Ventura County investigators are focusing their inquiry into the destructive La Conchita landslide on a county official's decision to pull geologists off the job within two weeks of the slide, sources told The Times.
The district attorney's office on Wednesday declined to comment on its inquiry into the way the county's Public Works Department handled the La Conchita threat just before the March 4 landslide.
But a trail of internal Sheriff's Department memos indicates that Public Works Deputy Director John Crowley ordered contract geologists to pull out of La Conchita and forbade them to work with deputies just days before 600,000 tons of rain-loosened dirt crushed nine homes there.
"It was kind of like sitting around waiting for Mt. St. Helens to blow," Undersheriff Richard Bryce said of anticipating the landslide.
"They were a vital part of our planning process in preparing to deal with what ultimately would and did happen," he said. "It was the most important information we were receiving."
And Lt. Arve Wells, who was preparing an evacuation plan at the time, said the loss of the experts' advice deprived deputies of a key early warning and, in a worst case, could have cost lives as well as property.
Crowley told the geologists' firm, RJR Engineering Group of Camarillo, that his department could not find the funds to pay them to keep working with the sheriff, said RJR partner Robert Anderson.
"As far as (Crowley) was concerned, we weren't allowed to go out there the two weeks prior to the landslide," Anderson said.
Crowley admitted that "there was a funding concern" in letting RJR help the sheriff.
But he said the company's engineers and geologists were never forbidden to visit La Conchita, and that its studies were "never a vital source of information that was cut off."
Crowley said that RJR was told only that their contract was with the Public Works Department and that they could work with the sheriff in the event of an emergency.
"They were out there prior to the emergency, and the sheriff kind of took over," Crowley said in an interview Wednesday. "The sheriff was asking them to go out there daily and go up in the helicopter, and I told the sheriff, 'As long as it's under an emergency, you do what's necessary. If it's other than an emergency, you go through me.' I never told anybody (from RJR) not to go up there."
Public Works hired RJR originally to review grading permits for the county in January after county geologist Jim Fisher quit his post in December.
But deputies soon began calling on RJR to monitor the increasingly unstable hillside above La Conchita. Deputies came to rely heavily on RJR's expertise.
On Feb. 20, a sheriff's memo shows, Lt. Wells passed a list of questions for the geologists to his superior, Cmdr. Richard Purnell, in hopes of getting RJR's best evaluation of when and how the hillside would collapse.
But later memos obtained by The Times show that the firm was no longer authorized to visit La Conchita without Crowley's permission.
And in a March 1 memo, Senior Sheriff's Deputy Darryl Dunn told his commander that RJR's Rob Anderson was not authorized to answer Wells' questions.
"We needed to know what was going to happen," Wells said Wednesday. "We needed to know the extent, how many houses would be impacted, was it going to be nine or 10 or could it be 100. . . . We hadn't received that information yet."
Dunn tried to fill in for the geologists, taking photos of any new cracks or failures spotted in the hillside during the week before the slide, Wells said.
But with only laymen's understanding of the way the earth was moving, the department was deprived of the kind of early warning the geologists could have provided, he said.
As it happened, sheriff's deputies asked residents to evacuate only after some of them called to report seeing small debris slides on the ridged hill above Vista del Rincon.
Less than an hour after the evacuation, tons of earth collapsed onto the houses below, sending residents fleeing into the streets.
Crowley said that all of Wells' questions about predicting the slide had been answered verbally beforehand, and he declined to let RJR answer them in writing "because I didn't know who was going to get copies of it."
County Counsel James McBride had advised him not to put such answers in writing because La Conchita residents had raised questions about the county's possible legal liability during a neighborhood meeting, Crowley said.
Crowley also angrily denied a resident's allegation that he had been willing to gamble with La Conchita residents' lives and property by keeping RJR engineers away from the hillside.
In a letter filed with the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, resident Mary Lou Olson wrote that Crowley told her on March 2 that he "didn't feel it was necessary" to have RJR watching the current state of the hillside.
Olson's letter also alleged: "I asked Mr. Crowley if the County was willing to risk the lives and property of La Conchita residents. His response was, 'We're willing to gamble that way.' "
Crowley said Wednesday, "That's an absolute lie. . . . That's absurd that I would say something like that."
Crowley said that district attorney's investigator Steve Hendrick has not interviewed him.
But Hendrick interviewed RJR officials Wednesday, said RJR partner Rob Anderson.
"All we talked about was what Public Works has been telling us and directing us to do and not to do, and what was discussed in the memos," Anderson said. "He wanted to know why we were pulled off jobs and why Crowley said we weren't involved anymore."