Task Force Probe Is Second Look at Officer's Link to Prostitute


San Diego Police Sgt. Sal Salvatierra, whose home, car, locker and desk were searched last week by the Metropolitan Homicide Task Force, was a subject of a 1985 internal affairs investigation into allegations that he and other police officers had sex with prostitute Cynthia Maine, The Times has learned.

Investigators ruled the allegations "not sustained," meaning they could not determine whether the claims about the officers were true or false and have closed the case, two sources who have knowledge of the probe said.

"The allegations were that Maine was sexually involved with a number of officers," said one source, who asked not to be identified. "These are the same kind of allegations that are surfacing now."

The Metropolitan Homicide Task Force, which is investigating the murders of 43 women--mostly prostitutes and transients--searched Salvatierra's home last week and the officers were said by one of the sources to be looking for photographs of Maine and slain prostitute Donna Gentile. Law enforcement officials said it was well-known that the two were close friends and police informants.

Gentile was found slain in East County shortly after testifying against two police officials. One was demoted and the other fired. Authorities long have theorized that she may have been killed by police because her mouth was filled with gravel, a sign of possible retaliation.

Although the task force interviewed Maine's relatives nearly a year ago, they searched Salvatierra's home only last Thursday, when news got out about the family's frustration that so little progress had been made in Maine's case. Salvatierra was transferred to a special projects division pending the outcome of the investigation.

The Times reported Wednesday that at least five police officers and a former officer were under investigation by the task force for their association with Maine or Gentile. Salvatierra's attorney, Everett Bobbitt, said police have no evidence to link his client with Maine's disappearance.

Bobbitt said he had no comment about the internal affairs investigation involving Salvatierra. Police Cmdr. Leroy Brady said the department had no comment about Homicide Task Force matters. Internal affairs investigations typically are secret and the results rarely made public.

Task force spokeswoman Bonnie Dumanis would not provide details on anything having to do with the police officers.

"Should allegations arise about police misconduct, we'll look into it," she said.

San Diego police officers can be fired for having sexual relations with prostitutes, according to department policy.

Maine's family said she was intimately involved with John Fung, a member of the narcotics street team, and as an informant, worked closely with Sgt. Dennis Sesma, Fung's boss at the time.

Lori Helle, Maine's sister, said Maine often mentioned meeting with Salvatierra, who then worked in the gang unit, and Les Oberlies, who worked in criminal intelligence.

Oberlies, Fung and Sesma did not return telephone calls Wednesday. In an interview Tuesday, Sesma said he had no connection with Maine other than dealing with her as a police informant.

Sesma said Fung was like a father figure to Maine, providing her with cash from his own pocket at times when she was short. It is easy to understand, Sesma said, how Maine might have fallen in love with Fung.

But Maine's relatives said Fung returned the affection and began a 1 1/2-year sexual relationship.

Lori Helle, Maine's sister, told The Times on Wednesday that notations in her sister's diary indicate that she met Oberlies three times in 1984. They also show a number of entries involving Fung. On one page, Maine wrote: "Loose lips sink ships, John said."

On another page, Maine wrote: "John called 1st time in two weeks, came over, talked 2 hours, headed for bedroom. (Her son) woke up from nap. Oh well."

On another: "Made John 2 dozen chocolate strawberries." Helle said Fung met Maine on July 2, 1984, after he arrested her for prostitution and, thereafter, she noted the second day of each month in her diary as an anniversary date.

Besides Fung and Oberlies, Helle said, her sister often mentioned that she was going to meet Salvatierra and Sesma. She did not know whether the meetings were related to her work as an informant, but said Maine never mentioned being sexually involved with any of the officers except Fung.

Late last year, the homicide task force asked for Maine's diary and took some photographs from her sister, which they returned two weeks ago.

Helle said two members of the task force interviewed her at that time and asked about various officers, including Fung. Task force members and police officers Jeff Dean and David Ayers showed her pictures of prostitutes, she said, many of whom she did not recognize and all of whose names she did not know.

When they returned the diary two weeks ago, Dean and Ayers told Helle that they planned to interview Fung and Maine's former boyfriend, Steve Smith, who is now in jail. Fung has since been interviewed.

Cynthia, or Cindy, Maine was a heroin addict and spent upwards of $700 a day on the drug, said her mother, Lynda Coleman. She turned to street-walking, mostly along El Cajon Boulevard, to support her habit and met Fung in 1984, her family says.

Maine landed in jail in November, 1985, for passing worthless checks, but her four-month sentence was cut in half. Court records show that Capt. Mike Tyler wrote a letter on her behalf asking that her sentence be reduced.

Maine's sister said she decided to provide internal affairs with information linking officers with prostitutes.

"The only thing I know is that, when she was in jail, she ratted on some cops to get out early," Helle said. "She had information about bad cops using prostitutes. I'm not sure who they were."

When she got out of jail, Helle said, her sister was frightened because of possible retaliation from police officers she had named.

"She had told on police," Helle said. "She was afraid of what she had done."

Two months after her release from prison, Maine disappeared on Feb. 23, 1986. Six weeks later, with Steve Smith's general description of her car's location, Coleman found Maine's locked yellow Pontiac Sunbird in the parking lot of the El Torito Restaurant & Cantina in La Mesa.

Inside were a newspaper dated Feb. 22, 1986; a purse holding a little more than two dollars, a cigarette lighter, cigarettes, cosmetics, and a jacket, her mother said.

Although she reported her daughter's disappearance to the La Mesa and San Diego police departments, neither was initially interested in pursuing the case.

But when the task force made a connection between Gentile and Maine late last year, they showed interest, Coleman said.

Coleman said she holds little hope that her daughter, who would be 31 next month, is alive.

"It's a two-edged sword," she said. "Sometimes I wish I'd get the call that they found her body. My life has to go on. I'm raising her bright 8-year-old boy, who knows very little about his mom."

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