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Trutanich hazy on details of gang attack, but campaign is not

Prosecutor's tale of a 1985 incident in which he was under fire from gang members is a centerpiece of his campaign for district attorney, but he has told various versions over the years.

May 11, 2012|By Jack Leonard, Times Staff Writer

It's a heroic narrative that Carmen Trutanich has used while running for election: As a young prosecutor nearly three decades ago, he was investigating a murder in a South Los Angeles park when he was surrounded by gang members who fired shots at him.

"Even faced with the gang members, Carmen Trutanich wasn't afraid," retired district attorney's Senior Investigator Jim Bell says in an online campaign video titled "Tru Stories."

Trutanich has touted that experience of coming under fire in a voter mailer, at a candidates' debate and on campaign videos during his campaigns for city attorney and now district attorney.

But the dramatic account of Trutanich's derring-do is not the only version he has told over the years.

When questioned about the incident under oath in a legal proceeding in 2008, Trutanich said he had only a hazy recollection and described an encounter in which his investigator saw somebody with a gun in Green Meadows Park. He never mentioned coming under gunfire or being surrounded by gang members at the park.

In a recent interview with The Times, he said his memory has improved since the deposition.

Although he wasn't surrounded by gang members, he said he did see a gun emerge from the window of a passing car while he was alone in the park and heard shots as he hid. "I have the distinct recollection of it being a long gun," he said.

Asked why he had not mentioned such details in his sworn testimony four years earlier, Trutanich said he could not be sure he saw a firearm.

"I saw the car. Was it a gun? Was it a hand? It looked like a gun to me, but I can't be sure, OK? I know one thing. I heard pops, and I left," he said. "It's one thing talking about it to you guys, one thing talking about it under penalty of perjury. The stories are the same."

Bell, the former district attorney's investigator who now works for Trutanich in the city attorney's office, says in the recent campaign video for his boss that he had heard over his police radio that shots were being fired in the park. When he pulled up, he saw Trutanich was surrounded and being shot at.

Bell told The Times he returned fire at the assailants, a detail that also was not mentioned in Trutanich's deposition. A 2009 voter mailer for Trutanich's successful city attorney campaign described the incident as a "shootout where members of the 'Bloods' gang tried to kill him before the trial."

The Los Angeles Police Department said it could find no record of a shooting involving Bell and Trutanich at the park while they were working on the murder case. Trutanich, in the recent interview, acknowledged that he had not immediately reported the shooting at the time. He said he told an LAPD detective informally about the incident a day later. That detective is dead.

District attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said her office also could find no record, though she said some documents from that era have been destroyed. She said a review of Bell's personnel file showed that Trutanich wrote a commendation for the investigator for his work on the case involving the Green Meadows Park murder. "There was no mention of a shooting," she said.

Trutanich and Bell said they had no documents that would show what occurred in the park or corroborate the campaign's version of events.

In February 1985, while prosecuting the reputed leader of a South Los Angeles gang for murder, Trutanich did refer in court to having had a bad experience at the park. He did not detail what happened but said the judge was aware of it. The judge recently told The Times that she did not recall the incident and the two defense attorneys on the case are dead.

Trutanich's 2008 deposition was part of a legal proceeding brought by the man he convicted in that murder case.

In his testimony, Trutanich said he and Bell were together at the park when a car drove by. He testified that the investigator warned him that somebody had a gun and then pulled Trutanich to the ground. He said Bell refused to stay in the park without law enforcement backup.

"We got the hell out of there," he testified. "I don't remember a whole lot about it…. I just remember being scared at the time. I didn't sign on to get shot, you know."

In the interview with The Times, Trutanich said it was "splitting hairs" to suggest there were differences in his versions of the events that day.

"It's been 30 years, guys, cut me a little slack," Trutanich said.

He said his testimony that he "didn't sign on to get shot" was proof that his accounts have been consistent. Asked why he didn't say during the deposition that he had come under gunfire, he said: "Maybe I was inarticulate."

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