A rookie Los Angeles police officer has resigned amid allegations he illegally tapped into a law enforcement computer on behalf of a gang member who was recently convicted of murder.
The officer, Gabriel Morales, 25, was seeking information on two key witnesses who testified at the gang member’s murder trial, according to court records. Morales had been dating the gang member’s sister for several years.
The law enforcement database that police say Morales accessed contains a wide array of personal information on people, including home addresses. Authorities said he made printouts of the information he found.
The allegations against Morales underscore the predicament of police officers when they feel forced to choose between their oath to uphold the law and their allegiance to friends and family, Los Angeles Police Department officials said.
“Every officer has the choice between making good decisions and bad decisions. They have to ask themselves, ‘Am I going to let something a family member has done jeopardize everything I’ve worked for or am I going to do what’s right?’ ” said Capt. Steven Zipperman, commanding officer at the LAPD’s Southwest Area Division, where Morales was assigned. “Unfortunately, sometimes officers get into these situations and end up with their moral compass pointing in the wrong direction.”
The case stems from the murder trial of 18-year-old Matthew Turner, who in August was found guilty of killing a man in a drive-by shooting in Highland Park. While listening in on phone calls Turner made from jail to family members, LAPD homicide detectives heard the family mention Morales, court records show. They alerted the department’s Internal Affairs Division, which opened an investigation into Morales.
An Internal Affairs investigator was listening when, on Aug. 8 — two days after a jury found Turner guilty of the murder — he called his father, Wayne Turner, from jail, court records show.
“I have Gabriel looking at these guys, those tattoo guys,” Wayne Turner said, according to a transcript of the recording. “I have Gabriel running their names. He supposed to bring me their names today, where their locations at, so we can get a hold of them.”
The “tattoo guys” were two witnesses from the trial whom authorities referred to in court documents as “crucial eye witnesses.”
On the same day that Turner called his father, Morales accessed the police database, court records show. It is not clear, however, whether Morales gave Turner the information on the witnesses, said a law enforcement source with knowledge of the case, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.
Police indicated in court papers that they also suspect that Morales had a hand in helping Turner find a third witness in the case while the trial was going on. That man, a friend of the victim who was nearby when the shooting occurred, told authorities that Wayne Turner was waiting for him one day when he stepped off a bus near his home and told him to “do the right thing,” according to court records.
Police and court officials interpreted the comment as an attempt by Turner to frighten the man so he would not testify honestly. They took the encounter seriously enough that they put the witness into a relocation program.
In a search warrant affidavit for Morales’ house and locker at his Southwest Division police station, an internal affairs investigator implied that Morales may have given Turner the witness’ address, because prosecutors had been careful to conceal the man’s address in court documents.
In a brief interview, Wayne Turner denied that Morales, whom he referred to as “my son-in-law,” gave him any information about witnesses but refused to comment further. Morales declined to comment for this article. An attorney from the firm representing both Matthew Turner and Morales did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Early in the morning of Sept. 2, police searched Morales’ home and found printouts from the database with information on the two witnesses, according to court records and police sources. He resigned the same day, police sources said.
When LAPD investigators complete their investigation, prosecutors in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office will decide whether to pursue criminal charges against Morales.
Paul M. Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents the LAPD’s rank-and-file officers, came down hard on Morales regarding the allegations. “Any police officer accessing confidential law enforcement databases to help a gang member gather information on witnesses in a murder trial is a disgrace to the LAPD badge,” he said.
Morales is not the first officer accused of abusing the department’s internal databases. In 2008, former LAPD Sgt. Mark Arneson was convicted of illegally accessing law enforcement databases to help disgraced private investigator Anthony Pellicano gather information on people, among other charges. In another well-publicized case, Sgt. Kelly Chrisman was accused in 2000 of using LAPD databases to look up information on celebrities. Chrisman was fired by the department but is fighting a legal battle to be reinstated.
LAPD officials did not respond to a request for the number of cases in recent years involving database abuse allegations. A review of LAPD discipline files from the mid-1990s, however, found at least 70 such cases.
In allegedly trying to help Turner, Morales failed to heed a warning that instructors at the LAPD’s training academy attempt to grind into recruits studying to become officers.
“You have to think long and hard about the consequences of your actions,” an academy instructor told a recent class. “Think about what you have to lose. Anything that has the potential to cause nonsense in your life, eliminate it. Eliminate it. If there is someone in your life who’s on the wrong side of the law, drop them.”