For two months now, the Rev. P. J. Jones hasn't shown up to take his customary seat on the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, of which he has been a member for 16 years. The unusual string of absences began shortly after he and his wife were arrested in the lobby of a Florence-area bank on suspicion of trying to cash $379,000 worth of stolen and forged checks.
Recently, the district attorney's office decided to drop the case for lack of proof that the prominent 64-year-old Baptist minister actually knew the checks were phony.
And on Wednesday, Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies gave back the personal property they confiscated at the time of Jones' arrest, including a loaded .38-caliber revolver legally registered to the clergyman and kept in the trunk of his blue Cadillac.
"As far as the minister is concerned," said sheriff's Sgt. Curtis Ratzlaff, "the case is dead."
But the action has left questions that neither prosecutors nor investigators say they are able to answer--not the least of which is precisely how Jones and his wife came upon the five- and six-figure stolen checks in the first place.
According to the arrest report filed by deputies, the couple initially said "they received the checks anonymously in the mail and assumed they were donations to the church they were affiliated with," the modest First Ever Green Missionary Baptist Church at Wilmington Avenue and Cherry Street in Compton.
'We Have Nothing to Say'
Beyond that, officials said, the minister and his wife declined to elaborate.
"There's no (formal) statement at all," Ratzlaff said. "It kind of put us at a disadvantage."
Neither Jones nor his lawyer, Charles E. Lloyd of Los Angeles, returned repeated calls from The Times in the last week. Jones' wife, Mary, 32, told a reporter over the telephone, "We have nothing to say."
Jones' friends and followers contend that the minister doesn't need to explain anything further.
"Our congregation, I'd say 100% of them, (believed) that he had not done anything wrong and that the outcome would be exactly what it was," said Compton City Councilman Floyd James, a deacon and 15-year member of Jones' church. "We stood by our minister."
County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who first appointed Jones to the 15-member Human Relations Commission in 1968, issued a statement saying, "I've known Dr. P. J. Jones for over 30 years . . .. I consider him a friend and he has participated with me in many civic and community activities."
Hahn's press deputy, Dan Wolf, added that the supervisor "assumes that if the charges are not being pressed that he (Jones) is not guilty."
The case involving Jones and his wife began to unfold May 7, according to the sheriff's report. The couple appeared at the Florence and Central branch of the First Interstate Bank on Florence Avenue and deposited a $79,000 check into one of several accounts they controlled.
The check was made out to Jones as "Imperial Grand Counsel"--for years, the minister has been a high-ranking Mason in a Los Angeles lodge. Teller Debbie R. Grier apparently accepted the deposit routinely, according to the report.
Withdrew $19,675 in Cash
Two days later, Jones and his wife returned to the bank and gave Grier another check to deposit, this time for $300,000. Like the first check, this one carried an address in Walnut Creek, near Oakland, and was signed by Dale C. Landon. Landon is president of Landon Properties Inc., a real estate investment company that reported being robbed of a series of blank checks last spring. Company officials declined to comment.
Also on May 9, the couple withdrew $19,675 in cash drawn against the first Landon check. Deputies say Jones offered no objection when bank officials asked him to fill out a federal currency transaction report, required whenever financial institutions handle a cash amount exceeding $10,000. (Such reports are designed in part to help federal law enforcement officials track customers who do business in unusual volumes of currency, in case they turn out to be involved in a criminal money-laundering scheme.)
But both of the Landon checks were returned to First Interstate a few days later, marked "reported stolen" and "signature irregular."
Yet the following week, on the morning of May 16, Jones and his wife returned to the bank and attempted to withdraw $280,325 against the two worthless deposits, the sheriff's report states.
Jones' wife first approached teller Roger Dellaca to cash a $220,325 check she had written on a church account supposedly holding the $300,000 Landon deposit. Then, the minister handed the teller a slip to withdraw $60,000 in cash from an account bearing the $79,000 Landon check.
Knowing that the Landon checks had been reported stolen, the teller stalled for time and alerted the branch manager, who telephoned deputies and the FBI. Jones and his wife remained at the counter and, according to the sheriff's report, explained to the teller that "they were going to use the cash they were about to receive to buy a hotel in Las Vegas."
A spokesman for the Operation Life Community Development Corp. told The Times that Jones has been among those who have shown interest in purchasing the $350,000 Cove Hotel, a boarded-up five-story landmark in a depressed section of west Las Vegas that is undergoing revitalization.
Norman Shapiro, the deputy district attorney who handled the Jones case, says the minister apparently envisioned turning the Cove into a haven "for religious people, so they wouldn't have to stay in hotels with gambling people."
Deputies eventually arrived at the bank and told the minister and his wife that they were considered to be suspects in a forgery investigation surrounding the stolen Landon checks. "Jones immediately identified himself as a clergyman, and L.A. county commissioner on human rights, and personal friends with LAPD Chief (Daryl) Gates, Sheriff (Sherman) Block, and L.A. County Supervisor Hahn," the sheriff's report says.
Gun Found in Car
Soon after, the Joneses were placed under arrest. Their car was impounded and searched, at which point deputies discovered the minister's revolver in a briefcase in the trunk. The couple were released on bail shortly afterward to await the prosecutor's review.
But there the case ended.
"There's no question that the checks were stolen," explained prosecutor Shapiro. "And there's no question that they tried to cash them. The only question is did they know (that the checks had been stolen) and, if they knew, can we prove that beyond a reasonable doubt."
Shapiro said the case was not dropped because of Jones' friendship with public officials and community leaders.
In the meantime, sheriff's Sgt. Ratzlaff says the Landon check theft remains under investigation by a number of law enforcement agencies. FBI officials in Los Angeles said they could not immediately confirm or deny whether their agents are involved.
Officials at First Interstate Bank also say they cannot comment on the case. "There's an issue of (customer) privacy here and secondarily, other governmental agencies have been involved," said John Popovich, vice president and manager of consumer affairs.
And this case, Popovich said, "is delicate beyond the normal."