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Family of gang member who died in LAPD custody gets $3.2 million

March 20, 2012 |  7:53 pm

The family of a 31-year-old gang member who died in Los Angeles police custody in 2007 has been awarded $3.2 million in a wrongful death suit, court officials said Tuesday.

The civil jury's award for damages, reached Monday, was divided among Mauricio Cornejo's estate and his three surviving minor children, one of whom received $1.5 million and the other two received $400,000 each.

Cornejo collapsed in a holding cell at the Hollenbeck police station after a fight with LAPD officers on the evening of Feb. 3, 2007. His death came hours after a confrontation with police following a foot chase near the Ramona Gardens housing project in Boyle Heights.

At the time, police said Cornejo and officers engaged in a "knock-down, drag-out fight" after Cornejo tossed away a .45-caliber handgun. "This was not pretty," Capt. William Fierro said at the time. "However, it was necessary."

The altercation lasted more than 15 minutes. The incident increased tensions in the housing project, and in the days that followed, 100 officers in riot gear had to be called in to disperse a group of 40 to 50 gang members holding a curbside car wash to pay for Cornejo's funeral.

At trial, the city attorney's office, backed by the county coroner's report, argued that Cornejo, a documented gang member who was on parole at the time of the incident, died from the physical strain of resisting officers as well as the effects of drug intoxication, including methamphetamine and cocaine. 

But the attorneys for Cornejo's family, Dale K. Galipo and Humberto Guizar, presented evidence, including cellphone video and surveillance video at the Hollenbeck station. They also called Ronald O'Halloran, the chief medical examiner for Ventura County, who testified that the force used by the officers, including baton blows to Cornejo's back and midsection, was a cause of his death.

They also called Roger Clark, a retired L.A. County sheriff's lieutenant, who testified that the force used by the officers was unreasonable and that LAPD officers avoided numerous opportunities to call for an ambulance to take Cornejo to L.A. County-USC Medical Center, which was a mile away.

"I don't know if you saw the movie 'Weekend at Bernie's,' " Galipo said, referring to the movie in which several friends try to make their dead friend appear alive because they didn't want to cancel a party.

"There were portions of the evidence, including a video at the Hollenbeck station, where it appeared the decedent was unconscious or possibly dead," Gilipo said. "However, the involved officers said Cornejo was fine and just didn't want to cooperate by walking under his own power. The tape  shows Mr. Cornejo appearing to be lifeless and being dragged into the station by two officers and eventually picked up by four officers and carried through the back door of the station."

"I"m glad we got justice for my brother," Cornejo's sister Angela told The Times on Tuesday. "I'm glad his death wasn't in vain. No matter what your situation, no matter what your background, at the end of the day you're still a human being. He was a son, a brother, an uncle and a father."

The incident unfolded when LAPD gang officers pulled over Cornejo for a broken taillight on his car. Initially, police said he was cooperative but then ran from officers who gave chase.

As they pursued him, the officers saw Cornejo throw away a gun, a loaded .45-caliber handgun was later recovered.

According to police accounts at the time, Cornejo turned and tried to hit an officer while approaching a bridge near the 2700 block of Lancaster Avenue. When officers caught up with him, he resisted. Police said Cornejo eventually was subdued, handcuffed, placed in a police car and booked at the Hollenbeck police station.

In less than an hour after Cornejo was in custody, officers noticed that he was having difficulty breathing and called for an ambulance. Paramedics pronounced Cornejo dead in his cell.


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-- Andrew Blankstein