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LAPD fingerprint expert charged with assault

Miguel Martinez Rivera, 50, allegedly sexually assaulted one of his tenants in an apartment in South L.A. The arrest of the high-ranking specialist in another blow for the embattled crime lab.

January 24, 2009|Joel Rubin and Richard Winton

One of the Los Angeles Police Department's highest-ranking fingerprint experts has been charged with sexually assaulting a woman, dealing another embarrassing blow to the department's deeply troubled crime laboratory.

Miguel Martinez Rivera, 50, of Montebello was taken into custody Wednesday morning shortly after reporting to work at the offices of the LAPD's Scientific Investigation Division, police said. Rivera, who owns an apartment building in South L.A., is accused of attacking one of his tenants earlier this month.

Rivera gained entry into the woman's Main Street apartment by telling her he had come to collect rent for the month, said Capt. Bob Green, head of the LAPD's 77th Street-area station. Once inside, Rivera allegedly shoved the 26-year-old woman against the wall and assaulted her, police and prosecutors said. The woman was able to "de-escalate" the situation and persuade Rivera to leave after several minutes, Green said.

Rivera, who has been placed on administrative leave, is charged with four felony counts, including assault with the intent to rape. If convicted, he could face up to nine years in prison.

Rivera, who has worked in the LAPD's crime lab for more than two decades, had been promoted several times to reach the highest rank among the civilian staff of forensic print specialists. According to the department's official description of the position, Rivera would have supervised less experienced members of the unit.

Attempts to reach Rivera were unsuccessful.

The incident comes at an inopportune time for the LAPD's Latent Print Unit, which has been battered in recent months by revelations of inadequate training, antiquated facilities, poor supervision, careless handling of evidence and other shortfalls.

In October, The Times reported on a confidential LAPD audit of the print unit that found two women had been falsely implicated in crimes because the department's fingerprint experts wrongly identified them as suspects. Subsequent reports by The Times detailed that the operation had been plagued by problems for years. Working in a converted kitchen facility, print analysts often misplaced fingerprint evidence and failed to diligently verify matches made by others, among other shortcomings. About the same time, the department's DNA lab -- also a part of the Scientific Investigation Division -- came under severe criticism for its failure to manage a backlog of unexamined evidence from thousands of cases.

In the wake of the news reports, Police Chief William J. Bratton stripped an assistant chief of command of the division and convened a multiagency task force to conduct a thorough review of the fingerprint and DNA operations. This week, the head of the task force, Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, said the department has begun a review of the work done by the print specialists responsible for the two false identifications -- more than 1,100 cases.

"We're taking this very seriously and nothing is an excuse for this," said Beck, who emphasized that the arrest of Rivera should not further tarnish others in the embattled unit. Beck said he did not know of any workplace discipline problems involving Rivera.

Rivera, who was released on $175,000 bail, is scheduled to be arraigned Feb. 19 at the downtown Los Angeles County criminal courthouse. LAPD's Green and Jane Robison, spokeswoman for the district attorney, declined to give details regarding the evidence against Rivera but said detectives had more than just the woman's account of the attack. "We believe we have enough corroborating evidence to get a conviction," Robison said.

The woman, who had been homeless before renting Rivera's apartment, waited several days to report the encounter because she was afraid Rivera would evict her, Green said. However, when Rivera returned the following week and tried again to enter her apartment, she fled and contacted police.

Green said detectives are searching property records to determine if Rivera owns other apartments in an effort to find other possible victims.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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