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Life and Crimes of the Rich and Famous

Police: From barking dogs to brutal homicides, Det. Leslie Zoeller has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of Beverly Hills.

May 13, 1996|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the past 20 years, Beverly Hills Police Det. Leslie H. Zoeller's beat has been the glitz and gore of 90210, one of the nation's most exclusive and headline-grabbing ZIP codes.

He's the Beverly Hills cop Zsa Zsa Gabor didn't smack when he politely but firmly asked her, twice, to move her Rolls-Royce during a traffic control detail on Beverly Drive.

A few years later, he was the investigator in the case in which Gabor delivered the slap heard around the world to the reddened face of one of his colleagues.

He has calmed family tiffs at Jimmy Durante's and at Groucho Marx's. He once advised Danny Thomas that it wasn't smart to brandish handguns at the looky-loos outside his house in Trousdale Estates. He asked Raquel Welch to quiet her barking dog.

"It's 2:30 in the morning, and there's this big dog barking," Zoeller recalled, boyish and unjaded at 44. "We knock on the door, and here comes Raquel Welch in her robe. And she was not pleasant."

He has taken theft reports from Barbara Stanwyck and Priscilla Presley and has maintained a decade-long friendship with one socialite, a robbery victim he affectionately calls "Mom."

And he has knocked on doors answered by residents--here the famous and not-so-famous must go nameless--wearing nothing but their birthday suits.

Beyond that, Zoeller has investigated some of the Los Angeles area's most high-profile homicides--the Menendez brothers case, the Billionaire Boys Club case and the Van Cleef & Arpels robbery-murders, during which three people died in a 13-hour standoff.

Recently freed from the Van Nuys courtroom where he had spent the past seven months at the Menendez brothers' retrial, Zoeller gave an exclusive Beverly Hills crime scene tour.

Passing the Peck Drive duplex of Billionaire Boys Club murder victim and con man Ron Levin, Zoeller said he is sure Levin is dead. Never mind that, 12 years after his death, no corpse has been found and that lately Levin seems to be popping up more than Elvis.

Cruising by the Spanish-style mansion on North Elm Drive where Jose and Kitty Menendez were shotgunned to death by their sons, Zoeller said he suspected the brothers from the beginning, though it took nearly seven years to prove their guilt.

On North Linden Drive, Zoeller backed up his car and idled in front of the stately house that once belonged to moll Virginia Hill. He said it still looks much as it did when Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the reputed gangster credited with founding the Vegas strip, was rubbed out in a hail of bullets fired through a living room window in 1947.

Zoeller believes he's close to closing the books on that case, too, even though it happened five years before he was born.

"He's the perfect homicide detective," said his longtime best friend, Rich Sigler, a homicide detective in Redondo Beach. "Everybody will talk to him. He has a good personality. He can be trusted. He's loyal. What more could a person want? It's all there."

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Zoeller doesn't curse, he doesn't shout or scowl, and he's so mellow and likable it's easy for a suspect to forget he's The Police. Sigler, like others, doesn't know how Zoeller maintains his cool in a profession that focuses so much on the dark side of human nature.

"I've never--in the 25 years I've known him--seen Les get angry," he said. "He doesn't show his emotions a lot. Where does it go?"

Zoeller says he vents by blasting rock music during his one-hour commute home to Moorpark, in eastern Ventura County. He sings along to Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, U2.

He grew up in Simi Valley, but when his parents moved to the Lake Tahoe area when he was 18, Zoeller decided to make his own way. He worked as an apartment manager while attending Moorpark College and met Sigler, then a Ventura County sheriff's deputy. He stumbled into police work "for no particular reason."

He took a few law enforcement courses and signed up with the Gardena Police Department. He says it never occurred to him to join the LAPD.

Three years later, Zoeller took a $22-a-month pay cut to work in Beverly Hills. He made detective in 1979.

Those who know Zoeller from the trenches of Los Angeles County's criminal justice system have nothing but respect for him.

"He's got a terrific temperament," said Fred Wapner, who has just been elected to the Superior Court and who prosecuted the Billionaire Boys Club case. "He's very professional. He's thorough and honest and hard-working. He isn't a cowboy type."

Deputy Dist. Atty. David P. Conn, prosecutor in the Menendez brothers' retrial, said Zoeller's credibility was one of the prosecution's biggest assets in the case.

"Sometimes good cases are lost simply because prosecutors and police lack credibility with the jury," Conn said. "Sometimes police officers come across as overzealous. Les Zoeller is a person whose integrity and honesty are unquestionable. You can't ask more of investigator."

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