Two men wrongly convicted of a fatal drive-by shooting in Hawthorne in 1997 and serving more than 23 years in prison are suing four former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and an LAPD cop, claiming they had the couple accused of murder.
Both John Klene, 44, and Eduardo Dumbrique, 41, were exonerated by Los Angeles County Attorneys last year after nearly a decade of investigation by a nonprofit group operating on a pro bono basis.
Klene was convicted of first-degree murder for the June 28, 1997 killing of 25-year-old Antonio Alarcon. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1999 but was released from Pleasant Valley State Prison after his exoneration on Feb. 19, 2021, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Dumbrique was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. He was released from Centinela State Prison on March 19, 2021, Thornton said.
In March, Klene and Dumbrique each received more than $1.2 million in compensation from the state — $140 for each day they wrongfully spent in prison, their attorney Deirdre O’Connor said in a phone interview Monday, November 14.
requested by the Federal Court of Justice
In their lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the two are now seeking additional compensatory and punitive damages and are asking for a jury trial. They allege that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detectives Doral Riggs, Reynold Verdugo, Frank Merriman and Michael O’Hara, and Los Angeles Police Officer Marcella Winn, despite evidence pointing to another suspect in the murder, somehow conspired to pin the blame on Klene and Dubrique who were 18 and 15 respectively at the time.
All five defendants have withdrawn from their respective authorities, O’Connor said.
Los Angeles Police Department officials declined to comment Tuesday, citing the litigation. Neither the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department nor the district attorney’s office responded to requests for comment.
Actual killer identified
The District Attorney’s Office exonerated Klene and Dumbrique after a “thorough investigation” concluded that the evidence on which the charges were based was unreliable and that another man with a long history of violence and murder was the actual perpetrator, according to the lawsuit was.
Chad “Ghost” Landrum, the lawsuit states, had assaulted Alarcon for weeks before shooting him dead around 11 p.m. outside a tire shop on Block 11000 of Prairie Avenue in Hawthorne. Landrum eventually gave a detailed confession to the crime, confirming that Klene and Dumbrique had nothing to do with it.
Klene and Dumbrique were in another city, at Klene’s parents’ home, on the night of the murder, according to the lawsuit, to watch the legendary fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Hollyfield, with a number of witnesses present.
However, sheriff’s investigators took the word of Landrum’s partner, Santo “Payaso” Alvarez, who told them Klene and Dumbrique were involved in the shooting. Investigators then fabricated testimony about Klene and Dumbrique, who were seen in a green vehicle used in the fatal attack.
In addition, the lawsuit states, sheriff’s investigators falsely claimed that a man who worked at the tire shop near where the shooting took place gave his identification to Klene and Dumbrique for fear of retaliation from the gang revoked. In fact, the witness signed an affidavit that he could not identify the shooter or the occupants of the vehicle. and that the sheriff’s investigators were training him to identify the two teenagers as the culprits.
While sheriff’s investigators focused on Klene and Dumbrique, Landrum remained free to “cruelly murder a homeless man, Richard Daly, about three weeks after Alarcon’s murder,” the lawsuit says. Also, the lawsuit states, he was assisted by Alvarez, the sheriff’s department’s key witness in the Alarcon murder.
connection to the murder of San Pedro
Daly’s body was found burned in an alleyway in San Pedro on July 21, 1997. Winn, the LAPD officer assigned to the case, received tips from confidential informants that Daly was killed by members of the Lawndale 13 street gang, and that three members of the gang — Lester Monllor, Landrum and Alvarez — beat Daly at a house on Firmona Avenue to death in Lawndale with a claw hammer.
Monllor, Landrum and Susan Mellen were subsequently arrested and charged with Daly’s murder. Mellen had previously lived with her mother in a house on the Lawndale property that was vacant at the time of Daly’s murder and where the murder took place. A witness, later found unreliable, implicated Mellen in the fatal caning of Daly.
However, Alvarez was not arrested and charged with Daly’s murder, according to the National Register of Exculpations.
According to the national registry, Mellen Winn said she was not involved in the murder and that she moved from Redondo Beach to Gardena on the day of the crime.
O’Connor’s investigation found that the woman who implicated Mellen, June Patti — the only prosecution witness against Mellen — was unreliable and had tried on numerous occasions to inform several different Los Angeles police departments of misconduct by others, but in each case had been discredited example. Additionally, at this time, prosecutors have not disclosed any information about Patti’s past contact with police officers to Mellen’s defense attorneys, according to the national registry.
$12 million settlement
A jury convicted Mellen of first-degree murder on May 15, 1998. She was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. But in November 2014, amid the evidence presented, a judge found Mellen factually innocent, and she was subsequently released from custody.
The state awarded Mellen $597,200 in compensation for her wrongful imprisonment, and the City of Los Angeles settled her federal civil rights lawsuit for $12 million.
Upon learning of Landrum and Alvarez’s role in the murder of Alarcon, Winn conspired with sheriff’s investigators to track Klene and Dumbrique to the crime by “tampering with evidence” and “erasing” Alvarez from the narrative in order to protect both accusers, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Klene and Dumbrique.
“As a result, not only were Klene and Dumbrique wrongly convicted of the murder of Alarcon, but another innocent person, Susan Mellen, spent 17 years wrongly in prison for the murder of Daly before being exonerated,” the lawsuit reads . “Amazingly, Winn has caused at least three other provably wrongful convictions.”
Winn could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In a phone interview, O’Connor said she began looking into the Klene and Dumbrique case in 2012 after someone close to Klene reached out to her and her nonprofit, Innocence Matters, for help.
“Although we were able to develop overwhelming evidence of innocence relatively quickly, it took us a while to work our way through the process,” O’Connor said.
Now, O’Connor said, Innocence Matters has been somewhat forgotten as it transitions pro bono work to a wing of its Torrance-based law firm Seamus Law.