Serial Number Helps Flush Out Suspect in City Theft Case

Times Staff Writer

A top official in the Los Angeles City Housing Authority has been charged with stealing lumber and equipment from the agency to help build a private home for himself in Riverside County.

In honor of an unusual clue in the investigation, detectives said Thursday they have dubbed the case “The trail of the missing toilet.”

It was a porta-potty, they said, traced by its serial number from Housing Authority purchasing records to the Riverside job site, that helped crack the case.

William H. Palmer, 54, of Compton, surrendered to authorities late Wednesday on three felony charges of embezzling $3,563 in public funds during 1983. He was released on his own recognizance.

Department Head

Palmer, a department head at the Housing Authority, is in charge of Central Shops, where he directs a staff of about 40 workers who maintain the agency’s 21 projects, which shelter thousands of low-income tenants.


Originally hired in 1967 as a carpenter, Palmer was promoted in 1980 to his $51,000-a-year post. He has been a longtime member of an inner circle of advisers to Housing Authority Executive Director Homer Smith.

Detectives Joe Adolph and Dennis Pagenkopp of the burglary and auto theft squad in the Los Angeles Police Department said they had begun their investigation of Palmer in the spring, and the porta-potty was “the first solid thing we got onto.”

They said agency records show that Palmer ordered the toilet, valued at $489, in July, 1983, and shortly afterward he reported in a memo that it had been destroyed. But the detectives said that in May they discovered the green fiberglass toilet hooked up to Palmer’s sewer line on his Riverside property. They added that they removed it--"very carefully.”

Palmer is building a 4,300-square-foot house on his property in the gate-guarded community of Canyon Lake, Adolph said.

Embezzlement Charge

Besides charges that Palmer stole the toilet for his private use, Palmer is charged with embezzling $2,687 worth of lumber and using $387 in agency funds to rent a dump truck that he used for private purposes.

Deputy Dist. Atty. James Koller, who issued the complaint against Palmer, said the porta-potty was an extremely important piece of evidence because it can be readily identified by serial number; in the case of lumber, “it’s hard to tell one 2-by-4 from another.”

Cmdr. William Booth said, “The investigation is continuing into other allegations of improprieties, generally regarding the misuse of city property” by Housing Authority personnel. He credited an “anonymous source” for sparking the probe in the first place.

However, the manager of the Nickerson Gardens housing project, Milton Patterson, said in an interview Thursday that it was he who contacted authorities earlier this year, voicing concern “about materials and supplies that were coming through here, but I couldn’t find any purchase order and I couldn’t find where it was going.”

Tells of Harassment

As a result of his whistle-blowing, Patterson said, he has been “harassed” and given negative performance reports by the agency’s executive office.

The Council of Housing Professionals, representing project managers and administrators, issued a statement Thursday condemning the agency’s leadership and calling for reform.