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LAPD officers suspected of leaking Rihanna photo won't be charged

June 28, 2012 |  4:37 pm

December 2008 photo of singers Rihanna and Chris  Brown  performing at Madison Square Garden in New York

After midnight on a quiet street in a posh Los Angeles neighborhood, one of the music world’s rising stars was punching his pop singer girlfriend in the face and slamming her head against the dashboard of a rented Lamborghini. Ninety-five minutes later, a rookie police officer picked up the phone across town and called TMZ.com.

The gossip site went on to post a picture, leaked from police evidence, showing the battered face of the victim, Rihanna. LAPD officials vowed an immediate investigation to get to the bottom of the embarrassing breach.

This spring, after three years, numerous search warrants and forensic exams of computer hard drives, phones and e-mail accounts, Los Angeles prosecutors quietly abandoned an attempt to bring criminal charges against officers in the leak.

The decision, made in March and detailed in a report recently obtained by the Los Angeles Times, came despite a finding by LAPD officials that an award-winning patrol officer was involved in the sale of the picture.

The department has moved to fire that officer and the rookie who called TMZ.

The district attorney’s office cited a lack of evidence showing TMZ paid the officers as an obstacle to charging them. In the aftermath of the leak, there was widespread speculation in the media that the website had paid a premium for the exclusive image in an explosive story making international headlines. One report, noted by investigators, put the price tag on the photo at $62,000. But searches of the officers’ bank accounts turned up no evidence of a payment.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said investigators could not rule out the possibility that payments to the officers were funneled through others, but they were limited in how far afield they could search.

“You can’t go on a fishing expedition and subpoena everybody who might be related or a friend,” said spokeswoman Jane Robison.

An attorney for Blanca Lopez, 28, the officer who phoned TMZ, declined to comment. A lawyer for the second officer, Rebecca Reyes, 39, denied selling the photo. Both women are to appear before LAPD disciplinary panels in August, where the department will argue that they should lose their jobs.

Singer Chris Brown was arrested on suspicion of beating Robyn Rihanna Fenty on Feb. 8, 2009. The high-profile investigation, involving two of the industry’s biggest young talents on the eve of the Grammy Awards, was headquartered at the Wilshire station, where Reyes was assigned. She was a field training officer for new members of the force and had received an award for her volunteer work with youths.

It is unclear whether she had any role in Brown’s case, but photos of Rihanna’s injuries were left stacked on a desk where anyone in uniform in the station could see, according to the district attorney’s report. Reyes acknowledged to investigators that she used her cell phone to take a picture of the top photo in the stack -– the shot posted by TMZ.

She took the picture in the hours after the assault, according to the prosecutor’s report, but precisely when is unknown. The beating occurred at about 12:40 a.m. Less than an hour later, at 1:23 a.m., Reyes called Lopez, who was assigned to another station. The two shared an East L.A. home, and phone records reviewed by investigators indicated a close relationship with more than 300 calls that month alone.

Lopez subsequently called directory assistance twice and then at 2:08 a.m. called Fox Television, which carries TMZ’s broadcast, according to the report. After making three calls to Fox in quick succession, Lopez phoned TMZ directly at 2:15 a.m. She called back three more times, making the final call at 2:35 a.m., the report states.

TMZ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Word spread that Reyes had the photo on her phone. She told a niece and at least four colleagues other than Lopez. On Feb. 13, she forwarded the picture to two officers and her personal e-mail account.

The image surfaced on TMZ six days later.

Police officials were livid -– and immediately opened an internal investigation. With then-Chief William Bratton demanding answers, commanders attended roll calls at Wilshire division to urge officers to come forward with information. Reyes sat silently in one of the meetings, according to the report. Suspicion fell on her when a search of the station’s computers showed she had sent the image from her phone to her LAPD e-mail account.

Investigators obtained search warrants to review the woman’s phone and financial records, home, computers, and Lopez’s locker at work, but found no conclusive evidence. Reyes’ Yahoo e-mail account was accessed repeatedly from different computers in the two days before the photo appeared on TMZ and again the day the image was published, but the information gathered “did not reveal whether the image was opened, downloaded, or printed,” according to the report.

Lopez did not speak with investigators, but Reyes gave a statement, admitting to taking the photo. Her attorney, Ira Salzman, said the LAPD’s internal probe, which has a lower standard for proof, concluded that Reyes sold the picture. He conceded that she showed "poor judgment," but insisted that she never profited from it. He refused to detail what she and Lopez talked about on the phone before the calls to TMZ.

The officers were placed on paid leave for more than two years and later relieved of duty without pay while the investigation dragged on. By the time the inquiry was completed, Brown had already pleaded guilty and was in the third year of a 5-year probation sentence. Asked about the unusually slow pace, the district attorney’s spokesperson pointed to a lengthy back-and-forth between the LAPD’s investigators and the deputy district attorney assigned to the case over what evidence the police should gather.

District attorney's office spokeswoman Robison said police didn’t turn their initial findings over to a prosecutor until June 2010 -- more than a year after the leak. After reviewing the file, Deputy Dist. Atty. Amy Pellman Pentz asked police to reinvestigate certain aspects of the case. Robison declined to say what information the prosecutor found lacking, but a year after police first presented her the case, Pentz was still seeking more information. The police brought the case back to her in November and by March, she had concluded there still wasn’t enough evidence.

In addition to the lack of a money trail, there was no direct evidence that the officers provided the photo to the tabloid, and other officers had access to it.

“Although both Reyes' and Lopez’s actions are suspicious, they are insufficient to support a criminal prosecution,” Pentz wrote.

Three other officers, including the two who received the photo from Reyes, have been disciplined by the LAPD, a police spokesperson said.

A publicist for Rihanna did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Donald Etra, the lawyer who represented her in connection with the domestic violence case, said he considered the decision "an internal matter" for law enforcement. He added: “A victim’s privacy should be protected.”

The leak’s legacy is complicated. It violated a victim’s privacy and cast doubt on the integrity of the Police Department. But at the same time, it conveyed the ugly reality of domestic violence.

Patricia Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, a domestic violence prevention group, said that in school forums immediately after Brown’s arrest, many teenagers were skeptical of the charges.

"The girls in particular didn’t believe it ... and were mad at Rihanna. Like she’s telling a lie and he would never do that," Giggans recalled. After the photo was leaked, she said, “it was like a wake-up call for a lot of kids.”

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-- Harriet Ryan and Joel Rubin

Photo: Singers Rihanna and Chris Brown perform at New York City's Madison Square Garden in December 2008. Credit: Evan Agostini / Associated Press

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