Police Spy Unit Was Rife With Risks, Temptations : LAPD: Veterans say 'burden of knowledge' sometimes was too great and that accusations tarnish its efforts.


It was one of those times when work in the Organized Crime Intelligence Division became most sensitive, when snooping on purported mobsters led detectives out of the shadows and into a very public world.

An informant told Los Angeles Detective Norm Bonneau that he had seen several New York Mafia figures cozy up to then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. at a fund-raising dinner for Brown's fledgling 1980 presidential campaign and give him a check. Bonneau obtained photos of the event, and there was Brown with a group that included a rising member of the Colombo crime family.

Bonneau said that, after consulting his commanding officer, he arranged a meeting with the governor.

"I said: 'Do you know who these (men) were?' " recalled Bonneau, who is now retired. "He said: 'No,' and returned the check," expressing gratitude for the tip about his newfound supporters.

Bonneau's story offers a far different take on the secretive OCID than the one advanced by former colleague Michael J. Rothmiller, whose allegations of indiscriminate spying on celebrities has generated headlines throughout the country and embroiled the LAPD in yet another scandal.

Based on Rothmiller's recently published paperback, "L.A. Secret Police: Inside the LAPD Elite Spy Network," department investigators have been scouring the squad's files for information that might support the book's central allegation: that organized crime detectives spied on public figures "for no other reason than to try to embarrass them or pressure them sometime in the future."

Police Chief Willie L. Williams, who ordered the audit, is expected to review the results this week. His handling of the matter is being closely watched not only by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union--which has long criticized the LAPD's intelligence-gathering tactics--but also by department insiders. Many argue that the new chief tarnished a prestigious unit by overreacting to dated accusations--with few specifics--of a disgruntled detective who left the department nearly a decade ago.

"I'm sort of thunderstruck," said Ed Meckle, a retired OCID lieutenant. "Somebody writes a damn book and all of a sudden we're the bad guys."

Some city officials expect that even if the search turns up no bombshells, Williams may at least re-evaluate the need for more than one intelligence unit in the Police Department, whose staff of sworn officers has dwindled to less than 7,900, its lowest number in years.

"You will see reorganization and perhaps a consolidation," said one top city official, "(and) they'll be put on a much tighter leash."

In the two weeks since the book's publication, nine detectives and supervisors who worked in OCID with Rothmiller have discussed its operations with The Times. None dispute that politicians, celebrities and sports figures sometimes were caught in OCID surveillances--either knowingly or inadvertently rubbing elbows with reputed mobsters. Nor did any of them dispute that "a lot of raw sewage," as former Chief Ed Davis put it, may have passed through the files of a unit whose informants have run the gamut from Mafia insiders to corrupt Mexican officials and the infamous "Beverly Hills Madam."

A Distorted View

But Rothmiller's former colleagues say he distorted life within the squad by suggesting that they spied on public figures for no legitimate reason, virtually peering through keyholes to satisfy the prurient interests of higher ups.

"It's all nonsense," said Rothmiller's onetime partner, Kenneth Hamilton. "Who really cares about that stuff? Even in 1983, who cared?"

Rothmiller, for his part, stands by the book and says that his former colleagues are afraid to back him up now that the heat is on and they are being interviewed by department investigators. "You're asking them to corroborate something they'd be involved in that would either be very embarrassing or illegal," he said.

The focus on Rothmiller's titillating gossip, OCID veterans say, ignores the real challenges--and problems--of the unit formed in the 1950s to scare the Italian Mafia away from Los Angeles. In the years since, its detectives have expanded their expertise to cover whole industries--including entertainment and sports--and new incarnations of ethnic organized crime such as the Russian Mafia, Japanese Yakuza and extortionists who prey on Korean- and Chinese-American businesses.

OCID is a plum assignment. But veterans say the work also poses unique temptations and risks: the opportunity to pick up lucrative moonlighting jobs that can distract an officer from the tasks at hand; the risk of getting too close to intriguing but shady informants, and the inclination for intelligence gathering to become such an obsession--over the arrest of the crooks--that information is hoarded, even from other police units.

One result has been a series of disciplinary cases against OCID detectives in recent years, some accused of improper contact with informants, others with using police data to help their private detective work.

"The truth is, it's incredibly stressful," said retired Sgt. Ed Lutes, now a county prosecutor. "People handle it in different ways. Some don't handle it.

"You have all this information, and you have to be able to bear this burden," Lutes added, "the burden of knowledge."

As with much of Los Angeles' policing, OCID bears the imprint of former Chief William H. Parker, who ruled the department from 1950 to 1966. Preoccupied with two often interconnected problems--police corruption and organized crime--he set up three divisions to report goings-on in the community and within his own force: Administrative Vice, Internal Affairs and Intelligence.

Intelligence consisted of two squads, one assigned to "subversives"--with an undercover officer even sent to the Soviet Union--and the other to organized crime.

Veteran Detective Frank Skrah once recalled how the "OC" unit had an office near Los Angeles International Airport so he and others could "welcome" mobsters as they stepped off planes. The plainclothes officers would explain: "We know you're in a strange city and we don't want you to get lost, so we'll be following you around."

Recently retired Chief Daryl F. Gates, in his autobiography, said the message sometimes was less subtle: "You're not wanted here--get out. Go get your ticket and leave."

It was a sign of his ascending career that Gates was named by Parker as captain of the Intelligence Division, "one of the most sensitive jobs in LAPD," Gates noted. "For inevitably, this captain would come across information so politically sensitive."

Blunt as usual, Gates called police officers "the world's biggest gossips," and recalled how he was able to tell Lew R. Wasserman, longtime chairman of MCA, "we knew every time you boarded a plane for Las Vegas."

When a stunned Wasserman asked why, Gates said: "You're a major figure in Los Angeles and you're in a business that's highly attractive to organized crime."

Mundane Tidbits

OCID files contained tidbits culled from sources as mundane as newspaper clips, but also from informants, undercover work and, of course, surveillance. Suspects grew accustomed to being watched outside their homes and in restaurants. "I even had a guy jump over a (bathroom) stall once to look at me," said one target.

If early mob bosses such as Mickey Cohen or Jack Dragna were spotted at a bar, their "associates" would be noted on index-like "I Cards," which included their pictures, then in the files, which were locked in a room dubbed "the safe." Only supervisors had the key.

Unit old-timers figure there were 5,000 files at the peak, about 50 labeled "special investigations," one of those reviewing the death of Marilyn Monroe.

"They had files on almost everybody," said a longtime OCID informant. "They were interested in people who could hurt the government, publishing companies, media people, show business people, people like that. . . . They were just poking around."

"There was a lot of raw sewage in those files," acknowledged former Chief Davis, "a lot of interesting gossip . . . Maybe so and so's car license was seen in front of the home where a party was held for such and such a revolutionary figure"--such as lawyer William Kunstler. "That went on for years and years."

In 1971, however, Davis detached the "subversives" squad from the Intelligence Division, which then became OCID. And in 1975, he ordered a weeding out of old and irrelevant files, a process that would be repeated several times over the years.

"I personally took files to the incinerator and burned them," said Lutes. But some records, he said, were boxed up and carted to archives "who knows where."

Lutes was the kind of policeman that is drawn to OCID. Fluent in five languages and eventually earning a law degree, he was assigned to monitor the Soviet emigre community, a beat that produced one of the most theatrical arrests in LAPD history--when he posed as a Soviet agent in 1971 to snare art thieves looking to unload a valuable painting behind the Iron Curtain.

OCID detectives work in pairs, and each team is assigned to monitor several organized crime figures and a broad area: one of the ethnic "Mafias," territories such as the Sunset Strip or Ventura Boulevard, or a crime specialty such as child pornography, the garment district, rubbish collection or--with one team--politics.

"We didn't arbitrarily do backgrounds," said a former detective who worked the political beat. "It was always allegations, usually from other politicians. That's usually where we got our tips from."

Largely by design, OCID activities rarely came to public attention. LAPD officials long insisted that the unit remain strictly an intelligence-gatherer, according to prosecutors and detectives. Except in extraordinary circumstances, such as Lutes' art theft case, the detectives avoided making arrests, in part so they would not have to identify informants in court.

When they uncovered evidence of a crime, the leads were passed to others in the LAPD--perhaps narcotics or vice detectives--or forwarded to the Los Angeles Strike Force headed by federal prosecutors, who had wiretap authority and powerful racketeering laws at their disposal.

Jim Henderson, the former head of the Strike Force, credited OCID surveillance with providing "instrumental" corroboration to testimony of former mob henchman Jimmy (the Weasel) Fratianno at the trials that sent leaders of Los Angeles' loose-knit crime family to jail a decade ago.

But there were inevitable tensions between the federal and local units. Bruce Kelton, a former Strike Force prosecutor, recalls becoming furious when he heard that an OCID detective had watched a federal attorney have drinks with a mob defense lawyer--then wrote up a report on the sighting, apparently suspecting wrongdoing. "There were individuals (in OCID) who were basically cowboys," he concluded.

It was in the wake of the prominent Strike Force trials that OCID first faced allegations from Rothmiller.

An 11-year LAPD veteran, he was described by colleagues as a "superior detective . . . an upper 10-percenter." But like many in the unit, they said, he clashed with the hard-nosed leader of OCID, now-retired Capt. Stuart Finck. He grew disillusioned.

In 1983, Rothmiller was suspended after Internal Affairs alleged he staged shots fired into his car to "extort" a disability pension from the city. A state workers' compensation judge reinstated Rothmiller, ruling that the LAPD had "harassed" him, but he soon resigned.

Before then, however, he gave a deposition to the ACLU, which had filed six lawsuits charging illegal spying and undercover provocation by the successor to the "subversives" squad, the Public Disorder Intelligence Division. Foreshadowing his book, Rothmiller alleged that superiors in OCID had instructed him to dig up dirt on "at least a half-dozen" public officials, including Mayor Tom Bradley.

Rothmiller said officers speculated that Gates wanted the information to "twist" officials.

While a judge barred the ACLU from dragging the organized crime unit into its case, the episode prompted the Police Commission to issue new guidelines for OCID in January, 1985. They barred the unit from collecting data about an individual's "sexual, political or religious activities . . . unless such information is material to an organized crime investigation."

In addition, information had to be purged from the files after two years if it proved to be "immaterial" to investigations.

Still, the rules seemed broad enough to encompass attitudes such as those expressed by Gates and others--that innocent people might on occasion come under surveillance to protect them from unsavory characters.

Rothmiller's co-author, journalist Ivan G. Goldman, characterized that rationale as unnecessarily paternalistic. "That's what Big Brother said," Goldman said. "Personally, I don't want to be watched for my own protection."

Unit's Mission Changes

By the time the new rules were put in place, police supervisors also had "changed the mission" of the unit, according to several detectives. They would now "go pro-active"--make the cases themselves.

One of the first major investigations was into the ZZZZ Best carpet cleaning company, producing mixed results.

Five years ago this month, Chief Gates announced that OCID had served a series of search warrants on eight individuals suspected of using ZZZZ Best in a national drug-money laundering operation with ties to organized crime. Seven OCID detectives were assigned to the case, one of whom testified before Congress that the brains behind ZZZZ Best was an Encino financier associated with "all five organized crime families in New York."

But the eventual federal prosecution fell far short of Gates' initial promise. The case centered on ZZZZ Best's whiz kid founder, Barry Minkow, and outlined a massive Ponzi scheme and stock fraud. It produced no testimony of drug-money laundering, however, and the alleged mobsters named by Gates were never charged criminally, although several faced a civil suit by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"You read all this about gangsters, money laundering . . . (but) they didn't get anything," said defense attorney Barry Tarlow, who frequently represents organized crime figures.

OCID has had better success with cases since then. In 1989, the unit arrested John Scotto, the son of a well-known New York Mafia leader, who eventually was convicted of extorting money from Hollywood nightclub owners. It also has played a central role in music industry "payola" prosecutions and in bringing charges against a San Diego attorney and two Boston mob figures who allegedly muscled in on a Los Angeles steel company.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Frank Sundstedt, who supervises organized crime prosecutions, said OCID also has arrested Hungarian extortionists "shaking down members of their community and portraying themselves as mobsters," and a man threatening to bomb Korean-owned businesses if he wasn't paid protection money.

Such prosecutions demonstrate to an ethnic community "that they're not standing alone," Sundstedt said.

But even while it was putting together those cases, OCID had its internal problems.

In recent years, a number of detectives have been transferred amid disciplinary cases stemming from the sensitive nature of the unit's work and the advantage it gives members to snag private security jobs.

In the old days, according to former Detective Glenn Souza, off-duty OCID detectives provided much of the legendary security surrounding Howard Hughes in Las Vegas and the Bahamas. "Las Vegas cops were jealous," Souza said. "They couldn't moonlight." And more than a dozen helped guard Ronald Reagan at the 1968 Republican convention in Miami.

More recently, veteran OCID Detective John X. Vach provided free-lance protection services for members of the Saudi royal family. In 1985, however, Vach pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge that he obtained police information--a criminal history--for a client.

The case was especially embarrassing to police officials because Vach had served as Gates' personal driver for more than two years. He was transferred out of the unit and suspended for six months after a department Board of Rights found him guilty of, among other things, lying about his role as a private detective in the surreptitious tape-recording of a meeting in a Los Angeles hotel room.

"I learned a very strong lesson," Vach recalled Saturday. "You have to be very careful."

Cases like his make it "hard to believe" Rothmiller's suggestion that department officials tolerated bending of the rules, Vach said. "If there was even an allegation, the hammer would come down . . . as it should," he said.

In 1988, another OCID detective took early retirement after he was interrogated by department investigators, who received information that he had tipped off a mob-connected labor negotiator about a federal probe. The detective's OCID partner was suspended for a month for failing to inform department officials of the improprieties.

OCID veterans often speak of the risk of getting too close to informants. Rothmiller's former partner, Hamilton, clashed with his superiors after he developed a "close personal friendship" with former Mexico City Police Chief Arturo Durazo, who became a symbol of narcotics corruption in his home country--but also provided valuable information to American authorities.

This year, another detective was reprimanded for lying about his relationship with an attorney he met when she represented an alleged victim in an OCID case.

Informants at Issue

A danger in getting too close to sources is that one police unit may try to protect the informants while another pushes for prosecution. An example of these conflicting agendas was the case of Elizabeth Adams, the "Beverly Hills Madam."

An administrative vice detective pushed for prosecution of the woman who for two decades had run Los Angeles' most high-priced call girl ring. Meanwhile, other detectives--including the OCID's Mike Brambles--testified in Adams' defense that she had been an important informant, passing on "pillow talk" about murder suspects, terrorists and even fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco.

But it was an affidavit filed by Adams that provided additional evidence of the special intrigue surrounding OCID operations. One of its detectives, she said, pressured her to provide information about Chief Gates' brother, Stephen--a police captain suspended for five days in 1979 for his "off-duty contacts" with a San Fernando Valley madam. The district attorney's office cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing.

Adams, who was sentenced to probation last year, said she "knew nothing about Steve Gates," according to her attorney.

In an interview last week, Rothmiller said he still believes there is a legitimate role for OCID.

"If a person is suspected of a crime, not just something morally incorrect, then fine," he said. "But if the investigation is initiated for non-criminal matters, then it is absolutely wrong."

After ordering the unannounced review of OCID two weeks ago, Williams met with its 45 officers and told them their headquarters will remain locked until the examination is completed.

The detectives are continuing fieldwork, according to department spokesman Lt. John Dunkin, but "access to files is severely restricted. . . . They're not in the office working."

Times staff writer Shawn Hubler contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World