More than two years after he was accused of slaying a Garden Grove police officer, John J.C. Stephens walked out of Orange County Jail a free man Wednesday as prosecutors abruptly dropped murder charges against him.
The decision came two days after a judge dealt a severe blow to the prosecution's fragile case by barring the testimony of a key witness who, the court ruled, had been coerced by police into making incriminating statements against Stephens.
Left with no eyewitnesses, forensic evidence or a weapon connecting Stephens to the 1993 shooting death of Officer Howard E. Dallies Jr., prosecutors said they could not prove their case in court.
Stephens, 28, walked out of jail about 4 p.m., smiling and shrugging off reporters' questions. Family and friends surrounded him as he entered an awaiting car that sped him away from the jail that had been his home for the last 24 months.
Dallies' slaying on routine overnight patrol six years ago stunned the county and began a mystery that now may never be solved.
While the district attorney's office said it will continue to investigate the case, officials said it is unlikely that any charges will be filed unless significant new evidence is found.
Already the most expensive and complex investigation in Garden Grove police history, the case has created friction between prosecutors and police and raised questions about the detectives' tactics.
The district attorney's office had decided two weeks ago to drop the case before the preliminary hearing but held off at the last minute after intense lobbying by Dallies' colleagues.
"Stephens may well have killed Officer Dallies . . . but it cannot be proven in a court of law," Deputy Dist. Atty. Rick King said.
Stephens' attorney, however, accused police of building a severely flawed case built largely on false statements from witnesses.
"The tragedy remains that the intimidation, coercion and pressure tactics used by [police] . . . resulted in the production of lies," associate public defender Stephen J. Biskar said.
For Stephens' supporters, the decision meant vindication. "It's a big relief," friend Ruthie Wickwar said. "I knew he didn't do it.'
But Dallies' colleagues expressed anger and disbelief, especially those officers who spent years searching for his killer.
"Obviously, myself and [other investigators] are devastated," Sgt. Michael Handfield said. "We worked the information the best we could."
Dallies' widow criticized prosecutors for dropping the charges and said that her two children are devastated by the decision.
"It's bad enough that they've been without their father for the last six years," Mary Dallies-Carpenter said.
The investigation was fraught with difficulties from the very start. Detectives had little to go on, other than a witness who saw a motorcycle race from the scene and the 36-year-old officer's dying words that described his killer: "white, male, young."
In the years that followed, a team of more than 40 investigators chased down about 3,000 leads. But detectives were unable to find the .38-caliber handgun used in the killing and linked to a separate shooting of a Santa Ana security guard, Rene Carpio. Police never found forensic evidence or any witnesses who could positively identify Stephens as Dallies' killer.
Instead, investigators constructed a case based on circumstantial evidence, most of it from drug users and bikers who hung out together at Garden Grove bars and knew Stephens.
Police honed in on Stephens after ballistics tests matched the weapon fired at Dallies with the one used to severely wound Carpio two months earlier. Stephens' name popped up repeatedly when investigators released a sketch of the security guard's shooter.
At first, Stephens' alibi looked solid. His girlfriend, Delores "Lola" Duvall, claimed he was with her the night of the killing. But under interrogation, she recanted, telling detectives that Stephens came home a few hours after the shooting, told her that he had been involved and then dyed his hair.
Others also buckled during police interviews, providing statements that implicated Stephens. In July 1997, more than four years after Dallies was gunned down, police arrested Stephens.
But the fragile case began to collapse Monday, when Ryan raised serious questions about police tactics. The judge ruled that detectives had coerced Patricia McFarland--who suffers from cerebral palsy and is dyslexic--into giving them a statement implicating Stephens as the killer.
McFarland twice told detectives--and twice later recanted--that she was at Duvall's home when Stephens returned home a few hours after Dallies was killed, talking about a shooting. She said Stephens then dyed his hair.
But she insisted under oath last week that she had fabricated the tale because she had felt frightened of police. Ryan agreed.
In a second ruling, Ryan determined that another key prosecution witness was not intimidated into talking to police but lacked credibility. Ryan said in his Santa Ana courtroom that he "would be hard pressed to believe any word that came out of that lady's mouth at any time."
Defense attorneys claimed a pattern of threats and coercion by detectives questioning possible witnesses, many of whom were drug addicts, parolees or probationers.
Police deny they leaned too hard on witnesses.
"I think the detectives were very aggressive and focused and used some harsh words with people," Garden Grove Police Capt. Dave Abrecht said. "I still don't think that I would say that that's coercion."
Times correspondent Jason Kandel contributed to this report.