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Clerk Sues State Drug Agency Over Allegations in Cocaine Case

Courts: Woman says her reputation was destroyed by officials who refuse to clear her as a suspect in theft from an evidence locker.

June 30, 1999|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although a veteran law enforcement officer was prosecuted for the crime, authorities have steadfastly refused to clear a civilian property clerk as a suspect in the theft of 650 pounds of cocaine from the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement office in Riverside.

Now, Shirleen Gravitt is suing the agency in federal court, claiming that her reputation was destroyed when she was identified to her colleagues as the prime suspect and subjected to a humiliating search of her home by as many as 40 investigators.

Gravitt, the only civilian among 14 employees with access to the drug locker, said in her suit that she had nothing to do with the theft over the July 4, 1997 weekend.

On Friday, a federal jury convicted former state drug agent Richard Parker, 44, of filing a false income tax return, but acquitted him of three criminal counts and deadlocked on four others stemming from the cocaine theft. Parker was accused of faking a burglary to swipe the drugs.

The U.S. attorney's office must now decide whether to retry Parker, who has been in jail since his arrest a year ago.

Asked about Gravitt's status in the case, a spokesman for state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who oversees the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, would say only that the investigation into the cocaine theft "remains open."

And in a carefully worded response, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor's office said Tuesday:

"There is an ongoing investigation into the theft of the narcotics from the BNE evidence locker. Because of that I am unable to comment specifically on potential subjects of that investigation."

Gravitt's name surfaced several times during Parker's eight-week-long trial, although no evidence was presented by either side linking her to the theft.

Subpoenaed as a witness, she was not called when her lawyer told the court she would invoke her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. He said she would not testify as long as any threat of prosecution remained.

Gravitt, 49, declined to discuss the case on her attorneys' advice.

In his opening remarks at the trial, Parker's defense lawyer, Richard A. Hamar, cast Gravitt as a possible suspect, saying she "had the motive, means and opportunity" to commit the theft.

Hamar told jurors that Gravitt suffered a "mini-nervous breakdown" when questioned by investigators after the theft; that her contractor husband was working in the evidence locker shortly before the robbery; that the Gravitts were in financial distress, and that they were observed driving erratically, as if trying to shake a police tail.

In her lawsuit, filed late last year, Gravitt denied most of those allegations, which originated in a police search warrant affidavit. She accused a Riverside police detective of lying to a local judge to get the warrant.

She cited these statements as examples:

* That her husband, Donald, had been working in the evidence locker "as recently as the weekend prior to the burglary." She said investigators knew her husband was working in the bureau's garage, and not the evidence locker, on the weekend before the theft.

* That she possessed "the only key" to the locker housing the cocaine. She said investigators knew but did not disclose to the judge that she kept the key in an unlocked desk drawer with the knowledge of everyone who had access to the outer vault.

* That she was the only person with "an intimate knowledge" of the evidence locker's contents. Six weeks before the theft, she said, she was temporarily reassigned to duties elsewhere because she was recovering from foot surgery.

* That she and her husband engaged in "counter-surveillance driving techniques" frequently employed by drug traffickers. On the date of the surveillance, she said, she and her husband were driving through various neighborhoods looking for houses or condos to rent.

Four months after the theft, Gravitt said, she was summoned without notice to the Riverside police headquarters and subjected to a daylong interrogation, followed by an "extraordinarily invasive" search of her small home by as many as 40 investigators aided by drug-sniffing dogs.

Gravitt was given a polygraph test, the results of which were inconclusive, according to court records.

The search turned up nothing incriminating, her lawsuit said, but her colleagues were told by a high-ranking bureau official afterward that she was the "prime suspect" in the theft, and she was put on involuntary leave for two months.

Early in 1998, she said, she was "cleared" to return to work, but her superiors told her they still considered her a suspect, adding to her emotional suffering.

With the advice of her psychiatrist, she decided not to return to work under those circumstances, said her civil lawyers, Scott W. Williams of Fresno and Michael G. Magnuson of Whittier.

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