When Catherine Braley's body was found sprawled in a Van Nuys parking lot on Jan. 15, 1988, the case received only brief public mention by police and local newspapers. No one had any idea who killed her or why.
But within a few months, the murder of the 26-year-old department store cashier became one of the year's most publicized cases in the San Fernando Valley, due almost solely to the notoriety of a lawsuit filed by Braley's mother.
The suit accused three Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies of the slaying and asked for $10 million in damages.
A year later the murder remains unsolved, though Los Angeles police now say they believe they know who may have killed Braley. The lawsuit too remains unresolved. But two of the deputies have been dropped from the suit and police insist that no deputies are suspected in the case.
What appears to be the only certainty after a year's time is that key questions about Braley's murder remain unanswered, and that legal wrangling as a result of the lawsuit seems to have received more attention than the slaying.
"Everything seems to be centered on policies and legal procedures more than the apprehension of the perpetrator," said Mary Postma, Braley's mother. "I'm still waiting for something to be resolved."
If that's the case, authorities contend, it may be more Postma's fault than it is theirs. After all, they say, Postma was the one who filed the lawsuit, which they believe has hindered their efforts to find the killer.
Any time a civil suit opens police files to scrutiny, as Postma's has, critical details used to solve a case become less valuable, police complain. Information once believed known only to the killer--and investigators--can no longer be kept under wraps to help eliminate suspects or build cases.
In the past year, police on the Braley case have been forced by court order to turn over hundreds of pages of confidential reports to Postma. Other portions of the police investigation have been publicly detailed in depositions forced by the lawsuit.
What is particularly troubling to police is that many details--such as the type of weapon used to mutilate Braley's body and descriptions of her wounds--are now accessible to the public as a result of the lawsuit.
"We think that the fiasco of that civil action has been detrimental to the investigation," said Cmdr. William Booth, spokesman for the Police Department.
Walked to Cocktail Lounge
On Thursday, Jan. 14, 1988, Catherine Braley finished work about 6 p.m. at the Fedco department store in Van Nuys and walked to a small cocktail lounge, The Hunter, a block away. The following account is based on information from police records, court records and interviews with Braley's friends at the bar.
At the lounge, Braley drank with friends and a number of sheriff's deputies who had gone to the bar after the funeral of a fellow undercover deputy slain in a drug raid. One of the deputies she met was Robert Mallon, 37, who had been at The Hunter since early that afternoon.
Braley left the bar intoxicated about 11 p.m., the same time as Mallon and two other deputies, Robert Waters and Mike Turner. Waters and Turner got in their cars and drove away.
Braley and Mallon, who later said he'd had as many as 16 beers, gin drinks and bourbon cocktails, walked over to his county-owned undercover car parked near the bar.
The two engaged in consensual sex in the car, drove about a mile away to the 8000 block of Langdon Avenue and began to have sex in the car again, Mallon said in a deposition.
Shortly afterward Braley said, "I've got to go," and got out of the car, Mallon said. He never saw her again, he said.
The next morning, Braley's body was found in a parking lot in the 8100 block of Sepulveda Boulevard, about a block from where she had left Mallon's car. She had been beaten, tortured and strangled.
Over the next several days police investigated Mallon as well as a man who had lived with Braley in a small trailer in Van Nuys, according to both men. Police will not discuss where else the investigation took them. But no arrests were made.
Meanwhile, Postma heard from her daughter's friends that Braley had left The Hunter with three sheriff's deputies. When no arrests were made after several weeks, Postma contacted an attorney.
On March 29, Postma sued the three deputies in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, accusing them of killing Braley for refusing sex with them and then mutilating her body to confuse investigators. The suit alleges that the deputies violated Braley's civil rights and had acted under "color of law," or in their capacities as law officers.
2 Defendants Dropped
Postma dropped Waters and Turner from the suit when it became clear through evidence gathered for the case that they went their separate ways after leaving the bar. All three deputies, who declined through an attorney to comment for this report, have said they had no involvement in Braley's death.
In the months after the lawsuit was filed, Postma and her attorney, Stephen Yagman, squared off against the law enforcement establishment in a battle that has been less than polite. Yagman and police have traded insults and accusations. Postma has refused to allow detectives to interview her, leaving them little choice but to subpoena her for questioning by a grand jury.
Yagman spent much of 1988 gathering evidence to support the suit's remaining allegations against Mallon.
A hearing is expected to be held in late March on Mallon's request for a summary judgment to dismiss the suit. One of Mallon's attorneys, Douglas J. Collodel, said there is no evidence his client killed Braley or that he was on duty that night.
Yagman said he believes the lawsuit will clear that hurdle because he has gathered enough evidence to show that Mallon was acting in an official capacity when he was with Braley.
Either way, Yagman maintains that Mallon's behavior--having 16 drinks, engaging in sex with Braley in a county car and allowing her to walk away drunk--at least contributed to her death.
Mallon is "legally responsible for the death of Catherine Braley," Yagman said. "If he didn't physically kill her, he should not have permitted her" to leave the car.
"The ultimate question the case is based on is, 'Do we want our police to behave like this?' "
Regardless, police have repeatedly said that Mallon is not believed to have been responsible for Braley's death.
"The one thing that can be said for certain is that no deputy is a suspect," said Booth of the Police Department.
Although police refuse to say why they are convinced Mallon was not involved in the killing, the deputy's own deposition in the lawsuit detailed his repeated questioning by detectives.
In a deposition Yagman took for the lawsuit, Mallon said he drove to a cabin he owned in Parker, Ariz., the day after he last saw Braley. The following day he was awakened by a park ranger who asked him to drive to a nearby ranger office because a drunken friend was there asking for him.
The story was a ruse. When Mallon got to the office he was met by two Los Angeles detectives who questioned him about Braley's death. Mallon said the police later took his undercover car, which he had left at his Los Angeles-area home, and had it examined by evidence technicians.
When he got the car back, Mallon saw fingerprint dust in it. He was questioned by detectives at least two more times, he said, and his wife and two teen-age children were interviewed as well.
Police would not confirm Mallon's account of the investigation.
Yagman called the police investigation flawed, largely because detectives did not tape-record their first interview with Mallon, giving him a chance to possibly change his story later.
"Everything was significantly flawed," Yagman said. "They took extraordinary precautions when they went out there to talk to him. Then they blew it."
Yagman said he has asked the Sheriff's Department to conduct an internal investigation of Mallon's activities the night he was with Braley. But he said he does not know whether the Sheriff's Department ordered an investigation.
In the deposition Yagman took from Mallon nine months after Braley's death, Mallon said he had not been questioned by his superiors about that night. Mallon's attorneys and sheriff's officials would not comment on whether there had been an internal investigation.
While the lawsuit has turned attention on the murder to Mallon and his activities with Braley, Los Angeles detectives appear to be quietly focusing their investigation on an unnamed suspect.
"There is some evidence that points toward an identifiable person but there is not enough evidence to make an arrest or to file charges at this time," Booth said of the case last week.
Police declined to say whether that person is Braley's former roommate, Joey Polino, who last year told The Times he had been repeatedly questioned about the murder by detectives. Polino, 34, is now in a California prison following his conviction for a June 9, 1988, robbery. He said he had no involvement in the slaying.
Meantime, Postma said she has no second thoughts about filing the suit.
"I think it helped," she said. "It got information out about what happened."
Now, a year after her daughter's death, Postma finds herself at odds with the investigators responsible for finding the killer.
Her quandary was evident when she recently spoke of a $1,500 reward fund that Braley's friends contributed to at The Hunter. When asked where someone should call to give information about Braley's death and possibly collect the reward, Postma was unsure how to answer.
"I don't think I want them calling the police," she said. "I really don't know where they should call."