By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
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By Charles Lam
Something else de la Fuente didn't know was that Sgt. Joe Stickles of the Tustin Police Department had written a letter to the judge and the probation department arguing that Piho deserved a light sentence because she worked as a police informant.
"I have found Miss Piho to be honest and forthright in our dealings, even though it may have shed bad light on her," Stickles wrote. "Miss Piho is not and has not received any consideration for her cooperation in the investigation. Even though she was made aware of that, Miss Piho still agreed to help."
Stickles added that he was writing this letter as a private citizen, not on behalf of the Tustin Police Department.
"Miss Piho is a kind and caring person," Stickles argued. "She would never intentionally hurt someone. She has five cats and can't get rid of any of them because she feels they belong together. She is an animal lover. . . . I don't feel Miss Piho would do well in a penal environment."
The prosecutor had told de la Fuente the judge would likely sentence Piho to five years in prison. She was surprised, then, when Superior Court Judge William Evans set her sentence at a year in the county jail.
Still collecting herself, de la Fuente took a second blow: Stickles was sitting next to Piho in the courtroom. She says she watched in disbelief as Stickles, who was holding hands with Piho, repeatedly rubbed her thigh.
"To say I was outraged is an understatement," de la Fuente says. "My heart was pounding. I was thinking, 'What am I seeing? This woman killed my husband. This is incredible.'"
On April 1, 2003, de la Fuente typed up an informalcomplaint to the Tustin Police Department. Her letter described the apparently intimate physical contact between Piho and Stickles. A few weeks later, she met personally with Capt. Bob Schoenkopf, an internal affairs officer who has since retired. Stickles, who has since been promoted to lieutenant, refused to comment for this story, citing legal threats against his department by Linda Cator. The Weekly was unable to interview Schoenkopf but obtained a tape recording of the meeting. That tape suggests that Newport Beach police weren't the only ones considering the possiblity that Andrea Nelson was murdered—and that her death might involve her work as an informant.
The first 20 minutes of the tape consist of de la Fuente describing in blow-by-blow detail how Stickles rubbed Piho's thigh in full view of everyone in court. Schoenkopf asks her equally detailed questions: What kind of dress was Piho wearing? How far away from them were you sitting? Was Stickles' behavior toward Piho "amorous" or "comforting"?
Then, after a long pause, as if he's weighing the situation, Schoenkopf starts talking. He tells de la Fuente that Piho helped Stickles in a major police corruption scandal that resulted in the firing of five cops—two in Tustin, three in Buena Park. One of the Tustin cops had already been charged with 176 different crimes, he says. He shows de la Fuente a stack of files representing the case and explains that it involved months of police work.
The case, he adds, stemmed from "an initial allegation that one of our officers was directly involved in . . . [the] family that owns Mr. J's."
According to Schoenkopf, there were two chief informants who made that ?case possible.
"Those people were Lisa Piho and a woman named Andrea Nelson," he says. "Lisa Piho, um, as much as a lowlife as she is, was the subject of a number of death threats. . . . Lisa was deathly afraid."
That's why Stickles was in court with Piho—not as a lover, but as her bodyguard in case somebody tried to kill her during the sentencing hearing.
"The death threats were very real," Schoenkopf adds. And then to underscore the seriousness of the danger, he reveals what he says police know with a certainty: "Andrea Nelson got murdered in Newport Beach. We still don't know if it was related to this investigation or if it was something else she was involved in."
Schoenkopf tells de la Fuente that Nelson's work as an informant had been a secret in the department until shortly before the investigation ended. When the cops were fired, her name was made public.
"It was very coincidental," he concludes. "Two days after we released Andrea Nelson's name, she got murdered."
Today, nearly three years later, AndreaNelson's death is still officially an accident. Despite the police finding GHB in Homayan Bakhtar's house, the coroner failed to detect the drug in her blood. But Cator is convinced her daughter was murdered.
She says her suspicions started when Bakhtar called her from Hoag Hospital.
"He said Andrea went unconscious," she recalls. Cator hung up and called ?the hospital.
"They said they weren't able to resuscitate her," she says.
Cator says she told hospital officers her daughter was a police informant and demanded they perform tests to see if she had been raped.
"They said, 'We can't. He's already admitted that he had sex with her.'"
Cator drove to the hospital and told Newport Beach police detective Yourex she believed Bakhtar had raped and murdered her daughter. Yourex seemed sympathetic and said he was suspicious about Bakhtar's story.