One plaque recovered; two others still missing
On Dec. 5, 2019, surveillance cameras at the Port of Los Angeles caught the image of a single figure removing the historic brass plaques off of the Liberty Hill and Joe Hill monuments on Fifth Street near Harbor Boulevard and loading them onto an unusual pickup truck. The video didn’t catch the license plate.
A week later, a reader of this newspaper called the office to report the theft, which was confirmed by Mary Jo Walker of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society and then the port police. Port detectives have been on the case ever since.
The first break in the case came a few weeks later. A metal theft investigator from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department alerted detectives, referring them to a recycling plant in Carson. Sure enough, it was one of the three plaques — but it was badly damaged.
From there, the port police tracked down the person who sold the metal as scrap. With the help of the Los Angeles Police Department, Alexa “Brisa” Chavez, a homeless woman from Wilmington, was arrested and charged with receiving stolen property. Chavez claimed the property was “given to her.” Arturo Liviano was also arrested on the same charge and for outstanding warrants for auto theft. Both were arraigned in the Long Beach court charged with felonies for receiving stolen property under California Penal Code Section 496(a) as the value of the three plaques were valued at over $2,800.
The charges were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors and for an unknown reason the judge dismissed the case against Chavez but the prosecutors are continuing against Laviano for auto thefts. Both defendants insist that they weren’t the ones who actually stole the plaques. This seems to be the case, according to Detective Roberto Redondo, who says that they eventually found the owner of the pickup truck and arrested him for the Department of Motor Vehicles fraud, because he used stolen license plate tags on the truck in the video. To further complicate things, this defendant claims that it was someone else who actually did the deed.
“We are still hopeful to find the original perpetrator,” said Lt. Rosario Ferrara of the port police. “We’re still actively investigating this crime but are not optimistic about recovering the other plaques.”
They say that this isn’t “the crime of the century,” but that they know the value of these items to the community.
The latest break in this case is that the last suspect in the Liberty Hill thefts was located in the L.A. Sheriff’s Wayside detention center held on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon or ADW in police lingo. As of press time he hasn’t been interviewed on this case.
The ILWU Southern California Pensioners, who raised most of the money for these historic plaques have regained possession of the one returned and are considering using the same brass to make new ones. They will have to raise donations to pay for the recreation.
The first Liberty Hill plaques were placed on the monument stone at Liberty Hill Plaza in 1991 to commemorate the 1923 incident in which the famous author of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, was arrested by the LAPD for reading the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights to striking dock workers. This event is commemorated annually with a reading of the Bill of Rights by local activists.
The irony of the police now investigating the theft of these First Amendment plaques that document past police abuse doesn’t go unnoticed.
The investigation continues and if anyone has any tips regarding this case they are urged to call the port police at 310-732-3599 and ask for Det. Redondo or Lt. Ferrara.