For 14 years, Carol Nelson rose steadily through the ranks at the Ventura County district attorney's office. Then last February, 4 1/2 months into her investigation of the shooting death of a Malibu millionaire, Nelson's climb ended.
Nelson, 49, a front-line homicide prosecutor, was pulled from the case, moved to a smaller office and assigned to the types of low-profile cases she first worked in 1981.
Her report clearing Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies of wrongdoing in the death of rancher Donald P. Scott was shelved. And six weeks later, Nelson's boss, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, released his own strikingly different findings.
The sheriff-led drug raid of Scott's isolated ranch was not legally justified, Bradbury concluded, and was prompted in large part by authorities' desire to seize the $5-million property. The pistol-wielding Scott was shot in self-defense, but drug agents should not have been on the ranch in the first place, Bradbury said.
Because no drugs were found, Bradbury's conclusions have been cited nationwide by critics of federal asset-forfeiture laws, who argue that the laws encourage police to conduct questionable drug raids.
Lost in the glare of publicity was Nelson, whose findings were not released and who was ordered not to talk about the case.
But in the last two weeks, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block has cited Nelson's treatment to buttress his argument that Bradbury intentionally distorted the truth of the Scott case to grab national publicity.
"I see this as the smoking gun in his entire report," Block said in an interview. "It appears to point most clearly to an attempt to manipulate the outcome of that report to reach a predetermined conclusion."
To several prosecutors in Bradbury's 86-lawyer office, the message in the Nelson reassignment was different, but equally clear. They said that Bradbury has treated other deputies in much the same way during his 15 years as Ventura County's top prosecutor.
"This is business as usual," one prosecutor said. "Any deviation from the party line results in extreme disfavor and that is expressed through demotion or isolation.
"So the office reaction is really one of abject depression," he added. "It's: 'Boy, if this can happen to Carol, it can happen to anyone.' "
Bradbury declined comment last week both on Block's assertions and Nelson's reassignment. But Kevin McGee, a top Bradbury aide, said Block's comments are untrue.
"Far from being a smoking gun," McGee said, "that assertion is just an attempt to blow smoke into the public's eye and divert attention from the real issues in the Scott case."
McGee said he could not comment on Nelson's reassignment because it is a confidential personnel matter. Nor would he comment on charges that other prosecutors have been reassigned after disagreements with Bradbury.
In an interview in March, however, Bradbury said he reassigned Nelson to rape and child-molestation cases because "her trial skills were badly needed" in the sex-crimes unit.
He said he turned the Scott case over to two deputies who specialize in research and analysis rather than homicide, "since this case involved several unique legal issues." Nelson's work did not focus in detail on issues surrounding the legitimacy of the search, Bradbury said.
"Deputy Nelson's initial work . . . primarily focused on the shooting itself, and her views were incorporated into our conclusions," Bradbury said.
"Deputy Nelson's initial review did not address the events leading up to obtaining the search warrant in detail," he added. "Plus, a significant amount of the investigation was accomplished after the reassignment."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin G. DeNoce said that he and prosecutor Michael Schwartz, who did much of the legal and factual analysis for the Bradbury report, turned up substantial new information after taking over for Nelson.
"Carol is a phenomenal trial attorney. . . . I don't want to criticize Carol," DeNoce said. "But obviously, I think I did good legal research and I think Mike Schwartz did a good factual analysis. There are so many facts that if you put three attorneys on this, you're going to get different opinions."
DeNoce also said that trial attorneys and research lawyers often see cases differently.
"You get a different flavor in a report when you put a trial attorney on it," he said. "With a trial attorney, it's 'Was a crime committed?' If not, end story. . . . A research attorney is going to have a much broader margin."
Similarly, a prosecutor in Bradbury's office said that "Carol was demoted . . . because she refused to address certain legal issues in the Scott investigation (that) she deemed to be irrelevant. . . . That's the office line on this."
However, sources familiar with Nelson's report said that it did address many of the same issues as Bradbury's, though in less detail.
Sources said the Nelson report specifically found that there was no evidence of conspiracy among government officials to seize Scott's ranch, that lead Sheriff's Deputy Gary Spencer had probable cause to believe marijuana was being grown on the ranch and that the Scott search warrant was valid despite errors and omissions in Spencer's supporting affidavit.
And in an interview in a Los Angeles legal publication in February, a few weeks before Bradbury released his report, Nelson called the theory that deputies raided Scott's ranch to seize it "entirely conjecture."
Nelson revised her report three times before she was reassigned, according to her deposition in a civil lawsuit filed by Scott's heirs. Transcripts of her testimony show that she grew increasingly out of favor with Bradbury, although she never talked with him directly about the case.
She testified that she received a memo from Bradbury assistant McGee in late January about her report and then a one-page handwritten note from Richard Haas, the investigator on the Scott case, a week before her Feb. 19 reassignment.
At Bradbury's insistence, Ventura County attorneys have declared such internal communications confidential and refused to allow Nelson to testify whether the two memos suggested changes.
But sources said that first McGee and then Haas, after a discussion with Bradbury, let Nelson know that the report needed revision. The Haas memo was specific about what conclusions she needed to reach, sources said.
In clipped and fragmented testimony, Nelson did say she was worried that her involvement in the Scott case might cause her to be fired. And she testified that after a conversation with McGee on Feb. 18, "it was clear . . . I would suffer some consequence. On the 19th, I found out what it was."
That formal Feb. 19 reassignment took place in a two-minute meeting that Bradbury did not attend. Afterward Nelson sought solace from a colleague. "I was crying," she said.
She made it clear in her testimony that she considered her new job a demotion, although she lost neither pay nor her status as a senior deputy.
"One is generally promoted out of a job such as the one I have into Major Crimes (her old unit), not the other way around," she testified. Her new boss had been her law clerk years ago, Nelson added.
Nelson--who has lost just one jury trial in her career and was the first woman to be named a senior deputy district attorney in Ventura County--is now prosecuting felony sex crimes, not major homicides.
Some of her colleagues insisted the reassignment is a loss to the public, since Nelson did pioneering work in a 1989 murder case by using DNA evidence to link a suspect to the crime.
Nelson also was chosen to try the largest political corruption case of Bradbury's tenure--the successful 1991 fraud prosecution of former Ventura County Community College Trustee James T. (Tom) Ely.
Bradbury said then that Nelson's keen mind and versatility led him to select her to prosecute Ely.
"Not only did we recognize that it was a very involved case," Bradbury said, "it was a case where we knew the defendant would allege that the charges were political. We wanted someone who was very astute in dealing with that issue. We wanted someone very well-rounded."
But Nelson, a tough and outspoken prosecutor, has had detractors.
Attorney James Farley, who defended Ely, has said she is vindictive, vicious and single-minded.
"I think she gets a scenario in her mind as to what the facts are, irrespective of what they say," Farley has said.
Nelson also was accused of insensitivity after she objected to a delay in Ely's sentencing because of cancer surgery on his face. She said she didn't care "if they cut off his whole face, he could still go to jail."
Still, colleagues consider Nelson one of the top three or four trial prosecutors in Bradbury's office. And several prosecutors said she should not have been punished for refusing to alter a report she believed to be true.
"For all I know, Mike may be justified in what he did," said a prosecutor who requested anonymity. "But it's hard for me to believe that what Carol did was not up to her usual standard of excellence. She's just a superior attorney."
Prosecutors should expect demotion if they disagree with Bradbury on policy issues, the prosecutor said, but not when there is a disagreement over the interpretation of facts in a case.
"There's a turtle mentality that's been created by Mike's actions," another prosecutor said. "If you express an opinion contrary to the boss, then you pay the price. But if you have no opinion, you can't disagree. Mr. Bradbury is not known for surrounding himself with people who will say, 'Wait a minute, Mike, that's a dumb idea.' "
Donald E. Coleman, a top Bradbury deputy, dissented. "I've been in this office 15 years. I've disagreed with Bradbury many times, and I've never been nailed. In any large organization, some people may have an ax to grind."
DeNoce said that Bradbury invites independent analysis and did not direct him toward a specific outcome in the Scott case.
"If Carol Nelson was transferred solely because of her opinion, that's wrong," DeNoce said. "But in all my workings with Mike Bradbury, I've never seen him penalize anybody for their opinions."
Attorney Dennis Gonzales, who is representing Los Angeles County in a Scott lawsuit, said two of Bradbury's prosecutors and one former prosecutor were so outraged by Nelson's reassignment that they called him to complain.
"They said Carol had done nothing wrong, but because she was standing up to Bradbury she was transferred," Gonzales said. "Carol was told . . . that you will come to certain conclusions. And when she refused, that's when she was transferred to a much less prestigious job."
Gonzales said Bradbury has placed a gag order on all employees familiar with the Scott investigation, arguing that internal discussions of cases within a prosecutor's office are privileged information. Bradbury has also blocked the release of Nelson's report.
Gonzales said he will soon request a court ruling that would force Nelson to testify in full about the Scott investigation.
While some of Nelson's colleagues said they thought she had been treated unfairly, most said they were not familiar enough with Bradbury's report to decide whether Bradbury ignored key facts to come to a predetermined conclusion, as Block alleges.
But one deputy who had read both Bradbury's report and Block's rebuttal said: "I like Block's cut-and-paste analogy, because that's exactly right. After Carol was booted . . . one joke was, 'Well, we just have to change all the positives to negatives.' "
DeNoce said that characterization is unfair. "I don't think my legal research was cut and pasted into the final report," he said. "I don't think it was put together piecemeal."
Another prosecutor criticized Bradbury for stating at a news conference that Deputy Spencer had manufactured evidence to get the Scott search warrant--but then declaring that there was not enough evidence to prosecute Spencer for perjury.
"If you feel a person acted in bad faith and say it on the national news, then you ought to charge him for something," the attorney said. "It isn't the job of a prosecutor to make accusations they can't support. . . . If we did that to a defendant, the ACLU would be howling. But because we did it to a cop, it's OK."
Bradbury has said that he thought Spencer was guilty of misconduct serious enough to be fired. "You don't have to have illegality to have misconduct," Bradbury said. "This case is replete with misconduct."
But Block completed a five-month internal investigation into Bradbury's charges two weeks ago by clearing Spencer of any wrongdoing. The sheriff said his deputy did not lie about informant information used to corroborate an aerial sighting of marijuana.
Instead, Block concluded that Bradbury's own tape-recorded interviews with the informant show that the informant never denied telling Spencer about 40 pounds of marijuana believed ready for harvest at the ranch, as Bradbury claimed.
While some Bradbury deputies criticize his handling of the Scott case, particularly his treatment of Nelson, some Ventura defense attorneys said they think the district attorney took a thankless position in criticizing other agencies within the law-enforcement community.
"I was very impressed with his report," said George Eskin, a longtime Bradbury critic. "My position is that Bradbury was very courageous in telling what he believed to be the truth of what occurred at the Scott ranch."
Louis B. Samonsky Jr., a former senior deputy district attorney who has had his own disagreements with Bradbury, said the district attorney had nothing to gain by criticizing drug agents and must have known he would be attacked in return.
"I don't see any benefit for Mike, so (the report) must be true to his feelings," Samonsky said. "And I have a lot of admiration for Carol. I think she is a superb attorney.
"It occurs to me," Samonsky added, "that both people are probably standing by the courage of their convictions. That's not a popular stand for a district attorney to take against police activity. And it also takes a lot of courage for a deputy district attorney to stand up and say, 'Look, I think I was right.' "
Block is not so magnanimous. He said Bradbury's refusal to allow Nelson to testify fully or turn over her report on the Scott raid "certainly makes it look like a big cover-up."
The sheriff has asked California Atty. Gen. Daniel E. Lungren to conduct an inquiry into whether Bradbury abused the power of his office in preparing his report on the Scott case.
A spokeswoman said last week that Lungren has not reached a decision on the request.