No Independent Probe Charged : CHP Based Peyer Dismissal on Hearing, Lawyers Say

Times Staff Writer

The California Highway Patrol did not conduct an independent investigation of fired officer Craig Peyer and instead based its decision to dismiss him largely on information contained in a transcript of his preliminary hearing and statements given by witnesses to San Diego police, Peyer's lawyers have charged.

Attorney Richard Romanski said last week that the three-volume package of findings presented by the CHP to Peyer to justify his dismissal consists of a 600-page copy of the preliminary hearing transcript and confirmations from 13 women verifying statements they made to San Diego police about controversial traffic stops made by Peyer. Romanski is appealing Peyer's May 28 firing to the State Personnel Board.

Romanski's allegations are significant because CHP officials had claimed from the day that Peyer was arrested on Jan. 15 and charged with murder that he was the subject of an extensive, independent CHP investigation to determine what administrative action should be taken against him. Peyer, 37, was put on a 15-day suspension without pay after his arrest, but received back pay and continued drawing his $36,300-a-year salary when the CHP did not fire him while he was suspended.

Restraining Order

CHP Border Division Chief Ben Killingsworth said that he is prevented from discussing the case by a temporary restraining order obtained by Peyer's attorneys. However, Killingsworth said that whether the CHP conducted an independent investigation is irrelevant.

"All discussion of who did an independent investigation, all this doesn't matter," Killingsworth said Friday. "The only thing that matters is whether the evidence or facts gathered support the (CHP's) charges. That's the only question that matters."

In a widely publicized nine-page report filed May 29 with the Personnel Board, CHP officials said that their investigation revealed that Peyer murdered Cara Knott. CHP Commissioner J.E. Smith, who signed the report, unequivocally said that Peyer "did, without justification, kill Ms. Cara Knott."

But Romanski said there is nothing in Peyer's dismissal package, which resulted from the CHP's independent investigation, that supports the CHP's contention that Peyer murdered Knott.

"The clear message in the report filed with the Personnel Board is that the CHP, through its independent investigation, has uncovered evidence that Mr. Peyer killed the woman," Romanski said. "This is unfortunate because the general public is now inclined to believe that if the CHP says that he killed her, then he's guilty. The CHP has in effect charged, tried and convicted Mr. Peyer before his case goes to court and to a jury of his peers.

"I believe that they haven't conducted an independent investigation. I don't see anything in this package that would point to that. In addition to the preliminary hearing transcript, I see where they showed 13 women the statements they gave to San Diego police and asked them to verify their comments."

Romanski said he was surprised by the contents of the dismissal package. "I've never had a case where the charges against an officer consist of the transcript of a preliminary hearing," he said.

Peyer, who was a CHP officer for 13 years, is charged with murder in the Dec. 27 slaying of Knott, a San Diego State University student. The 20-year-old woman was strangled on the Old U.S. 395 bridge in an isolated area near Interstate 15 and the Mercy Road off-ramp. Her body was dropped 65 feet into a dry creek bed, where it was discovered the next morning.

On Feb. 11, CHP officials came under criticism when they announced that Peyer had been reinstated on the payroll because the internal investigation was continuing. Then-Border Division Assistant Chief Edward Gomez said that the agency had no choice but to suspend him with pay because the complexity of the case made it impossible to complete the internal investigation in 15 days. State law says that, if a state employee is not fired within 15 days of his suspension, he is automatically placed back on the payroll.

Peyer remained on the CHP payroll until his May 28 dismissal.

Acts of Misconduct

Some CHP officials declined to comment on Romanski's charges on grounds that the internal investigation is a confidential personnel matter.

Capt. Dave Webb, of the CHP's internal affairs unit in Sacramento, insisted that the agency conducted an independent investigation. However, Webb refused to say if CHP investigators interrogated any witnesses or how many people were actually interviewed. When asked if it would be accurate to say that CHP investigators did independent interrogations of witnesses, Webb answered, "I can't comment."

"All I can tell you is that we did an independent investigation," Webb said. "In any internal investigation the first thing you have to do is to independently establish to our satisfaction, and the satisfaction of the State Personnel Board, that we believe the employee committed the acts of misconduct."

State law prohibits the CHP from firing Peyer solely because he was arrested for a crime. However, Peyer's firing also was based on allegations of misconduct while on duty.

In addition to Knott's killing, the CHP cited charges that Peyer stopped women motorists at night on numerous occasions and forced them to park on the darkened Mercy Road off-ramp as reasons for his firing. The dismissal notice said that Peyer violated CHP policy by stopping some of the women without probable cause, detaining them for as long as 90 minutes, flirting with them and engaging them in long conversations about their personal lives.

But Romanski questioned the thoroughness of the CHP's internal probe if agency investigators failed to interview Peyer. Romanski, who is the chief counsel for the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen, said that CHP investigators never asked Peyer to submit to an interview. The association represents most of the state's CHP officers, and Romanski also represented George Michael Gwaltney, the only other CHP officer ever charged with committing murder while on duty.

Gwaltney was convicted in 1984 in a civil rights homicide case stemming from the rape and killing of a young woman whom he stopped in the desert near Barstow. Gwaltney, Romanski said, was interviewed by CHP internal affairs investigators before he was fired.

Webb said it is not unusual for internal affairs investigators to choose not to interview an officer who is the subject of a disciplinary action.

"Depending on the situation, you may or may not interrogate an employee," Webb said. "It depends on what the charges are. If you can prove those charges without an employee's statements, you're better off."

Firing Called Swift

But Romanski said that the CHP's internal investigation is questionable and the agency's decision to fire Peyer was unusually swift. When CHP officials presented Peyer with their findings on May 20 and informed him that they were recommending that he be fired, state law allowed him five days to respond to the charges.

Because three of those days fell on the Memorial Day weekend, Romanski asked CHP officials for four additional days to review the three-volume findings. Killingsworth confirmed that Romanski asked for an extension and that it was denied.

"We don't routinely ask for extensions," Romanski said. "But we've asked for them in the past and I can't remember a time when we were turned down."

Romanski, who has been an attorney for the CHP officers association for more than 12 years, said that normally the CHP takes about 30 days to fire an officer after he is served with the agency's findings. Peyer's firing came eight days after he was served, but his attorneys and CHP officials have refused to say if he responded to the charges during the five-day period allowed to him by state law.

Except for the murder charge against Peyer, Romanski said the remaining charges of misconduct are not enough to have Peyer fired. CHP officials said that Peyer was a model officer with no previous adverse actions or citizens' complaints during his 13 years as an officer.

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