Nearly four months after two Los Angeles-area police officers received jail time for abusing kids at a Camp San Luis Obispo youth boot camp, a third officer was acquitted of similar charges Tuesday, capping a two-week trial the jury foreman said shouldn’t have made it to court.
After less than three hours of deliberations, a jury of eight men and four women found Marissa Elizabeth Larios, a detective with the Huntington Park Police Department, not guilty of two counts of inflicting unjustifiable physical pain and mental suffering on a minor, as well as a third charge of simple battery.
Larios, 36, was accused of choking a then-14-year-old female cadet and leaving another handcuffed through the night without a sleeping bag after the teens allegedly acted out.
The officer held her head in her hands with her head down and eyes closed Tuesday as the verdict was read, later wiping away tears and hugging her attorney, Michael Schwartz.
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This case is an example of how media exposure drives filing decisions.
Michael Schwartz, attorney for Marissa Larios
“We’re ecstatic,” Schwartz said outside the courtroom. “The jury listened to the arguments and understood the situation for what it was.”
Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham said the DA’s Office respects the jury’s decision and noted that prosecutors tried to resolve the case before taking it to trial.
“We knew it was a difficult case, given the status of the defendant,” Cunningham said, referring to Larios’ job as a police officer. “Once we were unable to reach a resolution with the defense, submitting it to a jury for a decision was the only course of action. That’s what juries are for.”
Larios faced a maximum of 18 months in County Jail if convicted on all charges. On Tuesday, Cosme Lozano, chief of the Huntington Park Police Department, said Larios remains employed by the department as a detective and added that he was “very pleased” with the outcome of her case.
The trial began Nov. 30 and featured testimony from the alleged victims as well as several investigators. Throughout the trial, Superior Court Judge Gayle Peron barred The Tribune from photographing Larios in court after an objection by Schwartz.
Prosecutors alleged that the abuse occurred during LEAD (Leadership, Empowerment and Discipline), a 20-week program sponsored by the South Gate and Huntington Park police departments and the California National Guard. No San Luis Obispo County residents or Camp San Luis Obispo staff were involved in the alleged crimes.
Larios was arrested in August 2015 with three other officers after San Luis Obispo County authorities received reports from the Huntington Park Police Department that participants in the boot camp accused the officer drill instructors of physical abuse. No charges were filed against one officer.
We knew it was a difficult case, given the status of the defendant.
San Luis Obispo County Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham
On the first day of testimony, a teenager from Downey said in court that Larios choked her for several seconds inside a van after the girl refused to crawl through grass and dirt during exercises in 2015.
In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney James Graff-Radford said Larios exceeded her authority in her role as drill instructor but that the case was not an indictment of the 15-year-old program for troubled youth.
Schwartz countered that Larios did not choke the teen, but grabbed her chin to get her attention after the girl was “verbally threatening to strike other recruits and staff.”
On the stand, the now-17-year-old contradicted Graff-Radford’s description of the alleged incident, saying the choke hold by Larios’ left hand lasted no more than six seconds; the prosecutor had said Larios choked the girl for 20 seconds with her right hand.
The jury picked up on those inconsistencies, said jury foreman Robert Muller.
We wondered why (the case) was brought to court.
Jury foreman Robert Muller
“We weren’t impressed with the prosecution. They did not tell a clear and consistent narrative of what they thought happened,” Muller said outside the courtroom. “Clearly, there were some huge missing pieces.”
Muller said there was no evidence one of the teens was handcuffed at lights-out, and that the alleged victims were not convincing witnesses.
“The witnesses for the prosecution could have easily been presented as witnesses for the defense,” Muller said. “We wondered why (the case) was brought to court.”
Schwartz added outside the courtroom that he and his client “wholeheartedly agree.”
“This case is an example of how media exposure drives filing decisions,” Schwartz said.
The accusations against Larios’ were less egregious than those of her former co-defendants, brothers Edgar Yovany Gomez, 35, and Carlos Manuel Gomez-Marquez, 32, of the South Gate Police Department. Both were sentenced to 60 days in County Jail in August after pleading no contest to roughly a dozen misdemeanors for crimes they committed against male LEAD cadets.
A report from the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department said cadets told investigators the two officers took them into a storage room the kids called the “dark room,” where they were assaulted when they broke the rules. Another cadet told investigators the officers threw him to the floor and punched and kicked him three or four times in retaliation for talking during sleep hours.
During Larios’ trial, the jury did not hear any testimony about the Gomez brothers. A spokesman for the South Gate Police Department said in August that both men remained on the job, but that administrative disciplinary action could be taken. The spokesman could not be reached Tuesday for their employment status.