Elizabeth Adams, the notorious Beverly Hills madam, swore to the end that he was "one of the most honorable, decent cops I have ever met," and she had met--and tested--a lot of cops.
No less than former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates called him "one of the smartest . . . most innovative detectives I've ever known . . . exactly what you'd want in a detective."
Mike Brambles was, indeed, a golden boy of the LAPD--the highest-profile organized-crime fighter on the force, a man wondrously articulate yet willing to spend hours on the street to pursue some of the sexiest cases the city had to offer, from ZZZZ Best to the madam herself.
So why did so many blood feuds accompany his rise up the ranks?
Why did some fellow detectives talk of punching him out? Why did prosecutors become wary of him? And why did one former prosecutor, Ed Consiglio--the one he turned into a Mafia suspect--announce to anyone within earshot, for years, that he wouldn't mind seeing "that idiot" dead?
Of course, almost everyone dismissed Consiglio as a vindictive malcontent, just as they dismissed the mob boys who screamed for years that Brambles fabricated tantalizing evidence.
So Brambles moved on to new investigations and finally, in March, retirement from the LAPD with a $30,000 pension and visions of plum security jobs in Las Vegas.
It was there that he was arrested this month on a Los Angeles warrant charging him with nine armed robberies, mostly of restaurants, along with a dry cleaners and a bicycle shop. Brambles, 45, was extradited to Los Angeles, where he pleaded not guilty Thursday and was ordered held in lieu of $200,000 bail.
The events shocked his admirers and enemies alike, prompting both to look back, with new eyes, at a career that roller coastered like none other in the recent history of the LAPD. Love him or hate him, there was one thing that neither group could reconcile: the nature of the crimes that could earn Brambles 30 years in prison if he is convicted.
"He's the kind of guy who--well, Ft. Knox, he might break into," former partner Tom Convey said. "But not a little chump robbery, where you walk in with no mask and say, 'Hey, mister bike shop owner, gimme your day's receipts.'
"If Mike was gonna do a crime," said Convey, one of Brambles' admirers, "he would do a crime that would be a one-time thing and be gone with multiple millions."
Even Consiglio was caught off-guard by the allegation that his adversary had become a stickup man. "I didn't think he had the guts," the former prosecutor said.
And Gates? "Mike Brambles," he said, "is probably the most baffling person I have ever known."
Meeting the Madam
Brambles exemplified the LAPD's mind-body ideal. A UCLA graduate with a major in geography, of all things, he had a wiry build kept fit by surfing--he would often hit the waves before the office. And despite military-neat brown hair, he was no Joe Friday square; he preferred jeans and tennis shoes to a coat and tie.
Brambles began his LAPD career "like anybody else," he once recalled--in uniform, on patrol. Soon, though, he was recruited into narcotics duty in Hollywood, spent 2 1/2 years in vice and was named to the Sexually Exploited Child Unit.
He had not been in it long when he met Adams. The occasion was singer Don Henley's 1980 arrest for contributing to the delinquency of a minor after paramedics called to his home found a nude 16-year-old girl who had overdosed on drugs. Looking for leads on the girl, who was a runaway, Brambles visited Elizabeth Adams' house above Sunset Strip.
The door was answered by a short woman in a smock whose hair was so thin she nearly looked bald--hardly the embodiment of a top-end madam. When she said, "No sabe, " Brambles left. Then the woman did too, going into hiding.
For years--after he tracked her down--Adams would laugh about the ruse that was the unlikely start of their relationship. In the parlance of the cop shop, he became her "handler."
To be sure, she knew other cops--they even came occasionally to bust her. But this one, she said, was particularly "cute . . . nice . . . and unbribable."
Like any veteran of the vice trades, Adams learned that a key to survival was keeping the law happy. "I'd say, 'Look guys, your pensions are all you have going for you so I won't tempt you. . . . But when you retire. . . ."
Brambles "never wanted anything," she said. "Not (women), not money, not nothing."
Much later, Internal Affairs would poke around in vain for something crooked in their relationship; if not money, perhaps antiques from the store she used as a front.
No, she insisted, the relationship was based on the other commodity those in vice trades peddle to keep the law at bay--information.
Brambles said she passed extremely reliable leads on porn rings, drug dealers and even terrorists--including one plotting to bomb the British Parliament.
Of course, an astute cop had to be skeptical of such nuggets. A former call girl recalled how once, when Brambles was visiting, Adams instructed her, " 'Come over and nod yes to everything I say.' It was a story about some girl bringing computer chips to Communist countries. On the way out, Mike Brambles said to me, 'Is this true?' And I gave him a look like, 'Are you crazy?' "
But even if a little iffy information came with the good stuff, the ability to cultivate such a source only increased the confidence of Brambles' bosses. In 1984, he was assigned to the Organized Crime Intelligence Division. And when Adams saw him after that, she recalled, "he was a star."
ZZZZ Best Detective
The "elite" tag is overused for police units, but the organized-crime division unquestionably merits it. "One of the most sensitive jobs in LAPD," Gates termed it.
When Brambles joined, the unit also was in transition. For although it was credited with keeping the mob from gaining a firm foothold in Los Angeles, the division had drawn criticism for collecting "intelligence"--including tidbits on political leaders and celebrities--without making arrests.
After the 1984 Olympics, officials decided that the division would make cases for the world to see. That required aggressive detectives and that's what its leader, Capt. Stuart Finck, saw in Brambles, whom he would promote twice, to D-3, the highest rank of supervising detective.
"An exceptional guy," Finck, now retired, recalled recently, still amazed at how Brambles "uncovered the ZZZZ Best thing . . . virtually all on his own."
Brambles' police reports trace a winding path that led him to the carpet-cleaning company renowned for its teen-age founder, Barry Minkow, who began the business in his parents' Reseda garage.
In March, 1987, Brambles and a partner went to Malibu to serve a warrant on Ronnie Lorenzo, owner of Splash restaurant and, Brambles wrote, a "reputed made member of the Bonanno crime family." Their interest was piqued when they found him driving a car provided by Maurice Rind, a fast-talking financial whiz with two stock fraud convictions back East.
The trail went on: Rind had a company based at his Encino condo complex. Its utilities were paid by another firm, whose registered agent was . . . Minkow.
The investigation went public with a bang. Gates announced that the organized-crime division had served search warrants on eight people suspected of using ZZZZ Best to launder "large organized crime (drug) profits."
Behind the scenes, federal authorities had pleaded with the LAPD to hold up the searches. The feds saw the case differently--as a "massive fraud" by Minkow and others, using faked profits to drive up ZZZZ Best stock. "We never believed ZZZZ Best was a mob operation," former federal prosecutor James R. Asperger said.
As Brambles saw it, though, the FBI was simply "jealous that we got the jump on them." Gates backed him to the hilt, saying the feds could "go to hell!"
Seven organized-crime detectives were assigned to the case, led by Brambles. In January, 1988, when a congressional committee held hearings on ZZZZ Best, he was sent to Washington to testify. "Why did (the mob) get involved?" he was asked. "Money," he replied.
The prosecution was brought in federal court, however, and included none of the alleged mobsters. When the case came to trial, it was Minkow's attorneys who subpoenaed Brambles to bolster a long-shot defense--that the mob had made him do it.
Still, there was little second-guessing after Minkow and a slew of others went to prison and several of the mob figures were at least hit with Securities and Exchange Commission civil suits.
Few noticed when the most obscure of the suspects spotlighted by Gates but never charged--an Arcadia woman named Darlis Clark--sued Brambles and the LAPD for allegedly violating her rights.
Clark challenged a report that she had attended a meeting with several mobsters. Brambles said he was able to hear, through a window, talk of "cleaning and investing the money" and not wanting to "face the boss" who was "back in New York." Clark's attorney, Kevin McDermott, insisted that Brambles made up a scene out of "some bad Mafia novel."
But persuading jurors was another matter. The jury met barely long enough to select a foreman, then exonerated the detective.
As McDermott interpreted it, "The jury couldn't believe that a police officer would lie."
'I've Become Sort of an Expert on Mr. Brambles'
Although many find bureaucracies suffocating, Consiglio wasn't one of them. He loved the camaraderie of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. And the security. He meant to be a lifer.
He'd been a D.A. for 13 years when Brambles walked into his Van Nuys office in the spring of 1987. Neither man's life would ever be the same.
Brambles had come for information about a potential informant on ZZZZ Best. Consiglio had sent the guy to jail for conning financier Rind. Now the guy wanted to tattle on Rind and others. Consiglio cautioned Brambles not to trust the con man's tales about Rind. Brambles said he'd go see him anyway, thank you.
Afterward, the detective thought Consiglio had been strangely protective of Rind, the fraud artist he described to Congress as "an associate to all five New York organized crime families." Then, in the ZZZZ Best searches, Consiglio's name was found on Rind's papers.
Later it hit the front pages, how a prosecutor was under investigation for nothing less than helping the mob. He allegedly used a law enforcement computer on Rind's behalf, went to boxing matches in his limo and accepted other favors.
Consiglio tried explaining it to his bosses: He'd become friends with Rind, but only after meeting him as a victim of a crime. He'd bought the boxing tickets and gone in a car--where had Brambles gotten that limo nonsense? And, yeah, he took stock tips from Rind, but would "do it again"--hey, he made a few bucks off ZZZZ Best.
It did him little good. Although he was never charged with a crime, he resigned as a prosecutor in 1988. His new mission--revenge.
"I've become sort of an expert on Mr. Brambles" was how he explained it. "Other people who have trouble with Brambles end up, one way or another, talking to me."
There was Lorenzo, who said Brambles lied to get Splash's liquor license revoked. There was Rind, who said Brambles "made me bigger than Meyer Lansky!" And Clark, who had sued. Consiglio found others, too, and began poring over their cases.
He soon mockingly joked about the days "before I joined the Mafia" and introduced himself with, "Hi, I'm the cocaine-pushing, money-laundering D.A."
A former football lineman, Consiglio was a powerful man with pointed, bushy eyebrows and thinning black hair brushed back like Jack Nicholson's--whose menacing air he also adopted when the name Brambles came up. "I'd like to get him in a room, alone, one man comes out," he said.
They did run into each other shortly after Consiglio resigned, at Builders Emporium in Woodland Hills. Consiglio heard a voice ask, "How's it goin', Ed?"
Soon they were "yelling and screaming across the parking lot," recalled a friend who was with Brambles that day.
To the friend, it was no accident the cop said the first words. "Mike knew that it would set him off," the friend said.
"He enjoyed the game."
It didn't seem like a game to police brass, though, when Consiglio's wife called some time later to warn that Brambles, in fact, might be in danger. She was divorcing the former prosecutor in part because of his obsession.
That day, 12 officers were assigned to guard Brambles around the clock. And two detectives from robbery-homicide visited Consiglio at his new job, as counsel to an Italian marble import company in the San Fernando Valley.
"Can you assure us (Brambles is) safe?" one detective asked.
"From me," Consiglio replied.
When they left, he began muttering--about his wife, who was gone now, and Brambles, who would only be enhanced by the episode, as a cop at risk.
"Some ------ life," Consiglio said. "Gettin' older and older and not gettin' ------ nowhere."
The Code of Silence Cracks
When local attorney Susan Harrison turned to the organized-crime division in late 1988, she asked for Brambles--she'd heard he was a "stand-up guy." Harrison was working on a civil suit over ownership of the Palace nightclub and was worried about a young lawyer on the other side.
Why the organized-crime division? The lawyer was New York transplant John Scotto, grandson of Anthony Anastasia, the legendary Murder Inc. figure.
Soon the civil case was a criminal one. Then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner personally announced the 1989 indictment of Scotto for attempted "strong-arm" extortion.
On the surface, it was another impressive notch in Brambles' service revolver. But then transcripts of the grand jury proceedings were turned over to the defense, as is routine in criminal cases.
Right in black and white was the stunner: testimony by William H. Seeley, an LAPD veteran recently assigned to the division. Seeley told grand jurors of a disturbing incident during a photo lineup, in which victims pick out suspects.
With one witness, Seeley said, he saw Brambles "take his finger and very deliberately put it under one individual," tipping the witness off to which was the right photo. Rigging the lineup.
"It was inappropriate and, I felt, unprofessional," Seeley said.
The prosecutor promptly called Brambles before the grand jury to swear he had "not at all" tipped off the witness. But the matter already had gone beyond the panel--Seeley said he alerted his supervisor.
Until then, colleagues had been aware of outsiders' charges that Brambles took liberties, but "it was always against bad guys, and they never had any proof," recalled a retired organized-crime detective.
Now, in a force often criticized for its "code of silence," an inside voice had been added to the chorus--eventually reaching Gates.
"It happens," Gates said of the warnings from the ranks. "(Officers) come forward and say, 'I can't buy this.' "
Seeley, though, paid a price. The unit became a chilly place for him. He soon transferred out, to a Valley division.
On Nov. 5, 1989, Brambles also was moved, to West Los Angeles. He filled an opening for a detective supervisor--in the auto theft unit.
Soon after, Brambles was called as a witness in the Scotto case. And although the lawyer eventually agreed to a plea bargain, his attorney first got a chance to question Brambles on his transfer. He was asked, "Is that of your choosing, sir?" "Yes," Brambles insisted.
He also was grilled about his ties to Harrison, whose complaint started the case. "A business relationship," Brambles said.
With those answers, he had given his foes all the ammunition they needed. They had good reason to suspect he had been forced out of the organized-crime division. And they knew he and Harrison were more than business associates--the pair had fallen for each other, prompting Brambles to be divorced from his wife, a nurse.
Consiglio copied the transcripts and sent them to Internal Affairs. Eventually, a police Board of Rights found Brambles guilty of giving false testimony, although it had sympathy for him. "As a result of your tenacious and diligent investigation of organized-crime figures, the defense attorneys . . . were using the department's disciplinary system . . . to impute, frustrate and equalize your investigation," one commander wrote.
But it would be impossible to blame his other clashes on the foes of law enforcement.
In 1990, after the LAPD's own Administrative Vice unit arrested Adams after years of unfettered madaming, she called Brambles as a witness to boost her defense--that she had bought immunity from arrest by providing police with information.
The prosecutor, Pam Bozanich, who later gained fame in the Menendez case, said Brambles confronted her outside the courthouse and told her "Adams would never do a day in custody."
"I said, 'Whose side are you working on?' "
An Administrative Vice detective became suspicious, too, after seeing Brambles "with his nose in our files. I almost went to fist city with him."
Still, Brambles prevailed when prosecutors agreed to let Adams off with probation.
Harrison, whose relationship with Brambles lasted three years, said the clashes took a toll. After he "lost his elite position," she said, he became disillusioned and depressed and developed serious ulcers.
But you could never really know what was going on in the head of a guy who once earned his stripes in undercover narcotics jobs, where "you can lose your life if you're not good at lying."
What she did know was this: "I would never ever ever want to be an enemy of Mike Brambles."
He left a few at West L.A. before he retired in March.
Another police disciplinary board found that in 1992 he put an "obscene photograph" on the desk of a female detective--showing him bending over, exposing his buttocks and genitalia. Then he cursed out a watch commander.
It pained pals like Tom Convey, an old partner in the organized-crime unit, to see Brambles' career descend into feuds that were intense even for the LAPD, where office politics has never been a child's game. The last time they spoke, Convey said, "He was still working in West L.A., (but) talked about retirement and moving to Las Vegas. He was gonna have a home built . . . get married and live happily ever after."
Mike Brambles Goes to Jail
On July 5, the LAPD announced that Brambles had been picked up in Nevada for a two-month string of stickups. Although he had moved to the gambling mecca upon retirement, he was making twice weekly trips back to visit his two children--and in his spare time allegedly robbed restaurants and small shops in the Melrose area, Mid-Wilshire district and West Valley.
A sole gunman was reported in each case, usually arriving at closing. A detective said Brambles became a suspect by a "one chance in a billion" occurrence, when the clerk at a robbed dry cleaners saw him at an Inglewood motel and said he was definitely the man.
Brambles insisted police had "the wrong person."
He cast a depressed figure as he was led into court for arraignment Thursday after extradition from Nevada. Eyes to the ground, he tried to avoid the cameras that had come to record the law enforcement version of the man-bites-dog twist--cop turns robber, allegedly.
His new wife, Kathryn, an airline employee, was frantically trying to raise $200,000 bail. "I love him and I believe in him," she said.
Brambles' lawyers said they may argue misidentification. "After being with LAPD for 23 years," asked Santa Monica attorney Audrey Winograde, "who would do . . . penny-ante little robberies with no disguises?"
The arrest had very different meanings for those whose lives had become intertwined with his.
"I was shocked and yet not shocked," Gates said.
"I struggle with the idea that he could be guilty of this," Convey said.
So does Consiglio. "Armed robberies?" he asked, sounding almost like the defense lawyer, doubting the notion. But then he accepted it as vindication and began making calls to get "Mikey boy's" booking picture. He was going to blow it up 8-by-10 and pass out the glossies. "There'll be plenty of takers," he said.
Harrison? She too struggled to understand why he might have done it. Self-destruction? A cocky belief that he could get away with it? Or perhaps the simple motive he once saw in the mob--money?
"I still think he was a good investigator," she said. "Did he stretch the limits? . . . I firmly believe he did.
"I don't think he did it much more than others," she added--but to her that was no excuse. His predicament is "all his own doing."
And then Adams.
The Beverly Hills madam saw a frame job. "All the infighting and knocking each other down and ratting each other out--it's unbelievable what they do to each other in this LAPD!" she said.
So she asked her own attorney to visit Brambles. Then she got a call from the ex-detective, from jail.
"He (asked) if I'd be a witness for him and I said, 'Anytime.' I'm gonna tell them all the good work he did."
The woman who helped Mike Brambles climb the LAPD ladder even threatened to pull out a few names from that little black book every madam is rumored to have, but which never seems to appear. "If they don't lay off," she said, "I'm gonna sing like a canary."