Veleda Andromeda Douglas, a soft-spoken nutrition major from Howard University in Washington, D.C., packed her bags this summer after graduation and headed to West Covina on a Greyhound bus with dreams of a medical career.
Two days after her arrival, the 22-year-old honors student entered a nightmarish world of mistaken identity that kept her locked behind the bars of a Los Angeles County jail for one week.
Grand theft charges were dismissed Aug. 1 when police conceded that she was not really the woman who signed her name as Phanta Jane Bridgeworth on numerous bogus checks tied to an international fraud ring operated by Nigerians, which Southland authorities have been investigating for the last three years.
She Was Taking Exams
Douglas' story of fear and confusion did not end until police called Howard University six days after her arrest and discovered that she had been busy taking final exams while some of the crimes were being committed.
"Prison was not even in my vocabulary," Douglas said in a telephone interview from her father's home in Las Vegas. "They treat you like you're nothing. . . . It just scared me to death that I was going to be living with people who had committed murder."
Pasadena deputy public defender Phil Lipson, who fought for Douglas' release, said officers were remiss in not confirming her identity sooner.
"The whole incident outrages me and leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth for the criminal justice system," he said, noting that Douglas had no criminal record. "There was a presumption that she was guilty and it was up to her to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was not."
But Pasadena Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Court, who filed the complaint against Douglas, said police presented him with enough information to justify at least a preliminary hearing on the charges.
"It's inevitable that some mistakes are going to be made," Court said. "I don't think there's time to be perfect. . . . Given the same circumstances again, we probably would file the case with what we knew at that precise moment."
Douglas was arrested at a West Covina apartment July 17 by San Marino police officers who said that her braided hair, multiple earrings and light brown skin matched the description of a woman who is suspected of cashing about $25,000 in fraudulent checks in Pasadena and San Marino.
A telephone call made by Megan Abiodun Brice, a Nigerian national who is awaiting trial in Pasadena Municipal Court in connection with the alleged fraud scheme, was traced to the apartment unit, according to Sgt. Paul Butler of the San Marino Police Department.
Douglas was staying at the apartment with a Nigerian friend, who also was arrested but later released when police determined that he was not a suspect.
Although Douglas produced a Howard University identification card with a photograph, a diploma from her May graduation and a bus ticket showing that she had arrived just two days before, Butler said he was convinced that he had arrested the right suspect.
That evening, an employee at a San Marino bank where some of the bogus checks had been cashed selected Douglas' picture from a photo line-up of six black women and exclaimed, "That's her, you've got her!" according to Butler's police report.
"Normally, we don't go out trying to prove their alibi; we go out trying to prove the crime," Butler said in an interview. "So many things pointed to her that made me think I had the right person when I arrested her."
After spending the night of July 17 at the Covina Police Department, Douglas was booked at Sybil Brand Institute for Women. A Pasadena Municipal Court judge granted a request by San Marino officers to increase the customary $1,500 bail for grand theft to $100,000, an amount Douglas could not raise.
Having waived her right to have an attorney present during questioning, Douglas was not assigned a public defender until her arraignment July 22 in Pasadena Municipal Court.
Lipson, who took over the case July 23, said the arraignment was handled properly and that none of Douglas' rights were violated during her time in jail.
Investigation of Alibi
Still, he said, officers should have investigated her alibi and analyzed a handwriting sample taken the day after her arrest before any charges were filed.
"All the time they could be checking these things out, she's sitting in jail," Lipson said. "To me, that's wrong."
But Butler said that given the evidence, he acted properly. "I can sleep nights knowing I did what I had to do and I did it right," he said. "If I had not arrested her when I did I would look back and be critical of myself for not doing what I should have done."
Douglas, who hopes to become a registered dietitian this fall and eventually enter medical school, said she was frightened and bewildered by her first experience behind bars.