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Grand jury looked at seeking federal inquiry of Fresno chief, department
[Fresno, Calif.]

January 23, 2001
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Grand jury looked at seeking federal inquiry of Fresno chief, department
[Fresno, Calif.]

Doug Hoagland The Fresno Bee
January 21, 2001, Sunday Final Edition
Copyright 2001 McClatchy Newspapers, Inc.
The Fresno Bee
January 21, 2001, Sunday Final Edition

(FRESNO, Calif.) -- A year ago, Fresno was shaking off a bad case of the jitters after a break-in at a police bomb bunker in the mountains east of the city. Someone had stolen explosives capable of flattening a high-rise, triggering fears of terrorism on New Year's Eve.

However, the real "explosion" -- not a bomb but a bombshell of words -- occurred in the new year: Fresno Police Chief Ed Winchester told the Fresno County grand jury he didn't know the bunker existed. Some grand jurors concluded Winchester was lying, according to the chairman and secretary of the grand jury's law enforcement committee.

Retired Fresno Police Lt. Larry McIntyre, who oversaw the bunker as head of the Fresno bomb squad until December 1998, cast further doubt on Winchester's truthfulness. He told the grand jury that Winchester knew about the bunker. McIntyre says he discussed the facility with the chief when the Fresno police took it over from the Sheriff's Department in 1994. For the chief to deny knowing about the bunker is "ludicrous," McIntyre says today.

The foreman of the 1999-2000 grand jury says Winchester might not have lied. But if he was telling the truth, what does it say that the chief didn't know his department was storing explosives in a remote mountain bunker?

"It just blew my mind," says David Fung, the foreman. "He's supposed to know these things."

The bunker was the police's No. 1 storage facility. Almost all explosives were kept there.

Winchester declined three times in the last three weeks to be interviewed for this report. Lt. John Fries outlined the chief's position: He agrees with and is implementing the grand jury's recommendations on better security and inventory control in the storage of police explosives.

Fries says the chief has never dodged responsibility for the bunker.

He couldn't. Early in 2000, the grand jury's law enforcement committee began asking questions about the December 1999 break-in. Grand juror John Bunch served as chairman of that committee. Grand juror Ray Ensher kept notes as committee secretary.

In recent interviews, Bunch and Ensher made two revelations about the grand jury's probe into the bunker break-in and other problems facing the Police Department in 2000, including missing cocaine and cash from the department's evidence rooms and personnel problems leading to costly lawsuits against the city. The revelations:

Bunch wanted the grand jury to ask for a federal investigation of Winchester and the department. A minority of grand jurors supported Bunch's request, but the majority did not -- and the grand jury made no request for a federal investigation. Bunch says grand jurors might have been reluctant out of fear of Fresno police. Fung disagrees. He says the grand jury asked for no federal investigation because the Police Department broke no federal laws.

Fung agrees that Bunch correctly sized up morale and administrative problems in the department.

Frustrated by the grand jury's reluctance to act, Bunch continued to invite witnesses critical of the department to speak to the grand jury. He hoped their statements would prompt the majority to seek the federal investigation. When that strategy didn't work, Bunch wrote a sharply worded assessment of the Police Department for the grand jury's final report. Other grand jurors, however, rewrote Bunch's report, and the final report lacked the sting of Bunch's words.

Police face new mayor, revival of bomb squad

The revelations of Bunch and Ensher provide a rare behind-the-scenes view of Fresno's most secret public body grappling with issues involving the Police Department, one of the city's most high-profile public agencies.

Fries, the Police Department spokesman, says these revelations constitute old news with little bearing on events today.

They come at a key time, however, for the Fresno Police Department. The department is in the process of reactivating its bomb squad, disbanded a year ago in the wake of the embarrassing break-in. Winchester had to admit he wasn't sure his department had an inventory process at the bunker. Authorities said that made it difficult to know all the explosives that were stolen.

Soon after the break-in, Winchester transferred bomb squad duties to the Fresno County Sheriff's Department.

Furthermore, Winchester and his department face working with a new mayor: Alan Autry, who so far has been supportive of the chief. The mayor, through his city manager, can hire and fire the police chief. Winchester, chief since 1994 and a Fresno police officer since 1967, also must deal with the City Council and its new president, Henry Perea. Perea has criticized the police in the past, and the City Council controls the Police Department's budget.

If Autry or Perea challenge the Police Department, they will be following the lead of grand juror Bunch, an unlikely point man. He's soft-spoken, an armament systems technician on F-16 jets at the California Air National Guard in Fresno, a former Big Brother volunteer and Sunday school teacher who worked previously as a radio announcer on a jazz station in Fresno.

Bunch, 47, has lived in Fresno since 1983.

He served on the grand jury from 1998-2000 and was picked as chairman of the law enforcement committee his second year. Fung, the foreman, calls Bunch "an outstanding young man" and "definitely not a grandstander." In a letter thanking Bunch for his service, Fung wrote a handwritten P.S. -- "John, you did a great job." Fung, 73, a semiretired pharmacist, was appointed to a state medical committee by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and reappointed by two succeeding governors.

Fung and Bunch were two of 19 members picked in a random drawing of names recommended by Fresno County judges to serve on the 1999-2000 grand jury. Each year, a grand jury is assembled to investigate public agencies.

The grand jury works in secret. That's to protect people with important information to divulge and anyone unfairly accused who's later cleared. It's a misdemeanor crime for grand jurors to violate the secrecy of the grand jury room, as presiding Judge Gary Hoff told the 1999-2000 grand jury at the beginning of its term.

Bunch says he joined the grand jury with no preconceived ideas about Fresno's police force. "I didn't know all I know now," he says. What he learned came into focus as Winchester and Assistant Police Chief Jerry Dyer, regarded by many as Winchester's heir apparent, testified before the grand jury in early February, according to grand jury minutes obtained by The Bee.

On Feb. 2, Dyer -- 21 years on the force, one year as assistant chief -- told grand jurors he and Winchester "were not aware there was a bunker."

The next day, Winchester appeared before the grand jury. Foreman Fung says he didn't swear in the chief because he assumes officials tell the truth. Hoff says the foreman has that discretion on most civil matters.

Bunch says he was incredulous when Winchester denied knowing about the bunker: "We were all kind of shocked. You'd think being the chief he would know all of his assets and where they are."

Ensher, 66, a retired teacher, says at least one police officer showed paperwork to indicate the chief did know about the bunker. But Winchester denied seeing that paperwork, Ensher says, leaving the grand jury to ponder who was telling the truth.

"There was a segment [of the grand jury] that felt he [Winchester] wasn't being honest with us," Ensher says.

Other grand jurors believed the chief. They said the paperwork could have been filed without Winchester seeing it.

Ensher expresses mixed thoughts about Winchester's veracity: "It's just inconceivable to me that the chief didn't know there was a bunker out there. But I give him the benefit of the doubt."

Fries, the police spokesman, asks why Bunch or other skeptical grand jurors didn't challenge the chief in person when he testified about the bunker. Bunch says he didn't for two reasons: He didn't sense support from fellow grand jurors; and he's African-American and believes he is at a disadvantage in taking on a white police chief.

Bunch's suspicions of the police began before Winchester spoke to the grand jury. Doubts blossomed as critics of the police -- both inside and outside the department -- appeared before the grand jury. "They were all saying the same thing: It's the chief's way or no way," Bunch says.

He also was bothered by media reports about the department. In late December 1999 and early January 2000, two major stories catapulted into the headlines.

First came the break-in at the bomb bunker, reported Dec. 29, 1999. Frantic days followed. Worldwide media attention suddenly focused on Fresno County amid international concern that terrorists would strike somewhere on New Year's Eve.

On Jan. 2, five teen-age boys from Fresno and Tulare counties were questioned in the case and later arrested. Authorities recovered a pickup truckload full of blasting caps, military explosives, hand grenades and booby traps -- significantly more power than the 200 pounds of explosives police originally estimated had been stolen. Police stored those explosives for three reasons: They were evidence in criminal cases, countercharges to blow up criminals' explosives, and contraband turned in by citizens.

Immediately after the bunker arrests came another revelation -- in the form of an insider's tip to The Bee -- that an assault rifle, 11 pounds of cocaine and more than $200,000 could not be accounted for in the Police Department's property rooms. Angered by the tip, Winchester was quoted as referring to "sniveling malcontents" in the department.

In April, the police said the state Attorney General's Office had begun a criminal investigation into the missing cash and cocaine. It's not known when that probe will be finished, says Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for the attorney general.

To Bunch, all this pointed to one conclusion: An outside agency needed to investigate the Fresno Police Department on more than the missing evidence. Only an outside agency such as the federal Department of Justice could objectively investigate the department, Bunch says.

But Bunch's call for a Department of Justice investigation went nowhere for a simple political reason: He didn't have the votes on the grand jury. Bunch says he had the support of only five other jurors. Ensher, a Democratic Party activist, says the jury was "stacked with conservatives" who strongly supported the Police Department and didn't want an outside investigation.

Had the grand jury requested an investigation, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Fresno, the local arm of the federal Department of Justice, would have considered it -- "just as we take all requests seriously," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Cullers.

Cullers says his office would have asked a federal police agency such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review the case and determine whether any federal laws had been broken. Even if no federal laws were violated, a state investigation through the California Attorney General's Office was an option for the grand jury to pursue, Cullers says.

But it didn't happen.

Bunch next invited people such as McIntyre, the former bomb squad leader, and ex-officer Myrna Loran, who sued the department over alleged sexual harassment, to speak to the grand jury.

McIntyre retired from the department because of heart problems and amid a personnel dispute. He was questioned by authorities after the bunker break-in and says they considered him a suspect. He told them the break-in looked like the work of amateurs. McIntyre makes clear his bias: He says he doesn't like Winchester because the chief lacks people skills and because of the way he treats employees.

McIntyre said the chief unfairly blamed Lt. Andy Hall, who succeeded McIntyre as bomb squad leader, for the bunker's inadequate inventory. After the break-in, Winchester relieved Hall of his command pending an investigation, and Hall eventually resigned that job, but stayed on the force. He now works as a field commander in northwest Fresno at the same rank. "I've always done my best for the department and the community, and I will continue to do so," Hall says today.

In its final report, the grand jury suggests that Hall isn't responsible for the bunker's inventory problems. "It might be noted that the lieutenant [Hall] had the [bomb squad] command for three months" when the bunker break-in occurred, the report says.

Loran filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the city after she reported a fellow officer in the Violent Crime Suppression Unit for stealing private property. She says she endured retaliation by fellow officers and received no immediate help when she complained to superiors. After appearing before the grand jury, Loran took her lawsuit into court, where a trial jury couldn't reach a verdict but was leaning toward Loran on all counts.

In October, on the eve of a second trial, Loran and the city settled for $450,000. Her lawsuit asked for $900,000.

Committee edits sharply worded assessment

When the testimony of McIntyre, Loran and others failed to budge the grand jury toward a federal investigation, Bunch says, he made one final attempt to hold the department up to public review. He wrote a sharply worded assessment of the department's Internal Affairs process for the grand jury's final report. Internal Affairs investigates allegations of improper conduct against officers.

Bunch wrote: "... there is a strong perception from many veteran officers that a double standard exists in the department, and that the beneficiaries of the double standard are those who wear the brass, almost irrespective of circumstance."

Bunch concluded that an "extensive review of documentation" suggests "a disturbing pattern of rights violations. Also, there is an apparent indifference to insist that those in the highest positions be held accountable for their conduct, in the same or similar fashion that the administration expects of the rank and file."

Bunch's words never appeared in the report released June 30 to the public.

Fung, the grand jury foreman, says Bunch was "somewhat right" but lacked conclusive evidence. Fred Goldring, another grand juror, says the grand jury's editing committee deleted much of what Bunch wrote.

"We tried to stay impersonal and factual," says Goldring, 69, a former specialty store owner. "One could infer that there may have been more passion and perhaps an agenda" in Bunch's words. Bunch scoffs at that. He says he had no agenda and dismisses that suggestion as "ludicrous."

Bunch gave up in frustration when Goldring announced plans to rewrite his strongly worded narrative.

"I wanted someone to look at the report and do something about the Police Department," he says.

Full story: Grand jury looked at seeking federal inquiry of Fresno chief, department
[Fresno, Calif.]

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