In January 2006, bandits robbed a 14-year-old high-school student outside a Stanton store and fled. The student, Chris Gonzales, called the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) for help. Gonzales provided deputies with two key facts: descriptions of his assailants and the getaway vehicle's license-plate number. By department standards, it was a "priority 1" case—meaning a serious felony that warranted swift pursuit of leads. But eight months later, a detective oddly closed the case after deeming it unsolvable because all leads had been "exhausted."
In fact, Janet Virginia Strong, the investigator assigned to catch the crooks in Gonzales' case, hadn't exhausted anything. Among other things, she hadn't thoroughly checked DMV records. She ignored inconsistent statements from the suspects' relatives about the whereabouts of the getaway vehicle during the robbery. When the key robbery suspect didn't return her telephone calls, she deactivated the case because, she later admitted, she didn't want to play "phone tag" with him.
Thankfully, most other OCSD investigators take their jobs seriously. One of them became suspicious of the number of cases Strong deemed unsolvable, double-checked her claims and discovered the problems. An internal-affairs investigation led to the department referring the matter to the DA's office for prosecution.
In 2009, Senior Deputy District Attorney Aleta Bryant formally filed misdemeanor charges against Strong, accusing her of "willfully and intentionally" attempting to cover up her "criminal performance," which included "substandard work" and "a faltering work ethic."
The internal OCSD probe had discovered that Gonzales wasn't the only shortchanged victim. Agustino Sanchez, a Laguna Hills restaurant manager, had a similar experience in 2008 after he fired an employee. According to a crime report, the employee's brother, a former member of a criminal street gang known for wanton violence, repeatedly called Sanchez with the same message: "If you don't re-hire Rufo, I will kill you and cut your balls off."
The case got assigned to Strong, who shocked Sanchez when she asked him to do her investigative work by surreptitiously taking photos of the brothers. In her case-closing remarks, the deputy claimed she'd exhausted all leads to locate the suspects. The incompetence left Sanchez not only fearing for his life, but also, according to Internal Affairs unit records, "in tears." After all, he'd supplied the department with the suspects' names, telephone numbers, detailed personal information, even the address of their Santa Ana residence.
Then there's the case of Randy Graham. In 2006, a bandit robbed Graham of his wallet. Strong got the case. After checking post-crime activity on his credit cards, Graham discovered they'd been used at two gas stations and a Pizza Hut, places that likely had surveillance footage that might identity the bandit. He contacted Strong, whom he later described as uninterested in the follow-up information. "Let me do my job," she told the victim. According to the DA's office, Strong ignored the new leads, and just eight days after the crime, she deemed it unsolvable and closed the file.
These three examples indicate that this deputy might have made a better novelist than criminal investigator—but only if writing novels required less work. Of course, laziness isn't a crime. It should be a felony, however, that this deputy is entitled to retire at the age of 50 and take 90 percent of her top salary for the rest of her life. The theory that grants law-enforcement agents such generous public benefits is that deputies, including Strong, experience tremendous daily stress solving crimes.
Law-enforcement officials say the case against the deputy is, well, "incredibly strong." But last week, Bryant couldn't win a conviction. On a key count, only 11 of the 12 jurors found Strong, who retired after the discoveries, guilty. In an earlier trial with a different jury, Bryant got the same 11-1 for guilty vote on the same key count.
"We've done our job," said one DA official (not Bryant). "We determined the deputy committed crimes. We filed charges. We brought the case to trial twice because it's important that deputies don't think they can get away with falsifying official reports. And twice, a lone juror has decided to block justice. What can I say?"
Prosecutors are now trying to decide whether or not to go for a third trial at an April 15 hearing.
DID AMAZON.COM BURY ANOTHER OC BOOKSTORE?
Inside the Borders bookstore at the District in Tustin on a recent Sunday afternoon, the excited middle-aged shopper pointed to what he wanted to buy. But it wasn't a best-seller or a magazine or DVD. The man told a store clerk he wanted to purchase two rows of massive bookshelves, and he didn't care that the shelves were almost entirely empty of books—books that were selling for 60 percent off retail prices.
The customer just wanted the shelves, and the clerk, for the right price, was willing to part with what every bookstore must have. But employees at this Borders didn't care anymore. Corporate officials are closing this once-popular store sometime this month.
A handwritten sign placed on the store's entrance doors bitterly answers that question: "Need a restroom? Use Amazon's."
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At least in the mind of one cashier at the store, Amazon.com and the increasing popularity of Kindle and Nook electronic book readers are the key causes of the store's demise.
This column appeared in print as "Lazy OC Deputy Cases Keep Stalling: Two mistrials save a sheriff's deputy from charges she falsified official reports."