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The Homicide Task Force Was a Tangled Web : Investigation: State prosecutor did his best to straighten out a situation where investigators rarely made written reports and kept secrets from each other.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last fall, state prosecutor Gary W. Schons walked into the Mission Valley headquarters of the Metropolitan Homicide Task Force and found a cloak-and-dagger organization filled with conspiracy theories, press hatred, wasted energy and questionable progress.

Investigators were loathe to document their findings. They took informant claims as gospel, even when allegations proved false. Paranoid about press leaks, they hoarded witnesses and often refused to share information with colleagues. Worst of all, he discovered, the task force was in no big hurry to finish its work.

The findings seemed a surprising assessment for two dozen of the best and brightest minds in San Diego County law enforcement, assembled at a cost of $1.4 million so far to solve a high-profile string of prostitute murders and serious allegations of police corruption.

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Even Assistant Police Chief Norm Stamper conceded of the probe that dealt with corruption: “It took longer than it needed to and cost more money than it should have. It ultimately produced a responsible and definitive set of conclusions, but I agree” with the criticism.

Concerned about the perception that San Diego police--part of the task force that included sheriff’s deputies and deputy district attorneys--would have a conflict investigating police corruption, the leaders of all three agencies called on Schons last September to provide independence and credibility.

A deputy attorney general in the special prosecutions unit, Schons had helped convict former Orange County supervisors Ralph Diedrich and Phil Anthony during bribery cases in the early 1980s.

More recently, he helped convict employees of a San Diego County boiler-room operation in 1987 and successfully prosecuted the manager of Borona Indian Bingo for fraud.

In a wide-ranging interview last week at his office, Schons, back a week ago at his regular job as head of the program that specializes in prosecuting money-laundering and drug-forfeiture cases, talked extensively about his year with the task force.

Even before it was formed in September 1988--three years after dozens of prostitute slayings--the task force was hampered by a lack of evidence in the serial killings, particularly in the case of police informant and prostitute Donna Gentile, he said.

Gentile was found strangled in East County in 1985, shortly after testifying against two police officers during a civil service hearing which led to the firing of one and demotion of another. Gentile had tape-recorded fears that she might be killed by “someone with a badge.”

Sheriff’s detective Tom Streed was one of the first investigators to work on the Gentile case. His early work, which included no tape-recorded interviews or written reports but simply notebooks of information, has been of little use, Schons said.

Streed, who left the task force before Schons arrival and has since resigned from the sheriff’s department, could not be reached for comment. He has said in earlier interviews that he still believes that a San Diego police officer had something to do with Gentile’s death.

Law enforcement officials, including Schons and Sheriff Jim Roache, have discredited Streed.

“The case was mishandled at the beginning because Streed had a theory of who did it,” Schons said. “If he talked to someone and that witness did not corroborate his theory of the investigation, the information was discarded. That’s a bad way to conduct an investigation.”

By 1989, the grand jury was looking into a number of allegations of police misconduct, including the claim that police blocked an investigation into a vice raid of Karen Wilkening’s escort business.

That same year, Wilkening fled the country to the Philippines and the task force began to piece together a link between Wilkening and Gentile while launching an investigation into other police misconduct allegations.

It was at this point that task force supervisors made their first mistake, say Schons and Stamper, who spent several months investigating the progress of the task force last year.

The serial killings and the police corruption investigations should have been divided to avoid the confusion that ultimately resulted, both agreed.

The task force “put too much investigative focus on that possible (Wilkening-Gentile) connection based on the information they had,” Schons said. “Plus, the task force was diverted from its true task, which was to solve the murders of Gentile and the others.”

Last September, Stamper recommended dividing the work into three teams: one, headed by Schons, to deal with police corruption; one to solve the serial killings; and one to focus on the deaths of Gentile and Cynthia Maine, a police informant who disappeared in 1986.

Although the police corruption team found only isolated instances of minor misconduct and has disbanded, the other two groups are still working on solving the series of 45 slayings and are expected to be finished by the end of the year, officials said.

“The task force had too large and too diffuse a mission,” Stamper said. “You had people of good will and competence operating under a process that didn’t work well. The decision should have been made earlier to have the misconduct investigation separated out.”

But by then, Schons said, the task force had begun to lose more ground in the Gentile investigation, which he concedes now is “extremely difficult to solve” and the Maine case, which “is impossible because there’s no body.”

Schons said he soon realized that task force investigators had little structure and organization before he got there and wasted time by not scrutinizing informants stringently enough.

For example, the task force spent several weeks sifting through hundreds of videotapes made by the television personality Shotgun Tom Kelly because of a tip that former Police Chief Bill Kolender appeared on one of the tapes with Gentile. No such tape was found.

“They weren’t adequately testing the sources of information they were relying on and devoting a substantial amount of time to,” he said. “When information couldn’t be corroborated or was unprovable or proved to be false, the source of the information, the informant, never went away and the informant’s other allegations weren’t discounted.”

At the same time, nobody seemed to be working on a deadline. When he arrived, Schons announced he planned to close out the police corruption segment within a year. He made a list of which leads would be pursued and which to drop. He helped determine which informants were credible and which couldn’t be trusted.

“We had to make decisions about who we were going to believe and who we weren’t and that, frankly, upset some investigators because for whatever reason, either emotionally or intellectually, investigators wanted to believe these things even though they weren’t true,” he said.

For the first time, reports were written and interviews transcribed and summarized. Before Schons arrival, he said, investigators relied on each other’s recollections of what a particular witness said.

With each succeeding press leak about grand jury testimony or task force business, investigators in Mission Valley dug in deeper, keeping informants to themselves and refusing to divulge information even to other team members, Schons said.

“One of the dangers of that was you have investigators who had their own sources that weren’t scrutinized by anybody but them,” he said. “The technique we put in place was that you don’t have your own witnesses. Your sources are available to the entire team. This is not some private competition for breaking the case.”

Habits were hard to break, however, particularly because task force members were paranoid about press leaks, he said. When the task force was formed, its administrators determined that only one person would speak to the press. That policy exists even today.

Schons believes that while the policy probably was correct for a serial murder case, it was wrong for the police misconduct investigation because the task force’s impartiality was being questioned.

“The idea of not talking to the press was like waving a red cape in front of a bull,” he said. “It suggests cover-up and that sort of thing. The task force should have engaged the press in some sort of dialogue.”

In his final report on police corruption, Schons found nothing that rose above run-of-the-mill misconduct, including police officers allegedly having sex with prostitutes and allowing narcotics informants to keep small portions of their drugs in “controlled” buys.

He called the report “the best product I could turn out but that’s not to say that someone else couldn’t have done a hell of a lot better.” The task force is now in good shape and is focused on finishing its work on the serial murders, he said.

Of Schons, who has left the task force for good, Police Chief Bob Burgreen says “the community owes him a debt of gratitude for his work. To the extent questions could be answered, he answered them. I think his presence and the presence of the Attorney General’s office was what was needed under the circumstances.”


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