By Richard Winton, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
They had police badges, "Housing Authority" uniforms, bulletproof vests and firearms. They cruised the streets of Los Angeles in an LAPD-style cruiser equipped with police radios, side floodlights and metal prisoner partition.
But these three men were not cops.
For months, authorities believe, they targeted Latino street vendors, pretending to be detectives. They took cash from the vendors and issued fake citations for unlicensed vending and other misdeeds.
None of the vendors complained to the Los Angeles police, because they thought the men were actually cops or feared questions about their immigration status.
Until last week.
Police found out about the alleged shakedown when one vendor wrote down and reported the cruiser's license plate number. Authorities have since arrested Andre Hadden, 41, Jeron Jackson, 26, and John Shepard, 29, on suspicion of grand theft and robbery.
Detectives believed the trio might have struck dozens of times across the city, preying on an underground street-food economy that is booming in immigrant neighborhoods and even in downtown L.A.
"They targeted people they thought wouldn't or couldn't report because of a fear of law enforcement," said Det. Michael Smith.
"They admitted to several other robberies."
Detectives said that on most days, the suspects allegedly struck at sunset, when vendors had the most cash on hand.
Community activists said the case underscored the problems some illegal immigrants would have in reporting crimes without putting themselves in legal jeopardy.
Activists said they had heard of a growing number of instances in which vendors were taken advantage of, including harassment from private security guards.
"We are seeing more and more people targeted because of immigration status," said Xiomara Corpeno, organizing director for the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles.
So-called pirate vendors have been a controversial subject in some neighborhoods. Vendors sell such fare as pork tacos, ice cream and fruit plates from carts, even though county health officials have in the past expressed concern about food safety issues.
Hot dog vendors in downtown L.A. protested last month, saying that police and city officials were harassing them.
Smith said the suspects had legitimate security guard licenses. LAPD Capt. Andy Smith said the three might have in the past worked for downtown eateries and nightclubs. None of the suspects could be reached for comment Monday.
The suspects wore shirts from the L.A. Housing Authority Police Department even though that agency closed its doors several years ago.
"It says Los Angeles Housing Authority, but if you look closely, 'private security' is blacked out," Det. Michael Smith said.
Their black Ford Crown Victoria was registered to a post office box, he said.
Police said they found out about the alleged shakedown from a food vendor, described as a Latino in his 50s. The vendor said two men took $200 from him near 51st Street and Towne Avenue on Jan. 29.
The men conducted a stop, interrogated the vendor about his business, cited him and then took his sales earnings, Smith said.
Those two men detained the street vendor again Thursday, but this time he jotted down the license plate number and reported it. Newton Division investigators put out the plate number to patrol cars.
When police officers stopped the car in the lot of a 7-Eleven store at Figueroa Street and Adams Boulevard on Friday, they found police radio scanners, a list of LAPD radio frequencies, police uniforms, ballistic vests, a .45-caliber handgun and citation books from Michigan.
Lt. John Cooney said that during subsequent searches, a second car — a Chevy Lumina, similar to an LAPD detective's car — was recovered.
Eric Leonard, a reporter at KFI radio, published on the station's website photographs from July of men dressed in Housing Authority police uniforms. The men appeared to be handling security at downtown nightclubs.
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L.A. police arrest 3 for impersonating detectives, issuing fake citations