FBI review may settle suspicions

BACKSTORY: Claims of cop-involved death revive a pivotal corruption case
by: JIM CLARK, District Attorney Michael Schrunk, along with current Police Chief Rosie Sizer, has asked the FBI to review the investigation of a 25-year-old police corruption case after an informant and others raised suspicion of an officer-involved death.

Scott Deppe long ago made peace with his starring role in the biggest police scandal in modern Portland history.

It was a quarter of a century ago and, he said, he has gone on to lead a productive life as a father, auto dealer and mortgage broker.

Another cop in his unit who also resigned in disgrace - they were nicknamed 'Starsky and Hutch' - now is with Frito-Lay's manufacturing plant in Vancouver, Wash., and not too long ago was named Oregon Safety Director of the Year by the Oregon Trucking Association.

Still another former colleague owns one of the biggest commercial roofing companies in Seattle.

'We all changed our lives,' Deppe said.

Some 25 years ago, Deppe's unit of the Portland Police Bureau was caught planting drugs, fabricating evidence and pocketing money from drug dealers as well as the public till.

What bothers Deppe now is the recent insinuation that behind the scandal was a larger one that authorities missed, one that may involve at least one body. Deppe agrees that the investigation of the scandal was a coverup - just not the one people are suggesting.

The real scandal, he said, is that he and four fellow cops were made an example of, while investigators turned a blind eye toward other officers' wrongdoing. 'They didn't want to know' about other cops, he said. 'They told us that.'

Welcome to a time when the line blurred between Portland cops and crooks. If ever fully detailed, it would bare the inner workings of the city, said investigative author Carlton Smith, calling it the 'Rosetta stone of Portland politics and police.'

At the very least, the story of the Special Investigations Division is a cautionary tale of what happens when police and informants get too cozy. It's also one that, though largely forgotten by the public, has had a lasting effect.

From the scandal's wreckage rose three Portland police chiefs, a Multnomah County sheriff and a district attorney, Michael Schrunk, who has served for 26 years.

It's newsworthy now because Schrunk and current Police Chief Rosie Sizer recently asked the FBI to review the investigation their agencies conducted a quarter-century ago.

The unusual request was sparked by new suspicion from a Schrunk predecessor, Des Connall, that the 1981 death of an investigator who researched SID wrongdoing may have been a police-involved murder.

Not only that, but an ex-con informant for Deppe's unit reportedly has offered to lead authorities to a body he claims to have helped dispose of for a cop.

So, did Schrunk miss something?

It's a question that nags Smith, who reported on the scandal for Willamette Week 25 years ago, was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist while at The Seattle Times, and has written about 20 true-crime books.

'This thing has bugged me for years,' he said. 'Something about it just didn't seem right.'

The case also sticks in the mind of federal Judge Robert E. Jones, who once tried to write a book about it. The scandal 'had the makings of a great novel - or a movie,' he said, adding, 'I was totally shocked. … The good guys turned out to be bad guys.'

Trouble brews to flash point

In the Portland of the late 1970s, two groups fought for dominance. One comprised motorcycle clubs like the Outsiders and the Gypsy Jokers.

The other group was the Portland Police Bureau, led by the narcotics officers in the Special Investigations Division - who believed the bikers were opening up a major amphetamine shipping point in Portland.

The two camps brawled, sometimes with clubs. At one point, the bikers reportedly had 'contracts' out on all the SID cops.

'Half the time we were afraid to go home,' Deppe recalled. 'We didn't know who was following us.'

The animosity was mutual, Deppe said, and after they killed one of his colleagues, he felt homicidal urges toward the bikers. 'If I got the chance I would (have),' he said. 'But as far as following through - no.'

Mayor Tom Potter, then a police lieutenant, described the time as 'kind of like the Wild West.'

Inside the bureau, it was wild, too. Erv McGeachy recalled that when he was a vice cop in 1979, he investigated a fellow cop and some local politicians - he won't say who.

His fellow officers discouraged him, McGeachy said, and at one point a sergeant came up behind him and put a finger to McGeachy's head to simulate a handgun, saying 'bang.' When his superiors learned of McGeachy's probe, he said, they transferred him.

Records show that when investigators later asked McGeachy about SID misconduct, he referred the investigators to a book called 'Prince of the City,' about a massive police corruption scandal in New York City.

To the average member of the public, these internal dynamics were largely invisible. The Special Investigations Division was considered 'the elite,' recalled retired officer C.W. Jensen.

In December 1979, SID cops raided the Outsiders Motorcycle Club in St. Johns. A biker killed one officer, David Crowther.

Prosecutors increasingly heard reports of cops stealing money and planting drugs - including on two informants of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Over the course of the subsequent investigation, five officers resigned: Neil Gearheart, William 'Lenny' Dugan, Frank O'Donnell, Jim Sweatman and Deppe, who later was convicted of using forged prescriptions to obtain narcotics.

Deppe admitted that he and Crowther had brought drugs with them to the St. Johns club, to plant on the bikers. Gearheart admitted he had fabricated the information justifying the search warrant.

In return for specifying which cases were tainted, Schrunk's office agreed not to prosecute Deppe's colleagues.

With their cooperation, 59 convictions were overturned and 35 pending cases dismissed based on admissions of stealing dope, stealing money, planting drugs on people to make convictions, and committing perjury on affidavits and in trial.

In one case, four officers admitted splitting $10,000 - about $27,000 in today's dollars.

The newly elected Schrunk realized he'd inherited quite a problem.

'There were people who knew (about the corruption) and wouldn't talk,' he recalled. 'And there were the people who should have known - and didn't know.'

Now the FBI's involved

Schrunk and Sizer recently asked the FBI to review the original investigation based on recent columns by Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford, regarding Connall's suspicion of a potential police-involved death.

Connall has asked Schrunk to investigate the December 1981 death of his top investigator, Earl Son, who'd spent eight years as a homicide detective with the sheriff's office.

Son turned up dead of a gunshot wound shortly after telling people he felt he'd proven that at least one police officer was involved in two deaths.

The 70-year-old Son recently had undergone treatment for prostate cancer. The death was ruled an apparent suicide, but Connall now wonders whether it was murder.

Schrunk and Sizer are not strangers to the context of Connall's suspicions.

Schrunk oversaw the original SID investigation as a newly elected district attorney. Sizer, meanwhile, is married to former Sheriff Dan Noelle, who kept tabs on the investigation as the police bureau spokesman at the time, attending many of the investigative meetings.

Noelle declined to comment except to say, 'If Phil Stanford told me the sun was shining, I would put on a raincoat.'

According to a news release announcing the request to the FBI, Schrunk and Sizer met to 'review' the 25-year-old probe, and 'there does not appear to be any reason to believe the original investigation covered up or ignored criminal behavior.'

According to a top Schrunk aide, John Bradley, the two officials did not review any written reports; they merely discussed the probe and Stanford's columns.

So many crimes, suspects

The May 1981 public report issued by Schrunk and then-Chief Bruce Baker focused its findings on the five officers, attributing the scandal to poor morale, weak procedures and a lack of supervision.

Several colleagues of Schrunk who tracked the case told the Portland Tribune there was no way Schrunk or the detectives involved would have contained or whitewashed the investigation.

'That's not the way Mike Schrunk operates,' former Chief Ron Still said.

'I have absolute faith in Mike Schrunk,' Judge Jones said.

Chief Sizer did not join the bureau until years later, but said her impression is that the probe successfully cut out a 'cancer.'

The full criminal investigative documents, obtained by the Portland Tribune, however, contain allegations by police officers that suggest the misconduct extended well beyond the line officers who were punished and to much higher ranks.

Some of the allegations made by officers concerned the Special Investigation Division, including:

• Well before the Outsiders raid, officers suspected SID members of planting drugs and padding overtime.

• Just before an inspection, a SID sergeant disposed of a shopping bag of drugs that had been improperly stored in desks. The sergeant denied the allegation.

• Another SID sergeant frequently was drunk on duty.

• Asked whether Deppe had ever talked about 'doing a robbery of any type,' his fellow officer, Dugan, responded in the affirmative, alleging that at one point Deppe had suggested that they 'do' a Vancouver cab driver who was a major drug dealer.

Deppe, however, denied engaging in any robberies, though 'that's what the DA wanted to believe.'

Other allegations in the documents went beyond SID:

• That a captain had been arrested for a crime in Seattle.

• That then-Deputy Chief James Brouillette and a sergeant were implicated in a conspiracy to rig a vendor contract.

• That a sergeant had been engaged in 'promoting prostitution,' or pimping.

• Several officers claimed that after Crowther's death, Brouillette told the SID cops he'd once broken into a biker's apartment to plant an illegal wiretap, and encouraged them to engage in whatever illegal behavior was necessary to 'get' the Outsiders.

Brouillette, who retired in 1981 and died in 1996, had denied the account relayed by several officers.

Besides the five officers who resigned, only two line officers were disciplined - and no supervisors.

'If that had happened today, more people would have been fired,' said Jensen, a retired officer. 'It was just the times, and some people got (free) passes.'

Following the release of the report, the Department of Justice and the FBI opened a civil rights investigation of the bureau that continued for a year. However, it led nowhere, perhaps because the five officers who resigned already had been given immunity, and refused to cooperate.

Deppe said that there was a stark difference between the investigation done by the FBI versus the one done by the police and district attorney. Whereas the local probe was interested in only the five officers, the FBI 'wanted to know about everything.'

Schrunk denied any effort to limit the investigation, saying the priority was placed on getting innocent people out of jail. He also said he felt a need, given the questions raised by the scandal, to 'get it done.'

'It was something that just needed to be done,' he said. 'I wanted it done. I wanted to finish.

'Did we get everybody that was involved? No,' he added. 'We got all the information we could and then made some tough decisions.'

Even McGeachy, the straight arrow who was transferred out of SID, said he does not fault Schrunk. Every investigation has to have an ending; had this one continued, it could have 'ripped the city apart,' McGeachy said.

The probe 'sent a message' - accelerating a shift toward professionalism that then-Chief Baker already had been pushing, McGeachy said.

Not only that, but the SID scandal swayed public opinion and played a 'huge' role in voters' 1982 approval of the city's first civilian police-misconduct oversight office, according to an early employee of the unit, Sandy Herman Moose, wife of Charles Moose, who served as police chief in the mid-1990s.

Informant has recanted before

Suspicions that one or more officers may be linked to a murder are not new. In 1991, two informants for the SID claimed they were aware of murders that were connected to police officers.

One of those informants, Larry Mastne, is dead. The other one, Jack Roy Rowlands - a parolee represented by Connall - now is saying he can lead authorities to a body. So far, no one's taken him up on it.

Bradley, the Schrunk aide, said his understanding is that at the time, the FBI questioned Rowlands, who then claimed that he'd been lying. Then Connall claimed he'd gotten cold feet, Bradley said.

Rowlands, through an intermediary, declined to comment. Connall, for his part, said, 'Every time I have been able to verify Jack's statements independently, the core of them has been confirmed.'

The allegations of police-involved murders sparked skepticism among law enforcement officials 25 years ago. But reporters took the possibility seriously. At least two investigated suspicious deaths, including David Whitney, then an Oregonian reporter, and Smith.

Smith said that at the time Schrunk seemed to take it seriously as well. The reporter-turned-author spoke with Schrunk often while investigating the 1980 murder of Harold Foss, the 'biggest cocaine dealer in town,' which led to the conviction of the second-biggest dealer, Smith recalled.

It all seemed too convenient, especially given the involvement of some peripheral characters with the SID, Smith recalled, adding that Schrunk told him that he'd come close to making a case, but 'I needed a witness.'

Smith is skeptical of Rowlands' allegation, but he said he suspects the whole story of Foss has not yet come out.

Deppe said he had no connection to the murder, and doesn't think any of his colleagues would do such a thing either. Though he understands why people would want to get to the bottom of the new allegations, he just regrets that the public's attention is once again focused on people who've learned their lesson.

Meanwhile, the FBI has said it will review the 25-year-old probe, but has not said if it will make arrangements to try to find the body Rowlands claims to know about.

'They're not going to find anything,' Deppe said of the FBI. 'Really, what does anybody think they are going to find?'

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