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Police Handling of Slaying Is Probed

Complaints by the victim's family lead to a city inquiry into the Inglewood case.

January 30, 2003|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

The Inglewood city administrator is investigating the Inglewood Police Department's handling of an unsolved homicide, prompted by complaints from the victim's family that detectives mishandled or ignored potential evidence and brushed aside their concerns.

At the mayor's urging, City Administrator Joseph T. Rouzan said he is requesting a "full and complete" report from Chief Ronald Banks on the department's investigation into the killing of Lisa Vanessa Wilkens. The 36-year-old employee of Woody's BBQ was stabbed to death in a dead-end Inglewood alley in September.

The Wilkens family alleges in a three-page complaint that a detective assigned to the case ignored many of their phone calls and that when the family decided to search for clues on their own, he did not follow up on potential evidence they brought to his attention.

The family says that Inglewood detectives did not immediately seek to interview a witness who saw an angry man looking for a woman who fit Wilkens' description a few hours before the slaying occurred. For months, the family charges, police did not try to locate Wilkens' missing cell phone, which could still receive calls.

Inglewood police spokeswoman Lt. Eve Irvine said detectives are chasing "several significant leads" in the case, but would not elaborate.

The city administrator's office said it is taking seriously the family's allegations of "non-responsiveness" by police. Complaints by the family that Banks was dismissive in several phone conversations with the Wilkenses' family spokesman, James Smith, are also part of the investigation. But Rouzan said there is little he can do because in a recent conversation Banks told him the allegations had "no basis in truth."

"I think the resolution in this case got lost in the personalities," Rouzan said. "Some people just have bad chemistry."

Mayor Roosevelt Dorn became involved in the dispute after meeting with Smith and the Wilkens family in December at the family's request.

At the meeting, according to several people who attended, Dorn grew angry at what he heard and demanded that the city administrator's office begin an inquiry.

"When the mayor says, 'I want this concluded, or investigated as quickly as possible,' it rises in terms of priority," conceded Mark Weinberg, the city administrator's assistant, who was called into the meeting by the mayor.

Under Inglewood's charter, the Police Department answers to the city administrator. It was Rouzan who oversaw the October firing of Officer Jeremy J. Morse, who has been charged with striking a handcuffed 16-year-old in a videotaped incident in July that drew international attention.

"If I see an officer by a car apparently strike a suspect, most of the event is very clear to me, it's pretty manifest," Weinberg said. "But as it relates to this situation, it involves an ongoing homicide investigation, so it's kind of like an iceberg....Because the police can't reveal what they are doing, we don't know [for sure]."

Banks defends his department's handling of the Wilkens investigation and spokeswoman Irvine said that, if anything, Smith has impeded progress by badgering investigators and residents who live near the alley where Wilkens was slain.

Wilkens was stabbed repeatedly in the neck, chest and stomach on the night of Sept. 1 in the alley behind the 700 block of Larch Street in Inglewood, a few blocks from where she worked. She was pronounced dead at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

When her family felt the investigation was going nowhere, they enlisted the help of Smith, a longtime family friend and office manager for a Westwood law firm. He called the mayor and demanded the meeting, which took place Dec. 20.

"We're citizens. That's what they do," Smith said. "If you got a problem, you call your politician. Especially if you call a police department and they're not answering."

Dorn, in an interview, declined to comment on the performance of Inglewood police, but said he wants the most thorough investigation of the murder possible.

"I want the Police Department to do everything it can possibly do to solve this murder," he said. "We have to be very sensitive and very caring. We should never forget that we are servants. I'd like to see it solved as quickly as possible."

Banks, for his part, says the department is handling the investigation as it would any murder investigation.

"There's been no pressure or the implication of pressure above me other than to do what we normally do," Banks said in an interview. "Just because Mr. Smith has complained to the city administrator, we don't have any reason to do everything different. As far as I'm concerned, we've answered Mr. Smith."

Irvine also said that the department is handling the case "diligently and passionately."

"You're going to be distraught and you want it solved immediately, but quite frankly, these cases take quite a lot of time. Homicide investigations are not solved overnight," Irvine said.

In 2002, there were 27 homicides in Inglewood, Irvine said. Police cleared 20 homicides during the year, but 13 of those had been committed in previous years.

Inglewood's clearance ratio is comparable to that of such cities as Torrance and Culver City, state Justice Department statistics show.

Last week, the Inglewood City Council approved resolutions to establish $25,000 rewards in the Wilkens case and a second unrelated slaying.

In the meantime, the Wilkens family remains frustrated that the killer of the Manual Arts High School graduate has not been apprehended. On a recent morning when she again visited the alley where her sister was killed, Veronica Wilkens said she and Lisa Wilkens spent much of their free time together, going shopping and watching videos.

"She was just a beautiful person, my best friend," Veronica said. "She didn't deserve to die this way."

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