In 2003, then-Santa Ana police officer and current Anaheim city council candidate Steve Lodge--he of the multiple police-brutality lawsuits filed against him--received a glowing profile in the Los Angeles Times by then-Orange County bureau reporter and current Pulitzer Prize winner Jeff Gottlieb. It focused on something that Lodge loves to trumpet as worthy of qualifying him for public office: that he worked on cold-case homicide cases and brought many murderers to justice. "He Won't Let Killers Get Away With Murder" was the title of the piece, and Lodge claimed to Gottlieb that he had "revisited 31 of these cold cases, in which the crimes occurred five to 11 years ago. Fifteen people have been convicted in seven of these cases, and suspects in five cases await trial. Seven cases have been cleared because the suspect was discovered to have been murdered or the district attorney's office determined the killing was self-defense."
But Lodge didn't tell Gottlieb about the man whom he had locked up for over a year, on murder charges that were ultimately dropped by state prosecutors for lack of evidence, who had sued him earlier that year for wrongful imprisonment.
Jimmy Plazola is a SanTana native who moved out to the Inland Empire in his early 20s to escape the gang life and currently lives somewhere in Southern California. Other than once spending a week in juvenile hall for getting into a fight at Santa Ana High (charges were never filed) and getting a 9mm handgun taken from him by police officers after getting pulled over on 17th Street (the gun was registered in Plazola's name, and officers had to return the gun; again, he faced no charges), court records in Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles counties show he has never been charged for any crime in his life. That's why it was so shocking to the father of three in 2001 when, while working on a car at his brother's garage in Corona, he saw two pairs of boots approaching. Police officers.
"Jimmy Plazola?" the cops asked. "We want to ask you some questions," and they put Plazola in handcuffs.
"You're going to ask me questions, or am I getting arrested?" Plazola asked. And that's when Lodge told him he was getting arrested for participating in the 1996 murder of Oscar Higareda. The 18-year-old had been sitting in a car stopped at a red light at Bristol Street and McFadden Avenue when another car pulled up and shot him. The case went unsolved for years until a former acquaintance of Plazola, Pedro Sarinana, fingered him as the driver of the car that night, and Servando Silva as another passenger.
Plazola knew those guys, but hadn't spoken to them in years and didn't know Higadera. He was hauled off to the police station, where Lodge and another police officer interrogated him for hours. "Lodge tried to play the good cop, but he was smug," Plazola remembered. "He had this cocky smile to him as he explained to me how I drove the getaway car. He didn't want to listen to anything I was telling him. The guy wanted to close a bunch of cold cases and wanted to look good. But I had nothing to hide."
There were multiple problems with the case. Multiple witnesses would vouch for Plazola's whereabouts on the night of Higadera's murder--he was at a party in San Pedro. Sarinana recanted his testimony, and even prosecutors eventually admitted in court documents that the fiasco "cast doubt on the reliability of Sarinana's statement to investigators." Plazola says he offered to take a lie detector test; the officers instead threw him into county jail, where he would languish for a year. He wouldn't see Lodge again until two weeks before his trial was going to start, when Lodge went to the Santa Ana Jail and asked Plazola to take off his shirt so he could take pictures of his tattoos. Plazola's anger boiled over, and he became belligerent.
"He took me from my family for over a year," he now says. "I had a lot of anger in me. I gave him a problem."
Five deputies rushed into the room, ready to take action. "I was cussing them out the whole time, saying they ruined my life." Eventually, a deputy he had befriended at the jail talked him down, and Plazola complied.
Two weeks after Plazola's jailhouse run-in with Lodge, he and Silva were set free (Sarinana was extradited to New Mexico to face drug charges he had fled) because prosecutors had asked a judge to drop all charges due to lack of evidence. At the time, prosecuting deputy attorney general Michael T. Murphy (the state prosecuted the case because the Orange County District Attorney's office couldn't prosecute because Silva had once worked for them) vowed to refile charges against Plazola. "Time has certainly played a factor" in excusing why he had to drop the case," he said at the time. "It was 5 years old. People's memories are getting old."
And Lodge told the Orange County Register that Plazola and the others "haven't been ruled out as suspects." Plazola's attorney, Deputy Alternate Defender Frank Ospino (who now heads the county's Public Defender department), told the Register he was "surprised" that Lodge was still on the warpath against his client.
Over a decade later, no charges on the Higareda murder have been refiled against Plazola, who maintains his innocence to this day--and his anger. Because of the arrest, Plazola's life was ruined. He lost his supervisor job at Keebler Cookies, missed the birth of his son, had his Chevrolet Tahoe repossessed, and had his family go on welfare; he eventually had to file for bankruptcy.
Plazola quickly filed a federal lawsuit demanding $1 million for his imprisonment after his release; he named the county, the Santa Ana Police Department, Chief Paul Walters, Sheriff Mike Carona, Lodge, and two other SanTana police officers as defendants and had as his lawyers the firm of Eric Lampel, famous in Orange County for successfully representing accused daughter murderer Shantae Molina and whisteblowing nurse Virgil Opinion. The complaint specifically targeted Lodge.
"Envisioning himself as a latter-day Elliot Ness," the complaint read, "Lodge was bent on re-opening 'cold cases' by arbitrarily charging Hispanic individuals as suspects, using every means within his power, including illegal means to extract bogus 'confessions,' manufacture evidence, and display a reckless disregard for proper investigation of exculpatory leads--all in an effort to obtain convictions, to make a name for himself as a triumphant investigator and solver of unsolved murder cases."
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The lawsuit claimed "violations of civil rights, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution," but was doomed from the start. The first complaint was rejected because it wasn't in the right typeface size. Lampel's partner at the time, Jonathan D. Rivers, split from Lampel, taking Plazola with him, and Plazola claims the case was "forgotten." The case was eventually dismissed in May 2003 because Rivers didn't file a scheduling report; the following month, Rivers resigned his law license because the California Bar Association had filed charges against him alleging incompetence in other cases. He's still ineligible to practice law in California. Going with Rivers, Plazola now says, instead of staying with Lampel was "the biggest mistake of my life. He messed up my case."
Plazola didn't know that Lodge was running for public office until the Weekly contacted him for this story. He admits that the thought of Lodge as a sitting councilmember leaves him "scared" that someone like that could become a politician.
"If he's able to ruin people's lives like [he did with his], what's he's going to do to people while in office?" Plazola says, waiting for his daughter to leave school. "He's dirty. It'd be a bad choice."