A baffling mystery was engulfing Los Angeles: Somebody was out there stealing air--and then vanishing into thin air themselves.
It sounded like a case for the Green Hornet.
And that's exactly who authorities credit with ending an outbreak of radio piracy that has troubled business executives in Los Angeles for the last five years.
Van Williams, a former actor who portrayed the Green Hornet in the 1966 television crime series, collared a culprit and then landed him in court in the first crackdown of its kind in the United States.
Authorities say the Green Hornet's sting could have a far-reaching effect in controlling interference on two-way radio channels used by businesses everywhere. That's because federal officials have all but given up enforcing laws against illegal use of such radio bands.
The crime Williams solved involved theft of air--the airwaves and air time that are rented to taxi services, appliance repair companies and other firms whose employees use walkie-talkies or two-way car radios on the job.
Because the tiny radios are low-powered, their signals must be amplified by special relay stations to be heard across town. In Los Angeles, such "repeater stations" are scattered on strategic mountaintops around the county.
That's where the Green Hornet comes in.
While playing the comic book hero in the TV series, Williams became intrigued by real-life radio equipment that government and law enforcement officials often demonstrated to the show's creators.
When he retired from acting 10 years ago, Williams opened his own Santa Monica communications company. For an $85 monthly fee, his customers use his firm's six licensed repeater stations to relay their own two-way radio conversations across the Los Angeles Basin.
About five years ago, however, Williams began hearing strange voices on his channels.
"They'd get on there and talk about parties and smoking pot and everything else you can think of. They used vulgar language that outraged my customers' female employees," Williams said. "They captured one of my channels. They destroyed the frequency."
When Williams got on the air himself to ask the voices to shut up, he was threatened. On one occasion, "they said they were going to come bomb my house, my office and the equipment up on Mt. Wilson," Williams said.
As the interference increased, a major Hollywood television production company canceled its contract with Williams. Then two delivery companies, an electrical contractor, a plumbing firm and a printing company pulled out. About $25,000 worth of Williams' business disappeared.
An angry Williams decided to take a cue from the Green Hornet.
In the TV series, Williams played a crusading newspaper editor who fought crime while secretly disguised as the masked Green Hornet. His main tool was an electronics-filled car called the "Black Beauty," driven by the Green Hornet's faithful manservant, Kato.
For his true-life caper, Williams decided to use an electronics-filled van driven by radio technician Will Martin. The pair hit the streets, hoping that its special radio direction-finding equipment would track down the culprits.
Driving alone one night, Martin zeroed in on one of the unauthorized voices. He used a car phone to call for help when the suspect saw him and chased his antenna-laden van four miles through the Mid-Wilshire area.
Police swooped in and arrested Richard Chaidez, 29, a movie extra who lives in Hollywood.
Several of Chaidez's radios were confiscated. Inside the radios, electronics engineers working for police discovered special "subaudible tone" encoders used to activate Williams' mountaintop repeaters. Authorities said Chaidez did not have an FCC license to use the repeater frequencies or a permit from Williams to use the relay stations.
The Green Hornet decided to muffle the other illegal voices on his radio system as well.
"We'd spent thousands of hours on this. We knew we had at least seven guys using the channels. We wanted to nail them to the wall," Williams said.
Veteran Los Angeles police homicide Detective Lee Kingsford, an acquaintance of Williams, helped gather evidence to support a grand theft charge against Chaidez.
That led to plea-bargain negotiations that ended two weeks ago when Chaidez pleaded no contest to a petty theft charge in West Los Angeles Municipal Court.
Chaidez contends that he harmed no one by talking on radios, which he says contained the encoding equipment when he bought them at a swap meet.
"Those homicide detectives have a way of leaning on you," he said last week. "They said they'd press felony charges against me if I didn't tell them who I was talking to. . . . We made a deal: no jail time."
Deputy City Atty. David Scheiman said the plea bargain agreement requires Chaidez to help Williams identify illegal users on his channels for the next two years. And during that time, Chaidez must stay off the air.
"I don't think there's ever been a case like this before," said Scheiman, explaining that the theft charge was filed when it became clear that prosecution by the Federal Communications Commission was not forthcoming.
"The FCC's lack of involvement is very discouraging. It made my job very difficult," Scheiman said. Scheiman said that after the upcoming elections he intends to press for legislation that would make the theft of radio airwaves a violation of state law.
Jim Zoulek, engineer in charge of the FCC's Los Angeles-area office, said federal laws prohibit various types of "unauthorized" radio transmissions. But his small staff is kept so busy investigating interference on local police and fire department channels that it has no time for business radio.
"We're mandated to work on public safety problems first," Zoulek said.
Los Angeles radio pirates are apparently abuzz over the Green Hornet's powers, however. His radio channels were free from interference last week for the first time in years, Williams said.