By: M.L. Stein Despite police denials, newspaper stands by its story, which described as 'reckless' a police shooting of a woman sp.
THE LOS ANGELES Police Department has filed a formal complaint with a suburban daily, calling its reporting of a police shooting of a distraught woman "reckless and reprehensible." The department took the unusual step of sending a press release about its complaint to local media, charging the San Gabriel Valley Tribune with being "factually incorrect" in its running account of a fatal shooting on the roof of a Los Angeles hospital. In addition to the Tribune, which is published in West Covina, the stories appeared in two sister Thomson newspapers, the Pasadena Star-News and Whittier Daily News, in the Los Angeles area. Hope Frazier, editor of San Gabriel Valley Newspapers, is standing by the stories "from day one" despite receiving a letter from Los Angeles police chief Willie Williams, who said he expected a printed retraction. The crux of the police objection is a Feb. 10 story that reported that the shooting victim, Sonji Danese Taylor, 27, may have been shot as many as four times while lying face down on the hospital's helipad. Quoting forensic experts and "sources close to the investigation," the story said that according to investigators, as many as four 9 mm bullets were found directly under Taylor and two of the slugs had "mushroomed," meaning they had flattened on impact. An unnamed investigator was quoted as saying, "It was a bad shoot and it can't be justified." The case, which is under investigation by the police, district attorney and FBI, began Dec. 16. Police said Taylor that day was on the roof of St. Vincent's Medical Center, holding a large butcher knife in one hand and her three-year-old son in her other arm. It is not known why Taylor, a former schoolteacher and model, was on the roof. Police said they asked her to put the child down and she refused. Officers then squirted pepper spray at Taylor, causing her to release the child but not the knife. Sgt. Michael Long said that when the woman lunged at him with the knife, he fired at her twice and Patrolman Craig Liedahl fired seven shots from his 9 mm pistol. San Gabriel Valley Newspapers have run a dozen stories about the shooting and its aftermath, including one in which Taylor's mother was reported asking the media for help in determining why her daughter was killed. "We were all over the story before it caught the eye of the [Los Angeles] Times," said Frazier, a former Miami Herald editor. "If it hadn't been for us, this woman's death would never have been noticed." The stories by staff writers Tori Richards, Frank Girardot and Naomi Bradley were noticed by police, however. The department's press release, referring to their articles, said, " . . . it has been reported that four mushroomed bullets were discovered beneath Taylor's body, suggesting that she had been shot in the back four times while lying on the ground. That report is factually incorrect, as no such evidence exists." The release said the reporters were told by the department that their "speculation" was wrong. "They [the newspapers] are looking at the same coroner's report that we're looking at and there is nothing there to indicate Taylor was shot while on the ground," said Commander David Gascon, the department's chief press officer. Frazier retorted that the coroner's report was only one of several sources the Tribune used to fashion its stories. Among the others was Cyril Wecht, a well-known forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, who was reported as saying four bullets under Taylor's body indicated she had been shot while prone. One story quoted Wecht as saying, "This shooting sounds savage and barbaric. With the bullets under her body, that's a strong argument that she was prostrate and prone when she was shot. In fact, it's very, very close to absolute proof." In an interview with the Times, Wecht said his conclusion was based on information given to him by reporters from San Gabriel Valley Newspapers, not on official investigative documents. Williams, in his letter to Frazier, said he had read the Tribune stories about the Taylor shooting with "consternation and great concern. They contain erroneous information and serve only to exacerbate an already volatile situation." The death of Taylor, who was black, touches a sensitive nerve in the department. The Los Angeles Sentinel, a black weekly, and other media are comparing it to the controversial fatal police shooting in 1979 of Eula Love, who also was black and allegedly wielding a knife. More recently, four police officers were charged with the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Their acquittal of those charges in a state court led to the worst rioting in the city's history. Two of the officers are serving prison sentences after convictions on federal charges. And the department is investigating a report of a drunken shooting spree by two off-duty officers whose bullets narrowly missed a passing California highway patrolman. Frazier replied to Williams' letter, requesting that they meet to discuss it. She wrote that his letter was "unclear as to what you ask to be corrected." She also said he was incorrect in saying the Tribune had reported that four mushroomed bullets were found beneath the body. "We were quoting our sources in that statement," Frazier said in an interview. As of Feb. 14, she said, Williams had not responded to her letter and aides told her by phone that he was too busy to see her. "That's a strange way to do business," she commented. "You'd think he would want to talk to me." Gascon, referring to Frazier's attempt to meet with Williams, said, "We can't be in a position of subjecting ourselves to an interview while an investigation is under way. They screwed up. We don't have to explain to them how exactly they screwed up."