Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Bomb Squad - Part I

"Lost in all of this was Mr. Blake, and both his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and his Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial – both of which were trampled in the process with nary a second thought." – M. Gerald Schwartzbach, Motion to Suppress Evidence, 10/14/04


During a hearing in February 2004 on the upcoming Robert Blake criminal trial, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Shellie Samuels complained that the prosecution was up against Blake’s money, presumably alluding to reports that Blake was worth about $13 million at the time of Bonny Lee Bakley’s death. In response, Thomas Mesereau, Blake’s defense attorney at that time, stated that there were 158 Los Angeles police officers, 256 agents of the District Attorney's office, 62 scientific division employees, U.S. customs agents, and federal AFT agents that had been involved in the investigation. Certainly more staff than Blake's money could have ever afforded.

This is a story of a few of the prosecution’s army on which the LA taxpayers spent their millions.

About 6:30 a.m. on the morning of May 5, 2001, LAPD Lead Detective Ronald Ito of Robbery-Homicide dispatched Detective James Gollaz and Detective Greg Whelan to fetch Blake’s clothes that he wore the previous evening when Bakley was murdered. Gollaz, who testified for the prosecution on January 5, 2005, said he stopped at the North Hollywood police station before going to Blake’s house.

In the squad room, he found an empty cardboard box near the copy machine. The box had previously held reams of paper and had no lid. Gollaz had no idea how long it had been there, who had handled the box or whether it had been used for any purpose other than paper. He also picked up a tape recorder that he could conceal. Although Gollaz would not admit to it in testimony, it appears Ito had given him an order to question Blake about the murder as well as retrieve the clothes.

Two patrol officers, who were watching Blake's house on Dilling Street, told Gollaz that Blake wanted to meet with his lawyer. Blake was unable to leave because his driver's license had been confiscated the night before.

Blake met Gollaz and Whelan outside his house. The officers told Blake they had a warrant to pick up his clothes.

On the stand, Gollaz testified he did not recall the warrant, but he believed Whelan had a "face sheet." However, in neither Gollaz's nor Whelan's detailed notes for that morning was there any reference to a search warrant. It also appeared that the warrant authorizing seizure of Blake's clothes was not signed by Judge Larry Fidler until 4:15 that afternoon. Any "face sheet," if it existed, would not have been legal.

Gollaz also testified that he and Whelan "tried to talk to him (Blake) about what happened, but he did not want to talk," implying that Blake had been uncooperative.

M. Gerald Schwartzbach, Blake's defense attorney, was not going to allow Gollaz to mislead the jury. "Are you aware that the District Attorney's office prepared a transcript of your conversation with Mr. Blake?"

Gollaz acknowledged he was. Samuels immediately tried to exclude the transcript as hearsay.

A discussion in the judge’s chambers revealed that Blake had talked to the officers about events the night before, answering their questions about where he left his .38 revolver which not used in the crime, when he went back to the restaurant, where he looked for the gun, where he found it, and about vomit at the crime scene.

“That's a little more question and answer than I certainly had the impression,” Judge Darlene Schempp replied upon hearing a portion of the transcript.

Gollaz and Whelan accompanied Blake inside the house, where Blake put his black tee shirt, boots, belt, jeans and socks together in the box. Gollaz took the box of clothes and put it in the trunk of his car.

Schwartzbach asked if Gollaz understood that gunshot residue on one piece of clothing could transfer to another piece of clothing if the clothing was mixed together. He did.

Gollaz also admitted he knew the purpose of collecting the clothes was so scientific tests could be performed on them.

"And knowing that you were going out to Mr. Blake's home in part to collect his clothing, as well as interview him, you did not secure separate packaging for separate items, correct?" Schwartzbach asked.

"Yes," Gollaz replied.

Schwartzbach asked Gollaz whether he knew that the clothes Blake was wearing and placed in the box were the clothes Blake had worn during the time of Bakley’s murder. Gollaz said he didn’t know, that he was only interested in taking the clothing that Blake was wearing at the time.

“So are you saying that even if he had come home from the police station, taken a shower, changed clothes, and put on totally new clothing fresh out of the laundry, you would have seized that clothing?” asked Schwartzbach.

“Yes,” Gollaz replied.

“And you would have seized that clothing for what purpose?”

“Just because I didn't know what clothing he wore. So it was my belief or my hope that it would be the same clothing that he wore.”

“Well, you did, in fact, ask him, didn't you, whether or not what he was wearing was the clothing that he was wearing the night before?”

“I don't specifically remember asking him if he was wearing the same clothing. I just hoped and assumed that it was the same clothing.”

From Blake’s house, Gollaz and Whelan were dispatched to the crime scene. There Gollaz interviewed a witness who was “not pertinent.”

About 12:45 p.m. Gollaz was told to return to Blake’s house and wait outside for the execution of the search warrant on the premises.

The search ended about 10:30 that Saturday evening. Gollaz told Ito he would bring Blake’s clothes in for evidence booking on Monday.

Blake’s clothes stayed in the box, lidless, in the trunk the entire weekend. Also in Gollaz’s trunk were his briefcase in which he kept his gun, the one that he would use in his day-to-day activities as a police officer. The one he most likely used on the practice range.

What else had been in Gollaz’s trunk? Evidence from other crime scenes, and, yes, guns from other crime scenes as well.

Sometime after Blake’s clothes were booked into evidence, it must have occurred to the LAPD detectives that the clothes might have been contaminated riding around in a lidless Xerox paper box in a trunk of a car which also had contained loaded and possibly fired weapons, and handled by police officers who may have handled loaded and possibly fired weapons.

Around June 15, 2001, 41 days after retrieving Blake’s clothes, Steven Dowell, a criminalist with the Los Angeles Coroner's Office, devised an experiment with the help of Gollaz and Ito.

Ito obtained a shrink-wrapped white tee shirt and put it in a box. He instructed Gollaz to get another box similar to the one he used to transport Blake’s clothes, put the tee shirt in it, and drive it around in the trunk of his car for the weekend.

Afterward, Dowell took the box from Gollaz to test the shirt and the box for traces of gunshot residue. Dowell also tested Gollaz’s hands for GSR and took sample swabs of Gollaz’s trunk.

In testimony, Gollaz could not recall the existence of the first box Ito had placed the shirt in, or what tests were performed on it. In testimony on January 18, 2005, Dowell said this box was included in the test because it was "the same organization that they suggested the orginal box was in." Dowell, however, never tested the box the tee shirt was in and he could not remember why he did not. He agreed that it probably would have been a good idea to test the box.

Bomb Squad – Part II - A box, two cops and a criminalist with a double standard

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