James Queally and Kate Mather
Los Angeles Times
If the group of young Los Angeles police cadets accused of stealing department vehicles had any fear of getting caught, they certainly didn’t show it.
For weeks, according to documents, the teens used police cars to drive to and from LAPD-related events and on joyrides that took the vehicles as far away as Corona and Santa Clarita. Some of the cadets used the vehicles to perform “doughnuts” behind an Inglewood store and one drove a stolen LAPD vehicle to his job at a Ross Dress for Less store in Hawthorne.
There were other blatant actions: A high-ranking cadet described as “the ringleader” of the group asked someone to film him driving a cruiser, and they often drove with flashing lights and sirens blaring — in one instance racing through South L.A. to Hawthorne to move one teen’s personal vehicle before it was towed.
Still, it took Los Angeles police nearly two months to discover the cadets’ alleged misbehavior and take action.
The new details about the alleged activities are contained in a search warrant recently obtained by The Times.
As police continue to investigate the cadet scandal, the key question is less why the youths took advantage of their positions but why their actions went undetected for so long.
“What they were doing was stupid, but they weren’t exactly stupid,” said Deputy Chief Horace Frank. “They were smart enough to try to hide their activities to the best of their knowledge.”
Frank said that LAPD personnel who might have seen the cadets driving the police cars could have reasonably assumed they were simply younger officers.
”When you look back, you can say, ‘Well, how come no one noticed that?’” said Frank. “We have a lot of young-looking officers. … There’s so many officers that are looking like that, we’re at that stage where it’s not that odd until after the fact.”
The new disclosures are contained in court papers related to Robert Cain, a now-former LAPD officer accused of having sex with a 15-year-old female cadet. Luis Carrillo, the girl’s attorney, said the alleged transgressions and the delay in uncovering them show the department needed much closer handling of the teens.
“You can’t have cadets in uniform leaving in a patrol vehicle with so many officers around, so many officers patrolling,” Carrillo said. “This would be highly noticeable the minute they drive out of the station.”
Capt. Robert Long, who heads the LAPD’s Major Crimes Division, said detectives expect to present findings from their probe of the thefts to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office in the coming days.
Long confirmed that the cadets first took an LAPD vehicle on April 28, weeks earlier than the department had previously disclosed.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has acknowledged flaws in how the cadet program was run. The scandal led to investigations by the LAPD and its inspector general that revealed lax oversight of the cadets and training for the officers involved in the department’s signature youth program. The LAPD made a series of changes, tightening supervision and training and limiting officers’ social media and text message contact with cadets.
The cadet program was suspended at the 77th Street and Pacific divisions as a result of the scandal. The program has resumed at the Pacific Division, and could return to 77th Street by early December, said Josh Rubenstein, an LAPD spokesman.
The Times is not identifying the cadets named in the warrant because many of them were juveniles at the time of their alleged misdeeds. Those cadets either declined to comment for this article or did not respond to phone calls or messages left by Times reporters.
The cadet controversy exploded June 14, when three teens led police on a pair of wild car chases that ended in crashes in South L.A. In a subsequent investigation, Cain, a 10-year LAPD veteran assigned to the equipment room at the 77th Street Division, was arrested by Beck himself on suspicion of having sex with one of the cadets.
Cain remains jailed in San Bernardino County, where he is awaiting trial on weapons charges stemming from a search of his Rancho Cucamonga home. In July, Los Angeles County prosecutors charged him with oral copulation of a person under the age of 16, lewd acts upon a child and unlawful sexual intercourse, but have said their case will not proceed until the weapons charges are resolved.
In all, seven cadets were arrested and accused of taking police cars and other LAPD equipment, including Tasers, radios and a bulletproof vest. Some were also accused of stopping other drivers while in the police cars.
According to the warrant, several cadets told detectives the vehicles were used to ferry teens to and from locations where LAPD officers were present. On May 27, one cadet drove an LAPD vehicle to the 77th Street station, then used an unmarked police vehicle to drive several other cadets to a party for Newton Division cadets, according to the warrant. The event was a scholarship fundraiser, according to postings on social media.
The teens also used LAPD vehicles to drive other cadets to an event for the cadet color guard on June 8, according to the warrant. Long said LAPD personnel were present at both events.
The supposed ringleader of the cadets told detectives he procured a bulletproof vest and Tasers by reaching under a gate in the 77th Street Division’s equipment room, according to the warrant. The cadets never had access to firearms, Frank said.
The alleged ringleader also told other cadets he had special permission to drive the cars, according to the warrant. Another cadet said he was given access to a vehicle by the officer who ran the equipment room at the station, but did not mention Cain by name, according to the warrant.
The LAPD has said Cain was complicit in the thefts but has declined to offer specifics.
One cadet told detectives that some members of the group used the vehicles to stop drivers in Huntington Park and Inglewood, according to the warrant. During one of the stops, the cadets pulled over a member of the El Segundo Police Department’s cadet program. Two of the cadets wore modified uniforms meant to resemble the darker shade of blue worn by LAPD officers, according to the warrant.
An LAPD officer told detectives she noticed a person she later believed to be a cadet stopping another driver on June 13, according to the warrant. The traffic stop seemed “odd,” she recalled, because one of the police cars was stopped in front of the vehicle that had been pulled over. But the car pulled away before she got a closer look, she said.
Long, the LAPD captain, said that after the June 14 car chase, other officers reported similar incidents in which they thought they had seen cadets driving department vehicles.
The cadets’ carelessness with the vehicles may have played a role in their arrests, according to the warrant. After the cars were discovered missing, LAPD investigators traveled to the South L.A. home of one of the teens, hoping to interview her.
Not long after they arrived, two of the vehicles carrying cadets pulled up to the home, according to the warrant. The car chase started soon after, the document shows.
Citing the ongoing investigation, Frank declined to say if he thought the LAPD should have caught the cadets’ actions sooner.
“That’s not something that we’re in a position to discuss right now,” he said.
Frank and Long said the investigation, which included nearly 100 interviews and required half a dozen detectives to scour social media accounts and cellphone records, revealed Cain was the only officer who knew about the thefts before the car chase. No other LAPD personnel have been accused of criminal wrongdoing, they said.
Cain’s attorney, Bill Seki, has denied his client had any knowledge of the thefts. Seki has repeatedly accused the LAPD of using Cain as a “scapegoat” and contends other officers were aware that the vehicles had been taken.
“They’re still trying to throw it at him, the easy target, protecting others that would have been aware of it,” he said.
Long said the months-long lapse between the arrests of the cadets and the presentation of a case to prosecutors was a result of a complex investigation, particularly the “sheer amount of data we had to go through.”
Given the length of the time the cadets had access to LAPD vehicles and equipment, Long said the department wanted to make sure the teens had not done anything beyond what they were already accused of.
“We started this as ‘OK, what’s the worst they could have done with what they had available to them?’” Long said. “We’re back down to just the basic facts of taking the police cars and no other serious crimes.”
Times staff writers Richard Winton and Marisa Gerber contributed to this report
Follow @JamesQueallyLAT and @katemather for crime and police news in California.
©2017 the Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.