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Follow the Gang Money: The Controller’s Report

July 27th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

On Tuesday, City Controller Wendy Greuel released her audit
of the effectiveness of the city’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development programs—aka GRYD. (The report follows-up on former Controller Laura Chick’s 2008 report.)

Overall Ms. Greuel said that the programs had made a lot of progress and, in effect, laid down a promising foundation on which future progress may be built.

Her main criticism was that the city had spent $525,000 on an evaluation of the programs (with the cost of the ongoing eval rising as I type), but had gotten no real evaluation for that half million bucks plus.

As you will see when we begin our Follow-the-Gang-Money stories, we agree completely with Controller Gruel about the not getting much for the evaluation $$$.

But we have found that the problem goes a bit deeper. We have read the Urban Institute’s 60-page evaluation report very carefully.

And, yes, surely the controller is right: It is beyond maddening to find that, nearly 2-years in, we have no practical assessment of the city’s gang programs—particularly after all the promises made that, once the gang money was moved under the mayor’s umbrella, Priority One would be the twinned values of transparency and accountability.

However after a very thorough examination, we have found that the larger problem is not with the Urban Institute evaluators, who seem quite competent and professional. It is with the programs. The Urban Institute delivered a 60-page, $525 million NON-evaluation because—-there is not a whole lot to evaluate.

Details to come soon.

So stay tuned.

(NOTE: I’m still ensconced in a cabin on river in West Glacier, Montana, with a (gasp) dial up connection to the Web. This means the 24-hour-news cycle has slowed down to something like 72 hours. But, Matt Fleischer and I are on top of this gang money issue—among others. And there will be a lot of new stuff when I return—and likely sooner.)

Here’s the LA Times’ report on the Report.

NOTE # 2: The photo isn’t of the river in back of our house, but of nearby Lake McDonald.

Posted in Gangs, LA city government | 21 Comments »

WitnessLA is Going on Vacation – 7/15 to 8/11

July 15th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Here’s the deal: this past year, I was supposed to be putting the finishing touches
on the first 2/3 of my next book, An American Family.

But what with teaching and blogging and other projects, somehow the book never made it to the front burner.

So from today, July 15, until Wednesday, August 11, I’m going to temporarily recalibrate my priorities.

I’m packing the dog, the cat, my laptop, and a large pile of very good books (some are physical books, many are audible versions loaded on to my iPod) and I am driving to West Glacier, Montana, to sit by the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and write.

I may post things intermittently along the way, —you know, strange interviews with people I encounter, photos of wandering grizzlies, random but impassioned book recommendations. I cannot say with what frequency though.

HOWEVER if something really essential happens in LA that motivates me to comment, I will do so.

So check in.

NOTE: Shortly after I get back, the first LA Justice Report (see below) will appear here.

Also, during those first days back from vacation, writer/teacher Dennis Dansiger will have the next chapter in the story of his talented student John Rodriguez who has been charged with attempted murder.

In the meantime, may your summer days be good ones.

Just for the record (for those who are madly into summer reading themselves), the first books I’ve got queued up on the iPod for the drive are (not necessarily in this order):

1. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Mitchell’s the literary IT guy this summer. And according to Dave Eggers, he really is that good. I feel it behooves me to find out if Eggers is right.

2. James Lee Burke’s The Glass Rainbow.

I’m a complete Burke fangirl. This book came out Tuesday. I downloaded it on Wednesday. (Happy now.)

3. Faithful Place by Tana French

French is something of a rising star in the mystery world. Her first two books were psychologically-nuanced, character-driven and pleasantly quirky, written in a dreamily literary prose style. Yet French is Irish, so all of the above is also torn and dark at the edges. I read her first two, In the Woods and The Likeness, and liked them a lot. I hear her third is the best of the three.

Burke and French seem like the perfect people to hang out with while driving north—with Mitchell up next, once I’m on the river.

Let me know what you’re reading this summer, if you’re in the mood.

Otherwise, I’ll see you in a few weeks. (And maybe a little in between.)

Posted in Life in general, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT, The Writer - Dennis Danziger | 9 Comments »

The 1st LA Justice Report is Funded: Story Coming in August

July 15th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Thanks to 88 fantastic people,
the first LA Justice Report story is fully funded.


This is a very, very good thing—particularly because reporter Matt Fleischer has been hard at work on the story for over a month.

The LA Justice Report, as you may or may not remember, is a partnership between WitnessLA and Spot.Us. It uses the Spot.Us wonderfully cool “crowd-funding” model to support social justice-oriented investigative journalism in LA.

The partnership’s first project is called Follow the Gang money, and it will look at how the city of Los Angeles is spending it’s $26 million of gang violence reduction money, which is dedicated to gang prevention and intervention. That $26 million is one of the very few city budgets that was not cut this past budget slashing season.

Matt has done incredible reporting, in several cases employing the excellent tool known as the Public Records Act to get the information that the mayor’s office and others were a bit…um…slow…to fork over.

Now, we have the answers.

Matt’s resulting story series will be published here in the 3rd week of August—(In other words, a few days after WLA and I are back from vacation).

What Matt has learned will, I promise, surprise, interest and likely infuriate you.

But here’s the thing: Los Angeles is our city, and we have the right to know how our money is spent on such essential issues. If the information is withheld, we have the duty to acquire it.

So we have done just that.

Thank you to all of you who have thus far been a part of our collective endeavor.

And for those of you who have not donated or acquired credits to donate: don’t worry, there will be other opportunities ahead. Trust me.

In the meantime, stay tuned. An important LA story awaits you.

Posted in Gangs, LA city government, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT | No Comments »

Why Won’t LA County Probation Fire Its Bad Officers? A Case In Point

July 14th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

WitnessLA has obtained county documents indicating that a deputy probation officer (DPO)
working for the Los Angeles County Department of probation has been twice arrested on complaints of child molestation, based on accusations by three of his adopted children—and that’s before you get to the DCFS reports.

Although the arrests did not lead to convictions, in five other instances the officer was the object of complaints of child abuse and child sexual abuse made to the San Bernardino DCFS (Department of Family and Children Services.)

In three of those instances of abuse complaints, the charges were “substantiated” by DCFS.

County documents also show that, for several years, the same officer had a live in “nanny” for the children who also happened to be a convicted sex offender. (When the “nanny” was 19 years old, he was convicted of having anal sex with a minor under the age of 18.)

Yes, you read right. The officer had a live in friend/nanny who is also a convicted sex offender.

Yet, as of May of this year, the officer was still working for LA County probation—and is reportedly working still (although the department’s human resource section won’t confirm, one way or the other).

Most recently, the officer has been supervising adult probationers, not juveniles. The department won’t say if he supervised juveniles earlier in his employment for the LA County or not.


Okay here, in excruciating detail, is what the county paperwork shows:

In 2002 this officer adopted four children—three boys and one girl—some or all of whom it is believed were in his care as foster children prior to the adoption.

Five times between May of 2001 and December of 2006, allegations of child abuse, sexual abuse and/or general neglect were filed against the officer, and thus required investigation by the Department of Family and Children Services in San Bernardino .

In three out of the five cases, the charges were “substantiated.” In other words, they were investigated and found to be true, according to county documents.

Here’s the list:

On May 24 2001, the charge of physical abuse was substantiated against the officer

On December 4, 2003, another charge of physical abuse was substantiated against the officer—this time along with his housemate.

Three years later, on December 21, 2006, allegations of sexual abuse, plus general neglect and the absence of a caretaker were lodged against the officer. Those allegations were again substantiated.

(Earlier that same year, two other allegations of sexual abuse were made against the officer, and in one case his housemate as well, however they were not substantiated.)

(Okay, I know this is tedious, but stick with me here.)

On the same day that the sexual abuse allegations were substantiated, the San Bernardino Police stopped by the officer’s house to find out why his housemate, the nanny, had failed to register as a sex offender.

According to an article in the San Bernardino Sun. and also according to LA County documents, when the police officers came to the house, three of the officer’s children—one presumes the three boys— alleged that their father had “molested them repeatedly.”

Both the officer and the housemate were arrested on suspicion of child molestation. In the end, however, criminal charges were not filed.

According to a separate LA County document, The officer was rearrested for molestation a week or two later. Again there were no charges.


Did LA County Probation higher ups know that one of their officers had been repeatedly slammed with child abuse allegations—with at least three of those charges found to be righteous?

Yep, they did.

And what did they do about it?

Just about nothing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Human rights, LA County Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County, Probation | 16 Comments »

The Death of Zac Champommier – Part 2: The Witness

July 13th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

A great deal of controversy, shock and confusion has surrounded the death
of 18-year-old Zac Champommier an honor student, self-described band geek who played the sax and the viola in the Granada Hills High School marching band, and graduated this past June and was to have entered college in the fall. After college graduation, he wanted to travel, meet new people, fall in love, and eventually own a book store, according to his MySpace musings. (Zac is shown above in a video collage made by one of his friends for his memorial.)

Instead, on the night of June 24th, Zac went to meet a friend in the parking lot behind the Chipotle Mexican Grill at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, but somehow unaccountably ended up hitting a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy with his car. The deputy and a DEA agent reportedly fired at Zac in return. According to initial coroners reports, the bullet entered through his left arm and continued into his chest. Zac died on the parking lot pavement.

For weeks his mother and his friends have been puzzing in anguish over what could possibly have caused the terrible string of events.

Now there is a witness.

His name is Douglas Ryan Oeters and he tells a story that is different in several important ways from the one that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has previously reported.

It seems he is the friend whom Zac was meeting. I have been corresponding with Oeters via email about the night in question.

(I see that The LA Times’ Robert Faturechi has also been corresponding via email with Oeters.)

According to Oeters, who is 29, he had just spoken to Zac on the cell phone before the events were set in motion that were to end in tragedy.

“He called me a minute before this happened and said he was sitting in the Citibank parking lot in a white car.” Oeters said he saw a white car parked in the back of the lot, walked over, and peered into it to see if anyone was inside. No one was. Then he spotted a second white car—which turned out to be the right one—and was proceeding toward it when he said he was approached by a plain clothes officer and then several more, none of whom, he said, in the beginning showed him any kind of a badge.

The official press release from the LA County Sheriff’s Department describes the crucial events as follows:

It states that Sheriff’s narcotics officers together with DEA agents had just served a search warrant and were now debriefing in the Chipotle parking lot.

During their discussion they saw a man looking into parked cars who appeared to be casing the area to commit a crime. Task force members contacted the man. He immediately became uncooperative and a struggle ensued. An additional deputy approached to assist, drew his handgun, and ordered the suspect to the ground.

A white sedan, driven by a second suspect, sped toward the group, hitting the deputy.The deputy was thrown into the air, landed on the hood, hit the windshield, and was
thrown back onto the ground. The deputy and a Drug Enforcement Administration agent,
fearing for their lives, fired their duty weapons at the suspect vehicle.

Although not spelled out in the original statement, now the LASD confirms that the officers involved were in indeed in plain clothes and their cars were unmarked.

As a consequence, according to Oeters, he first mistook the officers who approached him for “rednecks” who intended to jump him.

“I was scared and tried to avoid this very large man in plain clothes with no badge. They rushed towards me as I was walking in the parking lot looking for Zac waiting in his car. …I was looking for Zac and nothing else.”

Oeters said that he was fearful and continued to ask the officers, “What is this about?” However, he insisted that he never physically resisted the officers as the LASD report states he did. “I continued asking what was I doing wrong while this large man cornered me by a fence.” He became further alarmed when an agent pulled his gun, he said, “when there was no physical contact at all. Just me having my hands put behind my back after a badge was finally shown.”

From where Zac was sitting in his car, Oeters theorized later, the scene must have looked very threatening.

“Because of this Zac panicked and decided to flee the parking lot. He pulled his car forward as if to leave. Somehow an agent got in the way between him and the exit. Did he have any intent to harm this agent in the way? NO it did not appear as if he was there to hurt anyone. He was not driving very fast.

Reportedly, the deputy whom Zac hit and a DEA officer both fired at Zac.

How he managed to hit a sheriff’s deputy on his way out of the parking lot is still not clear.

Friends who know Zac Champommier well said that their friend would not have played the hero in a situation of this nature. It was more likely, they said, echoing Oeters, that he was simply trying to escape a frightening scene he did not understand and would have probably called 911 once he was safely away from what looked like an attack.

As to the question of why the 18-year-old Zac was meeting a 29-year-old man to go to the movies, sources close to Zac’s family said that, after her son’s death, his mother, Linda, read the emails that Zac and Oeters had exchanged the night before their plan to meet, and that Oeters had written that he was new in town, and hoped to sell a screen play, but was trying to get to know people in the area.

Whatever the case, Zac had no reputation as a wild kid. Thus far anyway, there are no tales of drugs or anything else illegal in his past. Videos taken by friends show an bright, open-faced, handsome young man who seemed at ease with himself yet could be zany and silly with his band pals. Not someone who walked any kind of edge, his friends said.

According to his mom, when he went to a party, he would usually be home by 10:30 or a 11 p.m.

In fact, his mother worried a little that he was not going out enough. She thought that maybe, because she was a single mom, he might have felt he ought to keep her company. So she began encouraging him to get out a bit more.

Still he rarely stayed out past his self-imposed 11 p.m. deadline.

That is why when her son didn’t arrive home by 1 a.m. and then 2 a.m., then 4 a.m.…then 6…. Carol Champommier knew something was horribly wrong.

By around 8 a.m., friends say, she reported Zac as a missing person. Shortly after that, Carol Champommier learned her son was dead, shot by an LA County sheriff’s deputy.

As for Oeters, the LASD records show that he was arrested and booked that same night.. A couple of days later he was released on a $20,000 bail and has since retained an attorney.

In addition, the LA Times reports that Oeters, who is from Ohio, had at least one other “brush with the law. In Ohio, he was convicted of a charge related to soliciting sex from a minor, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.”

Posted in criminal justice, LASD | 285 Comments »

Education Monday: Fighting Over Ed Funding

July 12th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


In its Monday editorial, the LA Times says: NO.

But I’m not so sure. I think it’s a mistake to begin nicking away at Race to the Top, which is successfully incentivizing education reform in a way that is desperately needed.

On the other hand, the Times has a point in saying that the cuts are not even close to fatal to Race to the Top so, in essence, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, fiscally speaking.

On the other, other hand, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that the administration understands the need for cuts, but that these aren’t the right cuts. So he wants Congress to go back to the….you know...chalk board—or whatever it is one goes back to these days.

In any case, we’ll see how this game of legislative chicken plays out as the Congress returns from its 4th of July break.


Monday’s Washington Post has an article on the influence of the Gates Foundation on education. The Gates folks, writes the WaPo, use their grant giving capabilities as a way to push many of the same education reforms that the Obama administration favors and some critics think that Gates and company have too much power and too little understanding of how education works.

The biggest critic is education historian, Diane Ravitch, who writes in her bestselling, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,’’ that Gates and people like LA’s Eli Broad, and their “current obsession with making our schools work like a business, threatens to destroy public education.’’

Yes, well, business-as-usual was already doing a pretty good job of it.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Education | 7 Comments »

When You Are Too Young to Choose (But Have to Anyway)

July 9th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

We first met Nina Montoya when she was a senior at Venice High School where,
in English teacher Dennis Danziger’s class, she began to discover her talent for writing.

During the year, Nina began a series of essays about her experiences in foster care, two of which WLA posted here.

The first of the essays described the day when Nina and her then nine-year-old sister were taken away from their home and plunged into the foster care world. (Nina was seven-years old at the time.)

Her next essay was about her struggle to make sense out of her feelings of love for her abusive dad and her abandoning mother:

….In the past I have been physically and mentally abused by my father. He has told me many times that I am stupid, that I should just give up, quit. When I would speak of college he told me that I shouldn’t bother, that they don’t care if you are smart or stupid, the only reason why they want you is to take your money. He has threatened me, put me in many unnecessary dangers, even threatened my friends as well. Inexplicably, I still love him. I always will love him, for he is my father and though he makes not the best decisions, I know in the end he loves me too. That he is proud of me, I have heard him brag to his friends. I just wish that I could hear the compliments myself, that he would tell me to my face that he is proud.

Even my mother who abandoned me I love her. She left me when I was merely a toddler. She even attempted to do drugs while she was pregnant with me, but I still love her. Though I wish not to speak to her, when she does contact me I tolerate it. This is because as much as I hate her, my love is stronger….

In each case, Nina explored the internal landscape of her experience—an experience that is, by the way, shared by 20,000 LA County kids in any given month—with courage, clarity and grace.

Today, we have a third essay. This one continues her foster care narrative and talks about the kind of a choice a kid should not have to make.

The Decision

One of the most intense, passionate and heartbreaking moments in my life happened when I was seven. The court asked my sister and me to decide who we wanted to live with and raise us for the rest of our lives. An extreme question for any child.

We had three choices, my dad, my mom or Jennifer Cooper. Jennifer was one of the sweetest people I knew. I loved Jennifer, who was a mother figure to me. I considered Jennifer, who was the mother of my dad’s previous girl friend, Jackie, to be family.

My dad remained good friends with Jackie after their break up and was still good friends with her family as well. Jennifer owned a large house and my dad paid rent to her to live there. There were six rooms, if I can remember correctly, maybe even more. Two of the three bed rooms upstairs belonged to my dad and my sister and I shared the third bedroom.

During the time we lived in Jennifer’s house, along with Jessica, another of Jennifer’s daughters, we all grew close. Jennifer loved my sister and me deeply and wanted the best for us. In my mind when the judge asked us to pick I knew my decision. I wanted Jennifer even though it meant choosing her over my own blood.

My sister, who was few years older than me, was close to my father. Not that I wasn’t and not that I didn’t love him. I did. But deep down I knew that my father wasn’t comfortable playing the dad role and life would be easier, simpler and more relaxed with Jennifer as my guardian.

So when I asked my sister her decision and she named dad, I was shocked, because I knew she could see the unhappiness that would lay ahead. I told her I decided to live with Jennifer which upset her. My sister, in tears, rushed to my father to tell him the news. As he listened I could tell from the expression on his face and his body language the moment he understood my decision. I had broken his heart .

My heart dropped as I watched the two people that have always been apart of me, my life, sitting on the floor and crying. I couldn’t take the pain and joined in sobbing alongside them.

I begged my father for forgiveness and promised I wouldn’t tear apart our small family and when the court asked who I wanted to live with I said only one word, “dad”.

Nina Montoya graduated from Venice High School in June 2010 and will attend Cal State Northridge this fall.

Posted in American voices, Nina's World | 4 Comments »

Cutting Summer School Classes Cuts more than Education

July 9th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

As we who live in LA County are aware,
LAUSD has been driven to drop the notion of summer school almost altogether and to shorten the school year, all in the name of budget cutting.

In Wednesday’s Huffington Post, the Coalition Director of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater LA, Kaile Schilling writes about the how the loss of summer school has many more costs to it than simply educational:

Our schools remain one of our most valuable tools for reaching young people on every level – academic education, social education, nutrition, and violence prevention. No one issue is an island, and a cut in one area can have a substantive impact in unexpected places. The reduction of summer classes and programs for 150,00 kids, for instance, means thousands of low-income children who relied on subsidized school lunches are left wondering where their next meal is coming from, as the LA Times recently reported.

It’s not only school kids who are impacted: so is everyone in Los Angeles. All the research agrees: Good schools mean a safer society. Simply put, kids who stay in school are less likely to commit crimes. A 2006 study by research group Bridgeland, DiIulio & Morison found that kids who drop out of high school are more than eight times as likely to wind up in jail or prison.

Read the rest here.

Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Mehserle/Oscar Grant Verdict: Involuntary Manslaughter – UPDATED

July 8th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

The verdict was reached at around 3:15 p.m.
It was announced in LA at around 4:05 p.m.

In this particular instance, Involuntary Manslaughter will mean a sentence of 2-4 years. However, since the jury also found in favor of a gun “enhancement”—meaning a sentencing add on for the use of the gun in the crime—Mehserle will likely do more–specifically as much as 5-14 years.

Mehserle has been taken into custody. (He was free on a $3 million bail.) He will be sentenced on August 6.

A rally and news conference regarding LA residents’ reactions
is taking place at Crenshaw Boulevard and Vernon Avenue in Leimert Park.

People are gathering in downtown Oakland.

5:15 p.m.—around 500 people gathering at 14th and Broadway in Oakland. (Live blogging here.)

UPDATE: Jack Leonard and Maria LaGanga’s summary of the case and the verdict is both sober minded, informative and insightful.

And here, from the San Jose Mercury News, is a good account of the largely peaceful demonstrations in Oakland—and the problems.


….is also drawing crowds, reports the LA Times.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice | 23 Comments »

“Familial DNA” and An Arrest in the Grim Sleeper Case

July 8th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

The man who may be responsible for the longest killing spree
in California history was arrested on Wednesday as a consequence of dogged police work and a complex new forensic tool called “familial DNA“—a method used only as a last resort after traditional DNA routes have been tried without success.

Familial DNA allows forensic scientists to use DNA markers to ID possible family members of a perpetrator who has left his or her DNA on the scene, and then to follow all family strands until the killer has been located.

This is precisely what happened in the case of the man believed to be the The Grim Sleeper. (The killer was given this sobriquet by the LA Weekly’s Christine Pelisek, who originally broke the story in 2006 when police were trying to keep the news of the serial murders quiet.)

The alleged killer of at least 11 people, with murders going back 25 years, turned out to be a 57-year-old South LA auto mechanic named Lonnie David Franklin Jr., who was well-liked by his neighbors.

(Once again, the so-called face of evil ends up being all too sadly ordinary.)

The LA Times has some good team coverage of the steps that led to the arrest.

Here’s a clip:

For well over two decades, the killer had eluded police. His victims, most of them prostitutes in South Los Angeles, had lived on the margins of society, and their deaths left few useful clues aside from the DNA of the man who had sexually assaulted them in the moments before their deaths.

A sweep of state prisons in 2008 failed to come up with the killer or anyone related to him. Then, last Wednesday, startling news came to the LAPD: A second “familial search” of prisons had come up with a convict whose DNA indicated that he was a close relative of the serial killer suspected of killing at least 10 women.

Working through the Fourth of July weekend, LAPD detectives drew up a family tree of the prisoner, then began analyzing all the men on it. Were they the right age? Did they live near the murder scenes? Was there anything in their background to explain why the serial killer had apparently stopped killing for 13 years, then resumed in 2003?

From that painstaking process, according to LAPD officials who requested anonymity, the prisoner’s father emerged as a likely suspect. An undercover team was sent to follow him; they retrieved a discarded slice of pizza to analyze his DNA. On Tuesday, they confirmed that it matched the DNA of the suspect in the killings.

(There’s a lot more on the history of the investigation and now the reaction of neighbors, so read the rest.)

A large thank you to all the LAPD officers involved for not giving up.


And just in time, earlier this week NPR’s Talk of the Nation had a story on new research looking at the relationship between brain abnormalities, certain genes and serial killers.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice | 1 Comment »

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