Donald Rochon took a $7,000 pay cut when he left the Los Angeles Police Department in 1981 to fulfill a dream: joining what he considered to be the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, the FBI.
The only son of a white contractor and a black housewife, Rochon had grown up surfing and socializing almost exclusively with white friends on Los Angeles beaches.
But after three years with the FBI in Chicago and Omaha, he found himself in the midst of a racial nightmare.
In complaints to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in two civil lawsuits filed with his now-estranged wife, Susan, Rochon says he was racially harassed by white FBI agents.
Anonymous letters threatened his wife with rape and warned Rochon, “You . . . shall pay the price. . . . You are always in our sights and can not escape.”
The civil suits--one of which was expanded Tuesday in Washington to include claims that other blacks in the FBI, besides Rochon, suffered racially inspired intimidation and that agency supervisors failed to curb such activity--are just beginning to wind through the courts. But the U.S. Justice Department and the EEOC already have found Rochon was, indeed, a victim of racial harassment in the FBI Omaha office.
Another Reality Obscured
The concerns raised by Rochon seem so clear that they have obscured another reality--that to some people who knew him in an earlier time, he is the least likely person to be leading a battle for civil rights.
When he was a Los Angeles policeman, Rochon was a defendant rather than a plaintiff in one of the city’s most politically controversial lawsuits.
He was one of 12 officers accused in 1978 of unlawful spying by the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of Los Angeles political groups, largely populated by minorities. The suit was settled in 1984, with the Los Angeles City Council awarding the 144 plaintiffs $1.8 million.
In Los Angeles, Rochon’s complaints of racism against the FBI have prompted a cynical reaction in some quarters.
“I laughed,” said Charles Chapple, a community activist and member of one of the plaintiff groups, the Coalition Against Police Abuse. “I figure if they (the FBI) violated his civil rights, he got a taste of his own medicine.”
As the FBI scandal has unfolded, Rochon, 38, has seen his gruesome story and handsome face splashed on the pages of major publications. Applauded by minority groups, he has been cast as a civil rights crusader, taking on the toughest foe of all: The U.S. government.
Rochon sees himself in more simple terms: “To me, I’m a victim of discrimination. I’m not out there as any champion, just a simple victim.”
In sworn statements, Rochon has said he was subjected to anonymous threats to cut off his testicles and lips. He received, unsolicited, an insurance policy contract covering accidental death and dismemberment.
According to FBI documents, Chicago special agent Gary W. Miller has admitted forging Rochon’s signature on the policy without checking to see what it covered. “I did not think he would get anything but junk mail,” Miller said. “I did not think.”
Miller was suspended from duty without pay for two weeks for that and other incidents. He asserts he and his colleagues were not racially harassing Rochon but admitted there was a campaign of “retribution” waged to answer complaints Rochon had made about fellow agents, especially Miller’s good friend, special agent Tom Dillon.
The defendants have portrayed many of the incidents as the sort of pranks that police might play in a station house.
Chocolate was smeared on the ear piece of Rochon’s phone. Invitations to office functions appeared in his mail with “Don’t come” written on them. He received pictures of an African in native dress, a black man with a badly bruised face and a black man with a white woman.
He was sent merchandise he never ordered. His colleagues, who seemed to disapprove that Rochon had married a white woman, conducted a flatulence contest in front of her at a party. A cut-out ape face was pasted on his son’s picture on his office desk. And he was denied what he considered a routine transfer to Los Angeles when his father was dying.
The suit alleges Rochon also was the target of derogatory rumors that he: jogged carrying a lightning rod; tried to remove snow from his drive with a hose; burned out a car engine by leaving it on all night to keep it warm in cold weather, and slept in a car’s back seat during a surveillance.
Attorneys for the various defendants assert that Rochon misinterpreted pranks and gossip and used claims of racial harassment to pressure the FBI to transfer him to Los Angeles.
Miller and Dillon, at the heart of Rochon’s accusations, both passed lie-detector tests; they insist they did not write the letters threatening death and mutilation.
Rochon, refusing to concede a shred of satisfaction to those he considers his enemies, has remained with the FBI, moving two years ago to the Philadelphia office. With degrees in criminology and law, he was uninterested in another job.
In Philadelphia, he says he has worked without harassment from fellow agents, though FBI administrators denied him a housing benefit he felt he was due, adding another grievance. FBI investigators also were quick to question, at length, a woman who filed, then dropped, assault charges against Rochon in March.
Of those in the agency who have injured him, he says: “I want them to admit that they’re wrong and make some changes. I think the people who harassed me should be punished commensurate with what they’ve done.”
His suits seek damages but Rochon said he has no figure in mind. He said he certainly has endured pain and suffering; his marriage cracked under the strain of his ordeals.
But Rochon has not been alone in his battles, winning support from other concerned minorities. By stepping forward with his accusations, Rochon single-handedly has seemed to launch a broad attack on a long-simmering problem:
--More than half the FBI’s Latino agents sued the bureau in early 1987, charging they are discriminated against in hiring and promotion. A federal court in San Antonio is now considering that case.
--The suits by Rochon and the Latinos also have focused attention on the FBI’s pitiful minority hiring. Of 9,572 agents, the FBI employs just 410 blacks, 426 Latinos, 832 women, 115 Asian-Americans and 41 American Indians. In a prepared statement released many times since the Rochon and Latino suits were filed, the agency has stated, “Although the FBI has made great strides in recruitment and advancement of minorities, we realize we must do better.”
--Referring to EEOC findings in Rochon’s case, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) castigated FBI Director William Sessions at a congressional hearing, saying, “Terrorism is apparently going on inside the FBI.” Sessions insists “racial discrimination has absolutely no place in the FBI and will not be tolerated.” President Reagan has demanded a full accounting.
What happened in Los Angeles in the 1970s makes perfect sense to Rochon and has nothing to do with his 1980s situation, he says.
Donning a dashiki and posing as a militant Communist, he had passed himself off as a student at California State University, Northridge, where he filed reports to the Los Angeles police on black and Latino student groups.
He also posed as an activist in a black community group protesting the slaying of Eulia Love, a black woman whose body was riddled with eight bullets as she raised a kitchen knife at two police officers and a utility employee who had come to cut off her service.
Milton M. Merriweather, a black minister from South-Central Los Angeles who founded the Southwest Community Justice Committee, asserted at a 1982 press conference that Rochon had written inflammatory leaflets, circulated in the black community to promote a City Hall protest of Love’s killing.
One leaflet said: “The police will continue to kill, beat up and harass people in the black community . . . as long as we let them get away with it.” Another said: “The Los Angeles Police Department added yet another innocent victim, Sister Eulia Love, to their long list of cold-blooded murders and atrocities against the black community.”
Rochon denied writing the leaflets.
But his history as a police infiltrator has so angered at least one plaintiff in the Los Angeles suit that he has sought to deprive Rochon of backing in the minority community.
“I put the word out to a number of people in the community . . . that I was encouraging people not to give him any support,” said Michael Zinzun, who heads the Coalition Against Police Abuse, a 25-member group that focuses on community complaints against police.
“That’s mainly because of his Uncle Tom attitude. And as the worm turns, which we try to make very clear, he himself has fallen victim.”
Zinzun’s view is not unanimous. Other community leaders deplore Rochon’s spying but insist his abuse of others’ rights does not mean he surrendered his own when he joined the FBI.
“There may be some individuals who remain so embittered by his previous involvement that they may under no circumstances forgive him nor would they be concerned about the protection of his rights,” said John Mack, Los Angeles Urban League president. “However, I don’t think that represents the prevailing sentiment.”
Because of his spying on local groups, Rochon “was not viewed as a hero by many in South-Central Los Angeles,” Mack said. But that “does not justify acts of racist behavior against him by the FBI and it appears from the various reports that he has encountered incidents of racist acts against him because he’s black.”
Infiltrated Communist Groups
At Cal State Northridge, Rochon reported on meetings of the Black Survival Union and the Anti-Bakke Decision Coalition in 1978 and 1979. He also infiltrated the Revolutionary Communist Party and a group called the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist.
In at least eight reports cited in the suit, he commented on the groups’ racial makeup. At a meeting in a Los Angeles church on Feb. 20, 1979, he noted that all present were black.
Rochon explained those notes by asking: “Ever look at police reports? They always mention race, age, sex and height.”
But when Carolyn Carlburg, a black lawyer who took his sworn statement in Los Angeles, asked him years ago he was unsure why he described his subjects by race.
Rochon, she recalled recently, was a “middle-class, well-spoken nice guy. I mean he’s the guy next door. He lives next to Doris Day . . . .
“In the deposition, Donald Rochon was very open about my questions and he virtually admitted that he did not have a grasp of what communism was about nor did he have any appreciation of the fact that (his spying was) a flagrant violation of First Amendment rights . . . .
“It was very clear to me that Donald Rochon was simply doing what his superiors ordered him to do and it was not his job or his role to challenge that. It’s absurd to hold Donald Rochon personally responsible . . . .
“Let’s be honest,” she said, “Donald and a great many minority people--who are being employed as a result of affirmative action programs, many of which have been imposed by the courts--are not in a position to question anything.”
Rochon echoed many of Carlburg’s remarks in an interview, saying of his Los Angeles work: “I was just a police officer, working under direction and guidance of my superior. Asking if I felt uneasy about it is like asking a Vietnam veteran if he has second thoughts about going to Vietnam. You’re told to do your job and you do it . . . .
“It was a very difficult situation and a very difficult job,” he said. “I’ve always had a very liberal outlook. I grew up in a very progressive area. I wasn’t a fan of the Vietnam War; I did not support that. But had I been drafted, I would have gone and given a hell of a fight . . . .”
As Rochon sees it, he was not assigned to spy on peaceful minorities. He was ordered to shadow individuals who belonged to violent Communist groups; those people joined the civil rights groups while Rochon was trailing them.
“The people I worked with at the LAPD were just looking to stop violence,” he said. “To stop a bombing means a lot more to a cop’s self-esteem than to gather information on some group.”
Rochon said he was drawn to meetings of the Love protesters while on a police assignment to trail Clay Claiborne, then a member of the Communist Party-Marxist-Leninist. He went with him to meetings of the Southwest Community Justice Committee, which planned the Love protest march on City Hall.
Claiborne, now a self-employed computer repairman in Los Angeles, said he traveled for three weeks in China in 1977 (before President Nixon re-established diplomatic ties with the Communist nation). But Claiborne denied he was a Communist agent or that his group had advocated violence, as Rochon insists.
Rochon, meantime, denies Claiborne’s charge that he was “advocating violence when nobody else was” in meetings to organize the Love protests.
Rochon said he had empathy for the Love protesters and Merriweather, noting: “I was appalled about the shooting (of Love). Being legally right in a shooting doesn’t always make it morally right. If Eulia Love had been white and living in Brentwood, she would be alive today.”
Rochon is unconvinced that police surveillance of possibly violent individuals is wrong. He noted the settlement “lumps so many different plaintiffs and defendants . . . my being tagged for this is almost guilt by association.”
“If they had said to me, ‘Don, we want you to see what the NAACP is up to,’ I’d have told them to go to hell.
“I was never told to find out what a group was up to. The people I observed who believe in civil rights, I had a hell of a lot of respect for them,” he said, adding, “I didn’t do any damage to their cause.”
But, he insisted: “People involved in a peaceful movement aren’t always aware that other people are out to violate the laws. Sometimes these people mesh together.”
Rochon was the target of another lawsuit while with the LAPD. In 1977, a middle-aged Los Angeles couple accused him and his partner of police brutality, a claim that was dropped after the couple settled out of court for $20,000.
Most Accusations Against Partner
Most of the accusations were directed at Rochon’s partner. But Anna Kiedrowski, 48, asserted in a complaint that she: “was grabbed by officer Donald Rochon. She continued screaming and at this point officer Rochon turned her over on her back and began to choke her to keep her quiet.”
Rochon, then a police rookie, downplayed his role in the complaint: “There was no striking, just restraint holds. This wasn’t just two people having a party. It was a drunk and disorderly man who had grabbed the breast of a 19-year-old girl. She had called us. My partner was permanently disabled in the arrest and filed a countersuit against them.”
The FBI, as Rochon sees it, has persisted in intruding into his personal life.
In battling the agency, Rochon said both he and his wife--who declined interview requests--suffered: “Both of us became a target. She was shocked and amazed. The stress and strain caused a lot of problems.”
The couple eventually separated.
Later, Rochon began living in a New Jersey suburb with Rosemary Coleman Peszko, whom he met while visiting a chiropractor’s office where she worked. They got in a brawl last March when he tried to break off their year-old relationship, said Stefan Presser, Peszko’s attorney and the ACLU legal director in Pennsylvania.
Rochon and Peszko filed assault charges against each other with the police after the fight, in which his nose was broken and her nose was bloodied. The charges were dropped but that was not the end of it.
Peszko said the FBI grilled her about the incident for 20 hours over a few days. She later claimed she was brainwashed into saying things to make Rochon look bad, said Presser, who denounced the agency for harassing Peszko and Rochon after the incident. To Rochon, the interrogation was a reminder that the FBI still was watching him, perhaps looking for a way to make the trouble-maker label stick.
The FBI denies it did anything wrong or unusual in talking with Peszko, asserting her participation was voluntary. The bureau conducts “expeditious and thorough inquiries any time allegations of impropriety or criminal wrongdoing are made concerning an FBI employee,” spokesman Ray McElhaney said.
“People have their arguments and fights,” Rochon said. “She hit me first with the telephone. You get hit in the face with a telephone, your nose is broken, and she’s fighting. I was injured and she was injured.
“We were two people fighting and they (FBI investigators) took advantage of her. Later she was crying to me on the phone, saying, ‘They told me I would go to jail if I didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.’
“I was married for 11 years and never had a physical altercation.”
Rochon “doesn’t seem as happy as he once was,” said Jeff Davis, a Los Angeles friend who wonders if the change may be related to Rochon’s fight with Peszko.
“He’s calm, like the nonviolent type . . . he tries to avoid conflict,” said Davis, who worked with Rochon when they were investigators with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. “This thing with the woman is just a real isolated incident.
“He’s just the antithesis of someone who would have any of the problems, or perceived problems, of the type described by people in the other camp, who say he’s a trouble-maker or a malcontent,” said Davis, who is white and was an usher in Rochon’s wedding.
Rochon “had an awareness of the civil rights movement, of fair play and affirmative action,” Davis said. “He was all for those progressive ideas, but he wasn’t a banner-waver for them, wouldn’t march or sign petitions.
“Don is a person who does believe in due process. Since all these things did happen to him, he took the proper legal avenue.”
Courts to Decide
While some people will continue to view Rochon with confusion, the courts will decide the validity of his claims. Through it all, Rochon insists he is undaunted by his critics.
“I just want to go out and do a good job and serve the public,” he said, adding, “The one thing I found out that gave me the faith and the courage to fight is I found a lot of whites are not bigots. They won’t stand for bigotry.”
If along the way, Rochon is revealed to be a man fraught with imperfections, that should make no difference, said David Kairys, his attorney and a ‘60s activist known for his civil rights work.
“I know victims come in all kinds of dress and colors, with all kinds of pasts,” he said. “Sometimes people expect someone to be perfect to be a legitimate victim. Life isn’t like that.”