'Time And Again, I Stepped Over The Line'

Former police officer Rafael Perez began talking last September, and by the time he finished, he was using the language of horror movies to describe his years in the LAPD. "Whoever chases monsters," a tearful Perez, 32, told a Los Angeles courtroom last week, "should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself." Perez pleaded guilty to stealing three kilos of cocaine from a police-evidence locker in March 1998. In exchange for a lighter sentence, he revealed to authorities a pattern of widespread corruption and brutality that was frightening in scope, gothic in detail. The elite anti-gang unit of the Rampart Division, he told investigators, unlawfully beat or shot suspects, planted evidence, sold drugs, intimidated witnesses and partied hard to celebrate their reign of terror.

As a result of the revelations, more than 20 cops have been fired, been put on paid leave or quit, and 40 convictions have been overturned. But it will be difficult to make criminal cases against the officers. Perez failed a lie-detector test, which his lawyer believes was improperly administered. "We have one witness who is basically uncorroborated. And that witness is an admitted liar," a source in District Attorney Gil Garcetti's office told NEWSWEEK. "You have to have more, or this case will be thrown out before it gets to a jury." Police Chief Bernard Parks criticizes Garcetti for not being aggressive enough. According to Chief Parks, dozens of LAPD detectives, spreading their investigation throughout the United States and Central America, have contacted witnesses or victims of alleged abuse in at least 57 cases. Perez's testimony, says one LAPD source, "all jibes."

The specifics are gruesome. Cops allegedly used one suspect as a human battering ram, smashing his head against a target drawn on a wall. Perez told investigators that he and his partner shot an unarmed gang member, planted a gun on him, then testified that he attacked them. Perez, who was granted immunity for everything he confessed to, received a sentence of five years, but could be out by the end of this year.

Garcetti's office concedes that hundreds, and possibly thousands, of criminal cases could be tainted. Lawsuits are expected to cost the city at least $125 million. "There will be lots of roads unpaved, libraries that don't open and parks that aren't improved around here for years to come," says Kenneth Miele, of the Coalition for Police Accountability. Last week the investigation intensified. U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas announced that six FBI agents would be joining the probe. According to one source in the U.S. Attorney's office, their civil-rights investigation will include "how much the D.A.s knew about the veracity of these officers." A district-attorney source denies any knowledge of police misconduct.

In court last week Perez testified that though he began his career an idealist, "the lines between right and wrong became fuzzy. Time and again, I stepped over the line." After five months and 2,000 pages of testimony, L.A.'s legal system will now have to redraw that line, and discover how many lives are on the wrong side of it.