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O.C. Detectives' Conduct in Canada Questioned

Probe: Murder suspect's lawyers cite sheriff's internal report to attack investigators' credibility.

August 23, 2001|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Orange County sheriff's detectives working in Canada on a murder case have stirred up an international flap, with accusations that they partied at a club under surveillance by the local constabulary, fell asleep while serving a search warrant and violated the terms of a U.S. treaty with Canada.

A preliminary Sheriff's Department report on the allegations is being used by defense lawyers to attack the credibility of the detectives in a case against two men charged with the 1998 slaying of a Lake Forest jewelry store owner.

In questioning the investigators' behavior, defense attorneys have found an unexpected ally in a Canadian prosecutor who worked with investigators Mark Simon and Ken Hoffman and later expressed dismay at their conduct.

Senior Crown Counsel Teresa Mitchell Banks told sheriff's officials that she harbored serious concerns about the competence of the investigators and was offended by their repeated statements that the suspects were "going to fry."

"They were like cowboys," she told sheriff's officials, according to court records obtained this week. "It was a very macho, beating the [pecs], high testosterone, high excitement kind of event in here."

The Sheriff's Department on Wednesday declined to comment on the case or to say whether its probe of the allegations was completed. But the preliminary report on its internal probe stated that:

* Hoffman and Simon were unprofessional in dealing with Banks, who accused the two of being unprepared as they sought her help in drafting search warrants crucial to the case.

* The two investigators actively participated in the search of two homes, despite being told by police in Vancouver, British Columbia, and prosecutors that they could only observe the search under the terms of a treaty between the United States and Canada. Hoffman and Simon also displayed "unsafe and unprofessional" conduct by falling asleep on a couch while searching the home of a suspect's sister.

* While off duty, the investigators used poor judgment by celebrating arrests in the case at a karaoke club that police had under surveillance for suspected prostitution and organized crime links.

* Simon displayed poor judgment while off duty in associating with a woman he allegedly knew had an arrest record.

Hoffman and Simon's work in Canada eventually led to the arrests of James Jordan Priel and David Valladares on suspicion of fatally shooting a jewelry store owner during a botched robbery in July 1998.

Sheriff's officials concluded that the case against the two men was not affected by the investigators' conduct, the report said.

Hoffman and Simon declined to comment through a department spokesman. But officials with the Assn. of Orange County Sheriff's Deputies defended the investigators. They said the internal report was preliminary, written before the investigators were interviewed and the probe completed.

Bob MacLeod, the association's general manager, said the probe was begun after an investigation in Canada of a Vancouver detective who was assigned to help Hoffman and Simon chase leads. The Canadian detective was scrutinized for allegedly fabricating information for a search warrant as well as other allegations, but prosecutors in Vancouver never charged him with a crime.

MacLeod said the Orange County detectives were tainted simply because of their association with the Canadian detective.

"This whole thing was a big nothing," MacLeod said, adding that neither investigator has been disciplined over their work in Canada.

MacLeod said that many of the witnesses interviewed during the internal sheriff's investigation told officials they believed the Orange County investigators had acted professionally. He also criticized defense attorneys for trying to focus attention on the investigators and away from the two men charged with the killing.

"We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the motive . . . is to get a murderer off," he said.

A Sheriff's Department spokesman said he could not release any information about the case because of strict privacy laws involving internal affairs probes.

Attorneys for the murder suspect, however, claim in court filings that the internal report and other evidence show the investigators were "sloppy" and did a "shameful job" in Canada.

The result, the attorneys argue, was that investigators mistakenly focused on Valladares instead of a roommate who allegedly better matched a description of one of the suspects.

The case stems from the slaying of Nancy Sleiman, who with her husband owned Jewel Gardens on El Toro Road. She was killed after buzzing two men through the family store's security doors. As the men robbed the store, they also shot Sleiman's husband in the head, seriously wounding him.

Within days, Vancouver police received an anonymous tip identifying Priel, a Canadian national, as a possible suspect. Simon and Hoffman flew to Vancouver on Aug. 12, 1998.

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