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O.C. prosecutor faults handling of sex probe

Sheriff was 'going through the motions' in investigating detective, D.A. says.

September 19, 2008|H.G. Reza and Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writers

In yet another sign of tension between Orange County's most powerful law enforcement branches, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas has accused the Sheriff's Department of botching a child molestation investigation involving a sheriff's detective who ultimately killed himself before he could be arrested.

Rackauckas wrote to sheriff's officials and suggested their investigators were "merely going through the motions" as they investigated a deputy suspected of molesting young boys earlier this year.

The case that concerned Rackauckas involved sheriff's Investigator Gerald Stenger, who committed suicide April 2 after apparently learning that prosecutors had charged him with sexually molesting a 12-year-old boy he met through Big Brother Big Sisters of Orange County, where he was a volunteer.

In a June 11 letter to then-acting Sheriff Jack Anderson, Rackauckas said he was concerned that sheriff's investigators appeared to be uninterested in the allegations against Stenger -- concluding in the initial stages that the charges were baseless -- and failed to pursue evidence that later implicated the detective.

"One could easily conclude that the investigators had already made up their minds about the case before the questioning and were merely going through the motions," Rackauckas wrote.

He noted that the sheriff's lead investigator on the case was one of Stenger's friends and that the investigator had called Stenger to tell him that his name had come up in an investigation. Rackauckas said the phone call left the appearance that the investigator was tipping off Stenger.

Shortly after the phone call, Stenger apparently tried to commit suicide but was revived after being rushed to the hospital, the district attorney says in his letter. Not long after that, sheriff's investigators met with Stenger and told him that prosecutors would "probably not" charge him.

The district attorney also suggested that the department might be better served by allowing an outside agency to investigate criminal allegations against its deputies.

Orange County's new sheriff, Sandra Hutchens, replied to Rackauckas, saying that the captain who oversaw the investigation told her he had taken steps to make sure any flaws in the Stenger investigation would not be repeated. Hutchens said she was perplexed by Rackauckas' suggestion that her department could not competently investigate its own deputies.

"As I am sure you are aware, sending internal criminal investigations outside of an agency will be a major departure in established practice," Hutchens wrote in a June 26 response to Rackauckas. She suggested that if he wanted to make such a change, he should address his concerns with all police departments in the county.

"It's frustrating to me. I think he's taking every opportunity he can to discredit the Sheriff's Department," Hutchens said in an interview Thursday. "The district attorney and the Sheriff's Department should be working together. When one agency is accusing the other, it doesn't raise the public's confidence in law enforcement."

The exchange of letters came two months after Rackauckas' office released a lengthy report that criticized the way the Sheriff's Department investigated the 2006 fatal beating of inmate John Derek Chamberlain at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange. Chamberlain was allegedly beaten to death by fellow inmates.

The Orange County district attorney and sheriff's offices have also been quarreling over which agency is better suited to operate a new DNA crime lab.

In his letter about the molestation investigation, Rackauckas suggested that sheriff's Investigator Myrna Caballero failed to review Stenger's personal computer, camera or videotapes when she interviewed him.

He also faulted her for suggesting to prosecutors that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Stenger.

The sheriff's investigator also did not seek a search warrant or ask Stenger for permission to search his house. A subsequent investigation by district attorney's investigators found homemade DVDs and cassettes showing young boys engaging in sex acts.

In addition, Rackauckas noted, the department allowed Stenger to return to work even after the attempted suicide. The department should have placed the detective on administrative leave, Rackauckas wrote.

Stenger shot himself in the head in Aliso Viejo after apparently learning of his pending arrest by logging on to a county computer. Authorities said they had hoped to arrest him before he learned that he had been charged.

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h.g.reza@latimes.com

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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