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Money talked, but to the wrong guy

COLUMN ONE

An ex-cop in prison for murder turns to Grandma in his scheme to bribe a Vegas judge. But he never should've trusted that cellmate.

May 17, 2008|William C. Rempel | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Among the inmates at the Clark County Detention Center in the summer of 2006 was a local celebrity, an ex-cop whose long fight to reverse his murder conviction still intrigued his hometown.

Ronald L. Mortensen had been a rookie Las Vegas police officer the night he and his partner went on a drunken off-duty spree. It ended with a fatal shooting. Was it Mortensen or his partner who pulled the trigger? The question dominated a sensational trial in 1997. It persisted even after Mortensen was convicted and shipped off to prison for life.

By 2006, Mortensen was preparing what might be his final bid for a new trial. Anxious to improve his odds, he orchestrated a scheme from behind bars to acquire California beachfront property from his ailing grandmother and tap loose credit markets for funds for his defense.

His ultimate plan, as revealed in secretly recorded jailhouse conversations, was to influence the court with something more than legal argument -- something like $100,000 in cash. Some might call that a bribe. Mortensen called it a campaign contribution.

Welcome to Las Vegas.

"Whether it's legal or not, that's just good politics. It's only illegal if we . . . get ourselves caught," Mortensen told a cellmate, unaware the FBI would hear every word.

Details of the plot hatched in Cell 8 are only now emerging from more than 100 hours of jailhouse phone and surveillance recordings and thousands of pages of internal police and FBI files.

The records trove was made public by Edward B. Gould -- a 6-foot-8, 270-pound convicted racketeer with a colorful past in crime, telemarketing and wrestling. He had tipped authorities to Mortensen's plan.

Gould, known in the ring as "Eddie Mountainman," now calls himself a disgruntled informant. After working undercover for investigators, he ended up indicted in the scheme -- even though his alleged frauds were carried out under almost constant police or FBI monitoring.

"I thought I was doing the right thing. I still do," said Gould, 43. "I don't deserve this."

But that's getting ahead of our story.

It all started with a birthday celebration on Dec. 27, 1996, the day Mortensen turned 31. After dinner, pool and a few rounds of beer chased by tequila, he and partner Christopher Brady went on a tear through gang neighborhoods.

They were out to harass drug dealers, Brady testified. Nothing serious, he said. "We were just having fun."

The fun ended in an alley. Brady drove up to a group of young men loitering in the shadows. Both off-duty cops were packing personal weapons. One of them fired six shots from Mortensen's Sig Sauer .380 pistol. Daniel Mendoza, 21 and unarmed, fell dead.

Brady said Mortensen did it. Mortensen said Brady did it.

The jury blamed Mortensen and convicted him of murder. He was sentenced to 99 years without possibility of parole and sent to a prison in Ohio.

Mortensen left behind a wife, a 2-year-old daughter and an 80-year-old grandmother, Doris Cossovel. As the matriarch's health declined, responsibility for her care fell to a daughter, Mortensen's mother, Sandra Adamson. Mother and son grew estranged.

"I talked to my stupid mother," Mortensen complained in one recorded conversation, after he had been transferred back to Las Vegas for hearings on his appeal.

Adamson told him the family needed to care for Mortensen's grandmother, not spend its resources on his case. She ruled out sharing the estate's biggest asset: a California home on Morro Bay called Pelican Roost. Mortensen pulled an end run.

"If you still want me to have the things you and Grandpa George wished for me to have -- including the beach house . . . and money for the new lawyers," he wrote his grandmother, then she should sign over Pelican Roost to him.

"You must do this for my protection and for my future," he concluded. "All my love to you. Ron Mortensen."

The letter was carried from Mortensen's cell to his grandmother's bedside by an unlikely messenger -- Kenneth W. Long, a former FBI agent who was then a North Las Vegas city prosecutor.

Years earlier, during a stint with the Clark County district attorney's office, Long had taken a personal interest in Mortensen's case. He interviewed Mortensen at the Ohio prison and came to doubt his guilt. The ex-federal agent and the convicted ex-cop became friends. Their daughters had play dates.

As "a favor for a friend," Long made four visits to Cossovel's nursing home in Las Vegas in the fall of 2005.

"I found her to be alert and cognizant of her surroundings," he wrote in an affidavit. He said she "clearly stated on three occasions" that she wanted her grandson to have the California house and that she "wanted to help Ronald."

Cossovel signed a quitclaim deed transferring ownership of Pelican Roost. Long, accompanied by a private detective and a notary, snapped a photo as the frail woman scratched an illegible signature.

On Dec. 13, 2005, San Luis Obispo County recorded ownership of the house in the name of Ronald L. Mortensen.

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