The Los Angeles County district attorney's chief narcotics prosecutor pored over case files Saturday, scrambling to determine what legal damage might follow the announcement Friday that nine veteran sheriff's investigators were under investigation for allegedly misappropriating drug money seized as evidence.
Although the narcotics unit apparently had been under investigation for many months, a district attorney's office spokeswoman said Saturday that the suspension caught prosecutors by surprise. Spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said it was not until Friday that the chief of the office's major narcotics unit, Robert Schirn, learned of the inquiry.
Relieved of Duty
Eight deputies and a sergeant, all members of one of a handful of Sheriff's Department units that pursue major narcotics investigations, were relieved of duty as federal and county investigators pursued allegations that they misappropriated tens of thousands of dollars.
Schirn spent Saturday examining cases that could be affected by the scandal. The review is not expected to be concluded for days.
"We get a lot of business from that . . . unit," Gibbons said.
A federal law enforcement source said it appears that more than $200,000 might have been taken in the past year. There was no indication that narcotics were stolen, officials said.
Defense attorneys also were reviewing their files to learn if any of the nine suspended narcotics officers had arrested or helped convict their clients.
"This would destroy their credibility as witnesses," said Norman Goodfriend, who said he has represented dozens of clients accused of drug offenses.
However, if a case was based more on physical evidence than statements of the deputies, it might not be threatened, he said. The Sheriff's Department often conducts major drug raids along with other law enforcement agencies, and Goodfriend said officers from those agencies could testify about the seizure of evidence instead of the sheriff's deputies.
One defense attorney, Peter W. Scalisi, said that--if allegations against the deputies are proven--he would consider petitioning for a new trial for Juan Restrepo, convicted in Riverside Superior Court for possessing more than 400 pounds of cocaine seized in a Moreno Valley raid in 1988.
The lead investigator in that case was Deputy Daniel Garner, one of the nine removed from active duty Friday. Garner's sworn statements helped obtain a search warrant of his client's home, Scalisi said.
Testified at Trial
Both Garner and Sgt. Robert Sobel, who also was suspended, participated in the raid and testified in Restrepo's trial, Scalisi said. He said he could not recall if Restrepo reported any cash missing.
In addition to Garner, an 18-year veteran, and Sobel, a sergeant with 19 years of service, the other suspended deputies are Terrell H. Amers, James R. Bauder, Nancy A. Brown, Eufrasio G. Cortez, Ronald E. Daub, John C. Dickenson and Michael J. Kaliterna. All veterans, they were relieved of duty, which means they can still carry their badges and guns and receive pay but cannot perform their duties.
Court records show that Sobel previously faced allegations of stealing several hundred dollars, a wall clock and jewels in a 1986 drug raid but was cleared of that charge in a civil trial. He and two other officers were found liable for false arrest, however, and a judge this year ordered the county to pay a Lennox family $20,000 as a result.
Of the nine, only Kaliterna could be reached Saturday and he declined comment.
"These are trying times," he said, "and I'd rather not say anything right now."
His wife, Cynthia, said, "He's totally innocent and I stand behind him 100%."
After the officers were informed of their suspensions, investigators with search warrants seized paper work and other unspecified material from their homes. One of the deputies, Bauder, said that he never took any money and that the allegations against the unit were "all news to me."
Need to Relieve Team
Sheriff Sherman Block indicated Friday that all of the deputies suspended might not be responsible for the missing cash, but he said that it was necessary to relieve the entire investigative unit of duty simply because it works as a team.
A Sheriff's Department source said two of the suspended officers joined the unit in the last few months, long after an October, 1988, audit, according to Block, first indicated cash gathered in raids might be missing.
Sources familiar with Sheriff's Department operations said suspending an entire unit without filing criminal charges probably means that the department knows some malfeasance has occurred but it is unclear who is responsible.
Richard Shinee, attorney for the union that represents the suspended deputies, criticized Block on Saturday for releasing their names at a news conference even though no arrests have been made.