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Ex-Officer Convicted in Rapes, Robberies

Courts: Michael Brambles, once a high-profile LAPD detective, faces 140 years in prison.

July 12, 1996|PAUL LIEBERMAN and PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Former Los Angeles Police Det. Michael D. Brambles, who worked a series of high-profile cases during a 23-year career, was found guilty Thursday of 26 felony counts for a Ventura Boulevard crime spree of robbery and rape that began while he was still on the force.

As he did throughout his monthlong trial, the 47-year-old Brambles sat impassively, taking notes on a legal pad, as the court clerk read the verdicts that portrayed him, in the end, as a garden-variety stickup man, victimizing a string of restaurants, shops and dry cleaners.

No sentencing date was set because the jury still is deliberating on one count of assault with a deadly weapon. But the detective who reportedly received more than 40 commendations during his career, and testified to Congress about Mafia involvement in the notorious swindle by Reseda-based ZZZZ Best, could now be sentenced to 140 years in prison. He still faces yet another trial in Ventura County, where he is charged with four more robbery and sex counts.

Defense attorney Anthony Brooklier had argued that Brambles was a victim of "tragic misidentification" in 1994 when he was linked by a parade of victims to a four-month string of 18 holdups, most along the San Fernando Valley's Ventura Boulevard corridor. Two ended in rapes.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Michelle Daniels called the former detective a "clean-cut, cool-as-ice bandit" who "chose to hide behind the symbolism of a badge."

"All kinds of people from all walks of life commit all kinds of crimes . . . for all sorts of reasons," she said in closing statements. "Some do it for money, some do it for the sense of power. Some do it for the thrill of living on the edge." Brambles, she said, was drawn to the last--"life on the edge."

Confident and aggressive, he rose quickly from the patrol ranks to become a supervising detective in the LAPD's elite Organized Crime Intelligence Division. He headed a team that probed the collapse of the ZZZZ Best carpet cleaning company, served as the LAPD's "handler" for the late "Beverly Hills Madam," Elizabeth Adams, and chased Mafia suspects.

Brambles even represented the LAPD at a congressional hearing on the ZZZZ Best case, telling the Capitol Hill panel that mob figures helped inflate the stock value of Barry Minkow's Reseda-based company for a simple reason: "Money."

Fellow detectives later speculated that it was one reason Brambles himself may have turned to crime after his career took a downward turn.

In 1989, a partner in the organized crime unit alleged before a grand jury that he rigged a photo lineup, putting his finger under the picture of the real suspect to tip off a crime victim.

Brambles was transferred to the West Los Angeles police station to work car theft investigations. He later was disciplined for lying in testimony when he denied having an affair with a female attorney he met on a case and for harassing a female officer by sending her a photo of his bare buttocks.

In November 1993, he took leave from the LAPD for a work-related medical condition and moved to Las Vegas. But he continued to fly back to Los Angeles--primarily to visit his two children, he said, and finalize his retirement, which became official in March 1994.

That was in the middle of the string of robberies. Witnesses described a lone gunman, in denim jacket and baseball cap, who would clean out cash registers at closing time. In two instances, the robber lingered to sexually assault female sales clerks.

Brambles became a suspect May 5, 1994, after a chance encounter: A clerk at a dry cleaning shop that had been robbed was moonlighting at an Inglewood motel where Brambles was staying--and called police to say Brambles was the gunman. A search of Brambles' room turned up his loaded .38-caliber gun, known as a "detective's special." A search of his vehicle found a denim jacket and white mesh gloves similar to ones described by the robbery victims.

But perhaps the most damning evidence was produced by a Maryland laboratory, Cellmark. It found a "one in 13 billion" match between Brambles' blood and semen left on the shirt of a clerk raped at a Woodland Hills clothing store.

At the trial, Brambles' attorney tried not to make a big issue of the DNA, hammering instead on how the victims' initially gave wildly varying descriptions of the robber, including different heights, hairstyles and even eye color. "They can't be talking about the same person," Brooklier argued.

Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk limited discussion of Brambles' turbulent career, along with defense conspiracy theories that were based on Brambles' claims that LAPD rivals may have been out to get him.

When Brambles took the witness stand two weeks ago, however, he was allowed to briefly describe a clash with other officers, from the vice unit, when they arrested the notorious madam. Brambles became a defense witness for Adams, saying she had been given immunity from prosecution for passing on sensitive "pillow talk" intelligence picked up by her call girls.

Adams also figured in Brambles' explanation of why he kept renting cars at Los Angeles airport even though he had his own vehicle. Whereas the prosecutor maintained that he used the cars to pull robberies, Brambles said he needed plain-looking vehicles to do private detective work for the madam, snooping on a rival trying to take away her "girls."

Both sides used the colorful snippet of testimony in their closing statements.

"Maybe he incurred the wrath of LAPD when he testified in the Elizabeth Adams case," Brooklier told jurors. "I'm sure this didn't help Mr. Brambles."

But prosecutor Daniels jumped on the testimony to suggest a reason why a former star detective might have staged such grubby crimes.

"You have heard the defendant likes to live a life on the edge [through] his own fantastic explanation . . . [that he was] working for no less than a madam . . . while he was still a Los Angeles police officer."

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