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Is Bill Leasure The Most Corrupt Cop In L.a.?

October 27, 1991|EDWARD HUMES | Edward Humes is a Los Angeles journalist and author of "Buried Secrets." His book on the Leasure case will be published next year by Dutton. and

AFTER TWO MONTHS OF INVESTIGATION, THE CASE AGAINST Leasure for theft of boats seemed solid. But the LAPD wanted more. And so, on a smoggy day in August, 1986, a pair of investigators from I.A. sat down at a downtown Denny's to meet the man they hoped would provide a final betrayal of Officer Leasure.

"Bill and I always came here," the nervous little man told the two policemen. "This is where we'd meet. I know a lot about Bill Leasure."

The policemen nodded, waiting. Dennis France was a semiliterate welder from Downey, a longtime friend of Leasure's and, the investigators believed, an accomplice in several yacht thefts as well.

France's name had turned up in Leasure's notebook, which appeared to detail yacht deals with Kuns and others. It wasn't enough to arrest France, but he didn't know that. If they could get him to roll on his friend, they could nail shut the case against Leasure.

"Tell us more," Detective Tom King recalls urging France. King was an imposing man with salt-and-pepper hair and a quiet, poker-faced authority. "This would be a good time for you to come clean, Dennis. Before we go forward--without your help. Then it'll be too late."

But France shook his head with mulish patience, as King and others involved in the case tell it. He was a short, stout man, pale and balding and harmless looking, his round face creased with worry lines. He said he was afraid for himself and his wife and children. He needed protection. And he wanted immunity before he'd talk.

Sure, sure, anything was possible, the investigators said, but first they had to know what he knew. But France stubbornly refused to speak in anything but vaguely disturbing generalities unless he was guaranteed immunity. Then, finally, to break the impasse, he handed the detectives a strange hypothetical: What if he and Leasure robbed a bank, and Leasure ordered him to kill everyone present, and he did it--what if he had shot eight people, on Leasure's order? This didn't really happen, France said. But, hypothetically, would the police be interested? Would they make a deal?

The two detectives were not sure what to say, other than it would be pretty hard to make a deal with someone who had killed eight people. So France changed the hypothetical, according to one detective's testimony in the case. He said: What if it was two people?

The I.A. investigators excused themselves to have a short discussion over the phone with their boss, Sgt. David Wiltrout, who eventually took a stress-disability retirement because of the Leasure case. The sergeant, according to King, said they should give France what he wanted.

They took him to the Criminal Courts Building, to the office of an assistant district attorney assigned to the Special Investigations Divison, which prosecutes corrupt government officials and dirty cops. Assistant Dist. Atty. Robert Jorgenson, who has since died, told France he would be immune from prosecution if he told them the truth about Leasure.

"Whatever I tell you, you can't use (it) against me?" France recalls asking.

The D.A. told him yes.

France took a deep breath and the policemen flipped open their notebooks, anxious to hear the inside story on the boat thefts and frauds, and whatever else France would spill.

Their mistake became instantly, sickeningly clear.

"I killed two people for Bill Leasure," France calmly announced, a statement he would reiterate many times in court. "And I drove the car on a third hit."

The policemen and the D.A. sat in silence for a moment.

They had expected a tale of rich men's yachts pirated at sea and sold for obscene profit. Instead, they had just given immunity to a killer, and there wasn't a damn thing they could do about it.

Except, of course, to go after Bill Leasure.

WHEN VETERAN ROBBERY-HOMICIDE DETECTIVES ADDISON "BUD" Arce and Henry Petroski were called in on their day off to launch a new murder investigation, they were more than a little dubious of France's story--and they were horrified that an I.A. sergeant, not known for his experience in complex criminal cases, and a D.A., who should have known better, had given France total immunity. Without any legal representation, good ol' boy Dennis France had negotiated a deal for himself that would be the envy of every high-powered defense lawyer in town.

But as for the story LAPD had traded for: France was vague and uncertain on details, he didn't have names of victims or dates of the murders, and, most disturbingly, he kept contradicting himself. As he told and retold the story, details would shift--the amount of money Leasure allegedly paid him for each killing kept changing, as did the motives for some of the murders. "At first," Petroski recalled, "we really didn't know if we could believe this guy or not. All we knew was, they had given a murderer a walk."

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