tuesday.

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scott.glover@latimes.com

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