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Detective choked teen at youth boot camp, girl testifies

By MATT FOUNTAIN | The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) | Published: December 2, 2017

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — A teenager from Downey said in court Thursday that a Los Angeles-area police officer assigned to a youth boot camp at Camp San Luis Obispo in 2015 choked her for several seconds when the girl refused to crawl through grass and dirt.

The trial began Thursday for Marissa Elizabeth Larios, a detective with the Huntington Park Police Department, who faces two charges of cruelty to a child inflicting injury and a charge of battery, all misdemeanors. If convicted, the officer could face a maximum of about 18 months in County Jail.

Larios, 36, was arrested in August 2015 with three other Los Angeles-area police officers after San Luis Obispo County authorities received reports from the Huntington Park Police Department that participants in the boot camp accused police officers operating the program of physical abuse. No charges were filed against one officer.

The abuse occurred during L.E.A.D. (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' trial comes three months after her co-defendants, two South Gate Police Department officers, were sentenced to 60 days in San Luis Obispo County Jail after pleading no contest to roughly a dozen misdemeanor charges related to child abuse.

About two dozen people are expected to testify in Larios' trial, including at least four juveniles.

On Thursday, Deputy District Attorney James Graff-Radford said the case boils down to Larios' treatment of two female cadets, who were then 14. The Tribune is not naming the alleged victims.

In one incident, the prosecutor said, Larios grabbed one teen by the front of the throat with one hand – what he called a C-clamp – after the exhausted girl refused to keep crawling through grass during an exercise.

"The defendant, out of anger, C-clamped her throat," Graff-Radford said.

In another incident, Larios is accused of keeping another teen handcuffed all night, without a sleeping bag, during lights-out.

Graff-Radford said Larios exceeded her authority, but that the case is not an indictment of the 15-year-old program.

"What's at stake here are the boundaries, and these boundaries were crossed," Graff-Radford said.

Larios' defense attorney, Michael Schwartz, told the jury that the boot camp was just seven days of a three-month program, and served to "break (cadets) down, then build them back up."

He told jurors that parents signed disclosures warning that the children might be "subjected to military style control."

"It was an intervention program. The parents signed their children up for this," Schwartz said.

Schwartz added that the teen alleging she was choked was "verbally threatening to strike other recruits and staff" at the camp.

"She was exhibiting too much violent behavior. (Her parents) begged (the program) to take her," Schwartz said.

Schwartz argued that Larios put the alleged victim in a van following an exercise after the teen refused to participate. The girl began to have a panic attack in the van and Larios – who he said was trained to de-escalate the situation – grasped the girl's chin "to grab her attention."

"She did not grab her by the throat," Schwartz said. "She does not do C-clamps on people."

Following opening statements, the prosecution called the alleged victim, who's now 17-years-old. She testified – stopping occasionally to wipe away tears – that she was simply exhausted following the crawling exercise and couldn't continue.

"I stood up and said I wasn't going to do it anymore," the alleged victim said.

When asked why, she replied that she "was tired and there was dirt in my mouth."

She recounted that Larios took her to the van, where she began to have a panic attack. She said Larios mocked her and grabbed her by the throat. She said she remembers being shocked and confused.

"My body felt numb," the young woman said, noting that the pain was a "four" on a scale of one to 10.

However, the teen also contradicted Graff-Radford's claim during his opening statement that Larios choked her for 20 seconds with her right hand. On the stand, the girl said it was no longer than six seconds, with Larios' left hand.

Testimony is expected to continue Monday afternoon.

In August, Larios' co-defendents, brothers Edgar Yovany Gomez, 35, and Carlos Manuel Gomez-Marquez, 32, were sentenced for crimes they committed with male cadets.

Both accepted plea deals before the case went to trial, but reports from the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department said cadets told investigators the two took them into a storage room the kids called the "dark room," where they were assaulted and locked them inside with the lights off when they broke the rules. Another cadet told investigators the officers threw him to the floor and punched and kicked three or four times in retaliation for talking during sleep hours.

Both officers faced a maximum of about a year in jail.

The Probation Department report states that investigators identified a total of 13 victims who had been physically and emotionally abused by Gomez, Gomez-Marquez and Larios.

Superior Court Judge Gayle Peron indicated Thursday that prosecutors are barred from discussing the Gomez brothers' case during Larios' trial.

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