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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Standing Tall in Fresno : The city's new police chief has defied good ol' boy traditions, using a personal touch to combat violence in a city that has seen 82 murders this year.

December 06, 1992|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — One night last summer outside a posh Fresno restaurant, two men riding tandem on a stolen motorcycle, their faces concealed, tried to snatch the purse of 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds, a freshman at a Los Angeles fashion institute.

Reynolds, who had come home for the weekend, resisted. One man pulled a .357 magnum from his waistband and shot her point-blank in the head. She died 26 hours later.

The next day, Fresno's new police chief, Joseph Samuels, stood inside the Reynolds home leading the family in prayer. With God's help, he pledged, his men would find the men responsible.

In a record year for murder here, the killing of Reynolds has not been forgotten. It has become for Fresno what the 1988 murder of Karen Toshima in Westwood Village became for many in Los Angeles--proof that however partitioned a city may be, violence no longer abides social borders.

It was also confirmation that the man at the top, Samuels, a 43-year-old African-American who spent 17 years with the Oakland Police Department, was unlike Fresno police chiefs before him: hands-on, keen to the moment, willing to use the media without seeming exploitative.

In the days that followed, Samuels made good on his promise. When Fresno police gunned down the alleged triggerman in a shootout, the first call Samuels placed was to Mike Reynolds, Kimber's father.

"I have lived here my entire life and I have never seen a police chief get involved with the community in such a personal way," Reynolds said. "Whether it's my daughter or a march against drugs or a meeting with gangbangers, he's right in there all the time. He's listening."

*

From the day he assumed the post 13 months ago, Samuels has defied the sacred cows and good ol' boy traditions of the Fresno Police Department's 107-year history.

He refuses to hobnob with his men. At 6 foot 4 and 225 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure to go with an expansive vocabulary. Out on the town, he and his wife, who runs a modeling school, make a stunning pair.

But his reign comes at a time of great challenge for Fresno. For Samuels to succeed, city officials say, he will need all the strengths of his personality and intellect and then some.

Only Oakland, Samuels' last home, is more crime-ridden per capita among big California cities. Every four days, it seems, Fresnans awake to another killing. The 82 murders this year, surpassing a previous high of 69 set in 1990, might sound trifling to Southern Californians. But people here still think of their city, population 400,000, as a raisin town.

"Fresno is going through inevitable growing pains and searching for an identity and future," Samuels said. "That's part of the reason I came here. To help shape and define that future."

Long before growth brought a new kind of crime and a new kind of police chief to Fresno, townsfolk heeded a different ethos.

"Fresno is known all over California as the wickedest spot in the state," Chester Rowell, editor of the Fresno Morning Republican, groaned in the early 1900s. "Gambling houses running wide open all night and day. A tenderloin equal to that of an Eastern city 10 times our population."

Old police chiefs schemed with vice lords, milking payoffs to buy huge farms north of town. Federal agents began taking note in 1919, shortly after the resignation of Police Chief John Goehring, brother of future Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goering.

Raiding Ku Klux Klan headquarters in Los Angeles, federal agents seized a membership list that named seven Fresno police officers. Then agents busted a bootlegging ring operated by three Italian immigrants and 13 high-ranking police officials, including the new chief.

It was not until 1950, though, that one of Fresno's finest landed behind bars. Washington columnist Drew Pearson, portraying Fresno as one of the most venal cities in the country, wrote that Ray Wallace had amassed more than 1,700 acres of land while serving as police chief. Wallace got 18 months in federal prison for tax evasion.

Replacing him was former truck driver Hank Morton, whose 21-year reign made him the most powerful man in Fresno County. Morton ended up marrying one of the town's biggest madams.

"It was a rotten town with a rotten police force," said Larry Miller, a retired federal agent who busted numerous Fresno bookies with connections to the Police Department in the 1960s. "And the citizens didn't mind. Their indifference was practically suffocating."

In the 1970s, three federal organized crime strike forces investigated the Fresno Police Department. No charges ensued, though the last probe led to reorganization of the department and the firing of Chief Harold Britton. The past decade has seen the department shake much of its reputation.

*

Samuels, who holds a master's degree in public administration from Cal State Hayward, knows almost nothing of this history.

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