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Jim Tatreau, 58; pushed to create LAPD cold case unit

Times Staff Writer

Cmdr. Jim Tatreau, a driving force behind the creation of the LAPD cold case homicide unit, has died. He was 58.

Tatreau died Sunday afternoon surrounded by his family at his Los Angeles County home two years after being diagnosed with brain cancer, his son Jim Jr. said.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives said they had tried to create a centralized unit in 2001 that would use DNA and fingerprint database technology to reexamine thousands of forgotten murder cases.

It was Tatreau, as captain of the department’s Robbery-Homicide Division, who cut through bureaucratic obstacles and made the case to department brass.

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“He thought it was negligent to not make use of technological advances to solve cases, many of which had been gathering dust for decades,” said Det. Rick Jackson, a member of the original cold case homicide unit. “That’s why he fought so hard for our unit’s creation, when it looked like it might not get off the ground.”

Since its inception, the unit has solved nearly 50 homicide cases dating back half a century.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley on Monday called Tatreau a “true believer who was ahead of the curve” to the possibilities of DNA technology.

Easygoing with a quick wit, Tatreau was known as a fierce advocate for his officers and detectives.

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Robbery-Homicide Det. Ronald Y. Ito, lead investigator on the Robert Blake murder case, recalled how despite pressures of a high-profile, high-stakes celebrity investigation, Tatreau allowed him to conduct a broad-ranging inquiry with minimal political interference.

Blake eventually was acquitted in criminal court of his wife’s slaying but found liable in a civil trial.

Tatreau “instinctively understood what detectives needed and wanted,” Ito said. “He supported our theories of a case, but he also wanted us to check out every aspect of it.”

Tatreau, who sat on hundreds of LAPD boards of rights, which deal with disciplinary issues, did not shy away from controversy.

A believer in second chances, he often sided with those officers who had fallen out of favor.

“Jim had a soft spot for the underdog, for the ‘strays’ as he called them,’ ” said his sister, Terri Tatreau, a retired LAPD sergeant. “If you were being run out of town, Jim would step out in front and turn it into your parade.”

Born in Long Beach in 1948, James Tatreau was the sixth of eight children.

As a youngster, he played basketball and performed odd jobs -- delivering newspapers and shining shoes. He also worked at his family’s neighborhood restaurant washing dishes, peeling potatoes and preparing hamburger patties.

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On his way to Catholic school at 11, Tatreau would stop off at the courthouse in Long Beach to watch cases, sometimes missing class. But it wasn’t until high school that he began to consider a career in law enforcement.

While attending Long Beach City College, Tatreau became a student worker with the Los Angeles Police Department, joined the academy and graduated in 1970.

He rotated through assignments in patrol, traffic, vice, gang enforcement and Internal Affairs before being named captain of the Newton Division in 1990.

Between 1998 and 2003, he served as head of the Robbery-Homicide Division before being promoted to commander.

He is survived by his wife, Tammy; sons Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. Jim Tatreau Jr. and Officer Scott Tatreau of the Mesa, Ariz., Police Department; and daughters Tiffany and Tatum.

Funeral services will be at 9:30 a.m. next Tuesday at St. Pius V Catholic Church in Buena Park. The LAPD will hold a memorial service May 9 at the Police Academy.

The family asks that any donations be made to City of Hope for brain cancer research.

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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