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An Activist Slain, an Impostor Unmasked

Violence: Oakland woman allegedly killed her crime-fighting sister and assumed her identity.

July 17, 1997|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — On its face it is a twisted tale of two sisters, of heroism and murder, of money and mistaken identity.

On July 1, Oakland anti-drug activist Stevie Allman's modest white bungalow was firebombed, sending her to the hospital with burns over 15% of her body. Her pit bull and Chihuahua were killed.

It was the drug dealers, she swore from her hospital bed, and Oakland police hopped to, declaring that they were "taking this as an offense not only against her but the entire city."

Gov. Pete Wilson had the state pop for a $50,000 reward, and donations from an admiring public poured into Alta Bates Medical Center, where the brave 52-year-old activist exhorted her neighbors to "please stay involved, join the Neighborhood Watch."

Wait.

On Tuesday, Oakland police, tipped that something was amiss, got a search warrant and found a body in the burned house. Under questioning, Allman admitted that she wasn't Allman after all. She was really Allman's younger sister Sarah Mitchell--a woman with a rap sheet that includes welfare fraud and prostitution.

That same day, Mitchell was charged with murdering the sister she had impersonated, dismembering her body and stuffing it into a small freezer in the kitchen. The motive: Money.

"This is the stuff of a Hollywood movie," said police Capt. Peter Dunbar.

On Wednesday, the thick plot thickened further as police tried to figure out which of the sisters they had worked with for a year to clear the working class East Oakland neighborhood of crime.

They tried to figure out who set the fires. Exactly when Allman disappeared. When she died. When her sister allegedly took over her life. What exactly the relationship was between the activist and the alleged murderer. And why, though the two were said to look alike, nobody did anything until now.

To date, the answer to those questions and most others is a resounding "Who knows?"

"Now we're not sure who was working with the police, but people in that house were assisting in investigations of narcotic activity in the area," a perplexed Dunbar said Wednesday.

While police say Allman probably was last seen in April, Dunbar said: "We know for a fact that at least two years ago [Mitchell] had assumed Stevie's identity for the purposes of cashing a check."

The final chapter in the Allman saga began on June 19, when fire struck her little home on 50th Avenue with its big picture window. It was not known who set the blaze, but no one was injured and damage was not substantial.

The bungalow was torched a second time on July 1, with more drastic results. Neighbors said Allman came screaming down the stairs, her dress on fire. "Help me, help me," she cried.

This time, the consensus was the drug dealers did it. The overworked Police Department threw all of its available officers at the crime.

"We intend to jump on this with both feet and both fists," police Chief Joseph Samuels Jr. declared at the time.

Allman--or was it someone else?--had worked with the police, delivering videotapes of drug transactions and other activities shot through the living room curtains.

"I have no doubt they intended to murder me and burn the house down on top of me," the hospitalized woman said in a public statement soon after the blaze. "Their warped minds thought the act would clear the way to do their dirty dealing . . . and at the same time scare everyone else along 50th Avenue and beyond into a submissive terrified slave state."

Angry and compassionate well-wishers sent more than 100 cards and letters to the hospitalized heroine. There were 92 checks totaling $4,700. The Oakland Police Officers Assn. planned to donate $500 to help Allman replace her pets, Oda and Caesar.

On July 9, Allman was released from the hospital. Things were getting stranger. Two days earlier, one of Allman's 10 brothers and sisters had filed a missing person's report on her with authorities in Scotts Valley, a small city south of San Jose.

Oakland police didn't get that report until Monday, but by then, others had alerted the department that their investigators may have been talking to Sarah, not Stevie. At first, police thought it was just a mix-up in names.

But when they went back and reviewed other information, they realized that they were not sure who was who.

One signal that there were problems in the story they were hearing was the governor's reward. Surprisingly, no one came forward to claim it. In addition, efforts to link drug dealers with the crime were going nowhere.

Under questioning, Mitchell first insisted that she was Allman. But then her fingerprints matched a set in the state's computer banks, linking her to a 1970s prostitution conviction and a welfare fraud arrest under the name Sarah Mitchell.

She was arrested Tuesday morning on suspicion of forgery for cashing a check from the Alta Bates Foundation. The money had come to help the brave drug fighter Stevie Allman.

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