Millennial Moment – Investigation of LAPD Spy Unit Sought

Dec. 11, 1982, LAPD spying case

Dec. 11, 1982: David Johnston writes about the case of undercover LAPD Officer Fabian Lizarraga, who infiltrated the Revolutionary Communist Party and led protesters in a May Day march in 1980 that resulted in a fight with police and arrests of demonstrators.

Johnston also says that Lizarraga had sex “with a woman revolutionary” in hopes of getting information and was nearby when Damien Garcia, the man being investigated, was killed — allegedly by a member of the Primera Flats gang — at the Aliso Village Housing Project.


(Lizarraga also took a job in The Times circulation office in Whittier, but Johnston said that he never had the proper ID to gain access to the main buildings or the newsrooms. I can’t address what security was like in the late 1970s, but our current procedures didn’t begin until after 9/11).

In addition, Lt. Thomas Scheidecker of the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division had opened an envelope sealed by court order containing information about LAPD infiltration of the radical group. In his defense, Scheidecker said his actions were “dumb” but explained that he was adding documents he deemed relevant.

Then in April 1982, Chief Daryl F. Gates  asked Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp to drop charges against the protesters accused of assaulting police officers.

“Gates’ letter came at a time when the focus of the case had turned from the conduct of the revolutionaries, who advocate the violent overthrow of the government, to the conduct of his department’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division,” especially Lizarraga and Scheidecker, Johnston wrote.

Attorneys Robert Mann and Jeff Lipow, who were defending the demonstrators, said they wanted a special prosecutor appointed to investigate the LAPD’s conduct, especially whether the man suspected of killing Garcia had any sort of relationship with officers.  The suspect, George Arellano, was in turn stabbed to death six weeks after Garcia was killed, Johnston said.

In January 1983, the Public Disorder Intelligence Division was abolished by the Police Commission. In January 1985, the commission voted not to take disciplinary action against top LAPD officials for the division’s conduct.

More about the Public Disorder Intelligence Division is here.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1982, Crime and Courts, LAPD, Millennial Moments and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Millennial Moment – Investigation of LAPD Spy Unit Sought

  1. DavidCayJohnston says:

    This post reflects what was reported under my byline, but not what actually happened regarding the LATimes ID card of Fabian Lizarraga.

    My words were changed by Noel Greenwood, then the LATimes metro editor who repeatedly went way out of his way to protect the LAPD from my reporting, to change established facts into fuzzy issues.

    This was not the only time Greenwood changed accurate and verified facts I reported, evidently to protect powerful people and institutions from their own conduct.

    (There are also two instances of fuzzy attribution by the blogger, which I will clarify below.)

    I just found this website during a search today on a related issue, hence the six years lag from the blog post to my comments.

    Lizarraga had taken a job in the LAT Whittier office. What I wrote — but was not published — was that certain clip files had disappeared from the LAPD morgue, all files that would have concerned LAPD Chief Gates and his political spy unit, PDID.

    Each day back then teams of people clipped the paper and filed stories multiple times under each name of a cited person, organization, writer and topic.

    I established from morgue records that at least some of the files were taken after Lizarraga got his job. No records indicated that any file of interest disappeared before his ID card was issued, though it is possible some did because of imperfect records.

    The paper’s morgue made a record of which LAT journalist checked out clip files. If not returned promptly, the library (aka morgue), routinely asked that they be returned. There was no record of the last checkout of those missing files, only penultimate checkouts.

    I spent parts of many days with the help of librarians reconstructing what was missing by inspecting the related cross-indexed files that were not taken, such as clip files on some Communist Party members or friends, all people and organizations known to be of interest to LAPD.

    I made a new, hand-crossed indexed file by copying over every story on this (and later another matter) and putting them into manila folders with a name on the tab and every related file on the cover of the folder. These records filled more than one bankers box.

    I reported that while the color background on Lizarraga employee ID are would not grant automatic entrance, when I spoke with building guards at the LATimes entrance at Second & Spring, where many employees came in, all said that they would have admitted anyone with an LATimes ID and not paid attention to the color background indicating they had a different worksite. Some of these guards were former LASD deputies. It is possible, though I have no proof, that a guard in duty may have known Lizarraga and, innocently or in connivance, let him in.

    This easy entry made sense because of the large LATimes operation at its Orange County newsroom and printing plant, as well as bureaus all around the world, and people often coming to the main LATimes HQ.

    In addition, various librarians said had someone presented themselves as a new reporter or editor they would have given them the clips, assuming they were properly in the building as staff members. They may have asked for ID, but none I interviewed were aware of the background color coding scheme.

    With a witness who knew Lizarraga from experience, I approached Lizarraga, who was then in uniform, for comment . He was in a Harbor Division patrol car in San Pedro. He drove off.

    My belief is that Lizarraga, or a confederate of the LAPD, removed the clip files so that potentially troublesome background material on LAPD spying would not be available. Chief Gates, from our direct conversations, and several of those senior officers who were Gates loyalists, knew that I was digging into the history of LAPD political spying, which dates to at least the 1920s, including how FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s distrust of Chief William H. Parker (1950-66) spurred creation of PDID. Gates knew I was especially interested in long-term undercover officers who were sent overseas, which he denied and told my editors that my looking into this suggested I should be sent for psychiatric examination. Years later, in his autobiography, he bragged about having undercover officers in Moscow and Havana.

    The Gates loyalists also knew that some LAPD officers were helping me, but were unable despite intense efforts to identify them. Greenwood asked me questions that I discerned were intended to identify these background sources, but I took care to name only Gates loyalists or obvious sources, not those risking the careers of those leaking background and tidbits to me.

    Greenwood, the LAT metro editor, later deemed this history and a lot more not news so it did not make print. It included information about officers who were undercover for more than two decades, crimes they instigated and the like. On the day that the LATimes reported on its front page that British WW2 intelligence secrets were finally revealed, Greenwood said LAPD spying from the 1970s was too old to be news. He told me that there was no comparison between WW2 spying secrets from 40 years earlier and LAPD spying secrets from 1950 into the late 1970s, which made some of them about five years old.

    The stabbing death of George Arellano is attributed to “Johnston said.” In fact that crime was reported on by other LATimes reporters. There is no question that the murder took place, as the attribution can be read to suggest. The full circumstances of that murder implicated the LAPD, but were deemed by Greenwood to not be news and thus were not reported.

    The fact that Lizarraga slept with a woman for years to provide Gates with intelligence is also attributed to me. In fact the proper attribution is to the officer’s sworn testimony in a deposition, which I cited in my article. I interviewed seven other women who reported similar experiences and identified men established were LAPD undercover officers in the PDID, but they declined to be named because they had since left their former political or Native American religious organizations, had children, were since married, etc. But Lizarraga himself described his conduct under oath.


    • lmharnisch says:

      Thanks for the update. I wrote this post a long, long time ago — it’s one of at least 10,000 I have done on L.A. history — and I have no recollection of it.

      The late Noel Greenwood (d. 2013) was the Metro editor when I started at The Times, but I was in the Valley operation, which had its own library, believe it or not, like Orange County. He and I overlapped when I came to Metro, but it was only for a brief period. Over the years, I heard certain reporters tell stories about Noel, who was notably outspoken about his opinions, but nothing in this vein.

      In those days, The Times had an impressive library that was staffed with professionals, but, sadly, they fell victim to multiple rounds of budget cuts and reporters doing their own research on the Internet — for better or worse.

      This was, of course, long before ProQuest and The Times microfilm being digitized and put online. The clip files in those days, essential for researching a story, were bits and scraps of newspaper (plus A-matter for advance stories) stuffed into envelopes and filed in huge Lektrievers — which I am told were taken to El Segundo.

      Trivia note: The Times began microfilming the clip files but stopped at a certain point, so some were microfilmed while many others are still in the old envelopes in Lektrievers. Further trivia note: Clips were organized by byline, subject and name — so a single story might be clipped multiple times: Once for the byline file(s); again for the subject files, like LAPD; and again for a name file, like Daryl F. Gates. Anybody who wanted to “disappear” a story from the clip files would have to know enough about the filing system to get ALL the copies from the relevant byline, subject, and name files.

      It’s entirely possible that the checkout process was fairly rigorous in the early 1980s, before I arrived at The Times. And certain reporters became notorious for hoarding clip files on their desks. By the late 1980s, however, the clips became available online via LexisNexis, so the clips weren’t as necessary. That was followed by The Times putting its own archives online for in-house use with something called Times On Line. Today, The Times library archives every page of the paper.

      Eventually, the checkout system became increasingly informal and with ProQuest, the clips are rarely consulted, I would imagine. A time capsule of the old days.


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