At the time, there seemed little reason for sheriff's narcotics detectives to question the veracity of their informant. His tips had often resulted in arrests and, more important, he was willing to testify before a judge.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 8, the informant accompanied Deputy Rickey Ross to a four-unit apartment complex in the 1300 block of Lake Avenue in Pasadena. He confidently pointed out two apartments where, he said, he had purchased cocaine from a Latino male and female and witnessed several other drug transactions.
Acting quickly on the tip, Ross secured a search warrant at 1:42 a.m. Eight hours later, a team of officers carrying rifles and battering rams burst into the two apartments. What they found surprised even the most experienced among them.
Instead of a rock house with two drug dealers in their 30s and 40s, they found one apartment empty because its 69-year-old tenant was in the hospital, and in the other they found a startled 63-year-old woman.
The Officers Apologized
They were told there were no Latinos living or visiting anywhere in the four-unit complex. Dumbfounded, the officers apologized and retreated quietly.
But in the weeks since, the building's residents and landlord have raised a number of questions about the raid. They wonder how sheriff's investigators could have made such a mistake and why surveillance was not done to determine that only elderly women, none of them Latinos, lived in the four small apartments.
"It was a terrible mistake," said Barbara Reynolds, whose 69-year-old mother, Evelyn Dykeman, lives in one of the apartments identified by the informant as a rock house. "But we're still waiting for some answers."
Sheriff's Department investigators acknowledged that the raid was unusual because of the contrasts between what they expected to find and what they actually discovered. They said they had second thoughts about the accuracy of the tip, but those were dispelled when they met after the raid with the informant and his attorney.
"We were surprised. . . . It was obvious once we were inside that this didn't look like a typical dope house and that senior citizens were living there," said Deputy Ken Duffey, Ross' partner. "But that doesn't mean that during the nighttime hours, our informant couldn't have gone in there and dealt with Latinos and bought drugs."
Since the raid, investigators have surmised that the Latinos they sought may have been friends of Dykeman's 37-year-old son, who the family said has a history of drug and alcohol problems. Investigators said, however, that the son is not a suspect.
In the past year, local police and sheriff's deputies have arrested dozens of suspects and seized millions of dollars in cocaine in the San Gabriel Valley. Ross and Duffey characterized local cocaine sales as having reached "epidemic proportions." They said raids are the best tool in breaking up large rings; trusted informants are essential to police success.
Just hours before officers raided the Lake Avenue apartments on Jan. 8, the same informant had led them to two other locations in the county, where they arrested four suspects and recovered several small bags of cocaine, deputies said.
Ross described the informant as a longtime source whose tips had led to dozens of arrests over the past year. He said the informant had never given police wrong information.
"We had no reason to doubt a totally reliable informant," Ross said. "The informant was certain that drugs were also being dealt from the Lake Avenue apartments."
The search warrant to raid the Pasadena apartments did not name the two suspects, describing each only as having black hair, brown eyes and a medium build. It was signed by Superior Court Judge Eric Younger. (Younger was out of the country and unavailable for comment.)
As a professional courtesy, Ross then contacted Pasadena police who agreed to accompany a sheriff's raid team. The nine officers who descended on the two apartments in a coordinated raid wore special jackets and bulletproof vests and carried rifles and two hand-held battering rams.
"They knocked on the doors and said 'Police. We have a warrant," said Tim Vargo, who saw the raid from the rear of his Lake Avenue health food store next door. "They waited maybe 5 or 10 seconds and then they busted down the doors."
But once inside, the officers found none of the drugs or narcotics paraphernalia described by the informant or listed in the search warrant.
In the upstairs apartment, Betty Wampler was organizing the belongings of her 83-year-old aunt, Mary Chafe, who had died a week earlier. Wampler, 63, who had traveled from Cleveland to bury Chafe, said in an interview that she kept telling police officers that there were no Latinos in the complex. They then gave the apartment a cursory search.