Billboards Target Unsolved Slayings

SAN DIEGO COUNTY ARTS EDITOR

From two large roadside billboards downtown, a black-and-white photo of Donna Gentile stares down at passers-by. She looks pretty and tragically innocent.

Next to her picture, which bears no identification, are three large letters: NHI.

In old-time police jargon, NHI means No Humans Involved.

The term, say the four San Diego artists who designed the billboard installed Wednesday, is used by police to discount crimes against people among the fringes of society.

The same group of artists has previously sponsored other public works with anti-police themes--using National Endowment for the Arts funds. The current project also was funded, in part, with NEA grant money.

NHI is a term that the artists--and some news reports--have claimed was used against women who have been murdered here, women who, because of their classifications as prostitutes, drug addicts or transients, have been "lumped together," the artists say.

A one-time prostitute and police informer whose nude and battered body was discovered in East County seven years ago, Gentile's name has become inextricably linked with the Metropolitan Homicide Task Force, which, since 1988, has been investigating a series of more than 40 murders of prostitutes and drug users in San Diego County. Gentile died in 1985, shortly after she testified during a civil service commission hearing against two San Diego police officers. Both officers were disciplined.

Gentile had been strangled and gravel was packed into her mouth, suggesting that she had been murdered because of her testimony. The task force has not linked an officer with her death.

The investigation into the murder of Gentile and the other victims remains open. And the artists say they hope to increase public awareness of the subject, and to draw attention to what they call a "flawed investigation" where officers investigate their own colleagues and some relatives of the deceased have not been contacted.

Deborah Small, one of the artists, said the billboards are one part of a monthlong project "to commemorate the victims in the series (of deaths), and also to look more closely at who they are and how they've been labeled."

Dick Lewis, a spokesman for the task force, said he was not aware of officers using the term in reference to the San Diego victims, and said he had not yet seen the billboard Thursday afternoon. But he said he was familiar with the term.

"NHI is an old term that goes way back in murder history, back to the old days on the East Coast," Lewis said. "I first heard about it when I was a young kid reading detective magazines."

The billboards will remain for a month at two intersections: Cedar Street at Pacific Highway, facing the County Administration Center; and 14th Avenue at G Street, not far from the police headquarters. They are part of a monthlong, multi-faceted art project that will also include a gallery exhibition opening Saturday at a storefront at 622 5th Ave. of photos about the murder victims, including eight pictures of the victims and 37 others of women who chose to have their pictures taken as "stand-ins" for the women whose pictures were not available.

It also includes a book with a long essay culled from news reports and other related materials on the series of murders. On March 8, there will be a panel discussion about gender violence in San Diego with journalists, prostitute rights advocates and Pat Riccio, the mother of Michelle Riccio, one of the murdered women.

The NHI group made political waves in December, 1990, with a bus-bench poster that also targeted police. Inscribed "America's Finest?" it showed seven target-practice figures in a protest against deadly force shootings by local police. The project drew sharp criticism from many local officials, including Rep Bill Lowery (R-San Diego), who issued a complaint to the National Endowment for the Arts about the project.

Lowery's comments provoked an investigation by the NEA into the artists' use of grant money to buy advertising space. The NEA subsequently prohibited artists from using its grant money to pay for advertising materials, although the current billboard was also funded in part by an NEA grant. Small said the grant was issued before the NEA ruling, and therefore is excluded from the prohibition.

Some of the five artists involved in the project also worked on a poster inscribed "America's Finest Tourist Plantation" about illegal immigration that adorned the back of city buses during the Super Bowl in 1988, and on a billboard about Martin Luther King Jr. criticizing the city for changing back the name of Market Street downtown.

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