Lead Story West Edition

LAPD sergeants cleared in death of Omar Abrego

LOS ANGELES — Two Los Angeles Police Department sergeants involved in a struggle with a 37-year-old man who died the next day while in police custody will not face criminal charges, the District Attorney’s Office announced last week.

Prosecutors concluded in a report Feb. 25 that the force used by Sgts. Robert Calderon and Jeff Mares on Omar Abrego on Aug. 2, 2014, “was not unreasonable or excessive.”

“Additionally, to the extent that the force used may have been a contributing factor in Abrego’s death, it was not a sufficiently proximate cause to establish criminal liability,” according to the report by the D.A.’s Justice System Integrity Division.

The Los Angeles Police Commission reached the same conclusion last summer, clearing both officers of any wrongdoing, agreeing with Chief Charlie Beck’s assessment that they acted within department policy.

Abrego, whose death has been cited by some activists as an example of excessive force by police, died from the “effects of cocaine,” according to a redacted report by Beck that cited the Los Angeles County coroner’s office examination.

The coroner’s report also said “physical and emotional duress” was a contributing condition that was not related to the immediate cause of death.

According to Beck’s report, Calderon and Mares began pursuing Abrego on Aug. 2 at around 5:45 p.m., after they were flagged down by a person who told them about a driver of a “suspicious” white vehicle “with no plates.”

The sergeants later spotted a vehicle that appeared to fit that description going westbound on 70th Street that did not stop at a stop sign, then nearly hit a pedestrian as the car continued north on Broadway, according to the report.

One of the sergeants said Abrego looked to be “driving erratically.”

The driver of the white van then drove onto Main Street, with Abrego then getting out the back of the van, the report said. Police instructed Abrego to lie on the ground. Abrego appeared to comply by going down into a crouch, but then got back up and fled, the report said.

One sergeant chased Abrego about 10 to 15 feet, before Abrego stopped suddenly and turned around, the report said.

The sergeant responded by putting Abrego in a bear hug, but Abrego broke free and punched the sergeant in the chest, followed by the sergeant punching Abrego in the face three times, the report said.

The second sergeant caught up and came to the first sergeant’s aid by grabbing Abrego’s left arm and helping to bring Abrego to the ground.

The sergeants called for backup, and continued to try to restrain Abrego, who was kicking at them, prompting the sergeants to put a restraint around Abrego’s ankles and placing him on his left side, the report said.

After Abrego began “mumbling incoherently while spitting saliva and blood,” officers placed a spit sock over his head, but removed it a few minutes later after it was soiled by dirt or mud, according to the report.

Abrego was later treated by Los Angeles Fire Department personnel, then taken to Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center, the report said.

Abrego eventually was admitted to the hospital at 10:40 p.m. “for an altered mental state and rhabdomyolysis,” the report said.

Rhabdomyolysis is the breakdown of muscle tissue that leads to the release of muscle fiber contents into the blood. The substances are harmful to the kidney and often cause kidney damage.

The next morning at around 5:20 a.m., about 11 1/2 hours later, Abrego “failed to respond to treatment and was pronounced dead,” according to the report.

Abrego’s mother, Lilia Abrego Figueroa filed a $25 million federal wrongful death lawsuit last year, naming the city of Los Angeles and its police department, along with Mares, Calderon, Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The District Attorney’s Office report cites statements from witnesses to the struggle between the officers and Abrego, including one who said the sergeants “just could not seem to get this man under control. He was just not going to stop. He was just fighting the officers who couldn’t get the handcuffs on him or calm him down.”

The report concludes that Abrego died from the effects of cocaine intoxication.

“The people cannnot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any physical or emotional duress he sustained while he was taken into custody resulted from any excessive force,” according to the report. “To the contrary, we conclude that Sgts. Jeff Mares and Robert Calderon used reasonable force in their efforts to detain Abrego.”