Benjamin Diaz

Deliberations in Bell trial to start anew after juror dismissed for misconduct

Mar 1, 2013

LOS ANGELES – A juror in the trial of a former Bell mayor and five ex-City Council members was dismissed today for doing research on the Internet and talking to her daughter about what she called “the abuse I have suffered from the other jurors,” who indicated they were deadlocked in their fifth day of deliberations.

Picking from among four ping-pong balls placed in a Los Angeles Dodgers helmet, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy chose one of the four remaining alternates — a woman — to take the place of the ousted juror.

The judge this afternoon instructed the seven-woman, five-man panel to “begin your deliberations all over again” in the case of former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Victor Bello, Luis Artiga and George Cole, who are charged with misappropriating public funds.

The reconstituted jury is due back in court Friday morning to resume deliberations.

After the judge was informed through a note from another juror that now- ousted juror number 3 had told the group that she had contacted an attorney about being coerced to return a verdict a certain way, she told the judge that she used the word attorney — though she had not spoken to a lawyer — “so they would leave me alone.”

Shortly before being dismissed, the woman said she had consulted a legal website online.

“I was on there looking to see at what point can I get the harassment to stop,” the ousted juror said, questioning how long she had to “stay in there and deliberate with them when I’ve made my decision.”

The woman — who had asked to be taken off the jury Monday during the second day of deliberations — said she had spoken with her daughter about the way she was treated by other jurors. She said she asked her daughter to look up the word coercion — a definition of which she had brought to court in her purse.

She said her daughter told her, “Mom, they’re trying to find a weak link. Just be patient. You’ll be fine.”

Just before dismissing the woman from the jury, the judge said, “It seems fairly clear to the court that juror number 3 has engaged in misconduct,” noting that she has repeatedly warned jurors not to do any outside research.

The judge said the conduct was “simply not acceptable,” but told the juror while dismissing her that “you’re not in trouble.”

The woman appeared emotional as she walked out of the courtroom for the last time without returning to the jury room where the remainder of the panel was waiting.

Her dismissal came shortly after attorneys were summoned to court in response to a note signed by two jurors who said there were “fundamental disagreements” among the panelists and that it did not appear a verdict could be reached.

Jurors were not questioned about that note.

Outside the jury’s presence after the juror was dismissed and before the alternate was named, the judge said the deadlock was “no longer in play” because there were only 11 jurors to be questioned at the time and a jury must be comprised of 12 people.

Before the case went to the jury last Friday, Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller told them that the defendants “want to fool you just like they fooled the city of Bell.”

Miller contends that the defendants were paid illegal salaries that reached $100,000 for sitting on four city boards — the Community Housing Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Financing Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority — that rarely met. In any event, sitting on those boards were “part and parcel” of their city council duties, he said.

Defense attorneys maintain that their clients have been wrongly accused, arguing they worked diligently for the city and earned their salaries.

“I think the acquittals here should be across the board,” Mirabal’s attorney, Alex Kessel, told jurors during his closing argument last week.

Hernandez, 65, Jacobo, 55, and Mirabal, 63, are each charged with 20 counts of misappropriating public funds between January 2006 and July 2010; Bello, 54, is charged with 16 counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2009; Artiga, 52, is charged with 12 counts of misappropriation between January 2008 and July 2010; and Cole, 63, is charged with eight counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2007.

Former city manager Robert Rizzo is awaiting trial separately, along with former assistant Angela Spaccia, on corruption-related charges.

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L.A. candidate for mayor to run, bike 100 miles ahead of election

Feb 27, 2013

LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles mayoral candidate Emanuel Pleitez today kicked off a six-day, 100-mile running and bicycling trip across the city as part of a get-out-the vote effort on the final weekend before the March 5 election.

Pleitez ran 15.4 miles from the Canoga Park Community Center to Mestizo restaurant in Mission Hills today in about three hours.

The entire 100-mile trip will take Pleitez through neighborhoods in the western and eastern San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, Eastside, Mid-City, Venice, and South Los Angeles areas.

It will conclude Monday night in San Pedro, in time for the election on Tuesday.

Pleitez, 30, was a personal assistant to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa from 2003-2005, a financial analyst with the Securities Division of the investment bank Goldman, Sachs & Co. and a member of the Obama transition team reviewing potential staff for the Treasury Department.

Pleitez most recently worked as Chief Strategy Officer for Spokeo, a search engine to find information about people using data mined from their public profiles on various social networks.

Pleitez finished third in a 2009 special election in the 32nd Congressional District to succeed Hilda Solis, who had been appointed Secretary of Labor.

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Study ranks happiest cities by geo-tagging Twitter messages

Feb 27, 2013

MISSION VIEJO – Mission Viejo, Lake Forest, San Clemente and Simi Valley are among the top 10 happiest cities in the United States, according to a University of Vermont study.

University researchers analyzed more than 10 million “geo-tagged” Twitter messages from 373 urban areas. The researchers scored more than 80 million words in the tweets for levels of happiness.

The researchers said the results “show how social media may potentially be used to estimate real-time levels and changes in population-level measures such as obesity rates.”

Napa was ranked the happiest city in the country.

Mission Viejo, Lake Forest and San Clemente were ranked fourth on the list, and Simi Valley was ranked fifth happiest. Thousand Oaks came in at 19th on the list, San Diego was ranked 40th happiest and Los Angeles, Long Beach and Anaheim — home to the so-called “happiest place on earth,” aka Disneyland — came in at 79th on the list.  Santa Clarita was ranked 96th.

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8 charged in $10 million tax fraud that used stolen identities of homeless, retired persons

Feb 27, 2013

LOS ANGELES – Federal authorities today arrested six of eight defendants charged in an alleged San Fernando Valley-based fraud ring that used stolen identities to collect nearly $10 million in phony tax refunds.

According to a 132-count indictment, filed this week in Los Angeles federal court, members of the scheme obtained nearly 2,000 stolen identities, many from retired people and residents of homeless shelters, some of whom had not filed federal tax returns in years.

Prosecutors allege the defendants then submitted forms to the Internal Revenue Service under the names of the identity-theft victims. After getting refunds, the defendants took the fraudulently obtained checks to various check cashing companies, which took their own cuts, according to the indictment.

In an effort to hide their activities, the eight used coded language to refer to U.S. Treasury checks, called each other by nicknames, used bogus addresses on their own driver’s licenses and had “straw buyers” purchase property, federal prosecutors allege.

“These individuals demonstrated a blatant disregard for the integrity of the United States tax system and caused immeasurable hardship to innocent victims,” said Richard Weber, chief of the IRS criminal investigations unit.

Those arrested today are:

— Ashot Karapetian, 47, of North Hollywood;

— Suren “Sonny” Gambaryan, 33, of North Hollywood;

— Artak “Max” Berberyan, 33, of Van Nuys;

— Vigen “Vic” Tsaturyan, 47, of Sun Valley;

— Armen “Roman” Berberyan, 33, of Van Nuys; and

— Arman Zargaryan, 30, of Granada Hills.

Additionally, defendants Akop “Jack” Kantrdzyan, 33, of Sylmar, and David “Little Guy” Samsonyan, 31, of Winnetka, are fugitives, authorities said.

The indictment charges conspiracy, theft of government money, mail fraud, money laundering, aggravated identity theft, and cashing government checks with forged signatures. All eight defendants are charged in the conspiracy count, and each are charged in various mail fraud counts.

Authorities also arrested two others on unrelated charges. Armine Nazaryan, 41, of North Hollywood, was indicted on charges of making false statements to Homeland Security Investigations agents, and Spartak Karapetian, 23, of North Hollywood, son of Ashot Karpetian, was arrested on suspicion of being a felon with a gun, officials said.

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Man who took mother-in-law, son hostage commits suicide

Feb 27, 2013

SANTA MONICA – An armed man who was holed up overnight in his house in Santa Monica as SWAT officers surrounded the home was found dead today of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said.

Police officers were sent to the 2900 block of Delaware Avenue just before 5 p.m. Tuesday after the man’s 15-year-old son managed to escape from the house and call 911, said Santa Monica police Sgt. Richard Lewis.

The boy reported that his father, who was armed with a handgun, had taken him and his 86-year-old grandmother hostage inside the house, where all three were living along with the man’s estranged wife, Lewis said.

SWAT team officers found the man dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in a bedroom when they entered the home about 4 a.m. today, Lewis said.  He was identified by the coroner’s office as 48-year-old John Carroll Lowery.

The situation arose from a domestic quarrel between Lowery and his wife, who was not at home when the crisis began, Lewis said.

Santa Monica and Beverly Hills police SWAT teams surrounded the house and evacuated neighbors in a roughly square-block area, Lewis said.

Lowery’s mother-in-law emerged from the house unharmed at around 9:50 p.m. Tuesday and was interviewed by police after being examined by Santa Monica paramedics, according to Lewis.

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Education study reports dismal trends for L.A. County’s black students

Feb 25, 2013

LOS ANGELES – By the second grade, African American students in Los Angeles County demonstrate significant learning gaps that only widen with age and lead to the highest school dropout rate among all races, according to a new report released today.

Black students are far less likely to take college preparatory classes required for admission to California universities, and they miss more school days because of suspensions than their white counterparts, according to the study by the Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit advocacy group, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Only one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university if current trends continue, according to the report, which compiled data on academic achievement, suspensions and the emotional conditions of African Americans in 82 school districts in Los Angeles County, The Times reported.

But the report found that African American students are doing well in districts with higher concentrations of other races, according to The Times.

In the Culver City Unified School District, more than two-thirds of African Americans are at grade level in reading and math, and 88 percent graduate, The Times quoted the report as saying. Officials there credited more counseling support, a culture of high expectations, and targeted action to support African American students.

The best performance is in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, where African Americans make up 3 percent of the 11,840 students, according to the Education Trust-West report. There, 100 per cent graduate, 60 percent complete the college-prep coursework, and three-fourths are proficient in reading and math.     But those bright spots are exceptions. The problems begin at home, where black toddlers are less likely to have books, be read to every day or attend preschool, the report said, according to The Times.

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Cudahy medical marijuana shakedown: Ex-councilman sentenced on federal bribery, extortion charges

Feb 25, 2013

LOS ANGELES  – A former Cudahy councilman was sentenced today to three years in federal prison for his part in a scheme to shake down a businessman who wanted to open a medical marijuana dispensary.

Osvaldo Conde, 51, pleaded guilty last August to federal bribery and extortion charges.

U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real ordered Conde to pay a share of the $17,000 pocketed in the scheme and serve three years under supervised release after he leaves prison. Conde was also ordered to undergo mental health treatment.

Conde apologized in tears for his “stupidity.”

Two co-defendants — also former Cudahy city officials — pleaded guilty and were previously sentenced in the case.

Ex-Mayor David Silva, 62, received one year in federal prison. Angel Perales, 44, Cudahy’s former code enforcement manager, was sentenced to five years of probation. Both defendants were also ordered to pay part of the $17,000 restitution.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph N. Akrotirianakis said the three men took the cash from a marijuana dispensary owner working as an FBI informant.

All three defendants resigned from their city jobs following their arrests.

Conde’s lawyer, Manny Medrano, argued that his client committed the crime out of financial desperation after he lost his life savings and family business.

“He’s not a man driven by unequivocal greed,” Medrano told the court. “You might see that across the street in the city of Bell (case).”

Madrano was referring to a trial in nearby Superior Court where jurors are deliberating the evidence against a former Bell mayor and five ex-city council members accused of misappropriating funds by collecting exorbitant salaries.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cheryl O’Connor, who asked the judge to sentence Conde to more than seven years behind bars, said the defendant was the leader of the bribery scheme.

She said there was “no excuse for the extensive corrupt behavior that he demonstrated,” adding that Conde’s attempt to cooperate with investigators was “not enough.”

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Gang member gets 25 years for hate crime, assault on black family

Feb 25, 2013

LOS ANGELES – A 19-year-old Latino man was sentenced today to 25 years and four months in state prison for threatening a black family in Glassell Park with a shotgun while shouting racial epithets.

Ivan Alquicira was convicted of three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and two counts of making terrorist threats, with enhancements for hate crimes, gang involvement and firearms possession.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus ordered Alquicira to serve consecutive terms on each of the assault counts. Marcus stayed the sentence on the other two counts, ruling that Alquicira had the same criminal objective in making those threats as he did in assaulting his victims.

Alquicira yelled racial epithets and derogatory comments at the three victims — a man, a woman and her 7-year-old son — while standing on his apartment balcony in the 3100 block of Estara Avenue on the evening of March 26, according to Deputy District Attorney Amy Ashvanian.

He pointed a shotgun at the family — who had just come from the boy’s school — and then chased them when they ran from the scene in fear.

Officers from the LAPD’s Northeast Station surrounded Alquicira’s apartment complex after he went back inside and refused to come out. He surrendered nearly two hours later and police recovered a shotgun, an additional weapon and ammunition, according to trial testimony.

Though he never fired the shotgun, Ashvanian said Alquicira was trying to drive the victims out of Glassell Park.

“They left that night and never went back to their house,” the attorney said.

“When you take race and gangs and guns, it’s not a good combination,” Ashvanian said. “It really terrorizes the neighborhood.”

In 2006, five members of Alquicira’s gang were convicted of federal hate crimes for a deadly campaign of attacks on black residents meant to force them out of predominantly Latino Highland Park. Three black men were killed in three separate attacks.

“It’s not just waving a gun,” Ashvanian said of Alquicira’s assault on the family. “He did this for the benefit of a gang. It’s not a severe sentence for what he’s done.”

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Federal ‘sequestration’ deadline looms over L.A. County social-welfare programs

Feb 25, 2013

LOS ANGELES – Automatic spending cuts that would take effect Friday if Congress cannot resolve a dispute over the federal budget would have minimal impact on Los Angeles County services overall, but a number of social- welfare programs would be affected, county officials said today.

According to a statement released by the county, the so-called “sequestration” cuts would impact less than 1 percent of the $5.4 billion of federal revenue the county received in the 2012-13 fiscal year. County officials noted that most of the county’s federal money came through programs that are exempt from the cuts, such as Medicaid, foster care and adoption assistance funds, child support enforcement and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

However, select programs administered by the county’s Community Development Commission and departments of Community and Senior Services and Public Health would be subjected to roughly 5.3 percent across-the-board cuts, according to the county.

Affected programs would be Community Development Block Grant, Public Housing, Section 8 Housing, HOME Investment Partnerships; Workforce Investment Act and Older Americans Act programs; Ryan White AIDS Emergency Assistance, Public Health Emergency Preparedness, HIV/AIDS Core Prevention and Surveillance; Tuberculosis Control, Infectious Disease and other public health programs.

The potential cuts would be the result of an ongoing dispute in Washington, D.C., over the national debt. The Friday deadline was set at the end of last year as part of a deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”

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‘Argo’ win absolves Affleck; Day-Lewis becomes Oscars’ very Best Actor

Feb 25, 2013

HOLLYWOOD  –  Ben Affleck, who was not even nominated in the director’s category, has to feel vindicated today after his film, “Argo,” was named best picture at the 85th Academy Awards, where Daniel Day-Lewis became the first three-time best actor winner in Oscar history and Jennifer Lawrence, at 22, was named best actress.

Day-Lewis, a London-born Irishman, was honored for his portrayal of the nation’s 16th president in “Lincoln” and Lawrence received her first Oscar for her work in “Silver Linings Playbook” in a ceremony that saw “Life of Pi” collect a leading four statuettes — including best director for Ang Lee — while “Argo” and “Les Miserables” had three.

Accepting the best-picture Oscar for “Argo,” an Iran-hostage thriller, co-producer Grant Heslov heaped praise on Affleck, who was not nominated for a director’s Oscar by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences but who received an array of honors from others, including the top prize from the Directors Guild of America.

“The reason I wanted to speak before Ben was Ben is a producer on the film and he is also our director, and I thought it would be awkward for Ben to thank himself,” Heslov said on stage Sunday night at the Dolby Theatre. “But it’s not awkward for me. … You directed a hell of a film. (I) couldn’t be more proud of the film, couldn’t be more proud of Ben.”

Affleck, who won an Oscar with pal Matt Damon for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” told the star-studded crowd he was “just a kid” back then.

“I never thought that I would be back here and I am because of so many of you who are here tonight, because of this Academy, because of so many wonderful people who extended themselves to me when they had nothing to benefit from it in Hollywood, you know, I couldn’t get them a job,” he said.

“I want to thank them and I want to thank what they taught me, which is that you have to work harder than you think you possibly can,” Affleck said. “You can’t hold grudges. It’s hard, but you can’t hold grudges. And it doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life, because that’s going to happen. All that matters is that you gotta get up.”

Day-Lewis’ win for his lead role as President Abraham Lincoln makes him the first person to earn three Oscars in the category. He previously won for “My Left Foot” and “There Will Be Blood.”

“I really don’t know how any of this happened,” the 55-year-old actor said. “I do know that I’ve received so much more than my fair share of good fortune in my life.”

Known for immersing himself in roles and staying in character 24 hours a day during filming, the London-raised actor thanked his wife, Rebecca, noting that during his career “she has lived with some very strange men.”

“I mean they were strange as individuals and probably even stranger if taken as a group,” he said. “But luckily, she’s the versatile one in the family and she’s been the perfect companion to all of them.”

“Lincoln” had a leading 12 nominations heading into the ceremony, but won only two, the other for production design for Rick Carter and Jim Erickson.

Lawrence won her Oscar for her portrayal of Bradley Cooper’s romantic foil in “Silver Linings Playbook.” It was her second nomination in the category, with her first coming in 2010 for “Winter’s Bone.”

“This is nuts,” the 22-year-old actress said. “Thank you to the Academy and thank you to the women this year. You were so magnificent and so inspiring, and not just those of you in my category.”

Austrian actor Christoph Waltz was named best supporting actor for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s slavery-era drama “Django Unchained.” Waltz, 56, won the same award for another Tarantino film, 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” and heaped praise on the director when accepting his latest statuette at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

“We participated in a hero’s journey, the hero here being Quentin,” Waltz said. “You scaled the mountain because you’re not afraid of it. You slay the dragon because you’re not afraid of it, and you cross through fire because it’s worth it. I borrowed my character’s words. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

Waltz, who also won a Golden Globe for his “Django” work, emerged victorious from a highly competitive field of candidates that included Screen Actors Guild Award winner Tommy Lee Jones  (“Lincoln”), Robert De Niro (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Alan Arkin (“Argo”) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Master”).

Anne Hathaway rounded out her sweep of major Hollywood award wins by being named best supporting actress for her tragic turn as Fantine, a woman who slaves in menial jobs to raise money for her daughter until she eventually dies, in “Les Miserables.” It was the first Oscar for the 30-year-old actress, who was nominated for best actress in 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married.”

“It came true,” she whispered as she held the award on stage. “Thank you so much to the Academy for this and for nominating me with Helen Hunt, Jacki Weaver, Amy Adams and Sally Field. I look up to you all so much and it’s been such an honor. Thank you.”

She thanked the cast and crew of the musical and added, “Here’s hoping that someday in the not-too-distant future, the misfortunes of Fantine will only be found in stories and never more in real life.”

Lee’s win for best director was the second of his career. The Taiwanese filmmaker also won for “Brokeback Mountain” and was previously nominated for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“Thank you movie god,” Lee said. “I really need to share this with … everybody who worked with me on ‘Life of Pi.’ I really want to thank you for believing in this story and taking this incredible journey with me.”

The visually lush fantasy also won Oscars for cinematography for Claudio Miranda; visual effects for Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott; and original score for Mychael Danna.

Tarantino won his second Oscar for best original screenplay for his “Django Unchained” script. He previously won for “Pulp Fiction.”

Tarantino praised the actors in the film for giving life to the characters in the script.

“I actually think if people are, like, knowing about my movies 30 or 50 years from now, it’s going to be because of the characters that I created,” he said. “And I really only got one chance to get it right. I have to cast the right people to make those characters come alive, and hopefully live for a long time. And boy this time did I do it. Thank you so much, guys.”

The Oscar for best adapted screenplay went to Chris Terrio for “Argo.”

The award for best original song went to Adele and Paul Epworth for the title song of the James Bond thriller “Skyfall.”

Disney’s “Brave” — the story of a rebellious Scottish princess’ test of wills with her mother as she challenges a pre-arranged marriage — won the Oscar for best animated feature, and co-director Brenda Chapman thanked her “wonderful, strong, beautiful daughter Emma, who inspired ‘Brave’ into being.”

John Kahr’s “Paperman” won for best animated short film — the first Disney Animation Studios-produced short to win the prize since 1969.

The Oscar for costume design when to Jacqueline Durran for “Anna Karenina” while Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell won the hairstyling and makeup award for “Les Miserables.”

Shawn Christensen won the Oscar for his live-action short “Curfew.” The award for documentary short subject went to Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine for “Inocente,” the coming-of-age story of a homeless and undocumented San Diego teen who’s determined to become an artist.

“Searching for Sugar Man,” the story of two South Africans who set out in search of 1970s rock star Rodriguez, received the Oscar for best documentary feature.

The Austrian film “Amour” — a French-language drama about a married pair of retired music teachers whose love is tested when she suffers a stroke — was named best foreign language film. The movie was the fifth in Oscar history to be nominated for both foreign language film and best picture honors.

The sound-mixing Oscar went to Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes for “Les Miserables.” The sound-editing category ended in a tie, with Oscars going to Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers for “Skyfall” and Paul N.J. Ottosson for “Zero Dark Thirty.”

For film editing, “Argo’s” William Goldenberg picked up his first Oscar. He was also co-nominated in the same category this year for “Zero Dark Thirty.”

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