Facing a potential life sentence in federal prison, a former Los Angeles police officer who was the admitted mastermind of a home invasion robbery gang apologized for his crimes Monday, telling a federal judge, "I became something that I despised."
In a somewhat rambling, emotional address made moments before he was sentenced, Ruben Palomares told U.S. District Court Judge Gary A. Feess that he failed to face up to undisclosed "problems" he encountered as a young police officer and "I took a short cut."
"Instead of facing my problems, I ran from them," Palomares, 38, told the judge. "I became that that I hated. I became a criminal, something I never wanted to be."
Palomares, a former Golden Gloves boxer with tattoos of skulls peeking out from under the sleeves of his green jailhouse jumpsuit, broke into tears as he mentioned his five children and pleaded for leniency. He told Feess he wanted his freedom so he could "be the man that God created me to be . . . and not this person in a cage."
Before imposing sentence, Feess recounted Palomares' path from the boxing ring to a once promising career with the LAPD and said he found it difficult to reconcile with the defendant who stood before him.
"I still find it inexplicable," he said.
He then sentenced Palomares to 13 years in federal prison. Coupled with time that Palomares is serving on a related drug case, he probably will spend 20 years behind bars before he is released, prosecutors said. The disgraced officer, who also admitted to planting drugs on suspects and committing other crimes while working in the LAPD's Rampart Division in the 1990s, had earned a reputation as one of the department's most notoriously corrupt officers in recent memory.
Also sentenced Monday was Gabriel Loaiza, Palomares' cousin, who received a nine-year term for his role in the robbery ring. The courtroom was packed with the two defendants' friends and family, including many young children.
Feess, who praised Loaiza for his forthright testimony in the case, also asked for an explanation for his decision to become involved in the ring, which committed about 40 robberies, attempted robberies or burglaries between 1999 and 2001, netting more than $1 million in drugs and cash.
"Plain stupidity," the bespectacled defendant said. "I have no excuse. Just plain stupidity."
Both men received significantly reduced sentences because they had cooperated with federal prosecutors. Palomares could have been sentenced to life in prison. Loaiza was facing more than 25 years.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Douglas Miller told Feess that the two defendants had provided invaluable information that led to more than a dozen other people being convicted. Among them were active-duty police officers who "still may be out there today" if not for their cooperation, Miller said.
The gang, including Palomares, committed many of the robberies while wearing police uniforms and brandishing weapons in an attempt to make the victims believe that they were conducting legitimate police raids.
They even stole police cars from the Los Angeles Police Academy to enhance the authenticity of the operations.
The gang began to unravel seven years ago when several members, including Palomares and Loaiza, were arrested buying 10 kilos of cocaine from undercover federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents during a reverse sting in San Diego. Palomares and Loaiza were key government witnesses in the case against the only two defendants who decided to fight the charges at trial, Officers William and Joseph Ferguson, who are brothers. Both were convicted earlier this year.
Joseph was sentenced to eight years in prison. William, according to prosecutors, is facing a minimum sentence of 82 years when he is scheduled to be sentenced next week.
"Public corruption cases like this are among the most serious and important cases we prosecute," U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien said in a statement.
Feess seemed to agree. He noted that he struggled with balancing the seriousness of the crimes with the substantial assistance that Palomares and Loaiza had provided the prosecution, adding, "It was just essential that this case got prosecuted."
Palomares' and Loaiza's legal problems may not have ended with their sentencings Monday. Both men are also suspects in the 2000 stabbing death of a 23-year-old man in Huntington Park.
Federal authorities concluded that the crime was not within their jurisdiction, so it was not pursued as part of the civil rights conspiracy against the men and their co-defendants.
Neither defendant was granted immunity from state prosecution as part of his plea deal, attorneys said.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, said the homicide case is open and active.
"We're working on it," she said, declining further comment.