Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Ron Ito and the Author of the Month Club - Part I

“He had me up there for two and a half days, and he could have finished in two and a half hours. My butt hurt,” -- Co-Lead Detective Ronald Y. Ito, referring to his cross-examination.

Ron Ito had the best -- or the worst -- seat in the house. Not only had he been assigned lead detective on the Bonny Lee Bakley murder case on the night of the murder, but now he had been tasked with helping Deputy District Attorney Shellie Samuels present her case against Robert Blake. He sat beside her at the prosecution’s table, advising her on witness testimony and helping with presentation materials and evidence.

It was now Ito’s turn in the witness box.

He was not a witness to the crime, but being the lead detective, Samuels called Ito and other police officers to testify to LAPD activities in gathering evidence and chain of custody procedures. More importantly, she wanted to dispel the defense claims of bias.

From the beginning, Blake’s former defense attorneys Harland Braun and Thomas Mesereau had publicly claimed Ito and the LAPD targeted Blake in their quest for media attention. Certainly arresting Blake in April 2002 with an army of police officers and helicopters in time for the 6 o’clock news1, hovering overhead while police ordered Earle Caldwell, Blake’s former co-defendant2, to spread-eagle down on the roadway, and holding a national press conference where LAPD Chief Bernard Parks and head of Robbery-Homicide Captain James Tatreau proclaimed Blake’s guilt3 seemed to indicate the lawyers’ accusations were justified.

M. Gerald Schwartzbach, Blake’s criminal defense attorney, had a personal policy of not discussing a case publicly until after the verdict. However, this did not stop him from hammering the LAPD in testimony.

About midnight on May 5, 2001, Ito received a call from LAPD Lt. Don Hartwell, who assigned him as the lead detective on the case. He reported to the North Hollywood police station about 1 a.m., where Detective Mike Coffey was questioning Blake. About 2 ½ hours later, he went to the crime scene with Detective Greg Whelan and Miles Corwin. At the time of the murder, Corwin, an LA Times reporter, was writing a book about the LAPD Robbery-Homicide Division entitled “Homicide Special,” and was given wide access to the investigation4.

The press had already arrived. Reporter Eric Leonard from Los Angeles radio station KFI was snapping pictures, many of which ended up as trial exhibits. Uniformed police had taped off the area.

Ito assigned detectives and criminologists to process the scene.

Detective Charles Knolls handled the towing of Blake’s car. Ito testified that it was preferable to use a flatbed tow truck, where the car sits level on the truck bed. Instead of a flatbed, the LAPD picked up the car with a regular tow truck, one that lifts the front end and drags it by the back wheels. This method, however, would cause anything loose in the car to move. According to Ito, no flatbed was available.

Ito also decided to move the dumpster to a landfill instead of searching it at the scene, stating that he wanted to search it in a secluded place where there would be no foot or vehicle traffic, and they would not have to repack the trash after it was emptied.

The defense criticized the decision in both the preliminary hearing and the trial. “Did you think about whether or not moving the dumpster might cause a gun, or anything else of evidentiary value, to fall from the top, or near the top of the dumpster to the bottom of the dumpster, or lower in the dumpster?” Schwartzbach asked.

Samuels objected to the question, but the answer was obvious.

Ito had not directed anyone to photograph the dumpter’s contents from the top of the dumpster nor had he instructed anyone to open the side door of the dumpster to look inside.

But whether towing the car improperly and searching the dumpster elsewhere were intentional or routine or something purely innocent was immaterial. Evidence had been contaminated. In particular, the murder weapon, a 9-millimeter Walther P38 Lugar pistol, was covered in debris and dirt when the dumpster was emptied in the landfill, making it impossible to retrieve any trace evidence.

And when it came to verifying Blake’s alibi at the crime scene, it appeared Ito took no action.

Ito ordered GSR tests on the car, on Blake’s and Bakley’s clothes, and on clothes found in Blake’s car. But he made no such request for the bench seat and carpet where Blake said he retrieved his gun.

He was told on the night of the murder by police officers that Blake and Bakley had eaten dinner at Vitello's restaurant and that Blake inadvertently left his gun in the booth. In the car on the way to the scene, he, Whelan and Corwin listened to a tape recording of Blake's statement that he had given at the North Hollywood station. In that statement Blake told police where he left the gun and where he found it.

Samuels objected to the questioning about what Ito knew about the location of Blake's gun, saying the questions contained hearsay statements from Blake and others. She particularly didn't want any of Blake's statements heard by the jury unless Blake testified. She was overruled by Judge Darlene Schempp, who allowed Schwartzbach to ask foundational questions to show Ito's “state of mind.”

Ito tried to minimize the fact that he didn't test the bench and carpet, saying he had only heard that piece of information from Coffey. He couldn't remember if the Blake's tape recording contained the information about where Blake told them he found the gun. "I had 'a' information, just a single information with nothing else. That's all I knew from one source only," Ito snapped back at the question, apparently losing his English skills in the process.

“It would just be another piece of the puzzle, just like GSR results from the car or his clothing; correct?” asked Schwartzbach.

Although Ito claimed to know about Blake's gun from only one person, the media had the information as of the morning of May 5, 2001, according to a CNN news story5. Corwin also knew -- he wrote about it in his book. Was Lead Detective Ito just less informed than the media? Or was having only one source of information from a fellow police officer just not reliable enough to make the effort to verify Blake's alibi?

According to Corwin's book, Ito remarked upon listening to the tape recording that "everything circumstantial was going against Blake." He also expressed the opinion that Blake would have to have someone see him come back from the restaurant in order for him to say that he didn't shoot Bakley.

On May 7 or 8, 2001, Ito requested that Blake's car be "superglued" to identify any latent fingerprints outside the car and to dust for fingerprints in specific locations inside the car.

On re-direct, Samuels asked Ito why he ordered the printing. Ito said he was looking for "unknown subjects" that may have touched the car and to "identify suspects or eliminate people."

He gathered fingerprints from police officers at the scene, firemen and paramedics, witnesses, Blake's, Caldwell's and Bakley's prints so these could be compared to the prints lifted from the car and eliminated. He said there were no unidentified prints.

But during cross Ito was forced to admit that there were one or two prints which were not identified. Scott Hurwitz, an LAPD forensic print specialist who testified on February 14, 2005, found six unidentified fingerprints on the rear view mirror, inside the driver's side window and outside the driver's side window.

In the Third Party Culpability motion6 filed by Schwartzbach on October 14, 2004, on the weekend of the murder, police received a clue from a neighbor who lived near the crime scene who described a person getting out of Blake's car while Blake and Bakley were dining. Other neighbors reported seeing a suspicious black car that sped away at the time of the murder.

The police followed up on those clues 10 months after the murder, in the meantime traveling to 20 states to interview witnesses, including police officers in New Jersey who had arrested John List7. List was a man who had murdered his family and lived under different identities to elude capture. In 1995, Blake portrayed List in a made-for-TV movie.

There were other “mistakes” made in the collection of evidence. The Smith & Wesson .38 Special handgun Blake was carrying the night of the murder was test fired before any samples of residue were taken from it. Ito said that this kind of testing was routine in order to verify whether the gun was used in any unsolved crimes.

But according to a paper by Bryan R. Burnett8, a forensic expert hired by Mesereau who did not testify at trial, if the LAPD sampled both Blake’s gun and the murder weapon before test firing, it was theoretically possible to which gun produced the particles on Blake’s hands and clothes.

At 6:30 a.m. on May 5, 2001, Ito directed Whelan and James Gollaz to collect the clothes Blake wore the night before.9 Blake voluntarily gave them the clothes, which they heaped into an old paper box Gollaz had picked up from the copier area at the North Hollywood police station. Apparently neither Whelan nor Gollaz thought to bag the clothes separately, even though both were experienced homicide detectives.

Criminalist Steven Dowell testified that bagging and separating clothes was the “preferable” method of collection in order to prevent cross contamination of particles and other forensic evidence from one article of clothing to another. Further, Gollaz put the clothes uncovered in the back of his trunk, which also contained firearms, and drove them around for the weekend before booking them into evidence.

Schwartzbach asked Ito if he ordered detectives to collect Blake’s clothes to determine whether there was evidence that would “implicate” Blake in the murder.

“I think what I was trying to do there at that point is to collect evidence to corroborate his statement,” said Ito. “Implication might be one of them (reasons).”

“And you thought that if there was blood on his clothing, that would tend to corroborate his statement?”

“It would tend to corroborate things that I've learned that happened at the crime scene,” Ito replied.

When Ito realized the risk of cross-contamination because the clothes had not been properly bagged, he ordered an unscientific “test,” attempting to duplicate the conditions in which the clothes were collected.10 Unfortunately for Ito and the prosecution, the test showed the defense’s contention that particles could be transferred to the clothes from external sources.

On May 5, 2001, the LAPD searched Blake’s residence on Dilling Street in Studio City. On the warrant, Ito listed Corwin as a member of the search team, labeling him as “author.”

Ito explained the procedures for executing the warrant. He said that first he took a videographer through each room of the house to record the its condition before the police entered. The officers then did a room-by-room search, using the videographer to film evidence as it was gathered. At the end of the search, Ito left his warrant on a table.

The search lasted five hours. Although Corwin described the rooms and buildings in detail in “Homicide Special,” when he testified on January 19, 2005, he could not remember where he had been.

On October 14, 2004, Schwartzbach had filed the Motion to Exclude Evidence from Search, claiming that Blake's Fourth Amendment civil rights had been violated when Corwin entered his home. Schempp ruled that a violation occurred but the search was valid.

That wasn't going to stop Schwartzbach from presenting the LAPD’s faux pas to the jury.

"There was no reference in the search warrant to any private citizens being permitted to enter Mr. Blake's residence, correct?" he asked.

"No, I think it's just for purpose of searching," Ito replied. "It doesn't refer to anything about entering, I don't believe."

"It wasn't your understanding that even as a police officer you could just walk into somebody's home without their permission, correct?"

"That's correct."

"So, in order to search you first have to enter, correct?"

"That's correct."

"You never asked Mr. Blake if Mr. Corwin could enter his home, did you?"

"No, I did not."

It wasn't only Corwin who was given a "showing" of Blake's home, however, but the entire world. In May 2001, ABC News released "exclusive" video of the search conducted in Blake's house and posted it on their website.

In addition, Ito shared Blake's personal effects with another author, Dennis McDougal, who co-wrote a 2002 book about the case entitled "Blood Cold." In “Blood Cold,” MacDougal describes Blake's “Mata Hari Ranch,” his taste in music, and his personal journals.

At the preliminary hearing in 2003, Mesereau asked Ito if he had any direct contact with McDougal. Ito denied he had and added that only the LAPD’s public information office dealt with the press.

But both Ito and co-lead detective Brian Tyndall are quoted in McDougal's book. And in an interview on the program “American Justice,” aired February 4, 2004, McDougal referred to the detectives as "Ron and Brian." It appears that McDougal had more than a conversation with the public information office, and it appears that Ito perjured himself during the preliminary hearing.

Schwartzbach showed Ito and the jury a few clips from the video and still photos. One clip showed the police walking up the stairs in the apartment where Bakley lived on Blake's compound. Schwartzbach brought attention to some footlockers and papers that Bakley had left in the room.

The search warrant authorized the police to seize both Blake's and Bakley's letters and papers. Although the detectives seized Blake's folder containing materials he received from private investigators regarding Bakley's illegal activities, the detectives left behind most of Bakley's letters in the footlockers, on the table, and on the floor of the apartment.

Samuels in her direct examination brought up the fact that Braun had delivered the footlockers and other items to Parker Center a few days after the search. According to the LA Daily News, Braun delivered "three steamer trunks, five boxes, and six suitcases full of documents, photos and recordings that belonged to Bakley."11

Samuels' questions implied that Braun chose to meet at Parker Center in order to garner media attention instead of at Piper Tech, the LAPD scientific crime lab where Ito had proposed because of its security. It was true that Braun had turned over the items in a very public manner.

Like Braun's dramatic delivery of the footlockers to Parker Center, Schwartzbach piled nine three-ring binders on top of the witness stand in front of Ito's face, counting as he placed them down.

"Is it not correct, sir, that what Mr. Braun presented to you were many, many letters either from Miss Bakley to the men she scammed, or letters from the men she scammed to Miss Bakley?"

Samuels issued a challenge. "Does the witness have time to go through them (the binders) and see if those are all letters, because if he doesn't, I will be happy to help him. I don't believe they are all letters."

"He's certainly more than welcome to," Schwartzbach retorted.

"Well, then, let's wait while he goes through them to see if they're all letters. Go for it."

"May I ask a question?" Ito broke up the exchange. He wanted clarification that the letters in the binders were those turned over to the defense by his office in discovery. "I do recall a lot of them were the same letters, and they were the same form letters. Now, there could have been one letter that was Xeroxed 50 times. But each one of those letters were (sic) booked as evidence."

"Now, each letter was booked as evidence," Schwartzbach replied, "but I guess my point is that what you seized when you executed the search warrant were things that you believed might incriminate Mr. Blake, correct?"

"I seized what I believed was relevant to the case and what was authorized by Judge Fidler, what I thought would be evidence." Ito then whined that he had booked 1,251 items in the case and he had to "control" what was "pertinent." He said he didn't want to book items that were repetitive.

He also testified that during the search some letters were seized and that officers read many of the letters on site.

"At the time of executing the search warrant neither you nor any of the detectives have any way of knowing the personal histories of any of the authors of those letters, correct?"

"I still don't have the knowledge of a lot of the writers of the letters," Ito replied.

On June 19, 2001, Ito executed a search warrant on Caldwell's Burbank apartment. During the search of Caldwell's Jeep, officers found a shopping list discarded in a cup holder. The list was not dated and there was no reference to whether the things on the list had anything to do with Blake or Bakley, but the LAPD and the media paraded it as some sort of murder tools list. On it were the items:
2 shovels
Small sledge -
crowbar -
25 – auto –
get blank gun ready
- old rugs -
duct tape – black -
Draino -
Pool acid
Plant –

In October 2003, Schempp dismissed the conspiracy charge against Blake and Caldwell, saying the prosecution’s case consisted of “no more than speculative evidence.”

However, the ruling did not make the list go away. At trial, Samuels lauded it as People's Exhibit number 67, focusing on the one item which she knew the defense would criticize: "25 auto."

On affidavits for search and arrest warrants, Ito had placed a decimal in front of the 25 so that it appeared to be a notation for a .25 caliber automatic handgun.

"Why did you do that?" she asked.

"It was a mistake. I don't know why I did it. It was a mistake," answered Ito. "And it could be because I'm used to writing calibers, and by doing that, it would indicate it's a .25 caliber."

Ito denied trying to mislead the magistrate who signed the warrants however.

On cross, Schwartzbach asked Ito to identify the duct tape, crowbar, and pool supplies in the police photos taken around the house. He tried five times to elicit testimony that Ito observed construction at Blake's Hidden Hills home but Samuels objected each time he asked or rephrased the question.

Schwartzbach then produced an auto mechanic's receipt for service on Caldwell's Jeep at 24,200 miles. The police had also recovered it from Caldwell's vehicle the same day they served the search warrant.

Schwartzbach accused Ito of being selective in what he included in affidavits for warrants. Ito never disclosed the auto service receipt, which was an alternate explanation for "25 auto," and he included only certain items –- two shovels, 25 auto, get blank gun ready, duct tape, and lye -- from the shopping list.

Further, the affidavits in which ".25 auto" was listed were served in April 2002, just prior to Blake's and Caldwell's arrests, 11 months after the murder. In chambers, Schwartzbach implied Ito knew what “25 auto” represented.

"The fact of the matter is Detective Ito was selective in what he included in his affidavit, and he made no reference, in fact, that this document (receipt) was there,” Schwartzbach argued to Schempp. “And frankly, I don't believe his testimony that he placed a decimal point in front of the 25 by accident.”

Ito’s day in court was not over yet. Schwartzbach would not only make his point that Ito was biased in what he collected and presented as physical evidence, but he would show Ito’s determination to convict Blake extended to witness accounts as well.

(to be continued…)

Return to Table of Contents

1Video of Robert Blake's Arrest

2Charges against Caldwell were dropped for insufficient evidence on October 31,2003. 1 Charge Against Blake Dropped Jean Guiccione and Anna Gorman, LA Times, 11/1/03

3LAPD Press Release 4/18/02

4 LAPD Hawker

5 Actor Blake Hires Attorney in Wake of Wife’s Death , CNN, 5/5/01

6Third Party Culpability Motion

7"Blake Tip Needed Endless Legwork," Jean Guccione and Andrew Blankstein, LA Times, 12/23/02

8 The Gunshot Residue Evidence of People v. Robert Blake: A Case of Forensic Alchemy, Bryan R. Burnett

9 The Bomb Squad – Part I

10 The Bomb Squad – Part II

11"Actor Suspect in Wife's Slaying," Orith Goldberg, LA Daily News, 5/11/01


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