October 24, 2013
They have rescued small children from oncoming traffic. They have brought a victim of attempted murder back from the brink of death. They have braved rising floodwaters and raging house fires. Last month, they dragged an unconscious driver from a burning SUV seconds before the truck’s gas tank exploded.
Not all first responders are sheriff’s deputies or firefighters. Some also find themselves in the occasional life-and-death situation while minding the county’s infrastructure at the Department of Public Works.
Emergency response has been among DPW’s core services since 1985 when the department was created, though the public tends to be more familiar with the department’s work in engineering, flood control and road maintenance. DPW maintains a 24-hour emergency operations center, and employees there are trained for disaster.
In fact, over the years, so many DPW hardhats have stepped into the breach so often that after a beloved employee named Kelly Bolor died in Iraq in 2003 while serving as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves in Mosul, the department created an in-house award for valor that has been presented in the wake of a number of incidents.
Since that date, nearly two dozen DPW employees have received the Kelly Bolor Award for heroism of one sort or another, from Ignacio Orozco Jr., who used a county dump truck to head off a potentially fatal car crash on Imperial Highway last year to members of Road Maintenance Division Crew 551, who extinguished a raging house fire in 2011 near their Antelope Valley work site, to Gary Clinton, who used his motorgrader to rescue panicked motorists from a flooded crossing in the high desert in 2005.
“I’ve been with the county for 29 years, and I think we’ve all at one time or another been first responders in some kind of situation,” says Steven Smith, a road maintenance superintendent in Agoura whose crew members, Lowell Johanknecht and Enrique Ramos, are expected to be nominated this year for pulling a woman from a burning SUV on Mulholland Highway on September 18.
“If an accident happens and you’re around, you rise to the occasion. This job can be dangerous, too.”
That certainly was the case for the award’s first recipient, Marco Andonaegui, who was replacing traffic signs in 2004 on Topanga Canyon Boulevard near the 101
Freeway when he glanced up and saw a child tumble out of an SUV.
“He was 8 years old and his buckle must have come undone,” says Andonaegui, a 30-year DPW employee who says he still gets chills when he thinks of how close the child came to being hit by oncoming traffic.
“I was alone, going the opposite direction and they were just a couple a cars in front of me.”
Andonaegui scrambled out of his county vehicle, jumped the median and grabbed the child as the SUV drove on, the child’s mother oblivious to what had happened.
“Cars were swerving around us, braking around us, the little boy was crying and crying,” recalls Andonaegui. “I don’t know how the heck I didn’t get hit, let alone the little kid.”
Fifteen minutes later, he says, the mother circled back, frantic.
“She was desperate and grateful, and she must have given me 20 or 30 thank yous, but she was crying so hard, she forgot to ask for my name or give me hers,” he remembers.
It was only afterward, he says, that he learned she had written down the phone number on the back of his county truck and called the department. A father of grown children, he says he never heard from the woman again and still doesn’t know her name or her son’s name, but he still keeps his award plaque in his Lynwood living room.
Dam Operator Gary Elrod says he and his fellow crewmen on the remote San Gabriel Dam compound likewise never heard again from the young man they rescued.
It was early on a Tuesday morning, May 29, 2007, and the seven dam workers, several of whom live on the isolated site high in the San Gabriel Mountains, were starting their day early when Assistant Dam Operator Benny Velasco spotted a body in a drain near the roadside.
“It looked like he’d been attacked at another location, stuffed in the trunk of his car, driven to the entrance area of the San Gabriel Dam in Azusa Canyon and left there for dead,” recalls Elrod. “I personally counted nine stab wounds.”
A 25-year DPW employee who had worked in his youth with an emergency response team in Saudi Arabia, Elrod says he grabbed his blanket and safety gear and started to administer first aid.
As the crew waited for paramedics to arrive, Elrod tried to keep the barely coherent victim from falling into unconsciousness.
“This isn’t your time,” he remembers repeating to the young man as the sun rose over the mountains. In the hospital, Elrod says, the victim, who was from Whittier, refused to name his attacker, and the case was still unsolved three months later when he stopped asking about it.
“He denied everything he’d said to me when the sheriff questioned him later,” says Elrod. “All I know is, he’s out there somewhere with a horror story to tell his children and he’s lucky we came along when we did.”
The workers say they don’t mind that the recipients of their help often have no idea who they are or what department they work for.
“It makes you feel good just to be able to help,” says Johanknecht, the 23-year-old road laborer who pulled the woman from the burning truck last month on Mulholland Highway near Las Virgenes Road.
Johanknecht, who lives in Redondo Beach, says he had finished his shift at the Road Maintenance Division’s Yard 339 near Agoura Hills and was heading off to meet his girlfriend at their community college when he noticed the plume of smoke and the overturned Chevrolet Suburban. Pulling over on his motorcycle, he called 911 and ran toward the crash site.
“The 911 operator asked if anyone was in the car, and I said yeah, there’s a lady in the driver’s seat,” he remembers. “Right then, an older gentleman on a bicycle came up the hill and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Get her out!’”
Just then, he says, Ramos pulled over, having seen the skid marks, the smoke and his coworker’s abandoned Suzuki DR650. Working together, the three wrestled the woman, who appeared to be in her 40s, out of the black SUV and back toward the road’s shoulder.
“She was panicked and freaking out and pushing us away and in shock,” Johanknecht says, “and smoke was engulfing the car and all the air bags had deployed and blocked all the windows.”
As they carried the woman to safety, the SUV’s gas tank exploded, igniting a brushfire that engulfed nearly two acres before two Super Scoopers and four water-dropping helicopters were called in to contain it. Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Scott Miller could not release the woman’s name, but said she was transported to a local hospital. Ramos and Johanknecht say they never found out who she was and haven’t heard from her.
Johanknecht says his parents and girlfriend were “worried and proud at the same time” when they heard what happened, and wishes the crash victim—whoever she is—a speedy recovery.
“You never expect this, but you never know—we work out here in no man’s land, and a lot of things happen,” he says. “I just hope that someone would do me the same favor if something like that ever happens to me.”
October 3, 2013
They built it. And they came.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of downtown’s Grand Park, a four-block expanse that has provided a jolt to Los Angeles’ Civic Center for reasons well beyond its hot-pink furniture.
Since its dedication last October, the 12-acre park between the Music Center and City Hall has drawn tens of thousands visitors for events big and small, from a Fourth of July extravaganza to daily yoga classes. Although the big-city development around it continues to be vigorously debated, the park itself has proven to be an intimately scaled magnet for families and children. The “splash pad” at the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain, in particular, has drawn knee-high youngsters and their parents from across the region.
“It’s just as serene and beautiful as I expected,” said Kesha Barkulis, who, on a recent and sparkling autumn weekday, was following her drenched and teetering 9-month-old daughter, Luna, as she navigated the 79 gentle water jets of the fountain.
It was their first visit to Grand Park, one that Barkulis said she’d wanted to make all summer, ever since reading about the ¼-inch-deep pool on a website aimed at moms seeking kid-friendly outings. They had taken the Red Line subway from North Hollywood to the Civic Center station, located just steps away from the fountain, which has become a popular venue for toddler birthday parties now.
For decades, the area formerly known as the “Civic Center Mall” was largely hidden by concrete parking ramps and two blockish government buildings—the Superior Court and Los Angeles County Hall of Administration. As a result, the mall and its 1960s-era fountain ended up being used mostly as an outdoor break area for bureaucrats and jurors.
But after a $56-million privately-financed makeover, which was required as part of the approval process for commercial development along Grand Avenue, the park is now generating crowds—and buzz—through a mix of programming experiments overseen by the Music Center.
The Fourth of July event, for example, drew an estimated 10,000 people, according to Grand Park Programming Director Julia Diamond. Thousands of people, she said, also have shown up for dance events and a movie series featuring such family fare as “ET” and “The Never Ending Story.” Last Sunday, 2,000 music fans gathered on a Grand Park lawn to watch the first simulcast of a Walt Disney Concert Hall performance, which featured jazz great Herbie Hancock.
Not bad for Year One.
“People think of Angelenos as wanting to celebrate privately,” Diamond said. “But people in L.A. are game for sharing.”
The park, which she called a “cultural and civic space with no walls,” has tapped into that growing hunger for collective experiences, exemplified by the widely popular CicLAvia events.
One key to the park’s early success, Diamond said, is that thousands of people in offices and lofts downtown “have actually shown a large appetite for diversion and entertainment in the middle of the day, uniting around something that speaks to a part of themselves outside of their work lives.” Besides lunchtime yoga and informational fairs on such topics as green transportation and public health, the mid-day programming has included a weekly farmer’s market and concerts ranging from Latin jazz to classical music to pop.
Diamond said she’s also been struck by the ethnic and economic diversity of the visitors—a result, she suggested, of having a park without a strong neighborhood history or existing identity. “This gives the park a lot of freedom to be whatever people want it to be,” she said.
Still, not everything’s gone as the programmers had hoped. One of the biggest first-year challenges, Diamond said, has been to get the downtown workers to become an after-hours crowd. “They get into their cars and drive away,” she said, adding: “If you gave people a reason to stay, they would. We haven’t found that reason yet.” (One possible reason: Grand Park’s official 1st birthday bash, which takes place from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 10, and features free entertainment on the Performance Lawn.)
Diamond said Grand Park programmers and marketers also have been stymied by the nature of downtown itself, which she described as “sort of like the Balkans.” The farther away from Grand Park people work, such as in the Bunker Hill area, the harder they are to engage. Downtowners, she said, “tend to stay in their micro-community.”
Diamond’s anniversary wish for the next year?
“I want everyone in Los Angeles to know about Grand Park,” she declared. “A year ago, we didn’t exist. I want that name to have instant recognition as an amazing place.”
September 6, 2013
Spurred by the recent fatal pit bull attack on a 63-year Antelope Valley woman, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to make it easier to take action against lethal canines by broadening the legal definition of a “potentially dangerous dog.”
The new definition, particularly significant in rural parts of the county, allows serious attacks on livestock—including horses, cows, alpacas, chickens and rabbits—to qualify a dog as “potentially dangerous” under county animal control laws. The current ordinance authorizes that classification only if the dog has moderately injured a person, forced a person to take defensive action more than once in 36 months or severely injured or killed a dog or a cat.
Restrictions for a potentially dangerous dog can range from requiring the animal to be leashed and muzzled in public to mandating that the owner take out liability insurance and keep the dog inside or in a secure, county-inspected yard.
Animal control officers contend that the amended criteria might have made a life-and-death difference in the case of Pamela Devitt, who was jogging in the Antelope Valley community of Littlerock in May when four pit bulls attacked her on the street. Fatally mauled, Devitt died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. The owner, 29-year-old Alex Jackson, is in custody and facing homicide charges.
Of the eight dogs confiscated from his home, four were euthanized, said Animal Care and Control Director Marcia Mayeda. The other four—two pit bulls, a Labrador-collie mix and an Australian heeler mix—were taken in by a rescue group and placed in homes.
“We’d had complaints about these dogs and had been out to the house twice,” Mayeda said. But the dogs were not in sight, she said, and the owner had insisted the complaints involved strays, not his dogs.
Just three weeks before Devitt’s death, however, a woman had complained that the pit bulls had come after her and her horse, Mayeda said. She said the complaint was serious enough that the department had asked her to complete a sworn affidavit.
“We were still waiting for her statement when the attack on Mrs. Devitt happened,” Mayeda said. “Had we had this law on the books, we could have just declared those dogs potentially dangerous and restricted them.”
The new definition is part of an intensified county focus on the problem of dangerous dogs. About one call in ten to the Department of Animal Care and Control—about 10,000 annually—involve dogs that are aggressive and biting. Packs of abandoned dogs have become an increasingly vexing issue in the high desert and other semi-rural areas. Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors approved $3.5 million in new spending on animal control.
So far this year, Mayeda said, the county has conducted more than 400 hearings to determine whether a dog is vicious or potentially dangerous. Most of those cases, she said, ended with the dog being restricted. More than half have involved pit bulls.
August 14, 2013
Faced with reports of rampant fraud in California’s taxpayer-funded alcohol and drug programs for the poor, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday ordered an examination of whether “regulatory conflict and confusion” between the state and county may have opened the door to unscrupulous operators.
The board’s action, based on a motion by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, comes in the wake of a year-long investigation by CNN and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which found that during the past two fiscal years in California, $94 million in public funds had been paid to clinics showing “signs of deception or questionable billing.”
Among other things, the “Rehab Racket” series revealed that clinics allegedly submitted bills for fake clients, paid people to sign up for treatment that would be reimbursed by taxpayers and pressured staffers to forge paperwork.
The Drug Medi-Cal program—now the target of a state investigation—is funded through federal and state monies that, in Los Angeles County, are mostly controlled by the Public Health Department’s Substance Abuse Prevention and Control division. The program is jointly administered by the state and county.
During the last fiscal year, L.A. County contracted with 143 providers serving 30,000 clients. Earlier this month, as part of the state’s renewed scrutiny of the Drug Medi-Cal program, funding was cut to nearly 50 agencies statewide that had been suspended from doing business, many of them in Los Angeles County, home to the largest number of these treatment clinics.
Yaroslavsky’s motion aims to sort out the shifting and unclear responsibilities between the state and county that for years have plagued administration and oversight of the program, which is expected to grow as more individuals qualify for Medi-Cal under federal health care reform.
“It is simply unacceptable for a program of such financial magnitude and critical importance to the public’s health to be undermined by bureaucratic confusion and left vulnerable to scammers,” Yaroslavsky said after Tuesday’s board meeting.
To that end, Yaroslavsky’s motion directs the auditor-controller and county counsel to determine, among other things, the county’s legal authority to audit and terminate contracts with Drug Medi-Cal providers, as well provide an analysis of the state’s responsibilities. The board also approved an amendment by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas ordering the public health department and county lawyers to create a plan that helps patients avoid harmful disruptions in their care as the result of recent clinic suspensions.
July 9, 2013
It started as a handful of inspirational stories, shared by a few brave volunteers—how this one found help for depression, or how that one dealt with the fear of being labeled “mentally ill.”
Three years later, “Profiles of Hope,” the Department of Mental Health’s online video series, has become an unlikely hit as a public health campaign. Celebrities such as Rick Springfield, Mariel Hemingway and Paris Barclay are sharing their personal stories. Last year, it won a local Emmy in the information/public affairs series category. And on Thursday, the mental health department announced that 60-second versions of the videos have been nominated in this year’s public service announcement category. Meanwhile, a half-hour show comprised of the segments just wrapped its second season on KLCS-TV, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s public television station. And most recently, “Profiles of Hope” has been discussed as a training tool for counselors in the Cal State University system.
“A lot of people have sent emails about how much this has moved them,” says the acclaimed Barclay, who directed and produced much of the award-winning HBO series, “In Treatment.” “More importantly, they’ve also shared their own stories, which is the real goal—to start the conversation. One person reveals what’s happened to them, and another person comes back with their story. It’s part of the human process, the circle of revelation.”
The Department of Mental Health’s public affairs director, Kathleen Piché, said the goal of the videos is “to bust the stigma of mental illness, and not just by hearing from providers and clinics and the usual suspects.” The segments came about in 2010, she says, shortly after the creation of the Los Angeles County Channel. “They asked us if we wanted to do some programming,” Piché recalls.
At the time, she says, the Department of Mental Health was looking for new ways to help people overcome the shame and fear that often accompanies emotional and psychological problems.
“A lot of people say they resist getting help because they’re afraid of how others will see them,” Piché says. “But the earlier people get help, the better their outcomes, and right now, the average length of time from the time people first get symptoms to the time they get help is about 10 years.”
Piché says she initially saw the videos as a series of “day in the life” documentaries that would help viewers realize how many people suffer from some form or another of mental illness. Eventually, she settled on shorter, more intimate testimonials. “There are obviously issues about privacy,” she says. “But there are also people who want to talk about it.”
The department already had an informal speakers roster, as did the National Alliance on Mental Illness, she noted, and after a few calls, she found three current or former department clients willing to share their stories.
Myra Kanter, a nurse and patient’s rights advocate, spoke about her lifelong struggle with depression. Isaiah Hinnerichs, a client at the time in a county program for transitional-aged foster youth, talked about the mental health care that helped lift him out of homelessness. Gary Gougis, now a peer advocate at the Department of Mental Heath, talked about the panic attacks that for years had crippled his ability to function.
“At the time,” Piché says, “nobody knew how impactful they would be.”
Since then, she says, more than a dozen Profiles of Hope have been produced, featuring testimonials from people as disparate as a champion boxer, a combat veteran and a gay Vietnamese refugee. Most popular, however, have been the testimonials of celebrities talking about the ways that they’ve been helped by good mental health care.
Actress Mariette Hartley discusses her family history of suicide and alcoholism. Maurice Benard of “General Hospital” talks about managing his bipolar disorder. Robert David Hall of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” talks about how he summoned the emotional strength to rebuild his life after both his legs were amputated in the wake of a car crash. Rock musician Springfield shares his story of overcoming depression.
The spots, which initially were paid for by the County Channel, now are underwritten by funds from the Mental Health Services Act, which taxes income over $1 million to support mental health programs. Each testimonial costs about $13,000 to produce, says Piché, who’s been assisted by DMH Public Information Officer Karen Zarsadiaz-Ige.
But to their audiences, the spots are priceless.
“I think Profiles of Hope was so amazing,” one viewer recently wrote to the department, conveying a special thanks to Barclay for sharing the story of his battle with depression and alcohol. “Recently I recovered from a depressive episode.”
“Rick, thank you for this. THANK YOU,” another commented on Springfield’s YouTube public service announcement.
Next up, Piché hopes, will be a series of interviews with well-known people in politics, sports and public service. Meanwhile, Araceli Esparza, who coordinates Mental Health Services Act programs for the California State University system, says the videos are under consideration as a mental health resource for trainings and workshops on the system’s 23 campuses.
“This just keeps growing,” Piché says. “But I think people are willing to do this because they know that it works.”
July 9, 2013
Dr. Mark Fajardo has done thousands of autopsies in the dozen or so years he has spent as a forensic pathologist with Riverside County. From Palm Springs retirees to meth addicts to the renegade former Los Angeles Police Officer Christopher Dorner, he has examined all walks of toe-tagged life.
Still, as the Board of Supervisors named him Los Angeles County’s new chief medical examiner-coroner on Tuesday, Fajardo acknowledged that L.A. has one kind of death to which he’ll have to become accustomed when he steps into the job in August.
“In Riverside County,” he says, laughing, “we run the gamut—except for the celebrities.”
Fajardo, 49, succeeds Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, who will retire this year after more than 21 years in the position that has come to be viewed as perhaps the nation’s most public coroner’s job.
Marilyn Monroe’s death was investigated by the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner; so were Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s and Sharon Tate’s and Janis Joplin’s and John Belushi’s and Notorious B.I.G.’s and Michael Jackson’s and Whitney Houston’s and the paparazzo who died earlier this year trying to get a photo of Justin Bieber.
So many high profile cases come through the department, in fact, that in some instances, they’ve boosted the coroner himself to star status. Between 1967 and 1982, Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi came to be known as the “coroner to the stars.”
“I haven’t had to interact with the press much at all, so this will be interesting,” says Fajardo, noting that he hopes to follow Sathyavagiswaran’s lead and delegate most of the media interaction to someone else in the department. Despite a nationally televised stint on the stand during the trial of O.J. Simpson, the current coroner came to be known less for his time in the spotlight than for his competence in rebuilding the department after Noguchi and his successor, Ronald Kornblum, left their jobs amid management lapses and critical audits.
Nonetheless, Fajardo says, when he visited the department, he and Sathyavagiswaran talked at length about the challenges of dealing with death, L.A.-style.
“He told me that you lose all privacy, that you might have any member of the press asking any question at any time, and that you have to be prepared to answer openly,” says Fajardo. “And we talked about the media’s involvement in the case of Michael Jackson. He said there was such a caravan of cameras and paparazzi that they had to utilize a helicopter just to get him from Point A to Point B.”
That said, Fajardo says he’s looking forward to the $275,000-a-year job, which brings him and his wife, a San Bernardino County employee, back to his hometown.
Born at LAC+USC Medical Center, he spent his childhood in East Los Angeles and Pico Rivera. When he was 12, his father, a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, was killed in an automobile accident on the way to work, and the family moved to be near relatives in Santa Maria.
It was there, while Fajardo was in high school, that the door to his current career opened.
“I took a class at a local community college to learn how to be an EMT,” he recalls.
That skill helped pay his way through his undergraduate training and medical school at UC Davis, where he initially aspired to be an emergency room doctor.
“I actually ran the student clinic at UC Davis,” he remembers. “But the people I played basketball with were pathologists and the friendships I made led me down that path instead.”
At Riverside County, he says, he has performed more than 5,500 autopsies, including more than 350 homicide cases while managing seven full- and part-time pathologists and helping manage a department that handles some 11,000 cases a year.
“This is as far removed as you can get from what most people think of as working as a doctor,” says Fajardo. “But for me, every case is a puzzle I get to solve, hopefully in a way that gives their families closure. I speak for the dead. I try to answer the questions about how they lost their lives.”
Demographically, he says, his caseload isn’t much different than Los Angeles County’s.
“We have our share of homicides,” he says ruefully. “And we’ve had six officer-involved shootings in the last month.”
But while the Riverside County coroner’s operation is large by some measures, serving about 1.3 million people, its constituency is only a fraction of the size of L.A. County’s.
“To me, that’s probably the biggest challenge,” says Fajardo. “Ten million people and all of them have needs. And we have to meet them—we provide a service, just like sheriff’s deputies and firefighters. It’s just that, unless a celebrity dies, people just don’t notice us as much.”
May 14, 2013
“How’s Kobe doing?”
The question came from 97-year-old Stella March, a stalwart Lakers fan for decades. And it was directed at someone she thought would know—Kobe Bryant’s teammate, Metta World Peace.
“He tried to fight through it, but he couldn’t,” Metta said of Bryant and the Achilles tendon he tore on the eve of this year’s NBA playoffs. “He’s doing better now,” he assured March.
“I felt badly for him,” she said softly.
Then March turned the conversation toward Metta—and her observations had nothing to do with hoops. “What you’re doing for the kids, it’s very meaningful,” she told him. As they talked, they held hands.
From outward appearances, these two—the tiny white-haired woman with the walker and the towering player with the muscular arms—might seem like an odd pairing for a meeting of the Board of Supervisors. But as both would be quick to tell you, you can’t judge what’s inside from the outside. For they share a mission that transcends their cultural and generational divide; both are committed to destigmatizing mental health problems and treatment. And in that respect, both are very much on their game.
March and MWP, as the former Ron Artest likes to be called, were honored Tuesday by the board to kick-off “Mental Health Awareness Month.”
March is widely recognized as one of the nation’s preeminent advocates for families whose lives have been touched by mental illness, a crusade she began in the late 1970s after her son, a UCLA student, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Among other things, her efforts led to greater government and pharmaceutical research, ultimately helping to produce a new generation of medications. She also was the driving force behind building the National Alliance on Mental Illness and initiating its “StigmaBusters” program to combat inaccurate representations of mental illness in film, television, print and other media.
In those early years, she says, mental health treatment and research was so bad that many serious sufferers “were wandering around on the streets with nowhere to go. They were shunned and stigmatized as dirty street people.” With her organization’s help and support, she says, many of the severely afflicted “learned the basic skill of telling people how they recovered. Each one had a different story of recovery. It was fantastic.”
Metta World Peace understands the power of that message. Ever since he made headlines by thanking his therapist on network television after the Laker’s 7th-game championship victory in 2010, the once-troubled player has openly talked about his counseling for anger and family issues. In December of that year, he teamed up with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to produce a public service announcement aimed at encouraging young people to seek help. “Talk to somebody about it,” he says in the PSA. “I did. Take the first steps. Be a champion.”
Since then, he’s also made his pitch during high school assemblies here and across the country and has created a website called Limelight that promotes mental health treatment. A new public service announcement campaign between Metta World Peace and the county—called “Talk it Out”—was launched earlier this month and will continue throughout May.
Before their Tuesday appearance before the Board of Supervisors, March, a fan of MWP’s moves on and off the court, asked to meet him in a small conference room behind the board’s dais, where he was signing posters for the new campaign. Helped into the room by her daughter, Joella, and officials from the mental health department, March was greeted by the 6-foot-7 player with an embrace, as though she were the star. He then took a seat beside her so she wouldn’t have to strain looking up at him.
“Thank you for what you’ve done to help,” she told him. “We’ve got to keep advocating for people.”
She needn’t worry. As Metta World Peace told the audience in the board’s hearing room: “This is a lifetime work.”
April 11, 2013
What began 15 years ago simply as a promising job for a struggling single mom of three youngsters, has become a calling. “I am a voice for the animals,” says Eva Montes.
Those animals have come in all sizes and shapes, from furry to feathered, but they’ve suffered a common fate: they’ve been treated badly by people—sometimes through ignorance, sometimes with malice. And it’s not just about the animals.
“Most serial killers started with abusing animals,” Montes says, “and we have to put a stop to that early.”
Montes belongs to a select squad inside Los Angeles County’s Department of Animal Care & Control that investigates the agency’s most complex cases of animal neglect and cruelty. Called the Major Case Unit, its seven members tackle everything from highly organized pit bull and cockfighting rings to cat hoarders to single cases of heartbreaking—and criminal—abuse.
On Tuesday, she was among more than a dozen uniformed colleagues picked to represent the department before the Board of Supervisors as part of “Animal Control Officers Appreciation Week in Los Angeles County.” While the agency is best known for its shelter system and efforts to find adoptive homes for animals, the largely unsung detective work of its Major Case Unit, or MCU, is central to the agency’s mandate.
“By our very mission, we’re charged with protecting the public and protecting animals,” says Deputy Director Aaron Reyes, who oversees the unit. “One of the best ways we can do that is to investigate crimes of cruelty, abuse, neglect and illegal animal fighting.”
Reyes says the MCU was created more than a decade ago when it became clear that the massive volume of calls handled by animal control officers was preventing them from undertaking sustained and difficult investigations. Until last year, the MCU had been based in the original “pound master’s house” at the department’s first-ever facility, which opened in Downey in 1946. But Reyes says he thought it was crucial to get the team’s members “onto the front lines” and base them in various shelters, where they could initiate investigations more quickly and share their expertise and insights with other officers.
The idea to scatter the team was not met with enthusiasm.
“We were against it,” recalls Montes, who’s been in the unit for nearly three years. “We hung out together. We were family. But it’s worked out better.” Since being assigned to the Carson Animal Care Center, Montes says, she’s found potential abuse cases “that were slipping through the cracks” because some officers were not creative enough in their investigations or sufficiently trained to spot signs of less obvious abuse or neglect when people were bringing dogs to the shelter.
Since last July, Montes says she has, for the first time, initiated a number of investigations of people who’ve brought dogs to the facility, including a woman who recently turned in a pit bull that looked like it had been used for fighting. A warrant for her arrest was recently issued. Last November, Montes was instrumental in a joint investigation with the SPCA Los Angeles that led to a long list of cruelty charges filed by the district attorney’s office against the owner of a Gardena guard dog business.
Being assigned fulltime to the Carson shelter, which serves some of southern Los Angeles County’s most impoverished neighborhoods, has been a culture shock for Montes. Before her promotion to the MCU, she spent nine years in the county’s Agoura Animal Care Center, high in the mountains above Malibu. She calls it “the Club Med of shelters.” The dogs, she says, are mostly of the “frou-frou” variety, and volunteerism is robust, something for which she’ll always be grateful on a very personal level. During Montes’ tenure there, her 14-year-old daughter died from a form of bone cancer. Volunteers built a misting system to keep the animals cooler during the summer months and dedicated it with a plaque in honor of Montes’ daughter, Jessica.
“She really respected my job,” Montes says of her girl. “If she could only see me now.”
In contrast to the Agoura shelter, Montes’ current assignment has exposed her to some of the meanest dogs and toughest owners in the department’s jurisdiction, a swath of southern Los Angeles County where “gang members represent themselves with their dogs.” Sometimes, she says, packs of “dominant breed” dogs such as Rottweilers and pit bulls roam the streets. “It’s scary,” she says. “I worry about getting bit and never being able to work again.”
Montes says she’s received cooperation during her neighborhood investigations but has been told by some male officers that they’ve encountered resistance when responding to complaints, being warned: “Get off my property or I’ll shoot you.”
One of Montes’ colleagues in the Major Case Unit is Armando Ferrufino, who, like her, also works in the southern part of the county. An expert on cockfighting, he’s assigned to the Downey Animal Care Center. And like Montes, he also feels as though he’s a voice for the animals.
He tells the story of a man who, for months, allowed his Rottweiler, Duke, to deteriorate into a mass of tumors and sores, refusing to seek medical help despite the animal’s obvious suffering. Acting on a tip, animal control officers rescued Duke, but he was too far gone to save.
“I felt like the spirit of the animal was telling me to do the right thing, to investigate and get the whole truth,” Ferrufino says. “And I did.” The owner was charged with a felony and sentenced to three months in county jail.
Ferrufino, who joined the MCU in 2009, says one of the most sensitive assignments involves animal hoarders, mostly lonely elderly people whose homes are filled with scores of cats, a good number of them ailing. “In their mind,” Ferrufino says, “they believe they are doing the right thing—showing them love—but it gets to the point where they can’t take care of them.”
If the neglect is severe, he says, then charges are pursued. Authorities also provide referrals for counseling. What’s more, the county has a program to help clean homes after animals have been removed during often tearful negotiations with owners. “It’s an illness,” Ferrufino says. “They’re not aware they’re doing something wrong.”
As difficult and wrenching as the work can be, Ferrufino says, he’s found his calling, too.
“Every day I come to work, I’m happy,” he says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next, from hoarders to horses to cockfights.”
Montes agrees. “Some people like to stay in the shelter environment. But I saw other officers out there getting justice and I said: ‘That’s what I want to do.’ “
April 4, 2013
Unlike countless showbiz hopefuls waiting on tables or schlepping to auditions, it didn’t take long for Margarita Perez to land a Hollywood gig. Not that she even thought about breaking into the business when she hit town.
After all, her day job is now among the most important in Los Angeles government. Five months ago, after years in Sacramento, Perez was tapped to help remake the county’s Probation Department and guide its response to California’s controversial AB 109 law, which has placed thousands of former state prison inmates under the agency’s supervision.
On Thursday nights at 7, Perez can be seen hosting a news segment on KCOP-TV Channel 13 called “L.A.’s Most Wanted.” The unique collaboration between the station and the Probation Department calls on the public for tips to help track down five former convicts each week—most of them with serious raps sheets—who’ve disappeared into the community.
“I think it’s exciting,” Assistant Chief Probation Officer Perez says of the segments, which began airing last week. “It’s a great opportunity to highlight probation’s good work and engage the public in holding accountable those offenders who are not availing themselves of our oversight.”
And don’t be deceived by her looks. Although diminutive and fashionable, the high-octane Perez means business. She’s a self-described former “gun-toting parole agent” who broke into the criminal justice system as a guard at Avenal State Prison, a men’s institution in Central California. As an officer in the California National Guard, she was awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious achievement after entering Iraq with the front-line troops during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. “I’m as gung-ho as they come,” she says.
Perez says her parents, born and raised in Mexico, “drove into my head that your success revolves around you. There are no crutches. If you’re not successful, then you didn’t take advantage of the opportunities in this country.”
That advice propelled Perez through the California corrections bureaucracy during a career of more than two decades. Last year, she was put in charge of the Adult Parole Operations Division, where she was responsible for 3,500 employees and a budget of about $650 million.
But that job was increasingly looking like a dead end because of AB 109, the so-called “realignment” law enacted to ease overcrowding in the state’s 33 prisons and save money. As supervision of certain newly released inmates shifted to California’s counties, there was less work for state parole officers, who increasingly faced layoffs. Perez says the number of state-supervised offenders plummeted from 128,000 to 50,000, with only more of the same ahead.
So Perez was ready for a new challenge, a desire that made its way to Los Angeles County Probation Chief Jerry Powers, who assumed the top job in October, 2011, with a mandate to not only implement AB 109 but to also shake-up a department rife with personnel and financial problems. For months, he’d been unable to field a top management team with the expertise he believed necessary to tackle the enormous issues confronting the agency.
“To be honest, I was wearing down,” Powers says. “I was trying to cover the entire house with just me.”
But late last year he found his reinforcements in Perez, whom he hired to oversee adult and juvenile field operations, and in Sacramento County’s former probation chief, Don Meyer, whom he put in charge of the department’s juvenile halls and camps, which had a history of problems so severe that the U.S. Justice Department was compelled to intervene.
Powers says his two new assistant chiefs, outwardly, couldn’t be more different.
“She’s like a tiny little dynamo,” he says. “She talks fast, she walks fast, she works fast. Everything about her is fast.” Meyer, on the other hand, is “a beast,” Powers says, a “barrel-chested” weightlifter who’s competed in and won international law enforcement competitions.
“It’s ridiculous when they stand side-by-side,” Powers says with a laugh. But both, he adds, share this in common: “They get things done.”
Of the two, Perez will certainly play a more visible role—even beyond her TV spots—given the rising concerns and controversy over the potential impact of AB 109 on public safety.
In recent months, two high-profile crimes were allegedly committed by suspects sent to the county for supervision after serving prison terms for non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses. Under the new law, prior criminal histories are not considered when determining an inmate’s post-release supervision, except for high-risk sex offenders, sexually violent predators or “mentally disordered” offenders, who remain under state supervision .
In December, one of the county’s new wards was charged with a quadruple murder in Northridge. Then, just last week, another was named as the prime suspect in the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl. He remains at large.
Critics of realignment have suggested that such crimes might not have been committed had the state not hurriedly foisted AB 109 on the counties—a contention disputed by most law enforcement officials, including Powers. He says that in 2010, the year prior to AB 109’s passage in Sacramento, more than 170 men were arrested in Los Angeles County for murder while under the supervision of state parole officers.
“If you take 11,000 offenders from the state and put them in Los Angeles County, you can predict that a portion of those offenders are going to kill people and you can predict that a portion are going to rehabilitate themselves and never get in trouble again,” Powers says. “So whatever your philosophical perspective, you can make a prediction and be right because the population we’re dealing with is so large. Having said that, the question is: Can we handle this population with better outcomes than the state?”
Perez says the disclosure that the alleged Northridge gunman was an AB 109 offender came during her first weekend on the job. Some of the probation officers, she says, were shocked because they’ve been mostly accustomed to dealing with lower-level offenders. Not her.
“In parole, this was a regular occurrence. You literally become accustomed to it,” she said the other day from the department’s drab and dated Downey headquarters. “Whether you’ve got a parole agent watching you or a county probation officer watching you, you’re going to commit a crime if that’s your intent.”
She says she tells her probation officers that a good number of the offenders they’re now responsible for supervising were once under probation’s watch for less severe crimes. “The only difference,” she tells them, “is that they’re a little older, their rap sheets are longer and they’re more sophisticated. But it’s the same population you dealt with.”
Perez says she also wants to assure the public that her agency “is ready to take on this challenge. We’re familiar with this population in terms of their risks, their needs and what we need to do to assist them in their reintegration into the community, realizing there’s always going to be some who are either not ready or not amenable to the resources and interventions we can provide to them.”
Perez says was one of her biggest challenges is how the agency can quickly build an infrastructure to handle the new supervision demands, ranging from training and hiring scores of new probation officers to modifying computer systems to improve tracking of the county’s new charges and their progress—or the lack of it.
Also at the top of the list is the screening and training of 100 probation officers who’ll be given guns, a first for the department.
“When I was a parole agent, I carried a caseload and I carried a gun,” Perez says. “The job was to make random house calls in the evenings, during the day, on weekends. And to go into some of those communities that are sometimes dangerous, gang infested, they are just not the safest places in the world. So if there’s an expectation that probation officers are going to do this, you have to give them the tools.” So far, she says, 28 probation officers have been cleared to carry firearms.
Perez says one of her other challenges, on a personal level, will be to find time to continue her practice of Bikram, or “hot,” yoga—27 postures practiced in a room with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Perez, a youthful 50-year-old, acknowledges that she practically vibrates with energy.
“You should have seen me before I started yoga,” she says. “It helps me refocus and keep my calm. It gives me a chance to go on autopilot and think about nothing.”
Even if it’s only for a couple of hours.