SAN DIEGO — Police Chief Bob Burgreen has detached the second-ranking officer in his department to determine whether any police officers were involved in the mysterious and brutal slaying five years ago of Donna Gentile, a prostitute and police whistle-blower.
In an unprecedented move, Burgreen has assigned Assistant Chief Norm Stamper to review the Gentile murder case, which is being investigated along with 40 other killings by the joint city-county Metropolitan Homicide Task Force.
"There is no slaying in this city that has bothered me more than the murder of Donna Gentile," Burgreen said. "And, if indeed a police officer was involved in murder, I want him arrested, and I want him put behind bars."
For the last few weeks, Stamper, who normally runs the day-to-day operations of the San Diego Police Department, has been working full time at the homicide task force's secret Mission Valley location.
Burgreen declined to elaborate on whether new evidence had been found in the case, but several sources said there is widespread expectation in the law enforcement community that the investigation will result in charges against San Diego police officers. Already, the San Diego police union is considering whether to provide legal representation for any officers who might be charged.
The body of the 22-year-old Gentile was found in rural East County in June, 1985, soon after she testified at a civil service commission hearing about misconduct by a group of San Diego officers.
Her beaten, nude body was tossed off Sunrise Highway. Stuffed inside her mouth were gravel and rocks, a sign some investigators took to mean that she was killed for talking about police misconduct. Four months before her death, she predicted in a tape-recorded conversation that she might be harmed by "someone in a uniform with a badge."
Burgreen said he ordered Stamper, his right-hand subordinate, to undertake the review because of nagging concerns that have persisted about why Gentile was killed.
"We have lived with it for such a long time," he said, "and we need to finally put to rest an answer to how that occurred.
"I am tired of hearing the innuendo. I am tired of reading stories in the newspaper that allege that a San Diego police officer or officers were involved in the murder of Donna Gentile. I want to put to rest once and for all that speculation."
Burgreen declined to discuss specifics about the continuing joint city police-county sheriff's task force investigation. But he sharply denied that he ordered Stamper to work with the task force with the intention of pulling the city Police Department out of the joint effort.
"Absolutely not," the chief said. "Instead, I want him to give me a full report on what that task force is doing, what it has been able to determine so far, and what resources are needed in the future to solve these cases."
He added that, although Stamper's role is primarily to review the Gentile murder, the assistant chief also is examining the task force's progress on the other 40 slayings of women, most of them prostitutes, drug addicts or transients, since the Gentile killing.
He would not comment on when, or even if, the investigation might lead to criminal charges against any officers; nor would he discuss reports that the task force has assembled new evidence in the Gentile case. But Burgreen did say he expected Stamper to be involved on the Gentile homicide project for some time.
"He's reviewed maybe only 20% of the files so far," he said. "There are book binders and reams of papers and reports down there. Norm Stamper is a very smart man and a quick study, and he has only reviewed a fraction of what's on file down there."
Stamper could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Cooke, who is the official task force spokesman, also could not be contacted. Along with city and sheriff's investigators, a deputy district attorney has been assigned to work with the task force.
But other high-ranking officials in San Diego's law enforcement community said they are bracing for the negative publicity that a murder prosecution against police officers would bring.
In interviews Wednesday, the sources said that, not only are San Diego police officers potential murder suspects, but some city police supervisors may have attempted to hamper the official investigation.
"They've got to be close to some suspect, or they wouldn't move (Stamper) over there," said one source inside the San Diego Police Department who asked not to be identified. "Something must have happened to break this thing wide open. Something new is going on now."
In the Sheriff's Department, a high-placed supervisor who also requested anonymity said he has been told that criminal prosecution against city police officers is a distinct possibility this summer.