Second LAPD officer alleges commander obstructed investigation into gun store thefts

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 22, 2021: The Los Angeles Police Academy in Elysian Park on November 22, 20201 in Los Angeles, California. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Police Academy in Elysian Park, where the Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club operates a gun store. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A second Los Angeles police officer has alleged that a high-ranking LAPD commander intentionally obstructed a criminal investigation into the theft of firearms from a gun store at the Los Angeles Police Academy, in part to protect another commander who had come under scrutiny in the case.

In a claim filed against the city last month, Det. Melchor Vergara accused Deputy Chief Kris Pitcher, who oversees the detective bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department, of giving him "unlawful orders" to "absolve" Capt. Jonathan Tom of wrongdoing in the matter. Vergara, who was involved in the Tom investigation, said he refused to follow the orders because he believed the captain had stolen one of the dozens of guns found missing from a gun store located at the police academy in Elysian Park.

After investigating him, prosecutors declined to charge Tom, who commands the LAPD’s West L.A. Division, with knowingly purchasing a stolen firearm. He was found in possession of one of the guns that went missing from the store but told investigators that he believed he had purchased it legally from a former store manager.

Tom's attorney, Alexander Tsao, said Tom had properly registered the gun in his name and that the allegations he'd stolen it "don't comport with common sense."

For disobeying Pitcher, Vergara claimed he was subjected to retaliation, targeted with baseless complaints of misconduct and removed from his position in the department's commercial crimes division. Vergara said officials feared he might disclose that Pitcher had "committed a crime by obstructing the investigation into Tom’s illegal conduct" and transferred him out of the unit as punishment.

Vergara's boss in commercial crimes, Capt. Lillian Carranza, previously accused Pitcher of improperly trying to stymie the investigation, The Times reported in November.

Pitcher did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Vergara's claims Thursday but has previously defended the investigation as proper.

"The integrity of that investigation is outstanding. It is very thorough," Pitcher said in November.

On Thursday, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said he, too, stands by the "actions taken to date" in the investigation. He would not comment on the allegations.

Archi Duenas, the gun store manager who Tom claimed had sold him the gun, was charged in September 2020 with stealing weapons from the store, including so-called off roster guns that cannot be sold to the public, and selling them off to private buyers — including Tom and other law enforcement officers. Though he initially faced 25 criminal counts, Duenas was sentenced to probation in August after pleading no contest to felony grand theft of a firearm and a single misdemeanor count of illegally transferring a firearm.

Tom was separately charged with criminal storage of a firearm by local prosecutors in Long Beach after police searched his home as part of the gun store investigation and found a loaded firearm that they said was accessible to his young son. Tom denied any wrongdoing, and the case was dismissed last month, Tsao said.

Tom and his wife have also filed a lawsuit against the city and the gun store, alleging he was unjustly "swept up" in the embarrassing gun theft scandal that was the result of their negligence and malfeasance.

Bradley Gage, another attorney for Tom, said Tom disputes the information put forward in Vergara's claim, as well, and would be responding in court.

Vergara's claim is the latest round of litigation to come out of the scandal. Several other officers have also sued the city and the gun store, and the city in turn has accused the gun store of negligence in its operations and breach of contract.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.