Arrest May Close Chapter in Slaying of Berkeley Officer

Special to The Times

Thirty-four years after the slaying of this city's first Japanese American police officer, officials said Tuesday that they had arrested a suspect -- a former low-level associate of the Black Panthers who, authorities allege, participated in the shooting of Ronald T. Tsukamoto as part of a wave of anti-police violence.

Don Juan Warren Graphenreed, 54, was being held in a jail cell inside the Ronald Tsukamoto Public Safety Building -- named after his alleged victim.

Police said that Graphenreed did not act alone and that more arrests are likely. The investigation has focused in part on former Berkeley members of the Black Panther organization, police said.

Tsukamoto's death in August 1970 made him the third Bay Area officer killed in the line of duty in seemingly unprovoked attacks within two months, after officers in San Francisco and San Jose.

The killing came at a time of rising tensions. Since 1968, when Black Panther founder Eldridge Cleaver led an ambush of the Oakland police that left an officer injured, there had been skirmishes between local Panthers and police. The rhetoric of "off the pig" was emblazoned on every Panther newspaper. And police conducted regular raids on Panther houses.

Days after the shooting, Berkeley Police Chief Bruce Baker angrily pointed fingers at Panther leader Huey Newton and others for "advocating violence on policemen" and vowed, "They're going to reap the harvest of this type of talk."

Tsukamoto, 28, had stopped a motorcyclist for making an illegal U-turn about 1 a.m. the night of his killing. He had struck up a friendly conversation with the motorcyclist when a black man in a long, black flannel coat joined them.

The two men spoke calmly about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and the suspect commented that things seemed pretty quiet in Berkeley. Then he pulled out a small pistol and fired two shots, hitting Tsukamoto in the eye.

The motorcyclist, whose identity was protected and who later died in an automobile accident, was the one who radioed in the call from Tsukamoto's idling patrol car.

"I ain't lying," the young motorcyclist told the dispatcher. "One of your officers has been shot twice in the head."

Berkeley Police Sgt. Joe Sanchez was the second to arrive at the shooting scene.

"It stays with you the rest of your life," he said Tuesday.

Police released little information Tuesday about the investigation but planned a news conference for today.

News reports at the time said witnesses had seen the assailant climb into the passenger seat of a 1959 light-colored Studebaker, but the car was never located. According to the accounts, one of the bullets hit a service station sign. The other entered Tsukamoto's right eye and exited through his left ear. One bullet was recovered, according to reports shortly after the shooting.

The killing was immediately tagged as political. "When you consistently reinforce in unstable people the idea of killing police officers, someone will do it," Chief Baker said at the time. His fiery words were returned by the National Committee to Combat Fascism, a group of white sympathizers of black militants, who said the affected police departments were "reaping the harvest of years of aggressive brutality and murder in ghetto communities."

Caught in the middle was Tsukamoto.

"It was very tragic," said Richard Hong, a San Francisco district attorney investigator who is president of the Northern California Asian American Peace Officers Assn. "It was the height of anti-police feeling of the early 1970s."

Investigators obtained their arrest warrant 34 years later. According to the California Department of Corrections, Graphenreed was sent to state prison in 1995 on a two-year sentence for second-degree burglary. He was returned to prison nine times in the ensuing four years on parole violations and was last discharged from state custody in July 2000.

His stepbrother, Joey Evans, on Tuesday described Graphenreed as an unemployed and sometimes homeless alcoholic who, he said, never committed violent crimes or used a weapon.

"I don't think my brother did it, and I don't think they have any proof that he did it," said Evans, 45. "I just think they're railroading him."

Evans said he knew that Graphenreed had been a Black Panther.

"It was back in his youth. I have no idea what that fool was doing. But he's never done anything like that. When you check his record, it's all just getting drunk and acting stupid."

At the time of his arrest, Graphenreed was in Fresno County Jail awaiting trial on an unrelated burglary charge. He was transported from Fresno and booked into Berkeley's City Jail on Monday on a no-bail warrant for murder and conspiracy to commit murder, Sanchez said.

A source close to the case described Graphenreed on Tuesday as a lower-level Panther associate and said the investigation was unlikely to reach the top echelons of the group. Many senior members of the Panthers, including Newton and Cleaver, have since died.

Tsukamoto's legacy has been lasting. Bronze reliefs of his unsmiling profile adorn the building that bears his name.

Tsukamoto was born in 1942 at the Tule Lake Relocation Center, where his parents were interned during the war.

He was the first officer to be killed in the line of duty since the Berkeley department was founded in 1909. Tsukamoto pursued a career in law enforcement when few Asian Americans were doing so.

A tuition scholarship is awarded to Asian American criminal justice students annually in his name by the Northern California Asian American Peace Officers Assn. and the Berkeley Police Department. It was the Tsukamoto scholarship fund that expanded in the mid-1970s to become the Northern California Asian American Peace Officers Assn., Hong said.

A Los Angeles police officer, Ron Murakami, had been killed in the line of duty in 1968, prompting the creation of the California Oriental Police Officers Assn., Hong said. But it was Tsukamoto's on-duty slaying, believed to be the first of a uniformed Asian American officer in Northern California, that prompted Bay Area Asian American peace officers to join forces.

"Up to that point, Asian officers were almost invisible," said San Francisco Police Sgt. Nelson Lum, a former president of the group and current president of the San Francisco Asian American Peace Officers Assn. "He put us on the map, unfortunately, through his ultimate sacrifice, and we felt very strongly that his name should be remembered."

Lum said the arrest was "long overdue. Every time we award the scholarship we talk about him sacrificing his life. There's never a chance to say his killer was brought to justice. This would be a fantastic turn of events."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday May 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction Berkeley arrest -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about the arrest of a suspect in the 1970 slaying of a Berkeley police officer incorrectly identified a Los Angeles policeman killed in the line of duty in 1968 as Ron Murakami. The Los Angeles officer was Gary Wayne Murakami.
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