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Retired chef caught up in gang sweep

Ramon Huerta spent two nights in a federal lockup in downtown L.A. before questions raised by his daughter and a reporter set him free.

May 26, 2009|Scott Glover

As Ramon Huerta stood shirtless and shivering in the frontyard of the Pico Rivera house he's called home for more than four decades, the 64-year-old retired chef struggled to comprehend the questions being shouted by the heavily armed police who began pounding on his front door some time before dawn.

Where are the guns, they wanted to know. Where are the drugs?

Huerta -- a soft-spoken grandfather who retired last year to care for his wife, who is battling colon cancer -- said he tried to tell them he didn't know what they were talking about, that they had the wrong man.

Nonetheless, he was handcuffed and hauled away as part of a massive gang sweep last week that federal authorities touted as the largest of its kind in the nation.

Huerta would spend the next two nights in a federal lockup in downtown Los Angeles before authorities acknowledged that "there exists the very real possibility" that he isn't the heroin dealer they were looking for.

He was released from custody on Saturday after inquires by The Times.

According to an indictment unsealed last week, a Ramon Huerta was identified as an alleged heroin dealer with connections to the Varrio Hawaiian Gardens street gang, which authorities began investigating four years ago after one its members murdered a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.

The indictment said the man was captured in wiretapped telephone conversations speaking in coded language about heroin and conspiring to sell the drug on several occasions.

A search warrant affidavit seeking permission to search the alleged drug dealer's residence described Huerta's Pico Rivera home in detail. His house was raided early Thursday as part of the Hawaiian Gardens gang case, dubbed "Operation Knock Out."

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said officials now believe there had been a misidentification regarding Huerta and were "continuing to look into" how it occurred. Prosecutors drove to a federal magistrate's home Saturday in order to have the charges dismissed, he said.

In an interview Sunday, Huerta sat surrounded by family members in his living room as he described the ordeal, which began some time between 4 and 5 a.m. last Thursday.

He said he and his wife, Myrna, 63, were fast asleep when they heard a pounding on their metal security gate that was so forceful "it felt like the whole house was shaking."

Dressed only in shorts, he went to the front door, thinking there must be some crisis in the neighborhood and the police were there to tell him what to do.

Instead, he said, they ordered him outside at gunpoint, cuffed his hands behind his back and began badgering him with questions.

Soon his wife was outside too, dressed only in her pajamas. Her hands were not cuffed, the couple said, but when she asked to go to the bathroom some time later, a female officer escorted her into the restroom and stayed there while she relieved herself.

Huerta said the police ransacked the interior of the house and back patio, where he tends to his prized potted plants. They also dug holes in the backyard. He said he continually asked what they thought he had done wrong but got no answer.

"To tell you the truth, they were rude," recalled Huerta, a gourmet chef who prepared such dishes as chateaubriand, chicken cordon bleu and lobster Thermidor while working at various restaurants, country clubs and upscale retirement homes.

He said he kept thinking to himself, "how can you not see that I'm not a criminal?"

After about half an hour, Huerta said, he was placed in a van and driven to various locations where other arrestees were put inside with him.

He was booked and eventually taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A.

At a court hearing Friday afternoon, he said prosecutors sought to have him held without bail because they considered him a flight risk. The judge set bail at $100,000, he said. The family coughed up $400 to get the bail bonds process started, but on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, they weren't expecting to see Huerta until today at the earliest.

Huerta, meanwhile, shuddered at the thought of spending a long weekend in jail.

"I was scared to death," he said.

His first morning in custody he fell while trying to get down from the top bunk and split open his lip. He asked for a doctor, he said, but was told he'd have to wait.

On the plus side, he said, his age seemed to garner respect from his fellow inmates, who treated him nicely and gave him chocolate and coffee, which he couldn't buy because he hadn't been in long enough to go through the process that allows inmates to receive funds.

Though Huerta didn't know it at the time, his daughter, Marianne, had set in motion a process that would secure his release.

She sent an e-mail to a Times reporter on Friday afternoon insisting that her father had been wrongfully arrested. The reporter called the U.S. attorney's office, repeating the daughter's claim and asking whether prosecutors were sure they had the right man.

According to Mrozek, federal prosecutors and others "worked late into the night Friday and on Saturday morning" to determine whether Huerta had been falsely charged. Once officials became concerned about the likelihood that he had, Mrozek said, "we took immediate action to get him out of jail."

It was so fast, Huerta said, that he found himself standing on a street corner dressed in his jail-issue clothing as he waited for his family to pick him up. He said he was told the clothes he was arrested in wouldn't be available until Tuesday.

"I told them to burn 'em," he quipped.

Though Huerta didn't seem particularly bitter about his experience, he said he's worried about what his neighbors will think.

"I feel embarrassed to go outside," he said.

--

scott.glover@latimes.com

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