CLAREMONT — Jeff Hill, an athletic-looking 24-year-old undercover police officer, enrolled at Claremont High School last month to investigate reports of drug dealing on campus.
To football Coach Bob Baiz, unaware of Hill's true identity, the officer was a 200-pound senior with the makings of a great defensive end.
Prompted in part by Baiz' unwitting encouragement and Hill's reluctance to appear suspicious, the officer spent nearly two weeks practicing with teen-age players on the Wolfpack football team.
Although Hill stayed on the sidelines during the two regulation games played while he was on the team, Claremont Police Chief Dexter Atkinson admitted that it had been a mistake to permit the officer to participate in the football program.
"This was not an attempt to go up there and target any particular group or discredit Coach Baiz or his program," said Atkinson, who was named chief in August. "Once we learned the young man was on the team, we tried to get him off as soon as possible."
Although the Police Department might have fumbled the undercover operation, Atkinson was quick to note that the episode had not been a total loss.
Several students not involved in the football program may be arrested in connection with drug sales as a result of the investigation, and the parents of at least two football players have requested the police department's help for their sons' drug problems, he said.
Hill, who is now back on uniformed patrol, has been asked to provide counseling for those youths.
'Wish It Hadn't Happened'
"We wish it hadn't happened like this," said Claremont Unified School District Supt. Richard S. Kirkendall, who along with the school board and the high school principal had agreed to cooperate with the undercover investigation.
"But if they came to me again and said, 'We have evidence that warrants an investigation,' I'd say, 'Yes,' " Kirkendall added.
However, Baiz, who discovered that Hill was an undercover officer after trying to verify his eligibility, expressed outrage that a 24-year-old had been allowed to scrimmage with players ranging in age from 15 to 18.
"If I had known about this, it never would have happened," said Baiz, whose Wolfpack team has won the CIF Eastern Conference championship the last two years. If Hill had injured a player, Baiz said, "we could have all been liable."
According to a joint statement issued by the Police Department and the school district, Hill was enrolled at Claremont High School on Sept. 10, although his identity and the specifics of the investigation were unknown to school officials.
The decision to launch the investigation had been made in June, based on information indicating there was drug activity at the high school campus, officials said.
Hill, who was not allowed by Atkinson to discuss the investigation, had received three months of special training in undercover narcotics work at the Los Angeles Police Department and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
During his first day at school, Hill was "wandering and apparently lost," said Asst. Principal Ron Meyer.
"He told me he wanted to play football. He said, 'I'm looking for the football coach,' " Meyer recalled. "I said, 'Come on, I'll take you to the football coach.' "
Impressed With Size
Baiz said he was impressed with Hill's size and wanted to encourage the new student to pursue his interest in football.
"He was a nice-looking lad, no question about that," Baiz said.
The officer, who had played football in high school, thought that refusing to join the team would appear suspicious and could have jeopardized the entire investigation, Atkinson said.
"He had no other choice at the moment but to go along with it," said Atkinson, adding that Hill then practiced at "half-speed" to minimize the risk of injury.
Baiz, however, said that during the seven practices that Hill attended, the officer played aggressively.
"If he was tackling at half-speed, then he missed his vocation in life," Baiz said. "He's the best I'd ever seen on the field."
After making an anonymous call to CIF officials who informed police that the officer's participation in a game would result in automatic forfeiture, Atkinson said, "We knew clearly he would not play."
Baiz, meanwhile, had been trying to obtain transcripts from the "student's" former high school to verify his eligibility.
Saw Officer in Uniform
When he discovered that Hill had not attended the high school he said he had, Baiz confronted school officials and was told of the investigation.
Hill had quit the team two days before, Atkinson said, and was withdrawn from the high school on Sept. 23.
The episode did not become public until several weeks later, after some members of the football team saw Hill in a police uniform and asked their coach about the incident.
Baiz said he had not told the football players about the investigation.
Atkinson said the team never was implicated by the investigation and that the incident was not a reflection of the football program Baiz had developed.
"This was not meant to compromise him," Atkinson said. "This in no way casts a cloud over his integrity as a teacher, a coach or a man."