LAPD officers ordered to stand trial on charges they covered up crash, filed false reports

The two Los Angeles police officers were well into their 12-hour shift when the call came in: a suspected drunk driver had crashed into multiple parked cars and bystanders were struggling to detain him.

Within half an hour, Officers Rene Ponce and Irene Gomez, who were patrolling Hollenbeck Division’s Boyle Heights area, arrived at the scene.

Now, more than two years later, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Villar has ordered Ponce and Gomez to stand trial for their alleged actions during the incident. She made the ruling this week after witnesses testified during a preliminary hearing.

Deputy District Atty. Martha Carrillo argued that the officers were in a rush to wrap up their shift and told the driver to lie about the crash instead of conducting a thorough investigation to determine if he was driving under the influence. They then wrote false reports about the incident, Carrillo alleged.

“Clearly they took the easy way out,” Carrillo said after the two-day hearing.

The judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to bind the pair over for trial on felony charges of filing a false report and conspiracy to commit an act injurious to the public during the 2014 incident. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Bill Seki, an attorney representing Ponce, could not be reached for comment.

Attorney Ira Salzman, representing Gomez, said his client investigated the crash and that no witnesses identified the driver.

The incident began early one Sunday morning in 2014 when Del Mar Alan Garcia Gomez, 32, was driving home from his son’s first birthday party, which he testified started at 10 p.m. the night before.

Shortly before 6 a.m., he’d almost made it to his apartment when he said he fell asleep behind the wheel and slammed his friend’s Mustang into two parked cars in his Boyle Heights neighborhood.

When he came to, several people huddled around the car and grabbed him when he got out, accusing him of being drunk, Garcia Gomez said. He testified that he hadn’t been drinking.

Someone took his house keys and wallet and when he was struck in the back, Garcia Gomez said, he went across the street to wait for police.

Ponce, 39, and Gomez, 38, showed up in a patrol car. One witness said she told them that she thought the driver was drunk, Los Angeles police Sgt. Anthony Vasquez, who investigated the incident, testified. Another witness said he heard the driver admit to one of them that he had been drinking, Vasquez said.

The driver testified that Ponce asked him to walk in a straight line and shined a flashlight on his eyes, but later told him to deny that he was driving the car.

“I said, ‘I cannot say that, I know the owner of the car,’ ” Garcia Gomez testified through a Spanish language interpreter. “He tells me a third time to say no. I say no.”

The officers then dropped him off at his home nearby, he said.

They then wrote hit-and-run and vehicle impound reports indicating that the Mustang was abandoned at the scene, Vasquez testified.

During the hearing, a city attorney testified that he declined to file hit-and-run charges against Garcia Gomez.

“One can only surmise that they wanted to be done with it and the easiest way to do that is to write it up as a hit-and-run,” Carrillo said.

The next day, Garcia Gomez and his friend, the car owner, went to claim the Mustang from an official police garage. There, the driver said, he found out the car was tied to a hit-and-run investigation. He complained, telling a detective he never fled the scene.

That’s when internal affairs investigators took on the case, Carrillo said. Both Ponce and Gomez, who were charged in the alleged cover-up almost two years later, remain on paid leave.

Salzman said his client wasn’t involved in any wrongdoing.

“When Ponce supposedly says to Garcia, ‘You’re not in the car, you’re not in the car,’ my client was nowhere around,” Salzman said.

He said the officers also asked dispatchers if a traffic unit could respond to the scene, which shows they weren’t trying to hide anything. “If this was going to be a ‘hush hush,’ you don’t call attention to yourself,” Salzman said.

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