Michael O'Day joined the Covina Police Department at the age of 21, became a sergeant at 25, captain at 30 and police chief at 32.
But his meteoric career ended abruptly 10 years later when he suddenly resigned, saying that he had been the target of a "malicious character attack."
This week, more than four years after his resignation, O'Day took the witness stand in Pomona Superior Court to describe how rumors that he had associated with prostitutes had wrecked his career. O'Day is suing Gerry Doyle, his antagonist in a 1983 controversy over the Police Department's strip-search policy, for defamation and infliction of emotional distress.
Doyle and her husband complained that police had unnecessarily subjected their son and two other boys to a humiliating strip-search after the boys were arrested on attempted burglary charges that were later dismissed. Doyle began a crusade against the strip-search of juveniles. She aggressively sought publicity, aired her grievances on the "60 Minutes" television show and helped obtain state legislation restricting juvenile strip-searches.
In his suit, O'Day accuses Doyle of maliciously making statements that he had stared at her breasts during a meeting and that he had been "running around and cavorting with prostitutes."
Doyle denies making the statements and has filed a cross-complaint against a Covina neighbor, Joan White. Doyle claims that White fabricated the statements; White contends that she merely relayed to the city manager what Doyle had told her.
Doyle's cross-complaint asks the court to force White to pay damages if O'Day wins his suit.
No one in the case has argued that there was any truth to the allegation that O'Day associated with prostitutes.
Sgt. Robert Weekly of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department testified Wednesday that he had worked with Covina Police on vice investigations over many years and O'Day's reputation was "excellent . . . beyond reproach." But, he said, O'Day became "less outgoing" and exhibited "a lack of confidence" after rumors about his character surfaced.
O'Day's attorney, Barbara E. Roberts, said the case is a classic example of how a "whispering campaign" can destroy a career.
O'Day told the jury that he decided to quit the police force after the city manager informed him of the allegations and he heard references to the rumors at meetings of the Covina Lions Club and Chamber of Commerce.
"I felt I couldn't be effective in the community any more," O'Day said. "People looked at me in a different perspective than they had in the past."
After resigning, O'Day said, he worked for a few months as a hearing aid technician, sold insurance, opened a delicatessen in West Covina that failed in four months and then moved in 1985 to Las Vegas to work as an investigator for the Nevada Gaming Commission. He said he moved back to the San Gabriel Valley in 1986 to remarry, and has been working as a private investigator ever since.
Now 47, O'Day is balding, bespectacled and portly, looking more like the stereotypical accountant than the police officer he once was.
Picked Up by Police
Doyle has been O'Day's antagonist since 1983, when her 12-year-old son and two other boys were picked up by police who thought the boys had tried to break into an office complex. The boys were taken to the police station, where they were ordered to take off their clothes and be searched before they were released to their parents.
O'Day testified that he met with Doyle and other parents a few days after their sons had been strip-searched, and that Doyle told him as she was leaving the meeting: "I'm going to get you."
Several weeks later, O'Day said, he heard the rumor about his association with prostitutes from City Manager Richard Miller, who has since died. O'Day said that Miller had received a telephone call from White saying that Doyle was making allegations.
White testified that she had dropped by Doyle's house to pick up some Amway products from Doyle, who was an Amway distributor. She said Doyle began talking about her troubles with the Police Department. White said Doyle told her that she had received telephone calls from prostitutes who had said they had been with O'Day. She said Doyle claimed to have tape-recorded the calls. In addition, she said, Doyle complained that O'Day had "constantly looked at her breasts" during a meeting.
'Ought to Know'
White said she did not believe Doyle's statements, but felt obligated to report the information to the city manager, whom she knew. "I felt that if there were things of that nature being said about anyone in city government, he ought to know about it," White said.