In his outstretched palm, Atul Lall holds a molar, a wisdom tooth and four fragments of teeth that broke free when a tequila bottle encountered his jaw.
Three days before last Thanksgiving, the 32-year-old San Jose native was driving away from the Lucky’s grocery store on South White Road in east San Jose. As he pulled his car out of the lot, Lall says that three men, without apparent reason, ripped him from the driver’s seat and beat him while dousing him with liquor. They called him a terrorist.
Aside from the teeth he lost, Lall, who is Indian, also suffered a gash under his chin and a broken jaw. While it happened, people in the store parking lot apparently went about their business, ignoring the attack as if it was a typical instance of valet service turned violent.
Almost three months since the incident, the second-to-last of San Jose’s 32 hate crimes reported last year has sparked two separate police investigations. The first continues to search for the three men suspected of beating Lall. The other, sources confirmed, is being conducted by Internal Affairs, the police department’s watchdog, which is looking into claims that investigators bungled the case and blamed the city’s budget problems for their inability to find the culprits.
In a move that Lall describes as “damage control,” police held a press conference last week to release a sketch of one of the suspects and ask for the public’s help in finding his attackers.
Eleven weeks had gone by since the attack and Lall, with the help of the South Asian Bar Association, had successfully pushed the department to make the sketch go viral. But police were caught off-guard when Lall went on the attack at the press event, slamming the department for the way it handled the case.
“It’s kind of obvious they know they screwed up, but they’re the cops, and they’re never going to admit it,” Lall says, now sitting in his home at the base of the foothills, a week after the press conference.
Surrounded by his girlfriend, a Chihuahua named Leo and an extensive collection of video-game consoles and DVDs, the only evidence of anything combative in his nature is Lall’s PS3. Above the couch is a picture of Lall and the Mt. Pleasant High School mock trial team, class of 1997. His jaw shifts a little to the side due to the multiple surgeries he’s had as a result of the attack, which included having two titanium plates bolted into his face.
“If they can do this to me,” Lall says, as if conjuring up the police as well as his attackers in the same breath, “how many other people do they do this to?”
According to a log of activity provided by police, there are two sides to the question of who has been less cooperative in the investigation.
In the police account, on multiple occasions, Lall took days to respond to messages from detectives seeking information and also missed or was late to meetings with a sketch artist.
With no one’s assistance at the scene of the crime, Lall also made investigators’ jobs more difficult by driving a safe distance from the store before calling police and having his parents meet him at home to take him to the emergency room. The initial police report says an officer was unable to locate the crime scene in the shopping plaza.
Careful not to criticize the victim, police have had to bite their tongues.
According to the police report and log of contact, though, questions arise about how timely and thorough the investigation has been handled.
From the start of the investigation until the press conference, Lall says, police have repeatedly misstated the number of assailants as two rather than three. Investigators also didn’t attempt to retrieve video surveillance of the incident from the grocery store until nine days after the attack.
Most confounding of all, a search was never conducted of Lall’s car. Lall himself discovered the tequila bottle, wedged in the backseat of his Honda, almost three weeks after the incident. Two months have passed, and the lab has yet to send back fingerprints or any DNA evidence retrieved from the bottle.
“I said, ‘My car is the scene of the crime. Don’t you want to look for evidence?” Lall recalls. “And the cop is like, ‘Nah, we already looked for everything.’ Several weeks, later we found the bottle of tequila in my car.”
“I wasn’t there, you weren’t there,” says Police Chief Chris Moore. “Clearly, if we didn’t collect evidence the way we’re supposed to collect evidence, that’s on us. … Are we perfect? No one’s perfect. At the same time, we have a very serious investigation.”
What the police log excludes is how many times Lall attempted to reach the lead detective on the case, Michael Villanueva, as well as the curious fact that the incident wasn’t listed as a hate crime from the start.
Lall says he lost count of how many times he called police for details on how the case was progressing, and says that Villanueva and other department officials answering phones sounded apathetic. “After talking to the detective, it was like ‘budget cuts, budget cuts, thank your mayor,’” Lall says. “It was almost like he was saying, ‘You’re alive, just be thankful for that.’”
The police chief says that Lall’s allegation of officers blaming the city’s budget cutbacks for their work, if true, is unacceptable.
“This is not appropriate for our personnel to be blaming the mayor and city council for our professional conduct—period,” says Moore. “Our officers have been told that is not an appropriate response and that message is going out loud and clear to our organization.”
City Councilmember Rose Herrera, who represents the Evergreen district, says she has the utmost respect for law enforcement but has heard similar complaints from residents about police blaming bureaucracy. When she arranged a meeting with Lall after reading about the attack—another police oversight because councilmembers should be notified of hate crimes in their district—she says she was shocked at how upset he was.
I expected him to tell me about the crime, and I wanted to reassure him and put him in touch with the proper resources,” says Herrera, who is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspects. “It turned out it was a really good thing I talked to [Independent Police Auditor] LaDoris Cordell beforehand, because I ended up calling her and telling her what he said. Over half his concerns were about the process the police used.”
Lall says he called Cordell’s office three weeks ago and filed a formal complaint, which he thinks may have led to the press conference. The Independent Police Auditor’s job is to forward complaints to IA and then review the unit’s findings.
Neither Cordell nor Sgt. Todd Trayer, who helps oversee the IA unit, say they can confirm an investigation is underway because of privacy and personnel concerns, but Weger says the turnaround from the IPA’s office receiving a complaint to starting investigation by his department usually takes just several days, meaning Lall’s file should be in the IA pipeline.
If recent history is any indicator of what an IA investigation will yield, the unit is unlikely to find fault with police. Internal Affairs closed 19 neglect of duty investigations in 2010, and not a single allegation was sustained. Cordell says, “There has been a dramatic change at IA,” and she credits Moore for reaching out to the division to bring about a better relationship between the three branches.
And yet there are still differences of opinion among the chief, Cordell and IA when it comes to how hard the office should police its own. In 2010, Cordell’s office agreed with Internal Affairs first-time findings 79 percent of the time. But given a second chance to follow up, the IPA still disagreed with the department’s internal watchdogs 11 percent of the time.
“Its the hardest job of all police jobs because you have to sit and judge your fellow officers,” Cordell admits. “But if you don’t have integrity in your police department, you might as well hang it up and go home because you will have chaos in the streets.”
Already, the clock is ticking on Lall’s complaint. Based on the Police Officers Bill of Rights, an officer usually cannot be disciplined a year after IA begins its investigation. In 2010, there were 49 incidents that took more than 300 days to investigate, which gives the IPA barely any time to follow up. One IA investigation in the IPA’s 2010 report spanned more than three years. Cordell says the 2011 audit of IA won’t be ready until April, but the number of complaints increased by 20 percent compared to a year prior.
Add in the fact that IA will experience turnover in its leadership within about a month, and the opportunity for some cases to slip through the cracks increases.
“Certainly, it’s a concern we raised in 2010 and we’ll raise it again in 2011,” Cordell says. “I don’t think they’re turning a blind eye. That being said, the rules are the rules, and the cases need to be closed out in a timely manner.”
To help Atul Lall with his medical and dental expenses, those wishing to donate money can contact Wells Fargo bank and ask about the Atul Lall Fund or contact San Jose City Councilwoman Rose Herrera’s office at 408.535.4908.
Correction: A previous version of this article had the incorrect name for Sgt. Todd Trayer. San Jose Inside regrets the error.