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Around the Foothills

The detective who drove Sirhan Sirhan to Parker Center that night is still a cop.

June 01, 1989|DOUG SMITH

On the night of June 4, 1968, Detective Frank J. Patchett was at home with his family. But it was not an evening destined for tranquillity.

Shortly after midnight the phone rang. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had been shot at the Ambassador Hotel. Patchett, then assigned to burglary at the Wilshire Station, was needed.

He headed toward the Ambassador but on the way considered the trouble he would have getting through traffic in the family car. He stopped by the station to pick up a police car.

"When I got there, they had Sirhan in custody," Patchett said. "A driver was needed to move him downtown. I handled that."

The detective who drove Sirhan Sirhan to Parker Center that night is still a cop. Patchett, now 58 and a captain, was named last month the new commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division. He replaced Capt. Noel Cunningham, who was reassigned to the 77th Division.

One day last week, Patchett sat at a conference table in his office behind the front desk of the station on San Fernando Road, recalling with congenial smiles events that propelled his career to a place where few in his trade are found--the history books.

"I think I made it downtown in nothing flat," Patchett said. "I had a great fear that someone was going to kill him. . . . I had the sense that maybe this guy was part of a group that might go out and do some other things."

Patchett parked the car in the open parking garage at Parker Center.

"All I wanted to do was get him out of that police car and into the building," he said. "He wasn't getting out of the car fast enough. I was pulling him out myself because of the thought that somebody was going to pop up and blow him away."

Patchett sat in on Sirhan's interrogation and after Kennedy died was assigned to the citywide unit formed to investigate the assassination. He stayed till the end.

While the public imagination swirled with conspiracy theories, Patchett focused on the mundane work of preparing a case for prosecution.

That meant identifying and interviewing almost 100 people who were in the pantry of the Ambassador when Kennedy was shot.

"It was a matter of somebody who could interview people and sort out fact from fiction," Patchett said. "There were a lot of people who wanted to be there, wanted to be a witness."

The investigators mapped the room with a grid.

"We located each person on a coordinate on the grid," Patchett said. "It was a long process."

After Sirhan's trial, Patchett stayed in homicide. He was available a year later when grocer Leno La Bianca and his wife, Rosemary, were brutally murdered in their Silver Lake home.

Patchett was put on the most celebrated criminal case in Los Angeles history. His role would be documented by Vincent Bugliosi, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted Charles Manson and later wrote about it in "Helter Skelter."

Though sometimes critical of the Los Angeles police for lapses or failures of investigative technique, Bugliosi generally depicted Patchett as quiet, thorough and determined.

Their recollections differed on Patchett's interview of Manson in the Independence jail. Bugliosi said Mansion left no impression on the detective.

Patchett recalled a gut reaction. He said Manson was calm and cooperative when asked about auto thefts. Then investigators asked about the Tate/La Bianca murders.

"He came unraveled," Patchett said. "Just his reaction convinced me this was the guy."

The case would depend not on hunches but on thousands of pieces of evidence, most dug up through footwork, as when Bugliosi needed to counter a possible Manson alibi.

"I had asked La Bianca detectives Patchett and Gutierrez to see if they could obtain evidence proving his actual whereabouts on the subject dates," he wrote. "They did an excellent job. . . . They were able to piece together a timetable of Manson's activities during the week preceding the start of Helter Skelter."

It may not have been swashbuckling. It was the real work of a real detective.

Today, Patchett performs the even less swashbuckling work of command. After tours as commanding officer in three of the city's most crime-impacted police divisions, he takes on a different sort of challenge.

The Northeast Division is large and sprawling, with a relatively low crime rate but bordering tougher areas.

"The officers are constantly getting called to the other areas," Patchett said. "If you're working one end of the thing and there's no unit clear, you may get called to the other end. We don't have the benefit of a freeway. There are some hilly areas. That makes it tough to answer some calls."

His goals are direct: to reduce response time, stop the spread of gangs and "just generally see what we can do to improve the quality of life for the area."

And, yes, he did drive by the La Bianca house again, "just out of curiosity."

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