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New Review of S.D. Prostitute Killing Ordered

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Police Chief Bob Burgreen has detached the second-ranking officer in his department to determine whether any police officers were involved in the mysterious and brutal slaying five years ago of Donna Gentile, a prostitute and police whistle-blower.

In an unprecedented move, Burgreen has assigned Assistant Chief Norm Stamper to review the Gentile murder case, which is being investigated along with 40 other killings by the joint city-county Metropolitan Homicide Task Force.

“There is no slaying in this city that has bothered me more than the murder of Donna Gentile,” Burgreen said. “And, if indeed a police officer was involved in murder, I want him arrested, and I want him put behind bars.”

For the last few weeks, Stamper, who normally runs the day-to-day operations of the San Diego Police Department, has been working full time at the homicide task force’s secret Mission Valley location.

Burgreen declined to elaborate on whether new evidence had been found in the case, but several sources said there is widespread expectation in the law enforcement community that the investigation will result in charges against San Diego police officers. Already, the San Diego police union is considering whether to provide legal representation for any officers who might be charged.

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The body of the 22-year-old Gentile was found in rural East County in June, 1985, soon after she testified at a civil service commission hearing about misconduct by a group of San Diego officers.

Her beaten, nude body was tossed off Sunrise Highway. Stuffed inside her mouth were gravel and rocks, a sign some investigators took to mean that she was killed for talking about police misconduct. Four months before her death, she predicted in a tape-recorded conversation that she might be harmed by “someone in a uniform with a badge.”

Burgreen said he ordered Stamper, his right-hand subordinate, to undertake the review because of nagging concerns that have persisted about why Gentile was killed.

“We have lived with it for such a long time,” he said, “and we need to finally put to rest an answer to how that occurred.

“I am tired of hearing the innuendo. I am tired of reading stories in the newspaper that allege that a San Diego police officer or officers were involved in the murder of Donna Gentile. I want to put to rest once and for all that speculation.”

Burgreen declined to discuss specifics about the continuing joint city police-county sheriff’s task force investigation. But he sharply denied that he ordered Stamper to work with the task force with the intention of pulling the city Police Department out of the joint effort.

“Absolutely not,” the chief said. “Instead, I want him to give me a full report on what that task force is doing, what it has been able to determine so far, and what resources are needed in the future to solve these cases.”

He added that, although Stamper’s role is primarily to review the Gentile murder, the assistant chief also is examining the task force’s progress on the other 40 slayings of women, most of them prostitutes, drug addicts or transients, since the Gentile killing.

He would not comment on when, or even if, the investigation might lead to criminal charges against any officers; nor would he discuss reports that the task force has assembled new evidence in the Gentile case. But Burgreen did say he expected Stamper to be involved on the Gentile homicide project for some time.

“He’s reviewed maybe only 20% of the files so far,” he said. “There are book binders and reams of papers and reports down there. Norm Stamper is a very smart man and a quick study, and he has only reviewed a fraction of what’s on file down there.”

Stamper could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Cooke, who is the official task force spokesman, also could not be contacted. Along with city and sheriff’s investigators, a deputy district attorney has been assigned to work with the task force.

But other high-ranking officials in San Diego’s law enforcement community said they are bracing for the negative publicity that a murder prosecution against police officers would bring.

In interviews Wednesday, the sources said that, not only are San Diego police officers potential murder suspects, but some city police supervisors may have attempted to hamper the official investigation.

“They’ve got to be close to some suspect, or they wouldn’t move (Stamper) over there,” said one source inside the San Diego Police Department who asked not to be identified. “Something must have happened to break this thing wide open. Something new is going on now.”

In the Sheriff’s Department, a high-placed supervisor who also requested anonymity said he has been told that criminal prosecution against city police officers is a distinct possibility this summer.

“I’ve been told to expect some indictments soon against some rather high-ranking San Diego police officials,” the sheriff’s supervisor said. “I asked about whether any sheriff’s personnel might be involved, and I was told no, not at this time--that at this time the focus is on the San Diego Police Department.”

The police officers’ union, worried that homicide charges may be forthcoming against one or more of its members, already is weighing whether to provide them free legal representation.

Everett Bobbitt, an attorney who contracts with the Police Officers Assn. for legal services, said the POA would provide any officers caught up in the murder case with initial free legal coverage, at least through their criminal arraignment. At that point, he said, the POA would continue the free legal aid only if it was determined the alleged crime occurred “within the course and scope” of the officer’s official police duties.

“If you shoot a guy who’s holding a bat, that’s on duty,” the lawyer said. “If you shoot your wife, the POA is not going to cover it.”

In 1985, Gentile was the catalyst of a Police Department internal investigation that led to the firing of Officer Larry Avrech and the demotion of Lt. Carl Black. The officers were disciplined for engaging in improper conduct with a prostitute.

Gentile had filed a complaint with police that Avrech provided her with confidential police information in return for sexual favors. At a subsequent city Civil Service Commission hearing, she testified against Avrech, but never accused Black of trading information for sex.

Police spokesman Bill Robinson said Wednesday that Black has since been re-promoted to lieutenant, and now works as a police liaison with the Guardian Angels and with the department’s mobile police van.

Avrech denied Wednesday that he had any involvement in the Gentile slaying.

But he added that he believes other Police Department personnel may have played a role. He said the department was paying Gentile to work as a police informant in cases against at least one pimp--an arrangement that he said supervisors did not want to be made public.

Avrech said it was not a good idea for Stamper to be reviewing the Gentile case because it is “like having the fox guarding the chicken coop.” Instead, he said, the investigation should be left to a neutral body, such as the district attorney’s office or the grand jury.

“When police investigate their own,” he said, “nine times out of 10 there is no evidence that comes forward.”

Black could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Gentile, in addition to her involvement in the internal police investigation, also filed an administrative claim against the department in 1985, contending she was continually harassed by San Diego officers. As examples, she said that when police conducted prostitution sweeps, they would cite her for a myriad of minor offenses, such as throwing a cigarette on a sidewalk, parking more than 18 inches from a curb and failing to have a working defroster in her car.

Four months before her death, she tape-recorded a message while sitting in the Las Colinas women’s jail, where she was taken after being convicted of soliciting for prostitution. When her body was found and identified, her attorney released the tape to the media.

“In case I disappear somewhere or is missing, I want my lawyer to give this to the press,” she said on the tape. “I have no intention of disappearing or going out of town without letting my lawyer know first. Because of the publicity that I have given a police scandal, this is the reason why I’m making this. . . .

“I feel someone in a uniform with a badge can still be a serious criminal.”

She left jail in May, 1985, the month before her body was found off Sunrise Highway. Her body was spotted by a man walking his dog through the brush. She had been beaten on the head and strangled, and suffered numerous fractures of the neck and back. However, the coroner’s reports and autopsy records remain sealed.

Her death was the first in a string of murders in which female prostitutes, street transients and drug addicts were found in various parts of San Diego County. Like the Gentile case, most of the women worked the streets of San Diego, and their bodies were dumped in isolated areas in the unincorporated sections of the county.

In 1988, city police and county sheriff’s officials created the joint San Diego Metropolitan Homicide Task Force to investigate the killings. Although detectives have made arrests in some isolated cases, the vast majority of the deaths--like Gentile’s--remain unsolved.

Investigators believe that some of the murders were committed by a serial killer. The Gentile case has some similarities to that pattern--she was a prostitute whose body was dumped in the same area as some of the others.

Task force officials have been extremely secretive in their investigation. But a report released by the group last March noted that in recent months, “the Gentile case has received substantial effort by task force detectives.”’

“Recent detailed analyses of the Gentile dump site and of evidence obtained from her body have provided further insight into the likely manner in which the killing took place. This likewise has generated additional leads.”

As Stamper’s review continues, Burgreen acknowledged that it was highly unusual for the chief of police to detach his assistant chief to personally review a murder investigation. “It is an unprecedented move,” Burgreen said. “But it is also something I am deeply concerned about.”


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