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UCLA Police Prepared to Go It Alone on Body-Parts Case

An agency more accustomed to handling loud parties and bike thefts declines to seek help on the high-profile investigation.

March 09, 2004|Jill Leovy, Anna Gorman and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

UCLA Acting Police Chief Karl Ross gives an unusual answer when asked if there is anything his police department lacks.

It's the kind of question that prompts elaborate wish lists from most police supervisors, who can reel off inventories of the additional officers they need, or the better equipment they'd like to have. But Ross merely frowns at the ceiling, then shrugs.

"We are fine," he said. "I think we have an adequate police department here."

It's the same answer he gives to questions about whether the 60-officer department is prepared to handle an elaborate and high-profile investigation.

UCLA police in recent days have arrested two people in connection with allegations that they were involved in the illegal sale of body parts from donated cadavers. And a broader investigation is underway.

The case has drawn national attention and raised many questions about how UCLA handles the bodies it receives for medical training. Now, the job of finding how far the scandal has spread within one of the state's most prestigious universities has fallen to a department far more experienced handling matters such as stolen bicycles and loud parties.

But despite the unusual nature of the case, UCLA police have so far not opted to seek help from other agencies, a step they have occasionally taken in the past. Ross said the department is unlikely to ask for help unless the investigation takes his officers across jurisdictional lines -- outside the state, for example.

"I believed we could handle this investigation," Ross said. "There is nothing to indicate that this would go beyond the capabilities of our staff to handle it."

UCLA's police department is a branch of the 400-officer statewide University of California police force established in 1949. Officers receive 984 hours of training at the Orange County Sheriff's Academy. That is less training than new Los Angeles Police Department officers get; they put in 1,064 hours at the L.A. Police Academy before starting the job. But it is above the state minimum of 634 hours.

While some small police agencies have agreements with larger agencies to investigate big cases, UCLA police make such decisions on a case-by-case basis, and are under no obligation to seek help. "There are many diverse cases at UCLA. This is just one more case," said Nancy Greenstein, spokeswoman for the UCLA police.

The agency got its first look at the cadaver case a week ago after administrative investigators determined that criminal activities may have occurred. They called in UCLA police, who took the investigation from there, getting and serving search warrants, tracking down addresses and making arrests.

"Up until last Monday, we didn't even have a crime report on this," Ross said. "This is virtually the beginning of this investigation."

Although the police force only has six detectives, promoted from the officer ranks after serving at least three years and receiving detective training, Ross said the pair working the cadaver case have a combined 25 years of experience. One is a specialist in computer thefts and the other in crimes against persons, and both have experience with identity-theft cases, he said.

John Lynch, head deputy district attorney of the airport branch office, was briefed on the case by UCLA investigators Monday. Most prior cases he has handled involving UCLA police were minor, Lynch said. But one that received wide attention was a 2002 case involving three Carson High School students charged with sexually assaulting a UCLA student while they visited the university campus on a school field trip. That case is set for trial in April.

The UCLA police officers "appear to have done a fine job on that case," Lynch said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Alex Karkanen, who was a prosecutor on the UCLA dorm rape case, agreed, saying the UCLA police usually handle cases involving drunken college students and backpack thefts. But on the rape case, "I was surprised at the quality of their investigation," he said.

"I thought that the UCLA officers might not have had the experience to handle such a serious case. But I was wrong. They actually did a good job."

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Gilligan concurred.

"Obviously, they are not doing the same police work as some of these other agencies you deal with, but there were a lot of financial fraud cases. There were sexual assaults coming out of campus. I thought they did a good job on that," he said.

Five years ago, UCLA police and the LAPD tried to work out an agreement that would allow the larger department to handle more serious UCLA cases. But a deal was never reached. This week, LAPD Assistant Chief George Gascon declined to comment specifically on the cadaver investigation, but he said he would like to see a formal agreement between the two agencies.

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