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Anonymous Note Alerted Sheriff to Deputies' Thefts : Crime: Officers were stealing drug money, the letter said. Soon after, a crack investigative team was on the trail.

BREACH OF TRUST. Inside the Sheriff's Department money-skimming scandal. One in a series

December 02, 1993|VICTOR MERINA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The typewritten letter was postmarked Oct. 28, 1988, and copies arrived simultaneously in the mailboxes of Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and three of his top executives. What it had to say was a bombshell.

"I have come to the point where I have to tell someone what I know," began the letter. "I am worried about my husband and my children and I am tired of living like a Mafia wife. The money doesn't make up for this living hell."

The anonymous author said she was tormented by the fact that her husband and other narcotics deputies were stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money and "making a mockery of everything they used to stand for."

"Please do something to stop this," urged the writer. "They all know they can go to jail and they live in fear too. (B)ut the greed has taken over everything else."

Only years later would investigators discover that the author of the explosive letter was no spouse. The writer was actually a Sheriff's Department employee who was a close friend of a narcotics deputy and was aware of the thefts. But no matter.

The letter would trigger the largest corruption investigation in local law enforcement history, a probe that has lasted five years and has resulted, so far, in the convictions of 19 present or former sheriff's deputies. In addition, four friends and family members of deputies have been convicted and a dozen other ex-officers are awaiting trial or retrial.

But the massive investigation, known as Operation Big Spender, did not get under way for more than five months after the letter arrived.

In the fall of 1988, sheriff's officials were skeptical of the allegations, which targeted some of the most experienced and decorated deputies in the department, including narcotics officers assigned to major drug-trafficking and money-laundering cases.

After all, sheriff's officials wondered, how could such thefts go unnoticed in a department of 8,000 officers? How could so many deputies be involved without anyone reporting the thefts? Why would veteran deputies risk their careers and a jail term to steal drug money?

When a preliminary inquiry failed to substantiate the allegations, they lay largely dormant until several incidents revived interest in the letter:

A deputy was heard complaining that his brother-in-law, a narcotics cop, was engaged in thefts and other misconduct. A supervisor in the Vice Bureau noted that one of his employees--the wife of a narcotics officer--was wearing flashy jewelry, driving a new Cadillac and taking time off for expensive vacations. And despite the lack of any hard evidence, rumors persisted that some narcotics officers were "dirty."

Chief of Detectives Ollie Taylor, who oversaw the narcotics bureau, spoke to Block, and both men realized that it was time for a full-scale investigation. Taylor called in Cmdr. Roy Brown, a top aide. He showed Brown the letter and gave him a mandate: Investigate the allegations and do it as quietly as possible.

Brown, a 30-year veteran of the department, was no stranger to police corruption, albeit on a much smaller scale. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, he would stand in his family's candy store and watch as his father paid off local beat cops with cartons of cigarettes. But that was penny-ante stuff.

The allegations that Brown was asked to investigate were serious. They involved possible felonies and hinted at an explosive scandal. And he was supposed to investigate law enforcement officers who were themselves experienced at surveillance and other techniques.

Brown, in effect, was a cop chasing cops--and he needed a crack investigative team. Meeting with Taylor and Lt. Kenneth Chausee at the Hall of Justice, the three began trading suggestions. They concentrated on using experienced detectives from the homicide and intelligence divisions. They avoided former narcotics deputies and eliminated any deputies who had worked with members of the Major Violators teams, which handled the largest drug cases.

What they wanted were detectives with special skills, men and women known for their dogged investigative styles. Their abilities to handle confidential sources. Their adeptness at scouring records. Above all, everyone on their list had to be discreet enough not to disclose anything to friends or colleagues.

For security reasons, the inaugural meeting of the team was held in a private room at a South Pasadena golf course. As the deputies learned the specific allegations against narcotics officers, one deputy realized that only a week before she had attended a training seminar given by Sgt. Robert Sobel, leader of the initial narcotics team under suspicion. A couple of investigators had once met another targeted narcotics officer and were aware of his reputation as a tough, effective cop.

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