Ex-Officer Admits to Robberies
While with the LAPD, Ruben Palomares led a crew of law enforcement cohorts in a crime spree that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars.By Matt Lait and Scott Glover
Times Staff Writers
October 20, 2004
A former Los Angeles police officer has admitted to federal authorities that he and a group of fellow area law enforcement officers conducted a string of brazen armed robberies across Southern California staged to look like legitimate law enforcement raids.
Ruben Palomares, 34, and his cohorts stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs, cash, guns and other items over a nearly four-year period beginning in 1998, according to a plea agreement and related documents filed Tuesday. The one-time Rampart Division officer has agreed to plead guilty to a potential life sentence in connection with the crime spree and to cooperate with authorities.
The documents provide new details about Palomares' criminal enterprise, which has been the subject of an ongoing federal investigation since he was caught buying 10 kilograms of cocaine from undercover DEA agents three years ago.
Palomares and his band wore police uniforms and badges during many of the robberies. They would use LAPD squad cars and unmarked police vehicles during the heists, court documents show.
Some of the armed robberies turned brutally violent. At least two men were shot with stun guns during the robberies. Another man was beaten with a police baton, had a gun shoved in his mouth and was burned with a lighter, according to the documents.
The crew's crime spree yielded more than 700 pounds of marijuana and 50 kilos of cocaine, which Palomares' crew then sold for profit, the court papers state. In addition, the crew stole cars, money and an assortment of firearms and jewelry. In one particularly bold robbery, crew members identified themselves as cops as they commandeered television sets from the back of semi truck on a street in Montebello, the documents show.
According to court papers, Palomares' network of thieves used law enforcement tactics during their robberies. Some crew members were assigned surveillance duties, looking out for police and potential witnesses. Other members — dubbed the "entry team" — would burst into locations. Victims were often handcuffed as the bandits looked for drugs and money.
As part of his plea deal, Palomares is required to cooperate with all aspects of the government's ongoing investigation. Palomares has no incentive to lie in his statements to authorities. The only possible way for him to earn a reduction in his life sentence is for prosecutors to determine that he has been truthful and to certify that he has provided "substantial assistance" to the investigation.
Even before Palomares agreed to cooperate, investigators had been able to verify many of the group's criminal acts through other means.
Palomares and five others were active-duty law enforcement officers at the time, court documents show. Two were members of the LAPD. One of them was fired for unrelated misconduct; the other has since resigned.
Two others were Long Beach officers who remain on the force, although they have been assigned desk duties pending the outcome of the federal investigation. The fifth was a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who now works as a prison guard. He remains on the job with no restrictions at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi.
Other members included Palomares' friends and relatives, according to sources familiar with the case. One participant was a professional female boxer. Authorities believe there were about 20 members in all. Palomares' wife, also an LAPD officer, has not been implicated in any direct involvement with the ring but is suspected of knowing about its activities, according to the sources.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien, the lead prosecutor on the case, declined comment.
Winston Kevin McKesson, Palomares' lawyer, said the former officer has become a born-again Christian since his arrest and is trying to make amends for his misdeeds.
"He's decided to step forward and try to see that justice is done," said McKesson, who also represented Rafael Perez, the LAPD officer who launched the Rampart scandal in 1999. "He's trying to get right with God."
Palomares, a former Golden Gloves boxer who sparred with such fighters as Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley, joined the LAPD in 1993. Because of his youthful appearance, he was assigned to a juvenile narcotics unit where he investigated drug use in high schools. He later transferred to the Rampart Division, where he continued to work in narcotics.
Allegations of corruption against Palomares first surfaced in 1999 during the Rampart scandal when Perez told detectives that Palomares once intimated that he had been involved in an unjustified shooting and covered it up.
"I would look at everything Palomares has done, every arrest that he's made, and scrutinize it very carefully," Perez told investigators.
Palomares was never criminally charged in the Rampart scandal.
In fact, court documents show, the height of Palomares' criminal activity was during the same time he was under investigation by the LAPD.
Palomares' criminal rampage ended June 8, 2001, when he and four other men were arrested in San Diego in a cocaine sting by DEA agents. One of the men arrested that day immediately began cooperating with authorities, alleging that Palomares was the leader of a gang that conducted invasion-style robberies of drug dealers, sometimes dressed as cops.
Palomares pleaded guilty to the San Diego drug charges last year and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. Since his arrest, a team of FBI agents and LAPD detectives has been attempting to piece together the extent of his criminal activity.
The investigation is not limited to off-duty crimes. Investigators have also been looking into a 1999 police shooting by former LAPD Officer William Ferguson, who authorities believe was a member of Palomares' crew. Ferguson's attorney declined comment.
Also under investigation is a December 2000 killing in Huntington Park, in which several crew members, including Palomares, allegedly attacked a man after an argument at a restaurant.
At his sentencing last year, Palomares said he was remorseful about his life of crime. He said he had started abusing alcohol and pain pills after a shoulder injury forced him go on disability at the LAPD. He started committing robberies, he said, because he desperately needed money to provide for his five young children.
"I made the worst mistake of my life," Palomares said at the time. "I turned away from everything I knew to be true and steadfast, a decision I will regret every day for the rest of my life."
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Former LAPD Officer Ruben Palomares has agreed to plead guilty to a string of armed robberies and other crimes committed across Southern California between 1998 and 2001. Below are many of the locations that he and others targeted.
Source: Federal court documents. Data analysis by Times staff writer Doug Smith