Concluding an internal inquiry into a drug raid that left a Malibu millionaire dead last fall, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block has cleared his deputies of wrongdoing and recommended public censure of Ventura County’s top prosecutor for “willful distortions of fact” in his review of the case.
Block, in a report scheduled for release today, rejects as unfounded Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury’s conclusion that the drug raid was not legally justified and was prompted in large part by authorities’ desire to seize Donald P. Scott’s $5-million ranch.
Bradbury’s findings have been cited nationwide by critics arguing for reform of federal asset forfeiture laws because the 61-year-old Scott was killed but no drugs were ever found on his ranch.
Block now says, however, that a five-month internal investigation reinforces his department’s belief that marijuana had been growing on the ranch just days before the Oct. 2 raid, and that Bradbury--not Block’s department--is guilty of unethical conduct for misconstruing the facts of the case.
Block reports that several of Bradbury’s key findings are flatly wrong, including conclusions that a sheriff’s deputy lied to get the Scott search warrant and that a drug agent could not have seen marijuana plants from a plane flying 1,000 feet above the ranch.
“The Bradbury Report is so riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations that any thorough analysis raises disturbing questions regarding the investigation’s integrity and intent,” Block’s report concludes. “Did the Ventura district attorney knowingly construct an investigation . . . in a manner that falsely attacked the integrity of veteran law enforcement officers? (This department) believes Mr. Bradbury did just that.
“There are too many crucial misquotations, too many erroneous facts, too many false attributions and too many untaped interviews to accept that his report is merely shoddy workmanship,” the report states.
Block said in an interview that he believes Bradbury committed “willful distortions of fact trying to come to a preconceived goal.” And the sheriff said he thinks Bradbury’s motive was publicity. “I believe that he saw this as an opportunity for national exposure.”
Block said he is forwarding his 24-page summary report and hundreds of pages of supporting documents to state Atty. Gen. Daniel E. Lungren, asking for public censure of Bradbury “to discourage similar breaches of public trust.”
A spokeswoman for Lungren said the attorney general does conduct “abuse of discretion” reviews of alleged misconduct of law enforcement officials, upon request.
Bradbury, who aides said is bedridden with pneumonia, issued a statement saying he stands by the conclusions in his March 30 report and will have no further comment for now.
“It is unfortunate that the Los Angeles County sheriff has decided to personally attack this office . . .,” Bradbury’s statement said. “We stand by our report and are confident its findings and conclusions will withstand the test of future scrutiny.”
Bradbury investigated the fatal shooting because Scott’s ranch, which has a Los Angeles County address, is just across the Ventura County line.
Scott, the reclusive heir to a chemicals fortune, was killed Oct. 2 during an early morning raid led by the Sheriff’s Department. Also participating were agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, the Los Angeles Police Department, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the California National Guard.
Several agencies were involved because investigators originally were told by an informant that 3,000 to 4,000 marijuana plants were growing on Scott’s 200-acre ranch, officials have said. Later information indicated a crop of about 50 plants, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Scott was killed after he emerged sleepy and drunk from his bedroom and allegedly pointed a pistol at Deputy Gary Spencer, who shot him twice.
Bradbury found the shooting justified self-defense, but concluded that Spencer--the case’s lead investigator--should not have been on the ranch in the first place because errors in the deputy’s search warrant affidavit invalidated the search.
“This search warrant became Donald Scott’s death warrant. This guy should not be dead,” Bradbury said. “Clearly one of the primary purposes was a land grab by the (Los Angeles County) Sheriff’s Department.”
Under federal forfeiture law, police agencies may seize property when a judge rules that the land was used to grow or manufacture drugs or that the property was purchased with the proceeds of drug sales.
In issuing his report, Bradbury called on Block to re-examine Spencer’s conduct and review Sheriff’s Department policies for obtaining search warrants.
Block says the re-examination turned up little evidence to support Bradbury’s findings.
“This whole thing is predicated on a very simple premise,” Block said. “We have a deputy sheriff in this department who either was guilty of serious misconduct or was seriously maligned by the district attorney of Ventura County. . . . I believe the latter.
“What I’m saying is that it’s a damned sloppy report and one that . . . appears to be a cut-and-paste job that was designed to support a predetermined outcome,” Block said. “I believe it’s unethical.”
In a point-by-point rebuttal to Bradbury, Block concludes that:
* The Scott search warrant was valid and the search justified.
Factual errors and omissions that Bradbury found in the search warrant affidavit are of little legal importance, the sheriff says, citing the opinion of a Los Angeles County prosecutor who co-authored that county’s manual on search warrants.
“The Bradbury Report criticisms of the search warrant are not sufficient to invalidate the warrant,” said head Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Schirn in Block’s report. “The issues raised by the Ventura district attorney for the most part constitute nit-picking of the document.”
* Deputy Spencer, who Bradbury said had “lost his moral compass” in pursuit of a career-building drug bust, did not lie about informant information used to corroborate an aerial sighting of marijuana and obtain a search warrant.
Instead, the sheriff concludes that Bradbury’s own tape-recorded interviews with the informant show that the informant never denied telling Spencer about 40 pounds of marijuana ready to harvest at the ranch.
“The problem is that it was not the informant who lied. It was not Spencer who lied,” Block reports. “It is the Bradbury report which falsely claimed the informant denied ever mentioning 40 pounds of marijuana to Deputy Spencer.”
* Federal drug agent Charles A. Stowell could have seen marijuana plants suspended from trees when flying over the Scott ranch nine days before the raid as he claimed.
Bradbury found that Stowell, using his naked eye and with his view blocked by a dense canopy of trees, could not have seen marijuana plants from 1,000 feet above Scott’s ranch. Stowell “either was badly mistaken or fabricated” the sighting, the district attorney said.
But Block reports that both the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement consider 1,000 feet “ideal” for such naked-eye sightings and train their agents at that elevation.
Experts also supported Stowell’s assertion that marijuana’s unique shade of green makes it easily detectable from the air, Block says. In addition, one drug agent who Bradbury said contradicted Stowell on key points now insists that Bradbury misquoted him, according to interview transcripts released by the sheriff.
* New evidence supports Stowell’s marijuana sighting.
Bradbury concluded that marijuana was not grown on the ranch because authorities found no physical evidence.
But Block reports that two photo experts--one from the DEA and a private consultant--have now detected in high-altitude photos taken two weeks before the raid between six and 14 evenly spaced “circular objects” beneath trees in the area where Stowell said he saw about 50 marijuana plants. One expert said he was sure the objects were plants, Block reports.
Although acknowledging that he cannot prove that marijuana was on the Scott ranch, Block says that “a number of the factors outlined suggest that marijuana may well have been present (before the raid).”
* Seizure of the Scott ranch was only a secondary consideration of the Sheriff’s Department.
Bradbury found that Spencer, a veteran narcotics office with a clean record, led a task force to Scott’s ranch hoping to find drugs and seize the property for the government. Two agents said seizure of the ranch was mentioned in a sheriff’s briefing immediately before the raid and the $800,000 value of an adjoining parcel was noted by one agent, Bradbury said.
But Block concludes that “it is not true that the interest in forfeiture dominated or even rivaled the criminal concerns in this investigation.”
If the Sheriff’s Department had staged the raid in hopes of finding drugs and seizing a valuable ranch, Block said his deputies would not have invited officers from seven other agencies to participate and share proceeds from selling the ranch.