IS BILL LEASURE THE MOST CORRUPT COP IN L.A.?
ON THE SECOND FLOOR OF THE LOS ANGELES County Jail sits a special, 90-inmate section commonly called “7,000.” Also known as “High Power,” the section is the jail’s celebrity wing, the protective-custody unit where professional athletes, movie stars and television actors end up when they are accused of crimes and can’t make bail. Otherwise ordinary defendants in highly publicized cases are imprisoned there, too: Raymond Buckey, for one, spent five long years in 7,000, waiting his eventual acquittal in the infamous McMartin Pre-School case. This combination of inmate types is made even more peculiar by the third class of prisoners relegated to High Power: police officers. Cops accused of crimes are housed here, isolated from the majority of inmates, who tend to view policemen in their midst with something less than enthusiasm. * Former Los Angeles Police Officer William Earnest Leasure is the elder statesman of the 7,000 block--he has lived here longer than any other inmate. He has seen most of the big names come and go: the Night Stalker, the “Cheers” co-star in for drug possession, the former regular on “Bonanza” accused of dealing coke, even Charles Keating. But Leasure has hardly seen the sun in five years. The brief exercise periods on the jail roof for the residents of 7,000 come only at night, three times a week, when no other inmates are around. After five years in custody, Leasure has all the color of a mushroom. * Gone, too, is the confident stride of an LAPD officer. Now Leasure walks and sits with a jailhouse hunch, the round-shouldered slouch long-timers invariably develop. Once you’ve been in long enough, you rate the coveted bottom bunk in your cell--but the trade-off is, you develop chronic poor posture to avoid banging your head against the upper berth. Leasure’s got it bad: He looks shorter than 5-foot-10, as if the weight of all the restraining concrete and steel bars around him is slowly compacting him. During visits, his mother repeatedly reminds her son to sit up straight. It’s embarrassing for a man a few months shy of his 45th birthday, but he smiles and nods his balding head and says, “OK, mom,” and tries to comply. Later, alone and stretched out on his narrow bottom bunk, he dreams of eating good pizza or maybe a decent hamburger, of flying one of his airplanes or driving fast in one of his beloved Corvettes . . . or of sitting up straight, his face to the sun. * Tucked under his bunk, he says, is his ticket to freedom: a row of eight cardboard file boxes, each one crammed with police reports, interrogation summaries and transcripts of witness interviews and surveillance tapes. This is the “discovery” in his case--copies of the state’s voluminous evidence in the People vs. William Leasure. LAPD homicide detectives say the contents of these boxes prove that quiet, unassuming Traffic Officer William Leasure orchestrated two murders for hire and participated in a third--each of them carefully planned professional hits. * The boxed files also detail accusations that Leasure spent 10 of his 17 years in the LAPD leading a remarkable double life, writing tickets and working auto accidents by day, then spending his off-hours stealing a string of luxury yachts worth $2 million, trafficking in stolen cars and defrauding insurance companies. Investigators allege he had a lavish lifestyle without arousing the suspicions of his fellow officers--even as he boasted of secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, spoke of plans to buy a private Central American island and took his police friends out fishing and diving aboard his 42-foot, twin-engine yacht, Thunderbolt. * Leasure denies it all--he says he is being framed for the crimes, and maintains his lifestyle was well within the combined $110,000 annual earnings of a traffic cop and his higher-salaried wife, a senior assistant city attorney at the time of his arrest. In his six-man cell, he obsessively reads and re-reads the discovery files, making entries in a bulging diary, scrawling notes to Richard Lasting and Michael White, his court-appointed lawyers, and penciling long, neatly printed letters to the judge hearing his case, accusing the district attorney’s office of withholding crucial evidence and covering up police misconduct. For the past five years, he has pored over these files, certain he can use the state’s own case to disprove the charges against him. “It’s all there. All you have to do is look at the evidence--their evidence,” Leasure says, his hazel eyes bright behind metal-rimmed glasses, his voice patient and reasoned. “If you look at everything, I don’t see how any reasonable person could not see the truth. And the truth is, I’m innocent. “I’m the nicest, quietest, mildest guy you’ll ever want to meet,” he says. “I’ve never killed anyone. I’d never hurt a fly.”
The police and prosecution also have been waiting the last five years to prove their conclusions true. They are anxious to put Leasure away for life--or put him to death--if they can. They spent more than a year assembling the contents of those eight boxes piece by piece (at one time, the Internal Affairs Division had an entire “Leasure Room,” down the hall from the chief’s office).
They used every investigative trick imaginable--video surveillance, leaks of phony police reports, even the unwitting grant of immunity to a murderer--anything to get Leasure.
In a city torn by the police-misconduct cases of Dalton Street and Rodney King, investigators say Leasure is in a class by himself: They call him the dirtiest cop in L.A.
Yet the police and prosecution are the first to admit--to actually agree with Leasure, Lasting and White--that he is just about the last man on the force they’d ever suspect of any crime. The motive for him to become a murderer remains a mystery. Quiet, passive, ordinary, never involved in police shootings or an official use of force, he has the record and background of an innocent man. Leasure calls this his ace in the hole. His prosecutor, James Koller, calls it Leasure’s mask.
The case has dragged on since his arrest in 1986--first Leasure’s alleged partners in crime had to be tried, then his defense lawyers needed repeated continuances as they attended to other cases. In the interim, memories have faded, witnesses have died, and a man previously convicted of having his wife killed, allegedly by hiring Leasure to do the job, has backed out of an agreement to testify.
This spring, Leasure was finally put on trial for murder. But hopes that the crucible of witness stand and cross examination would answer the questions and end the ambiguities were shattered. The trial concluded with a hung jury, 10 to 2 for conviction. The retrial began last week, with the selection of a new jury.
LEASURE’S SAGA BEGAN FIVE summers ago, when the yacht La Vita eased into its slip in the Marina Bay Yacht Harbor in Richmond, just north of San Francisco. As the Skipper throttled the twin engines down to a quiet rumble, Bill Leasure leapt lightly from the deck and stooped to tie the mooring lines.
The day was May 29, 1986, and Leasure had just sailed into a trap. It had not been laid for him, but it caught him just the same.
With Leasure was his friend the Skipper--the target of the trap. Robert Denzil Kuns was a short and wiry salt, a paroled bank robber who met Leasure through his sister, a city prosecutor, like Leasure’s wife. A pleasure trip to Catalina Island for the four of them in 1978 had blossomed into a close friendship. Leasure and Kuns had become boating and diving buddies, traveling together to Mexico and the Cayman Islands, with Leasure even vouching to Kuns’ parole officer for the Skipper’s safe return from abroad.
Investigators--and, much later, a repentant Kuns--would say the two were partners in crime, stealing a dozen or more yachts. According to Kuns, they planned to retire after another year of “the business,” as he called it, with a cool million salted away, and retreat to some tropical island, pina coladas in hand.
Leasure says Kuns used him as a dupe, lied about him to police and sold him out to save his own skin--like most of the other key witnesses against him. “One of my character flaws is I tend to see the good in people instead of the bad,” Leasure says. “Look where it’s got me.”
In 1986, Kuns’ long, curly beard, shaven head and impish smile were familiar sights in Newport Harbor, where he made a fair living doing boat maintenance and captaining wealthy yachtsmen’s pleasure boats. He made a good deal more money, however, coming back to the marina and others like it in the hours before dawn and stealing those same yachts, then selling the $100,000 to $200,000 boats under different names and phony registrations. By his own estimate, between 1981 and 1986, he netted half a million dollars that way.
He had brought La Vita up to Richmond for such a sale. Problem was, Kuns had done the same thing two months earlier with another $150,000 motor yacht, the Coruba--which investigators from the Oakland Police Department had stumbled upon and seized a week earlier. They were waiting for the La Vita when it arrived. Finding LAPD Officer Leasure aboard surprised them almost as much as it surprised Leasure.
Holed up in a police interrogation room, Leasure denied any involvement in yacht thefts. He was just a crew member, doing a favor for a friend. According to Leasure’s written statement to police: “My wife and I make a good living, and I don’t need to deal in stolen property to support myself. And I don’t.”
But there was a problem. Leasure swore he boarded the yacht in Long Beach, picked up by Kuns and a third crewman, Gino. But Gino had told the police that he, Kuns and Leasure had boarded the yacht in San Diego--a telling detail, once the Oakland investigators determined the La Vita had been stolen from the San Diego marina Gino described. That discrepancy, combined with the discovery of a handgun registered to Leasure aboard the La Vita, ended any hope he might have had of using his LAPD status to curry a quick release.
In all his years on the force, Leasure had never drawn a grievance or complaint. He had remained at the rank of Officer II--one step above rookie--for his entire 17-year career. Internal Affairs had never looked at him, never even heard of him. Yet, within a day of being alerted of Leasure’s arrest in Oakland, I.A. investigators had become convinced that he was guilty of multiple boat thefts, car thefts and frauds--and that other police officers at LAPD were also involved. An LAPD task force was formed to probe the mounting allegations. The Leasure Room was born.
First they learned that Leasure’s yacht, co-owned with another policeman, had been bought from Kuns and was itself a stolen vessel. More damaging, though, were the three separate searches of Leasure’s home, located on a pleasant, tree-lined cul-de-sac in Northridge.
Police found a bewildering hodgepodge of possessions in the large back yard--a look that suggested less a master criminal than a Sanford and son. There was the sagging fuselage of a World War II training plane, its wings detached and stacked next to the cockpit. Partially cannibalized car bodies, engines and other mechanical parts littered the yard, along with several Corvettes, Leasure’s vintage Jeep, his Chevy Luv pickup truck, his wife’s Mercedes and the other vehicles that came and went as Leasure traded, bought, sold and rebuilt cars--one of his passions. An African pygmy goat roamed the front and back yards, munching grass, tree bark and anything else that appealed to its tastes. Inside the house, a bedroom had been converted to a gun room, where more than 40 rifles, shotguns, handguns, automatic weapons and illegal silencers were found.
But the big discovery during the searches, as far as I.A. was concerned, lay in an eight-car garage/workshop Leasure had built in his back yard. The searchers found piles of tools, fishing gear, artwork, furniture, cooking utensils and other items, all taken from the string of stolen yachts. There were even a name board from the stern of one of the yachts and a fishing reel with a yacht owner’s name and driver’s license inscribed inside--the items, according to police, provided a virtual road map of boat thefts.
Very little of it was of any value; it seemed more like the stuff people spread out on blankets at swap meets. Which is exactly what Leasure says he and his wife planned to do.
Police also found two allegedly stolen cars, one of them a Ford Thunderbird, keys in the ignition, previously reported stolen by the wife of Leasure’s partner at the LAPD, Officer Ralph Gerard. Gerard also was co-owner of the stolen yacht Thunderbolt. Gerard soon was charged with receiving stolen property and filing false insurance claims, and I.A. officers began to take a hard look at Leasure’s other friends at the LAPD. As Leasure recalls it, his friends disappeared in a hurry.
Gerard was eventually acquitted of the stolen-property charges and convicted on two insurance-fraud counts. He was sentenced to five years probation and fired from the LAPD. Kuns and Leasure eventually were charged in separate cases in Los Angeles and Contra Costa County with stealing 10 yachts, with additional yacht thefts suspected but not charged. Bail was set at $1 million.
WHEN LEASURE’S LAPD SERGEANT, JIM BERG, HEARD OF THE arrest in Oakland, he turned to another cop and confided, “No way Bill’s dirty. I’ll bet anything it’s a cover story. They’re sending Leasure into the jail to do some undercover work.”
This reaction was shared by just about all of Leasure’s colleagues. The story of his arrest aboard a stolen boat flashed through Central Traffic Division the next day like a hot tip at the racetrack, whispered over and over with that same open-mouthed mixture of awe, doubt and eagerness. Here was a police department besieged by the big-city realities of brutality, graft and drugs, yet these hardened LAPD officers could not conceive of Leasure as a crook. Not a single cop who knew him leaned back and said, I knew it--I always suspected he was up to no good.
“If all this is true about Leasure,” Berg vowed, “I’m putting in my papers. It’s time to get the hell out.”
Several officers at Central Traffic told investigators flat out that they were wrong about Leasure. A few remain his supporters--quietly--to this day.
It wasn’t that Leasure would win any popularity contests at the LAPD. He was well liked, certainly, but he was not particularly close to the other guys. He kept to himself. For a cop, he was unusually shy and passive. He’d accept scut work without protest, blending into the woodwork, really. He was a listener, not a talker, didn’t drink or smoke, hated coffee, didn’t cuss. Just about every cop has a nickname, chosen by his colleagues. Leasure’s was Mild Bill.
Betsy Mogul, his wife since 1974, was, at the time of his arrest, a respected senior prosecutor in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. She had run for the elective position of City Attorney a year before Leasure’s arrest, then pulled out and threw her support to the eventual victor, James Hahn. An intelligent, forceful, acerbic woman, Mogul was known as a tough, no-nonsense prosecutor. She seemed hardly the type to condone crimes in her household, which added to the general incredulity.
Other aspects of Leasure’s performance as a cop belied the allegations against him. He had never fired his gun in the line of duty, though he claimed to be one of the best marksmen on the force. His “package,” as police personnel files are called, contained several laudatory letters from citizens who had contact with Officer Leasure.
Reluctant to write tickets, he preferred instead to let wayward drivers go with a warning and a good talking-to--the source of some of his public popularity. Within the department, however, some sergeants pegged him as a slacker. Some, according to Berg, believed he was guilty of dodging patrol duties and radio calls.
There had been a certain degree of ambivalence in Leasure’s decision to become a cop. He had joined the force after being discharged from the Marine Corps in 1970 at Camp Pendleton, following an extended tour of duty in Vietnam. He was leaving the military with no marketable skills in a country weary of the war and hostile toward its veterans. Then an LAPD recruiter arrived at the camp one day to speak to short-timers. Leasure liked the Southern California weather and couldn’t think of anything better to do--his native Wayne, Mich., and the car-assembly-line job awaiting him there didn’t seem particularly alluring.
At the LAPD he was known to be quiet about most aspects of his life. Sometimes, though, Leasure would slip out of character and speak to his fellow officers about his supposed extramarital affairs, money and possessions, Berg, now retired, and several other officers recall. He would talk about his sprawling home with swimming pool, his Long Beach marina condo and boat slip, his rental home in Sun Valley, his yachting. He had a $30,000, souped-up experimental airplane, was partners in another vintage plane with a fellow police officer and had an F-86 Sabre Jet on order at the time of his arrest. He was continually buying and restoring Corvettes, and he spoke of a bank account in the Cayman Islands he kept for play money. And he always kept several uncashed paychecks and $500 or $600 in his locker at work, “just in case I see something I want to buy,” Officer Bill Scheidecker recalls.
But few, if any, of Leasure’s colleagues thought it odd that a traffic cop could afford all this. Laughing and shrugging off the question whenever it was posed, Leasure said he could afford things “because my wife takes good care of me.” They had a low mortgage on their house, Leasure said; the rest was due to his legendary frugality. “I save everything,” he often said. And it was true: Leasure spent very little on eating, clothes or other forms of conspicuous consumption.
“There wasn’t anything mysterious about it,” Scheidecker recalls. “We all thought it was because he was married to a city attorney.”
The prying eyes from I.A., who came by Central Traffic to question Leasure’s co-workers after the arrest, suggested he was a classic underachiever leading a secret life--a Walter Mitty type, silently toiling in anonymity, feeling unappreciated and angry, while hatching grandiose plots and complex crimes to show people just what he really was capable of.
But none of the people who knew and worked beside him really bought this. If he had been an undercover drug agent or some other hard-driving cop exposed on a daily basis to dirty money and overwhelming temptation, perhaps eyebrows would have been raised long ago. But Mild Bill? If he had a garage full of hot goods, then he must have been duped by one of his weirdo friends--that Kuns character or that sleazy welder, Dennis France, with whom he was always trading guns or meeting for coffee or taking on unauthorized ride-alongs in his squad car. Sure Bill was an underachiever. But a secret life as a master thief? They’d sooner believe he’d been dating Madonna.
AFTER TWO MONTHS OF INVESTIGATION, THE CASE AGAINST Leasure for theft of boats seemed solid. But the LAPD wanted more. And so, on a smoggy day in August, 1986, a pair of investigators from I.A. sat down at a downtown Denny’s to meet the man they hoped would provide a final betrayal of Officer Leasure.
“Bill and I always came here,” the nervous little man told the two policemen. “This is where we’d meet. I know a lot about Bill Leasure.”
The policemen nodded, waiting. Dennis France was a semiliterate welder from Downey, a longtime friend of Leasure’s and, the investigators believed, an accomplice in several yacht thefts as well.
France’s name had turned up in Leasure’s notebook, which appeared to detail yacht deals with Kuns and others. It wasn’t enough to arrest France, but he didn’t know that. If they could get him to roll on his friend, they could nail shut the case against Leasure.
“Tell us more,” Detective Tom King recalls urging France. King was an imposing man with salt-and-pepper hair and a quiet, poker-faced authority. “This would be a good time for you to come clean, Dennis. Before we go forward--without your help. Then it’ll be too late.”
But France shook his head with mulish patience, as King and others involved in the case tell it. He was a short, stout man, pale and balding and harmless looking, his round face creased with worry lines. He said he was afraid for himself and his wife and children. He needed protection. And he wanted immunity before he’d talk.
Sure, sure, anything was possible, the investigators said, but first they had to know what he knew. But France stubbornly refused to speak in anything but vaguely disturbing generalities unless he was guaranteed immunity. Then, finally, to break the impasse, he handed the detectives a strange hypothetical: What if he and Leasure robbed a bank, and Leasure ordered him to kill everyone present, and he did it--what if he had shot eight people, on Leasure’s order? This didn’t really happen, France said. But, hypothetically, would the police be interested? Would they make a deal?
The two detectives were not sure what to say, other than it would be pretty hard to make a deal with someone who had killed eight people. So France changed the hypothetical, according to one detective’s testimony in the case. He said: What if it was two people?
The I.A. investigators excused themselves to have a short discussion over the phone with their boss, Sgt. David Wiltrout, who eventually took a stress-disability retirement because of the Leasure case. The sergeant, according to King, said they should give France what he wanted.
They took him to the Criminal Courts Building, to the office of an assistant district attorney assigned to the Special Investigations Divison, which prosecutes corrupt government officials and dirty cops. Assistant Dist. Atty. Robert Jorgenson, who has since died, told France he would be immune from prosecution if he told them the truth about Leasure.
“Whatever I tell you, you can’t use (it) against me?” France recalls asking.
The D.A. told him yes.
France took a deep breath and the policemen flipped open their notebooks, anxious to hear the inside story on the boat thefts and frauds, and whatever else France would spill.
Their mistake became instantly, sickeningly clear.
“I killed two people for Bill Leasure,” France calmly announced, a statement he would reiterate many times in court. “And I drove the car on a third hit.”
The policemen and the D.A. sat in silence for a moment.
They had expected a tale of rich men’s yachts pirated at sea and sold for obscene profit. Instead, they had just given immunity to a killer, and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.
Except, of course, to go after Bill Leasure.
WHEN VETERAN ROBBERY-HOMICIDE DETECTIVES ADDISON “BUD” Arce and Henry Petroski were called in on their day off to launch a new murder investigation, they were more than a little dubious of France’s story--and they were horrified that an I.A. sergeant, not known for his experience in complex criminal cases, and a D.A., who should have known better, had given France total immunity. Without any legal representation, good ol’ boy Dennis France had negotiated a deal for himself that would be the envy of every high-powered defense lawyer in town.
But as for the story LAPD had traded for: France was vague and uncertain on details, he didn’t have names of victims or dates of the murders, and, most disturbingly, he kept contradicting himself. As he told and retold the story, details would shift--the amount of money Leasure allegedly paid him for each killing kept changing, as did the motives for some of the murders. “At first,” Petroski recalled, “we really didn’t know if we could believe this guy or not. All we knew was, they had given a murderer a walk.”
Ultimately, though, France convinced the two detectives that he was the genuine article--a somewhat bumbling, obsequious but conscience-less hit man who had been completely enthralled by Leasure, according to Petroski, who has since retired.
France drove the two detectives to the scenes of the murders, finding them unerringly, even though two had been obliterated by new construction. He mentioned details--how an old woman with a dog walked by just before one hit, and how he had secreted his gun inside a white athletic sock during another--accurate details they believed only the killer should know. He even showed them a family portrait of his wife and children standing next to one of his old cars that matched exactly a car spotted leaving the scene of one of the murders. After a day, they believed.
The first murder was on May 20, 1977. Gilberto Cervantes, 76, the owner of extensive real estate holdings and the El Sol Tortilla Factory in Los Angeles, was gunned down in front of his San Gabriel home as he returned from early morning Mass. Nothing had been taken, so robbery was ruled out as a motive. San Gabriel Police Department detectives assigned to the case concluded it had been a professional hit. The case had never been solved.
According to France, Cervantes was shot by a fellow welder and friend of Leasure’s, Dennis Dean Winebaugh. France, Winebaugh’s neighbor in Paramount, had been the wheelman. Leasure allegedly paid Winebaugh for the hit, acting as middleman for the victim’s daughter-in-law, Paulette de los Reyes, who wanted control of the tortilla factory. (Initially, France did not know anyone’s full name--Arce and Petroski put that together. Later, France began to use correct names, prompting Leasure to suggest the police fed France information.)
When they checked with the San Gabriel police, Arce and Petroski learned that Cervantes’ stepson, Tony de los Reyes, and his wife Paulette, had been the prime suspects. More astonishing, an anonymous letter, received by the small department a few months after Cervantes’ death, had accused a welder named Winebaugh of being the hit man. The San Gabriel Police Department had tried, in vain, to track down Winebaugh.
On Sept. 10, 1981, shortly before 2 a.m., Tony de los Reyes, 63, a jazz bassist who had inherited Cervantes’ $600,000 estate, was shotgunned to death as he left a Sherman Oaks nightclub. France said Leasure paid him to do the shooting while Leasure drove. The killing, France told police and later testified in court, was done on behalf of Paulette de los Reyes, then 38.
The third murder he described proved the most problematic for the LAPD detectives--because it already had been solved.
Anne Smith was shot once in the back while styling hair in her mother’s Highland Park beauty shop on the morning of May 2, 1980. A man had entered the shop shortly before it opened, walked by the cash register and three other women, then grabbed Smith and walked her at gunpoint to the rear of the store. The other women’s purses and jewelry were overlooked, although the gunman eventually emptied the register and Smith’s wallet. Then he walked to the back again with Smith in tow, shot her through the heart and fled out the backdoor. A mechanic working next door saw two men drive off in a green Chevy Nova with rally stripes.
Police initially suspected the woman’s insurance-adjuster husband, Arthur Gayle Smith, 60, of engineering a contract murder. The gunman’s behavior made the robbery sound like a red herring, and the Smiths had been going through an ugly divorce. But then, nine months later, based on composite drawings developed from the mechanic’s description, a heroin-addicted petty criminal named Charles Persico was arrested. Once investigators realized that there was no connection between Smith and Persico, the police changed their theory--the shooting had come during a genuine robbery after all, a detective on the case testified. Anne Smith’s mother identified Persico as the killer; the mechanic, however, said he was the wrong man.
The prosecution offered a deal: plead to manslaughter and get out in three years, rather than risk life behind bars. Persico, who already had spent half his life in prison, knew a good deal when he saw one. Case closed.
Five years later, Arce and Petroski decided Persico was innocent. They believed France was the killer. They already knew of Arthur Smith from the boat case. He was a close friend of Leasure’s and had bought a yacht, the Santine, that Leasure and Kuns were accused of stealing. Leasure had told several friends he planned to develop a resort with Smith on a private island off the coast of Belize (Smith owned such an island, records show, and Leasure traveled there twice but never became a partner).
When the detectives checked Leasure’s files, they saw he had called in sick on the morning of Anne Smith’s murder. Leasure was their man, they decided. Assistant Dist. Atty. James E. Koller, by then assigned full-time to the Leasure case, requested a secret hearing, in which Persico was belatedly exonerated.
Despite believing in France, Koller and the detectives knew no jury would convict an L.A. policeman solely on the word of an admitted murderer. Defense attorneys would have a field day ripping apart his story. The police had to find corroboration.
And so an elaborate plan was set in motion to employ France as an undercover agent. Using phone taps and body wires, he would attempt to get unwitting confessions from Leasure and the other suspects.
Winebaugh was the first to fall. His good friend France called him in Oklahoma City, where he had moved shortly after the Cervantes murder. As the tape recorder spun, France got Winebaugh to describe the murder and admit his involvement.
But when France tried to get him to incriminate Leasure, the conversation turned ambiguous. France had said Leasure paid for the hit on Cervantes, but Winebaugh said otherwise. Leasure “turned me on” to Paulette, he said, but “he didn’t give me anything.”
At one point Winebaugh said, “Bill knows nothing for certain.” Later, he amended that, saying, “He knows all, but he can prove nothing. . . . It’s our word against his.”
Art Smith was targeted next. When France called him and said they had to talk about “the beauty shop,” Smith made no direct admissions. But his reaction, Koller would later argue, was that of a guilty man: Smith told France not to say anything more on the telephone, and agreed to meet him. (He never showed up for the meeting, however.)
Paulette de los Reyes was next. In lengthy, secretly taped conversations with a police officer she mistakenly thought was a friend, she eventually admitted--after repeated denials--that she had asked Leasure to kill Tony. Once again, though, France was contradicted on a key point: She said she never paid Leasure a cent. She recalled him saying only, “Paulette, I may need a favor from you some day.”
LAPD investigators turned their attention and France’s body wire to Leasure’s wife as well--but they found no evidence Betsy Mogul participated in any crimes attributed to him. The worst thing investigators could find was a false declaration on a Department of Motor Vehicles form she had signed, which said she had obtained her aging Mercedes from her father, exempting her from sales tax. The “father” was Arthur Smith.
The D.A.'s office filed perjury charges. Mogul was acquitted after her husband testified that he had filled out the form incorrectly--after Mogul signed it. Still, she was fired from the City Attorney’s Office. “I think it’s a travesty,” Mogul said. “The system is supposed to be: You’re innocent until proven guilty. “
The linchpin of the prosecution’s case came through France’s undercover work on Leasure himself--a visit to the Los Angeles County Jail with a video camera trained on the glassed visitor’s booth. On the resulting 23-minute video, France and Leasure speak casually about family and jail conditions and other innocuous subjects, while Leasure scribbles on a scrap of paper, erases it, then scribbles a new message. The first note read, “Don’t say anything.”
France then avoided directly mentioning murders, referring instead to “Avenue 60,” and then asking what happened to the gun “from that one.” The beauty shop in which Anne Smith was killed stood near the corner of Avenue 60 and Figueroa.
Leasure’s written reply: “Melted.”
France had previously told Arce and Petroski that Leasure had disposed of the murder weapon by melting it.
Leasure also asked France in writing if police who searched his house in Downey had found “any brass,” an apparent reference to bullets. When France asked why that would matter if the gun had been melted, making ballistics tests impossible, Leasure wrote: “They have the one.” According to Koller, this refers to the one expended casing found at the scene of the Smith murder.
There were several more notes, but the final one, just before Leasure leaned forward and apparently spotted the lens of the camera protruding from its hiding place above the visitor’s window, read: “Dump everything illegal.”
When he saw the camera, Leasure remained calm and mild. He sounded sad, not angry, when he bid Dennis France a muted goodby.
A few months later, Leasure secretly petitioned the Superior Court for a body wire of his own, claiming he could get France to admit the charges against him were lies if the two of them were left alone somewhere. The request was denied.
IN MAY, 1987, A YEAR after Leasure’s arrest aboard a stolen yacht, murder charges were filed. Leasure was charged only in the Smith and de los Reyes cases; given the lack of corroborating evidence and Winebaugh’s statements on the phone to France, there was insufficient evidence to charge Leasure with Cervantes’ death.
Winebaugh was convicted first and sentenced to life in prison. Smith’s trial followed, with similar results. Rather than risk a possible death sentence, however, Smith agreed to testify that he had asked Leasure to kill his wife.
Next, Paulette de los Reyes agreed to testify in Leasure’s trial as well. In return, her charges were reduced to second-degree murder and solicitation to commit murder. Once she testified, the second-degree murder charge would be dismissed, and, in all probability, she would be sentenced to time served--about two years. She was freed on bail.
Kuns also cut a deal, with a possible 10-year sentence for yacht theft reduced to two years in exchange for his pleading guilty in the various yacht-theft cases, and for his testimony that Leasure admitted in casual conversations that he had been involved in the Smith and de los Reyes murders.
The Skipper also agreed to testify against Smith and Leasure in the yacht cases, which have been delayed until after the murder case is resolved. (Both Leasure and Smith pleaded not guilty in those cases.) The Skipper is free and currently living aboard a 50-foot sailboat in San Diego County. France, of course, remained the star witness. He was free from any prosecution; the police even had to return his guns to him.
THE LONG-AWAITED Leasure trial started April 15, 1991. The Dalton Street police-vandalism case was in progress down the hall, and TV cameras were crammed wall to wall daily two floors down for an interminable series of hearings in the Rodney King police-brutality case. As a result, few people seemed to notice the trial of an LAPD officer accused of the ultimate brutality: murder.
“It will be your job to determine whether or not the defendant in this case, William Leasure, is the most corrupt policeman in the city of Los Angeles in its history,” Koller told the jury.
Jurors could tell they were in for an unusual experience as the cast of characters assembled: Paulette de los Reyes swept dramatically into the courtroom in a huge floppy hat and dark glasses, the wounded widow who insisted her guilty plea did not mean she was guilty. Surrounded by lawyers in tailored suits, Kuns, fresh off his sailboat, wore a Hawaiian shirt and sandals and happily admitted being a “world-class liar” as he proudly recounted his yacht-stealing career. And Dennis France was a nervous wreck, constantly playing with his watchband, a rubber band and a paper clip as he testified, suffering repeated memory lapses and answering, “I don’t remember,” whenever the questioning grew heated.
When a few dozen fourth graders entered the courtroom on a class field trip, one boy, listening to France testify, looked at the prosecution’s star witness and mistook him for the accused. “He’s guilty, all right,” the boy whispered loud enough for half the courtroom to hear.
Santa Monica defense attorneys Richard Lasting and Michael White quickly began chipping away at these witnesses and the rest of the case against Leasure. The witnesses for the prosecution were all admitted thieves or murderers, and the lawyers quickly capitalized on that fact. How, they asked jurors, could such witnesses be believed?
Furthermore, other than France’s claims, there was no evidence of any payment to Leasure for the murders--and therefore, no motive. Indeed, Koller was forced to argue that Leasure committed murders not for profit but for the thrill of it, because he was “a man bored with writing traffic tickets, a man who needed some excitement in his life, a man that turned to crime for that excitement . . . to fill some inner need.”
Ridiculous, Lasting said. If he was such a thrill seeker, he could have pulled the trigger himself. But no witness, other than France, ever put Leasure at the scene of a murder, much less behind a gun, Lasting pointed out.
The courtroom drama mounted when, just before he was to testify, Dennis Winebaugh died of heart failure. The defense had hoped he would be a favorable witness to Leasure. His sudden demise led Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg to exclude the tape of Winebaugh and France discussing the Cervantes murder.
A far greater blow--this time, to the prosecution--came a few days later, when Art Smith backed out of testifying. Railing against Koller and the police as liars and cheats, he refused to take the stand, saying he had an appeal pending and would not incriminate himself, even if it meant getting the death penalty for reneging on his plea bargain. Jurors never saw him.
Paulette de los Reyes, meanwhile, denied everything, saying she had pleaded guilty only because it was in her best interest. Both sides branded her a liar.
The main thrust of the defense: Dennis France was a liar, concerned only with saving his own neck. Lasting and White argued that France really had killed Tony de los Reyes and Gilberto Cervantes--but with Winebaugh and Paulette de los Reyes as fellow conspirators, not Leasure. Several witnesses testified--contrary to de los Reyes’ assertions--that Winebaugh and she were lovers. In other words, she wouldn’t have needed Leasure to kill. She had Winebaugh.
As for the Smith killing, the defense argued that Persico really was the murderer. France had simply thrown the Smith case into his initial recitation to sweeten the pot, and because it created a trio of crimes in which Leasure was the only common element. He knew all the details because, as a “police groupie,” France had questioned Leasure at length about the case, Lasting said. Leasure had even passed France a copy of a police bulletin on the Smith case and the composite drawings--unwittingly giving France everything he needed to hang Leasure, Lasting said.
“The only way he was going to avoid punishment for his crimes was to claim a police officer was involved,” Lasting told jurors. “The only way the authorities would make a deal with him was if they could use him to convict a police officer.”
The attack on France was combined with an alibi defense. A friend of Leasure’s, a Los Angeles building inspector, recalled helping Leasure build his eight-car garage in 1980 or so. He couldn’t remember the exact day a decade later, but he said he clearly remembered going to Leasure’s house in the morning one day, around 9a.m., to prepare the site for concrete to be poured that afternoon.
Lasting and White then produced receipts from Leasure’s records, showing the concrete was delivered on the afternoon of May 29, 1980--the day Anne Smith died. If the building inspector was right, Leasure was not sitting outside a Highland Park beauty shop in France’s green Nova at 9:15 a.m. He was home, building a garage.
Scrambling to rebut this testimony, Koller produced several other building inspectors to testify that the alibi witness was of dubious character, and may have received a Corvette from Leasure.
The videotape was still the prosecution’s main weapon, and in the end, most jurors concluded that the defense had not blunted its impact. Lasting argued that the conversation really did not refer to murders, but to some guns Leasure had bought from France, and which Leasure came to fear had been used in crimes. In his secretive notes, Leasure was just trying to find out if he was in trouble over those guns, Lasting suggested. But there was no testimony to back up that assertion: In order to limit evidence about other alleged misdeeds, Leasure did not take the stand, which meant he couldn’t offer his own explanation. But Koller did.
“Don’t forget what Mr. Leasure (wrote) when he was confronted with the crimes,” Koller argued to jurors. “What he said on the video about what he did with the weapon. . . . The exact opposite response from what a man with no guilty knowledge, a man who knows nothing about these murders, would have said. . . . Those are the words of a guilty man. They are the words of a man who drove the getaway car in two murders.”
The jury deliberated four weeks. The videotape was played over and over in the jury room. There was no explaining it in a way favorable to Leasure, said jury foreman, Thomas Maldonado, a UCLA pharmacist. “It showed he was involved in the murder. Why would a man with nothing to hide write notes on a piece of paper?”
At one point, the vote was 11 to 1 for conviction on a count of conspiracy to commit murder on the Smith killing, which would have netted a 25-year sentence for Leasure. But one juror, Edgar Mito, who works the graveyard shift on the docks at United Parcel Service, adamantly held out through all deliberations.
“I thought the video showed Leasure had knowledge of the murders,” Mito said, “and that he might have helped cover them up by melting a gun, but not necessarily that he participated in the murders.
“I suppose he’s probably guilty,” Mito said. “But it wasn’t conclusive. It wasn’t enough.”
Most jurors said they probably wouldn’t have convicted Leasure without the videotape. “That’s what swayed everyone,” Mito said. “Almost.”
The final vote, after four weeks of deliberation on two counts of conspiracy and two counts of first-degree murder, was 10 to 2 for conviction on each count. Deadlock.
NOW LEASURE WAITS, STILL IN High Power, still convinced he can prove the conspiracy was against him, not by him. “I know if I wasn’t a policeman, none of this would have happened,” he says. “They had to prove LAPD could clean its own house.”
From Leasure’s point of view, if he is found innocent--and, by extension, if France is found to be a liar--it proves the D.A.'s office and LAPD guilty of monumental incompetence for dispensing immunity to a killer. “Someone should be held accountable for that,” Leasure says.
From Koller’s point of view, it’s not unusual to be stuck with criminals for star witnesses--crooks know their fellow crooks best, he says. The people testifying against Leasure are his friends, he told the jury. If they’re so awful, what was he doing hanging around with them?
Meanwhile, the boxes of files are bulging more than ever under Leasure’s bed. This time around, he says, he wants to present a good-character defense, he wants to put everyone on the stand that he can, he wants to testify, though he fears that might not be possible. He wants to explain the video, put it in its proper context, he says. But that will open the door to even more testimony about yachts and cars and silencers. Yet how else, he asks, can he show jurors what kind of man he really is?
Koller agrees; the prosecutor made no secret during the first trial that he was eager to have Leasure testify. He has some boxes of his own--a shelf-full of “bad character” testimony about thefts and frauds that the first jury never heard--ready to counter any good character defense Leasure might offer.
In August, Leasure considered having his wife represent him during the second trial, but then decided against it. Mogul says she is convinced he is being prosecuted unjustly, but they both agree that, as his wife, her credibility on that subject would be questioned. “I have complete confidence in his innocence,” Mogul says. So Leasure has kept his lawyers; his retrial could wrap up as early as Thanksgiving.
The 10-to-2 vote in the first trial “scared the hell out of me,” Leasure says, but he’s not going to seek a plea bargain. Koller’s offer of a 25-year-to-life sentence, long before the trial, had been rejected by Leasure. Leasure said he wouldn’t accept even a six-year sentence, not even now. He is a reasonable-sounding man, rational and mild. He uses that word to describe himself repeatedly: “You’ll never meet a milder, more passive guy than me.
“I’m going for broke. I didn’t kill anybody. In fact, I’ve saved lives. I’ve even brought lives into the world, delivering babies . . . I think, this time, things will go my way.”