If it were not for his having bought a condominium in West Hollywood a few months ago, Steve Maloff says he would have already packed his bags and left town.
"I don't feel comfortable here anymore," the 32-year-old Maloff said, after an incident in which he says he was handcuffed for 90 minutes and his home "ransacked" by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies who apparently mistook him for a former West Hollywood City Council candidate who is wanted on bad-check charges.
$2,000 in Bad Checks
Maloff says he was walking home in the wee hours of last Thursday after having a drink with friends when deputies began questioning him, apparently convinced that he was Steve Michael, a perennial council candidate and frequent critic of the Sheriff's Department who has been wanted by authorities for several months.
Michael, whose community newspaper often accused sheriff's deputies of harassing gays and lesbians, is charged with grand theft involving more than $2,000 in bad checks. Michael's paper, West Hollywood USA, ceased publication in April, and authorities have said they believe he has moved to the San Diego area.
"I'd never heard of Steve Michael, but from the way they were treating me, I figured he must have been a cop killer," Maloff said.
Not until City Councilman John Heilman was awakened by authorities and brought to the scene at 1:30 a.m. to identify "Michael" did the ordeal end. "There was a resemblance, but I could see immediately that it wasn't (Michael)," Heilman said Tuesday.
Even so, it was another half-hour before deputies released him, Maloff said.
Declined to Comment
A Sheriff's Department spokesman declined to comment on the matter, saying the incident is under investigation.
"That incident as it has been related to me represents Mr. Maloff's version of what has occurred, and in my opinion, it would be inappropriate to say any more about it at this time," Lt. Don Mauro said.
Jack Bollen, the city's public safety coordinator, said that he has forwarded a "citizen complaint" from Maloff about the incident to the Sheriff's Department and that city officials "will be interested in the results of the (Sheriff's Department) investigation."
Maloff, a free-lance writer, said the incident began about 12:45 a.m. as he was walking through a well-lighted alley that he often uses as a shortcut to his home on Cynthia Street.
"This (squad) car pulled up beside me, and a deputy asked me my name," he said. "I told him, and the next thing I knew I was in handcuffs, and the one deputy was yelling, 'We got him! We got him!' And in no time at all, there were two more (squad) cars and a total of five deputies on the scene.
"When I showed the first two (deputies) my driver's license, they just laughed. They kept saying: 'You can't lie to us. We know who you are.' And they asked me a bunch of questions like: 'Have you ever run for City Council? Have you ever lived on Norton Street? Ever used an alias?' "
Maloff said one deputy mockingly "clucked like a chicken almost every time I tried to speak," and another deputy "threatened to stuff a flashlight down my throat if I opened my mouth."
He said that after about 20 minutes he persuaded the deputies to take him home "so that I could produce any kind of other identification they wanted, to prove who I was." Once there, one of the deputies went inside while another deputy detained him in the patrol car, he said.
"The one who went inside ransacked my place . . . . He rifled through every piece of paper I own--photos, diaries, bank statements, even stuff that was in storage. And he got into my car and went through the papers there."
Heilman said he was awakened by deputies about 1:20 a.m. and asked to help officers identify the man they believed was Michael.
Maloff said he didn't know who the person was who was supposed to identify him, "except that they told me it was someone from City Hall."
He said officers told him to get out of the patrol car and turn to each side while the city official who was to identify him looked at him from inside another patrol car.
"It was really terrible. I felt like a thousand eyes were looking at me. Standing there handcuffed like that, all the neighbors must have thought I was a real criminal," Maloff said.
"I heard them say over the police radio, 'negative identification,' and just figured that, finally, the whole ordeal was gonna be over. But for about a half-hour (after Heilman left, the deputies) wouldn't take no for an answer.
"When they finally let me go about 2:15 (a.m.), the one deputy was extremely angry and upset. He kept muttering that he knew I was Steve Michael and that they'd still get me. He said I'd better be home at 7 the next morning because they were coming back with a search warrant and if I wasn't home, they would kick the door in."
However, no one from the Sheriff's Department returned, he said.
Heilman said he knew little about the incident other than what happened during the few minutes he was at the scene. He has scheduled an appointment to talk with Maloff later this week.
"If (Maloff's version of events) is true, it's a terrible thing, but I would prefer first to establish exactly what occurred before making a judgment," Heilman said.
Maloff remains shaken.
"I could understand the whole thing if they had settled it in a reasonable way in the few minutes it should have taken," he said. "But to go through all this, and all because of some guy who's only accused of writing bad checks? No way."