The Bottom Lines : White-Collar Culprits Are No Match for a Gentleman Detective

Times Staff Writer

Gerald N. Powell loves to tell the stories of cases he's worked as a Glendora police sergeant, and most of them begin like this:

"I arrested this gentleman the other day, and he was a very, very interesting person--one of the nicest men I've ever met. It was a real pleasure talking to him."

Powell's tales wind through mazes of white-collar fraud, deceit, conniving and coast-to-coast trails of heartbroken and penniless victims, and they usually end like this:

"I just feel so sorry for the people who do these things. They really don't want to be this way. It's a sickness."

Far from being the soft-hearted glitch in Glendora's criminal justice system, Powell is the only Glendora police officer to be honored twice as officer of the year. He first received the award in 1980, and was named again this May.

Police Chief Oliver B. Posey said that both times Powell was chosen by his peers for the honor, which is bestowed by the Glendora Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. Lauding him as an "absolutely dedicated" and "exceptionally persistent" officer, Posey said, "as far as I know, he's won all of his cases."

"Won?" Powell pondered. "I don't think you can win. I don't keep any statistics on arrests I've made. But I'll tell you about this case I lost . . ."

He was off on another heartbreaker. This one about a senile woman with no known relatives who was defrauded of every last dime. The two men who cleaned out her savings escaped prosecution for lack of criminal evidence, and the case was dropped.

"I couldn't just leave it at that," Powell explained. "She was helpless, and she has nobody. So I took care of her laundry and got her some clothes with welfare aid. I was able to line up a homemaker service and Meals on Wheels. She's in a rest home now, and I call her often. She's such a sweet old lady."

Once, he said, he took a penniless vagrant into his own home for three months.

"You see this old person with nowhere to go, like a lost animal. What are you going to do?" he asked.

A detective now, Powell joined the force 20 years ago. Besides supervising other investigators and carrying his own caseload, he has developed a special interest in white-collar crime. Although he claims that he is "kind of an obnoxious, intimidating man when I get angry," he doesn't look the part any more than he sounds it. He is 52, straight and slender, impeccably groomed and in tailored business suits, his gun concealed in a leather attache case.

His dream of becoming a policeman began in Oregon, where he grew up and worked in the lumber business until he realized taht his life was going nowhere, he said. It took him several moves, several years of working in electronics in Southern California, and several applications before he was accepted by the Glendora Police Department in 1965 at age 32.

"Maybe the macho image was kind of a lure. I wanted all of this. This is my favorite place to be," Powell said, gesturing toward his cluttered small office and a larger room filled with people and files.

"Here's the way it works. About five years into a police career you're aware you're not going to save the world by putting all the offenders away. After about 10 years, you see the courts aren't working as well as they should."

So his search for career satisfaction, he said, led him to investigation of white-collar crime.

"After 20 years of talking to uneducated jerks, which most common criminals are, this becomes a pleasure," Powell said. "Most of these people (white-collar criminals) are very clever and they have no intention of being crooked. They create these schemes, and they always intend to pay back their victims. For instance, this addicted stock gambler I arrested . . ."

And he was off on a tale of a two-year, cross-country search that ended with a very civilized arrest of an intelligent, dapper man in a classy saloon in La Jolla.

"I've had to get down on the ground and grapple with people," Powell explained. "That way your clothes get torn and it can be very unpleasant. I find it far easier to talk to people than to get dirty in the street."

Talking will ease many painful situations, including some of the other criminal and juvenile cases he also handles, Powell said.

"When I arrest a kid I always try to explain to the parents what I'm doing and how the court system works," he said. "I've seen cops not telling parents what they're arresting the kid for, and that causes problems. These people are upset and they deserve an explanation. I feel terribly sorry for them."

Powell has a wife, Dewina, three children and two stepchildren. The family currently has three dogs and two cats, down considerably from the zoo of crows, racoons, ducks and other strays that became irresistible when they were left at the police station.

"About that officer of the year thing," he said, "I didn't save 20 lives. I didn't even save one life. The question as I understand it was: Who did a good job? I felt a little strange getting it the second time. Everybody wants to do a good job."

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