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Russell Otis gave accomplice $500 for help in theft, prosecution contends

The former Compton Dominguez basketball coach says the money was payback for a loan from athletic director Ernie Carr.

June 24, 2009|Lance Pugmire

Law enforcement authorities implied in court Tuesday that Compton Dominguez High's championship-winning former boys' basketball coach paid off an administrative ally with a $500 check for his help in allegedly stealing $15,000 intended for the school district.

On the second day of testimony in the preliminary hearing of recently fired coach Russell Otis and recently resigned Compton Unified School District athletic director Ernie Carr, defense attorneys answered the payoff revelation by producing a witness who testified that then-Dominguez principal Garry Roberson gave verbal and written authority for Otis to cash the $15,000 check from Nike.

"I was in charge of verifying the check," defense witness Norma Cardenas of South Central-based King City Check Cashing testified at Los Angeles County Superior Court in Compton. "I talked to the principal . . . and told him Mr. Otis gave us the authorization letter. I asked him [Roberson] if he was aware of [the letter] and he said yes, that [the Dons' basketball team] had an event and had to fly and that's why they had to use our services."

Carr created a letter on his computer allegedly without Roberson's approval and with a fraudulent signature that said Otis had permission to cash the check, actions that led the Los Angeles County district attorney to charge Carr, 60, with felony grand theft and forgery, and Otis with commercial burglary counts.

Otis, 46, who led Dominguez to 10 Southern Section championships and six state titles from 1987 to 2008, also faces other felony and misdemeanor counts for allegedly harassing a former male Dominguez player to engage in a sex act.

Lead prosecutor Angela Brunson said Cardenas' testimony was "nothing devastating," but Otis' attorney Leonard Levine declared that the witness' statements represented "the end of the case as far as we're concerned."

Levine said his witness was more credible than prosecution witness Roberson, who suffered a stroke in December 2007 and testified his memory has weakened. Roberson insisted in Monday testimony he didn't endorse the Nike check for Otis' use or grant the coach authority to cash the check.

Law enforcement personnel maintain Otis lacked the authority to deposit the Nike money into his own account, and added there's no proof that he spent cash on basketball program items.

Carr's attorney, Michael Chaney, added, "There's nothing illegal about drafting a letter of authorization for a third-party signature. Ernie Carr has no business being in this case."

Yet, the district's lead police detective testified that Carr received a $500 check from Otis less than three weeks after he later successfully deposited the Nike check in November 2007. The detective, Tuan Le, testified that Carr denied receiving the check before he was confronted with documentation. Otis explained outside court that he was merely repaying a loan after Carr had fronted Otis some money for a basketball tournament.

Prosecutors also revealed that Otis -- a month removed from depositing the Nike $15,000 into his personal bank account -- accepted a $2,900 check from the district to help pay for his team's participation in a December 2007 Amare Stoudamire tournament in Florida when organizers of that tournament allegedly had covered many of the Dons' expenses.

The district police detective testified that a Dominguez assistant coach told him during an interview that he had paid his family's own way and also for his son, who was a member of the team.

The preliminary hearing before Superior Court Judge Gary Hahn will resume Thursday.

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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