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Beverly Hills Law & Order

When a 19-Year-Old Was Shot at the Home of L.A. Clippers Owner Donald T. Sterling, Police Sought Charges Against His Son Scott. But the D.A.'s Office Declined to File, For Reasons Detectives Still Don't Accept.

December 17, 2000|FRED DICKEY | Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine on hate crime laws

Hopkins hemmed and hawed and tried to change the subject, but Sterling returned to it. "But the bottom line, I'm asking you, officer, and please put my name somewhere in your wallet. Sometime in the course of your career, you will want to call me. You know what I'm saying? And your name again is spelled . . . may I put your name down?"

The comments inflamed the Police Department. In a memo to prosecutors, Sgt. Douglas wrote, "We are requesting that your office give special attention to the attached transcript of the telephone call between Det. Mike Hopkins and Shelly and Donald Sterling . . . . There are a number of statements by Donald Sterling that amount to an outrageous attempt at intimidation and influence peddling."

(When the Los Angeles Times Magazine sought a response from Sterling, his Beverly Hills attorney, Douglas Walton, responded with a letter on his behalf: "Mr. Sterling never spoke to anyone whatsoever regarding this incident and he unequivocally denies that such a conversation as you described occurred on April 18 or on any other date. In fact, our records reflect that he was out of town during that time period.")

Salcido said in an interview that Beverly Hills Police Chief Marvin Iannone "is not a close friend of Mr. Sterling. In fact, they met a couple of times in social gatherings, but as Mr. Sterling indicated they were close friends, that is absolutely not true." He also said Sterling had never been honored by the Beverly Hills department.

In memos to the district attorney's office dated May 2 and May 4, Douglas summed up the position of Beverly Hills police: "There is overwhelming justification for filing a criminal case against Scott Sterling." He called Sterling's self-defense claims "preposterous" and said, "No rational person would entertain the possibility of his story being true."

The D.A.'s Office

The case was given to Ann Rundle of the Airport Branch of Garcetti's office. D.A.'s investigators questioned the teenage witnesses for hours with multiple interrogators, often in the presence of two deputy district attorneys and once with three deputy district attorneys--something one senior official in the D.A.'s office later calls an astonishing waste of manpower. "If a prosecutor can't sort something like that out in short order, they're in the wrong business," says the official, who was not involved in the case. A former high-ranking official in the D.A.'s office said in an interview that it is unheard of for so many prosecutors to sit in as interrogators on such a low-level case.

The D.A.'s file shows that questioning of the teenage witnesses uncovered minor inconsistencies, admission of marijuana use by passengers in Duffy's car, lies and half-truths. But the essential picture remained unchanged. From the street, the witnesses saw very little. They heard two shots, a few seconds apart, and saw a wounded man stumbling through the open gate and off the property.

What happened inside the walls is known only by Sterling and Scheid. But Sterling quickly stopped talking, and Scheid had some trouble talking straight. In fact, investigators found that both Scheid and Sterling had problems telling the truth, as police interrogations and statements of their acquaintances make clear. Nor is either a stranger to drugs. Scheid admitted to having ingested Valium on the night of the attack, while McKeon said Sterling had used drugs.

Multiple witnesses described Sterling as a gun lover who owned several weapons. Friends said both men own knives and have been seen carrying them in public.

On Sept. 15 of this year, more than a year after the shooting, Rundle circulated a confidential memo recommending that charges not be filed. The memo was directed through two superiors and up the chain to Hodgman. Rundle said she based her conclusion on Scheid's lack of credibility.

At the time of the shooting, she wrote, Scheid had had relatively minor scrapes with the law and had lied about some details surrounding the shooting, including his conflicting statements about the knife and starter's pistol. "His closest friends describe Philip as a liar, 'shady' and as scum," she wrote. She also noted that, "While at the hospital, Philip lied to the nursing staff about his smoking in the hospital room." In another example, she said, Scheid had initially lied about ownership of a bag found on the Sterling property after the shooting. It contained women's lingerie, a swimming suit and a man's cap that looked like a mask. No one knows whether the bag is significant, and Rundle offered no explanation or theory.

Rundle also said Sterling could not be compelled to testify, so she would be left with only Scheid's account, and that he could be torn apart on cross-examination.

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