Police Scandal Breaks Peace in Tranquil Tulare

Times Staff Writer

Claude Retherford, a gregarious two-term city councilman known for his passion for golf and wildly colored polyester pants, appears a most unlikely man to lead a crusade--just as this small farm town seems an improbable backdrop for scandal.

But over the last 18 months, Retherford, 62, has become convinced that the 40-member Police Department in this San Joaquin Valley community is out of control. He and other critics go through a litany of alleged law-breaking by the law enforcers--beatings, arson, planting evidence. Officers have resigned and been arrested. A private investigator, the state attorney general and the Tulare County Grand Jury all have investigated.

“Sooner or later there is going to be a clean-up,” said Retherford, now the lone police critic on the City Council.


Different Viewpoint

Police Chief Roger Hill, a 19-year veteran of the force, acknowledges that his officers are tough--"Our cops win. . . . If a suspect ends up on the losing side of the battle, then they learned pretty well, didn’t they?"--but he dismisses the department’s critics as “irrational and self-serving” politicians.

Most of Tulare’s voters seem to agree. In city elections last November, three council candidates, who brushed aside allegations of mismanagement and malfeasance in the department and opposed efforts to oust Hill, won easily.

That might have ended the dispute, except that last month, a former officer pleaded guilty to federal charges of arson and conspiracy in connection with a yearlong series of blazes in downtown Tulare. A second officer is scheduled to go on trial in September in the arson case.

Some investigators believe the defendants could implicate other officers who may have at least known of the arsons and failed to report them.

The arson case, however, is just one example of the problems that have plagued the department in recent years:

- In October, 1986, Sgt. Robert Eckert, a 17-year veteran, was driving his personal vehicle while off duty, accompanied by his partner, when he became impatient with cruising youths who were blocking Mooney Boulevard, the main drag between Visalia and Tulare. When he sped past them, they pursued in a high-speed chase that also engaged on-duty officers and ended in a supermarket parking lot in Tulare.

As Tulare officers looked on, Eckert slapped and hurled racist epithets at one of the cruisers, a young Latino man, and allegedly opened a bottle of beer that had been in another’s car, leading to the youth’s arrest. After a young officer stepped forward to complain about Eckert’s conduct, the youths were released and Eckert was fired. Eckert admits he slapped the man, but denies opening the beer and is suing the city over his firing, claiming that his behavior was no worse than that of others who are still on the force.

“I’ve seen a lot of brutality,” Eckert said in an interview.

- A week after the chase, Officer Herman Caldas accidentally shot a high school football star, wounding him in the wrist during the youth’s arrest on charges of drunk driving and fleeing an accident. Hill said Caldas is among the best on the force, but the city settled three suits against him for $70,000 and an agreement--insisted upon by the boy’s parents--that Caldas be taken off patrol duty for a year. Caldas is now doing detective work.

“I felt the guy was going to kill someone,” said Clifton Cleek, the football player’s father. “I never wanted the money.”

“I did my job to the best of my ability,” Caldas said, maintaining that the accidental shooting, which came at the height of the political fight over the department, was blown out of proportion by the critics. “It was a hard time for me, for the department. But the show must go on. . . . We took an oath to protect and serve, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

- More recently, in March, a 26-year-old off-duty officer resigned after he was arrested on misdemeanor charges that he furnished beer and liquor to three teen-agers and attempted to have sex with one of them, a 16-year-old girl. The officer has pleaded innocent and a trial is set to begin next month.

Hill views the case as an aberration, as does the new mayor, Maurice (Red) Green, a retired accountant who ran because he thought the rancor over the police department was “ruining the town’s reputation.”

“He (the officer in question) is just a young guy, 25. Picked up a couple of girls. Most anyone is liable to do that at that age,” said Green.

“This wasn’t a full-blown molest,” Hill said. “This was furnishing alcohol, that’s really the crime. If this guy would have been a 15-year veteran, he would not have gotten fired from law enforcement.”

Billed by the Chamber of Commerce as “the friendly, affordable community,” Tulare is a stop on Highway 99 between Fresno and Bakersfield, not far from Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. It is home to the annual California Farm Equipment Show, it has more than 50 churches and the test scores of the two high schools are above the statewide average.

Still a Small Town

Now in its centennial year, Tulare is inching toward a population of 29,000. It’s still small enough that people in authority go to the same churches, coach against one another in Babe Ruth League, play golf together.

The Byzantine fight over the Police Department, however, was a little like a civil war. It damaged careers and reputations, ended friendships and led to the ouster of two city councilmen.

“We were portrayed as bumbling fools. . . . You’d be surprised how many people don’t want to know the truth,” said former Mayor Duane Miller, the owner of a trucking firm who followed his father into local politics, but was ousted last November.

Some people here say the trouble began five years ago, with the downtown fires. Others say it had been brewing far longer.

“Most officers who worked (in Tulare) knew something was going to happen--and it did. It was just a matter of time. . . . It (department behavior) kept getting out of hand. Pretty soon, it was big time,” said Officer Dennis Rhyman, who left Tulare in 1981 after nine years and now works for the Police Department in nearby Visalia.

Systematic Arson

Fire Chief Ken Bridges and his arson investigator, Capt. Robert Murphy, had worked for years trying to catch the arsonist or arsonists who, in the words of Murphy, had systematically torched “half of downtown.”

In the fall of 1986, after months of dead ends, Murphy, working with federal arson investigators, got a tip that former officer Thomas C. Hennemann had a role in the fires. That tip led to the indictment in January of Hennemann and Officer Premo Anaya. Hennemann was charged in connection with four of six arson fires between 1983 and 1984, Anaya in one, a July 5, 1983, fire that caused $40,000 in damage.

Anaya, 44, among the officers to respond to the July, 1983, blaze, quit the Tulare force shortly after the fire and went to work for the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked when he was indicted.

Hennemann, 41, who pleaded guilty June 28 to conspiracy and arson for his role in the July fire, had worked for the Tulare police since 1977 and was an undercover narcotics investigator. He first got into trouble in mid-1985, when he was forced to resign and came under investigation for shooting three thoroughbred horses and torching a haystack in a feud with a rancher. He was convicted and sentenced to prison, where he remains.

Telephoned Threats

In 1986 and 1987, as the arson investigation focused on the officers, Murphy found himself the target of anonymous, threatening telephone calls.

“Yeah, there was pressure, mental pressure, people calling me at work, saying I should leave the Police Department alone,” Murphy said.

His car window also was shot out.

Retherford and other members of the City Council also turned their attention to the Police Department--and to Hill’s administration.

“It was very simple,” recalled podiatrist Joseph Reynolds, a former council member. “The management was bad and it was our prerogative to change it. But we really got a hold of a tiger by the tail.”

In November, 1986, the council told Lynn Dredge, city manager for the last 17 years, to fire Hill. Dredge refused.

“I had no reason to believe that that was anything other than primarily a political act at the time,” Dredge said recently. Hill was a “cop’s cop” and “it just didn’t wash well. . . . I felt I had a police chief who was functioning well, respected by the department and was a good police officer.”

The lines were drawn.

Investigator Hired

Retherford convinced the council to hire former FBI agent Ted Gunderson, a fraternity brother from their days at the University of Nebraska, to look into the police force.

Gunderson, who headed the Los Angeles FBI office from 1977 to 1979, had trouble from the start. Officers refused to talk to him. The Police Officers Assn. took out full-page ads in the local paper attacking the council action and packed council meetings in protest. By January, 1987, the council had cancelled its contract with Gunderson.

Before he left, Gunderson did interview Hennemann, who by then was in prison on the horse-shooting charges. Hennemann told of people he had framed and abused and how other officers knew about it, according to Gunderson’s subsequent report. A transcript of Hennemann’s allegations--like charges by other former officers interviewed by Gunderson--was leaked to local newspapers.

“Bright people in the community, businessmen and other people, saw that for what it was--allegations by disgruntled employees--and everything beyond that was lost,” Dredge said.

A Last Hope

Although the council’s effort to deal with the police force was foundering, Retherford, Miller and Reynolds had a final hope. They had asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate.

The report came back last August after nine months and 168 interviews. Of 25 specific allegations the attorney general was asked to investigate, 18 were ruled unsupported and three could not be resolved. The other four, involving excessive force, were handed to the Tulare County district attorney for possible prosecution. No charges were filed.

The Tulare County Grand Jury also investigated, and it issued a report last June. It noted that the force had “come to be feared rather than respected” and recommended a series of public relations moves--ranging from a Police Department-sponsored Easter egg hunt to police foot patrols--and an immediate review of department management by the state Commission on Police Officers Standards and Training. The city has not asked for the review. Nor has Tulare followed other grand jury suggestions that it establish a stress program for its officers and a citizens panel to oversee the department.

Hill and his defenders maintain that any problems with the force ended with the firings and resignations of recent years. But critics remain, and a number of them interviewed for this story--including more than a dozen past and present city officials and veterans of the force, local attorneys and other officials familiar the department--contend that the force remains poorly managed and blame Hill for failing to recognize that some of his officers were out of control. Officers who have quit Tulare and gone to work elsewhere say it fares poorly by comparison.

“If we have to, we can be rough and we win,” said an officer who works for another California police force, "(but) it was a zoo over there.”

Long Way to Go

Perhaps because of past problems, the Tulare department is “starting to see the light,” he said. “But it’s like starting from Square One. They haven’t tried to bring themselves up to the 20th Century.”

Officials of the Tulare Police Officers Assn., which represents officers in pay bargaining, would not be interviewed by The Times. But a veteran, requesting anonymity, said the battles solved little: “In fact it has been detrimental because everybody is looking for other employment.”

City Manager Dredge, however, dismisses any continuing criticism. “The matter is over with in terms of public policy questions and public action, and probably has been since the (November) election,” he said. “That was the time that the community made its decision. . . . I put my employment, I put my life, on the line for the police chief. He owes me the administration of a good police department.”

In any event, three council members who ran on a platform of support for the police won election last year. Retherford was not on the ballot.