In ratty motels and pool halls along Beach Boulevard, they call John J.C. Stephens "The Hard Way," a nickname hinting of a callous streak that kept him a loner among a band of thieves and speed addicts.
For the investigators who now allege he is also a cop killer, Stephens' nickname reminds them of the four-year quest to capture the "phantom gunman" who left Garden Grove Police Officer Howard E. Dallies Jr. bleeding in the street on March 9, 1993.
"In most investigations, you get a big break, a big lead, or something," says Lt. Kevin Raney, leader of a task force that met twice daily for the past year while working the case. "Not this one. Nothing came easy."
Their relentless tracking down of thousands of leads--with few resulting in physical evidence--underscored their desire and determination to avenge a fallen officer.
"This shooting ripped the heart out of this department," said Raney, a 19-year veteran of the Garden Grove police force. "We were reeling. A phantom gunman kills an officer, and we had no idea why, how it happened, or who did it. We had to find the answers, or this would keep eating at the soul of this department."
The answers were slow in coming. Despite using a wide array of resources--everything from bloodhounds to planting an electronic bug in a prison cell--investigators were met with frustration at every turn.
In the end, the break in case came from one of Hard Way's friends, an alibi witness who admitted lying to police about Stephens' whereabouts at the time of Dallies' killing.
"Once that alibi was removed, we had a clearer understanding of everything," Raney said. "This investigation was a series of small steps, sometimes painfully small steps. That was one of the few big steps."
Several hurdles remain, however.
The 45,000-page filing submitted by police to prosecutors relies largely on circumstantial evidence that points to Stephens. The chance of winning a conviction at trial hinges on a jury seeing the entire picture, Raney says.
"We know--this department knows--who killed Howard Dallies now," Raney said. "Proving it in court is a different threshold. It's been a long road. Now we want to present the story of how this officer was murdered to 12 people and let them decide."
Task Force Restarts Search for a Killer
On a crisp March morning last year, 13 men gathered on Aldgate Avenue and, with hands stuffed in their pockets and heads hung down, they each retraced Howard Dallies' last steps. They paused at the spot where the fatally wounded cop crumpled to the asphalt, his gun still holstered.
They were veteran homicide detectives and undercover narcotics officers, along with one street cop and three retired investigators from the Orange County district attorney's office.
The group was assembled at the north Garden Grove site by Raney and Sgt. Mike Handfield at the order of Police Chief Stan Knee. Three years had passed since the shooting, and Knee wanted to restart the search for Dallies' killer.
Knee hoped a fresh perspective or the promise of some new technology might help this new task force succeed where the original team had failed.
For six months after the 1993 shooting, the first task force scrambled to find the gunman while the trail was still warm. A small army of investigators from a dozen agencies worked day and night on the case, which took a variety of turns.
One early lead cost investigators valuable time. A taxi driver reported that he had picked up a suspicious dark-haired man, who emerged from the shadows to wave the cab down just blocks from the crime. Weeks were wasted before the investigators concluded that the cab driver had fabricated the entire account, Raney said.
Other leads--such as the discovery that the same weapon had been used in an earlier Santa Ana shooting--were more fruitful, but ultimately not enough to keep the 40-member investigative task force moving forward.
As the tips slowed to a trickle, the task force was dismantled, and the open case was turned over to the homicide unit.
A framed photograph of Dallies, 36, never left Knee's desk, though. Knee says it was "unfinished business, unserved justice" that prompted him in September 1995 to have Handfield and three investigators review all 25,000 pages compiled by the first task force.
By the time the investigators gathered six months later on Aldgate Avenue, that monumental review had produced three suspect names. One of them was John "The Hard Way" Stephens.
The three names had come up repeatedly during the investigation, in phone calls from the public, in interviews with police informants, and from the hunches of patrol cops who knew the local criminal element.
But there was never any concrete evidence that would clear or confirm any of them as a prime suspect, investigators said.
That became the goal of the second task force, Raney said, to implicate or clear the three under suspicion.