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No Pot, No Priors, Just One Grandpapa Shot Dead

by Preston Peet with Dean Latimer - Special to HT News
http://www.hightimes.com

FILED 09/17/99

''We didn't have information of the Paz family being involved in narcotics. . . .To our knowledge they were not.'
El Monte PD Spokesman

"We throw flash-bang grenades. We bust open the doors. You've seen it on TV," the assistant police chief in El Monte, CA, Bill Ankeny, was still saying tiredly last month, presenting the Mario Paz police homicide as a routine, by-the-book operation of the paramilitary El Monte narcotics squad. In the middle of a California summer night they had shotgunned the locks off all the doors of a family's house in Compton, set off a flash-bang grenade, tossed an incendiary "diversionary device" into the livingroom, and then bashed in and killed the head of the household: all by the book. Now the FBI, ironically for some, is investigating this lethal episode.

Mario Paz, 64, was shot twice in the back as he cringed half-naked on the floor of his bedroom, offering $10,0000 in cash to the masked men who had burst into his home moments before on the night of August 9. Paz' wife, Maria Luisa, told Anne-Marie O'Connor of the L.A. Times that she and her husband believed they were being robbed of their life savings, which they'd withdrawn shortly before from a bank out of concern for the forthcoming Y2K glitch. When these obvious midnight robbers burst in and awakened them, loudly demanding that they kneel on the floor with their hands in sight, Mario scrabbled his life savings from beneath the mattress and piled them on the bed. Maria Luisa says she grabbed one intruder's camouflage pantsleg to plead for their lives, whereupon two bullets were fired into her husband's back, and he died.

Help! It's the Police!

The intruders were narcs, outfitted with masks and full jungle-style paramilitary regalia, from the El Monte "Narcotics Policing Division," which carries out raids like this all the time, all over Southern California. "We go all over," brags Policing Division chief Steve Krigbaum, explaining how their trigger-happy SWAT jackbooters wound up at the Paz home, a little stucco bungalow in suburban Compton. "Anything related to our town we go out and get." His El Monte SWAT-team commander, Lt. Craig Sperry, led the midnight incursion into the Paz home: "We always announce," he claims: "'El Monte police! Open the door!'"

The routine announcement may well have been lost in the shotgun blasts and explosions going off all around the little home, which awed neighbors described as sounding like "a war." Immediately after the homicide in the bedroom, the El Monte Drug Warriors hustled Maria Luisa Paz out of the house in her underwear, along with six other relatives, and hauled them off to the Compton jail while they comprehensively searched the premises for all the marijuana, "paraphernalia," guns and money the warrant called for. They turned up a .22 rifle and three well-hidden pistols--not untypical for a large family in a very bad neighborhood--but not a twig or seed of pot.

Mirandas? For What? They Were Innocent!

Nevertheless, the surviving Paz family were held until long after sunrise the next morning--in handcuffs, being grilled over and over by El Monte and Los Angeles County detectives desperate to get them to say something to justify this spectacular police activity. None of the Paz family were advised that they could have a lawyer present for this questioning, since none of them was ever arrested for anything. "Witnesses do not get read their Miranda rights," an L.A. County police mouthpiece explained much later. As for the hours spent in handcuffs, "People can be detained in handcuffs for safekeeping."

Mario Paz, they finally learned on their release, had been declared dead on navival at a Los Angeles hospital. After his entirely legal emigration to the US in the 1950s, Paz had raised six children, who presented him with 16 grandchildren; he'd never been arrested for anything, nor had anyone in his family ever even been suspected of any sort of narcotics offenses, as the cops of the three jurisdictions involved--El Monte, Compton, and L.A. County--have despairingly determined, after an exhaustive month-long search of their records for the tiniest shred of exculpation for the Aug 9 police homicide at the Paz home.

Guilt By 20-Year-Old Association

How the El Monte police wound up raiding that particular house in Compton, lived in for over 20 years by this highly law-abiding American family, has been trickling out very slowly. Nearly two decades ago, their next-door neighbor for a little while had been one Marcos Beltran Liznavaga, who this year fell under investigation by the El Monte narcs for involvement in marijuana trafficking. In the course of this investigation in El Monte, they say, they turned up around 400 pounds of pot, $75,000 in cash, three "high-powered" rifles, and some documents with the Paz family's faraway Compton address scribbled on them. Beltran Liznavaga had been busted shortly before August 9, and when he was released on bail that very morning, the El Monte narcs had applied for a warrant to search the Paz house. Somehow, based on this flimsy paper trail, they managed to obtain it from a magistrate, and went in with flashbangs and combat boots.

"We didn't have information of the Paz family being involved in narcotics," El Monte assistant police chief Bill Ankeny acknowledged immediately after the raid. "To my knowledge right now, we don't have any information that the Paz family was dealing in narcotics. To our knowledge they were not."

How the El Monte narcs possibly managed, then, to get a search warrant for this Compton location out of a magistrate, is a question for L.A. attorney Brian Dunn, who has been hired by Maria Luisa Paz and her family to investigate the killing. "When the police conduct a raid and find an address that they are unfamiliar with during the course of that raid," Dunn tells HT, "then they will usually go get a warrant to raid that address as well, no matter what, even if it is in another city. When the police state, 'Your affiants believe. . .,' most magistrates will issue a warrant, especially when it is drugs involved."

A Procession of Police Alibis

The El Monte narcs, in fact, didn't even know whether anyone was living at the Paz home when they raided it that night. Immediately after the killing, El Monte cop mouthpieces said the officer who pulled the trigger on Mario Paz was concerned that he might be armed, somehow, half naked, on his knees with his hands in plain view. A little later on they revised this, saying the cop thought Mario was reaching for a gun when he pulled the trigger. Then, after it turned out that all the guns in the house had been stashed safely away in bureau drawers, the El Monte police actually said their trigger-puller was afraid Mario was reaching to open a drawer to get a gun out of it--even though the cop could hardly have know what was inside a closed drawer door, even if his victim had indeed been reaching for one.

By the time HT contacted El Monte assistant chief Ankeny, his line was, "We are not going to release any more statements on this case on the advice of our attorney." And L.A. sheriff's lieutenant Marilyn Baker, supposedly investigating this police homicide, was actually telling reporters, "I personally think that four weapons are a lot for one person to have next to the bed. If you had one, would you keep it next to your bed? Probably. But four?"

"A message needs to be sent to the police over this," says attorney Dunn, who works with Johnny Cochran's law firm. "The police were rude, violent, abusive, and created a homicidal atmosphere. They would have shot Mario had he sneezed, after they went in the way they did."

FBI Civil-Rights Probe?

Attempts by the Paz family to determine the true circumstances around their grandfather's murder have so far been hampered by the sequestering of that $10,000 which Mario had desperately placed onto his bed in an attempt to placate those masked intruders. At first the El Monte police were determined to forfeit Mario Paz' life savings, as another routine part of all their narcotics investigations. After a good deal of shocked questioning by local reporters--which caused assistant chief Arkeny to complain, "I don't like the way this is being painted"--they appeared to back down on that intention. However, when contacted just days ago by HT, L.A. Sheriff's Dep. Cruz Solis remarked, "I can't give any particulars on that, as the Sheriff's Department is not handling that case, but the money is being held onto by the El Monte police."

The intervention of the FBI into this sordid local police scandal was delayed nearly a month but is finally getting under way. Assistant US Attorney Mike Gennaco, chief civil-rights investigator for the Southern California US Attorney's Office, tells HT that while he mainly knows only what the papers have printed on the case, he has received a little other information that he is not at liberty to divulge: "After looking into this incident, I decided that an investigation is warranted."

Cheryl Mimura of the L.A. FBI office confirms that an investigation has been initiated, the results of which will be sent to the Justice Department, advising on whether or not any charges should be filed against any of the police for violating the civil rights of the now deceased Mario Paz and his family.

As an independent check on the FBI's activities in this respect, the Cato Institute in Washington, DC has undertaken an independent inquiry into the para-militarization of America's police departments, under the cynical rubric of the "War on Drugs."

 

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 QUOTES TO REMEMBER
As I have stood in the crosshairs of those who target Second Amendment freedoms, I've realized that firearms are not the only issue. No, it's much, much bigger than that. I've come to understand that a cultural war is raging across our land, in which, with Orwellian fervor, certain acceptable thoughts and speech are mandated. Charlton Heston

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