Just moments before Doyle Wheeler was shot in the head in his suburban Spokane, Wash., home last April, someone picked up the telephone in the laundry room and dialed the San Diego Police Department, asking to speak to Police Agent Donovan Jacobs.
Wheeler, a former San Diego police officer who testified against Jacobs in the Sagon Penn case, maintains that one of his two assailants made the call.
But authorities in Stevens County, Wash., think the caller may have been Wheeler himself.
The 30-second phone conversation is considered a crucial part of the investigation by the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office, which is expected to release its findings after meeting with the county prosecutor next week.
Sheriff Richard Andres said Wednesday that his investigators have “covered all leads and looked at all of the evidence” and are prepared to make one of three conclusions:
- That Wheeler was indeed tied up and tortured, and that he suffered a slight head wound when he was shot behind the ear by one of the two gunmen.
- That Wheeler, who has had psychological problems and took a stress retirement from the San Diego Police Department, shot himself in a ploy to garner sympathy for himself and to generate public distrust of the Police Department.
- That, three months after the shooting, it cannot be positively proven exactly what happened in Wheeler’s home the afternoon of April 19.
However the case ends up, investigators said the phone call will play a crucial role in the conclusions they reach.
Keith Enerson, a San Diego police commander, said the brief call was automatically tape-recorded because it came through the main switchboard in the police communications unit. He said a copy of the tape was turned over to the Stevens County sheriff’s investigators at their request.
“The person asked for the Narcotics Street Team,” Enerson said in describing the phone call. “The operator asked if this is a long-distance call, and the person said yes it is.
“They then transferred it to the Narcotics Street Team. They kept ahold of the line and kept on recording. That’s automatic.
“Then, you hear the gal on the other end, Sheila, a secretary. The caller said, ‘May I speak to Donovan Jacobs?’
“She said, ‘Just a moment,’ and then he hung up. Click.”
Jacobs, who now works a desk job in the narcotics unit, was seriously wounded by Sagon Penn during a 1985 confrontation. Police Agent Thomas Riggs was killed, and civilian ride-along Sara Pina-Ruiz was wounded.
Penn, a young black man, was acquitted of shooting the white officers in two highly publicized trials. During the proceedings, Wheeler characterized Jacobs as a “hothead” and as “cocky” and “overly aggressive.” He also testified that he had warned other senior police officers of Jacobs’ bigoted behavior.
Wheeler, an 11-year veteran of the force, eventually retired and moved to Stevens County, where earlier this year he told reporters that he had been receiving death threats in connection with his Penn case testimony.
Since he was shot, Wheeler has maintained that his assailants were acting on behalf of some members of the San Diego Police Department who wanted to send a message to other would-be whistle-blowers willing to speak out against department misconduct.
Wheeler said Wednesday that Stevens County authorities apparently do not buy his story. He also said they have told him they think he is the person who phoned Jacobs moments before the shooting.
“They told me that on the Police Department tape, it was a voice that sounded like mine,” he said. “But I’ve never heard the tape. I don’t know what it sounds like.”
An investigator in the Sheriff’s Office confirmed that authorities told Wheeler the voice was similar to his and that it was possible he made the call and tried to disguise his voice.
But the official said the identity of the caller may never be known because the call was so short and the caller spoke only a few words--not enough to make a positive voice match. He declined to elaborate.
Voice Test Is Hinted
Wheeler said he knows of some voice experts, including one in the Los Angeles area, who can positively match sounds, even when using only a few words on a tape. He said that, if he were given a copy of the tape, he would be able to show through that expert that the caller was one of his assailants and thereby eliminate himself as a suspect.
“I know one thing,” he said. “That isn’t my voice on the tape.”
But Enerson, the San Diego police commander, said it was unlikely that any assailant working for Jacobs or other members of the San Diego Police Department would call the department and Jacobs from the scene of the crime.
Enerson also noted that Wheeler would have known there was a direct, private phone number for the Narcotics Street Team. And he said that Wheeler, who retired as a lieutenant in the communications unit, also would have known that all incoming calls through the main switchboard are automatically tape-recorded.
“Sure, he knew that,” Enerson said. “He worked in communications.”
But Wheeler said he could not have made the call because he was lying on the couch when the phone was dialed.
“I was already tied up in the family room downstairs,” he said. “Then, the black-haired suspect went upstairs and came back down, and it sounded to me like he made a telephone call around the corner in the laundry room.
“I could hear him talking, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I was lying facing the television and the television was on.
“Then, the other guy said, ‘Let’s get this over with.’ They said they were going to make it look like a drug rip-off. They pushed me off the couch, put a pillow over my head and fired the gun.”
Wheeler said the authorities in San Diego and Stevens County believed almost from the start that his wounds were caused by his own hand.
He complained that the San Diego Police Officers Assn. is balking at paying $1,500 for his medical expenses from the shooting because officials believe the injuries were self-inflicted.
“I’m 36, living off a Police Department retirement,” he said. “I was a lieutenant making $41,000 a year. Now, I’m unemployable. Nobody wants to hire me. I don’t have the $1,500 to pay the bills, so it’s probably going to go to a collection agency.”
Sgt. Ron Newman, president of the officers’ association, said Wheeler is being treated the same as any other retired officer but some of the necessary paper work for the $1,500 claim has been slow in arriving.
He also noted that the organization’s medical insurance does not pay for self-inflicted injuries. But he said that, unless authorities can positively prove Wheeler shot himself, the medical bills will probably be covered.
Wheeler also complained that the Stevens County sheriff has missed several opportunities to collect key evidence in the case, such as discounting some suspect photographs and being slow to process the crime scene.
“I admit up front this is a bizarre case,” he said. “But it happened.”
Sheriff Andres scoffed at Wheeler’s contention that investigators have not acted professionally. And he said the investigation would have moved faster had Wheeler agreed to undergo a polygraph examination.
“We had a meeting about two weeks ago and reviewed all we’ve done and all of the evidence,” he said. “We’ve found a few things we still want to follow up on, and we’re doing that now.”
“But,” he added, “I’m not sure that we’re looking yet at an arrest in this case.”