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Poisoned Probe 

How police bungled the exotic poison-for-profit case known as Foxglove

Wednesday, Dec 3 1997
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When indictments against members of the Tene-Bimbo Gypsy tribe were handed up early in November, Bay Area daily papers responded with appropriate enthusiasm. They played up the disturbing -- and, frankly, enthralling -- aspects of the alleged crimes: Gypsies and their cohorts befriending, marrying, defrauding, and then trying to poison to death a series of vulnerable old people. Naturally, the Chronicle, Examiner, and Mercury News also played up the exotic characters involved in the purported plotting: two Gypsy femmes fatales, a mother and daughter who were members of a clan that had already been the subject of a best-selling book and a Hollywood movie.

So far, however, news accounts have muted what might be the most important aspect of the story: how horribly San Francisco police have botched the investigation into the alleged murder-for-profit scheme dubbed "Foxglove," after the suspected death tool, digitalis, a heart medicine derived from the foxglove flower.

There has been passing media reference to disciplinary proceedings against two detectives who led the first year and a half of the Foxglove probe. And every other law enforcement agent involved in the case seems more than willing to let misconduct allegations remain general, attached to those two detectives, and focused on the early stages of the inquiry.

The reason for this collectively vague attitude is simple: The departmental charges against the detectives are only traces of a much richer vein of police incompetence, one that will greatly complicate and perhaps destroy the prosecution of the allegedly murder-minded Gypsies.

A review of paperwork connected to the San Francisco Police Department's handling of the case, supplemented by lengthy interviews with as many of the participants as would speak, found errors, omissions, and extraordinarily questionable police behavior extending through the entire four-year life of the Foxglove investigation.

A few highlights of the police bungling:
* Two loose-cannon private eyes who apparently wanted to ink a movie or book deal were allowed to compromise the investigation, perhaps fatally. As police dozed or winked, one or both of those private investigators took sensitive police files, submitted an internal summary of the probe to Hollywood film agents, leaked a confidential informant's name to the press (which led to threats against the witness' life), offered an important investigative document to an attorney representing one of the alleged suspects, and generally complicated and undermined the case.

* The Police Department did not see fit to warn apparent targets of the alleged poisoning plot until the City Attorney's Office intervened and informed investigators that failure to make such warnings could place the investigators themselves in danger of criminal prosecution.

* Much of the case was built on the testimony of one key informant -- but that witness subsequently recanted his testimony and now stands charged as a co-conspirator in the alleged fraud-murder conspiracy.

* A police officer co-owned the delicatessen where the Gypsies and their cohorts allegedly poisoned their victims' food -- but he has not been charged, and no explanation of why he does or does not figure in the poison-fraud plot has been offered in public.

* A key suspect in the alleged poisonings was detained and questioned. Then investigators returned her to the home of her alleged victim, an elderly man she is alleged to have poisoned, and who had not been warned about her purportedly murderous plans.

The ridiculous gaffes and curious blank spots in the Foxglove case could damage the careers of many in the SFPD, including Police Chief Fred Lau, who was the deputy chief in charge of the Bureau of Investigation during the entire time the case was disintegrating. At the very least, police brass failed to recognize -- until it was far too late -- that the case was incredibly complex, and that the two fraud inspectors heading up the investigation were overworked, overwhelmed, and had engaged in amazing forms of conduct that apparently jeopardized the potential prosecution of the case.

Police commanders appear to fear disclosure of details about police procedure in the case. The cone of silence has fallen around Foxglove.

Chief Lau has told others he intends to exhibit memory failure if he's asked, in or out of court, to explain why the Foxglove case went south on his watch. Former Chief Anthony Ribera, who was in charge of the department when the case began, is also telling people his memory of the investigation is vague.

Meanwhile, Chief Lau has attempted to make the department leakproof vis-à-vis Foxglove. Even though an initial court-imposed gag order is no longer in effect, no one in law enforcement is talking on the record about Foxglove. Lau has ordered police officers who touched the case to button up. In a move that could keep further details of the probe from becoming public, Lau apparently is considering dismissal of misconduct charges against the two detectives who first handled the investigation, police sources and an attorney representing the officers say.

The fear of Foxglove is palpable. "Anyone who talks about this case will be in serious trouble pretty rapidly," says Dr. Boyd Stephens, the medical examiner who exhumed and tested bodies of the alleged victims of digitalis poisoning.

Burying mistakes and misconduct in secrecy and loathing is a time-honored tradition at the SFPD. It is a strategy that could work -- as long as Foxglove stays out of the courtroom.

And these charges may never make it to trial. The defendants are represented by the creme de la creme of the local defense bar, attorneys skilled at pretrial maneuvering. Those lawyers have already served warning that they'll exploit police blunders. In the Foxglove case, they'll have plenty of material to work with.

Gypsies emerged as an identifiable tribe in northern India, around the time of Christ's birth. A nomadic people, they spread over Eastern and Southern Europe and traveled in caravans for many centuries. They spoke, and speak, a language known as Romany.

Modern Gypsies, of course, bear little resemblance to the stereotype of old; they do not all wear multicolored bandannas. Because of a centuries-long history of extreme persecution, however, Gypsies have stood apart from the rest of society and have developed a separate social system. Even today, a traditional Gypsy community is organized very specifically to avoid contact with non-Gypsies, or gadji.

Families or clans (familiyas) are led individually by leaders known as Baros, but will join together in groups of families, or Kumpanias, run by Rom Baros. Kumpanias control business practices, often still revolving around tarot reading parlors, in particular geographical areas. Disputes among Gypsies are handled by an informal court, the Kris. And there are many opportunities for dispute, because the Gypsy culture does, indeed, include a measure of theft and deception.

Gypsy scams are well-known and have been written about extensively over the years, most notably in Peter Maas' 1975 book King of the Gypsies, which details an internal power struggle in the Tene-Bimbo clan. The Gypsy reputation for chicanery has even generated its own legend. One version of that legend goes like this:

When Christ was being crucified, the Roman soldiers had a fifth nail, made of gold, that was meant to be driven into his heart. The nail, however, was stolen by a Gypsy girl, sparing the only son of God enormous pain. As a reward, God gave the Gypsies permission, from that time forward, to travel the Earth -- and to steal whatever they wanted, free of the stain of sin.

Not all Gypsies are scam artists, or murder-minded elder abusers. But if the eight defendants in the Foxglove case are guilty of the crimes they are accused of committing, they are, indeed, despicable bottom feeders who deserve long prison terms. Generally speaking, the defendants are alleged to have cooperated in schemes that fooled elderly people into signing over property to them. In some cases, the authorities allege, elderly men were befuddled by youthful female charm. And in some instances, that charm was, prosecutors say, accompanied by the administration of lethal poison.

According to the indictments returned this year, the scam began in 1984 when Angela Tene, aka Theresa Tene, met Nicholas Bufford, a maintenance man who'd retired from the Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental Hotel. Twenty-four-year-old Angela, a stunning beauty with dark, flowing hair and intense eyes, met Bufford at a McDonald's. At the time, he was 87 years old.

Angela quickly wooed Bufford, a Russian immigrant, persuading him to sign a joint tenancy deed on his 14th Avenue home. Joint tenancy is a method of dual ownership over property; a joint tenancy deed grants equal shares in a property to whoever signs it. Ownership cedes to surviving members when one or more tenants-in-common die.

In this case, the joint tenancy deed granted Angela half of Bufford's home on 14th Avenue at Taraval, an area between the Forest Hill and West Portal districts. At first, the deed listed her as Bufford's granddaughter. But once the 24-year-old beauty married the 87-year-old ex-janitor, she changed the document, listing herself, quite correctly, as Bufford's wife.

Three days after the wedding, the husband of Angela Tene, now Angela Bufford, rewrote his will, leaving her everything he owned and making her executor of his estate. Two months after the wedding, on Sept. 4, 1984, Nicholas Bufford was dead. The death certificate listed uremia, a toxic blood condition often connected to kidney failure, and heart disease as the causes of death.

Just like that, Angela was the owner of a home worth $150,000, and $125,000 in other assets.

In 1986, Angela walked into the French Village delicatessen on West Portal Avenue and met George Lama, an Israeli Arab whose mother owned the deli. Lama soon hired Angela as a sandwich maker. They became lovers and, a grand jury indictment alleges, conspired to kill three old men and defraud several more of thousands of dollars.

But Angela was not the only enterprising Gypsy in San Francisco.

While George Lama and Angela Tene forged their alleged criminal enterprise, Angela's mother, Mary Tene, became involved with two elderly gentlemen. If the authorities are to be believed, the scams she ran on those two men made her daughter's supposed looting of the Bufford estate look amateurish.

Apparently, Mary Tene was already involved in a common-law Gypsy marriage when she formally married Phillip Steiner, a Bechtel engineer, in 1983. Police and court documents do not give many details of the courtship that led to their marriage. It is known, however, that Steiner drew up a new will two years later, making Mary Steiner the main beneficiary of his estate, which included a two-story home on 33rd Avenue, just off Golden Gate Park in the Sunset District.

In 1986, Mary Steiner, then 46, became the nurse and caretaker of another elderly man, a retired 89-year-old White Russian cavalry officer named Konstantin Liotweizen. According to a friend of Liotweizen, the old military man told him Steiner was on the scene when he took a fall; she quickly came to his aid, and visited him later in the hospital, becoming his nurse once he arrived back home.

Soon, the indictment alleges, Mary Steiner had her children from a previous marriage -- Angela, Danny, Teddy, and Kelly -- move into Liotweizen's 12-unit apartment building on Funston Avenue in the Richmond District. And soon thereafter, she started cutting checks from Liotweizen's accounts in favor of her children, according to the indictment.

Danny, a hulking 35-year-old bear of a man who employs a dees, dems, and doze East Coast patter, found a lawyer who drew up a new will that bequeathed Liotweizen's property to Mary Steiner, nee Tene, who prevailed upon the old cavalry officer to sign. Next, the indictment claims, Steiner and her children shut Liotweizen off from the outside world -- canceling newspapers, changing phone numbers, and refusing visitors.

Liotweizen's friend told police he was able to visit the old man one day and saw a horrifying sight. The former cavalry officer was in his bed, covered in his own excrement, unable to rise up from the pillow. Nearby was a glass of curdled milk and a moldy piece of pizza. "It's too late for me," Liotweizen replied when asked what was wrong.

"She has caught me like a little baby bird."
Phillip Steiner, sick and demented, died of a heart attack in the spring of 1987. Liotweizen died of a stroke and heart disease two years later. Mary Steiner took full ownership of both their houses. And then she took out loans on both -- loans exceeding $1 million.

By the late 1980s, the French Village delicatessen at West Portal and Vicente had become the center of the criminal conspiracy alleged in the Foxglove indictments. By then, Angela and George were running the show.

Police say the couple filled prescriptions of digitalis at a pharmacy across the street, poisoned food made at the deli, and delivered it to the homes of elderly targets.

Digitalis was a wise choice for a poison. A common heart medicine, it's easy to get. Used in proper doses, it makes heart cells strong and the heart beat regularly. In toxic doses, however, digitalis makes the heart beat in a frenzied fashion that causes heart failure. Giving toxic doses of digitalis to the elderly over a period of time is an almost sure way to bring on a fatal heart attack.

The indictment says Angela smiled and giggled as she and George sprinkled the poison into the deli food that they served to old people. They called it "magic salt."

It was in the deli that Angela met Helen Mitchell, a charming old woman from nearby St. Francis Woods who had two problems: fading mental faculties and two kids, a son and a daughter, who neglected her. She told everyone who would listen that she had no children.

Angela heard this, and according to Mitchell's daughter, Jocelyn Nash, set to work. First, Angela persuaded Mitchell to let her move into the elderly woman's home. Next came a joint tenancy deed. Then the attempt to change the will. But this time, there was a different end to the tale.

This time, Nash says, she came screaming across the Bay Bridge in her car to put the kibosh on Angela's alleged scheme. Notified by the attorney picked to change her mother's will, Nash confronted Angela. The conversation revolved mainly around how many of Angela's bones Nash could break and how quickly she would break them, unless the young Gypsy left her elderly mother alone.

Ashamed and deeply hurt by the entire episode, Helen Mitchell died a few months later, in February 1987. Ten years later, Nash, still tortured with guilt over leaving her mother vulnerable to exploitation, chokes up whenever she talks about her mother's encounter with Angela Tene.

Angela and George subsequently set their sights on an 87-year-old retired Norwegian longshoreman, Sverre "Steven" Olsen Storvick. Their scheme to defraud and kill Storvick, the indictments allege, became a wild obsession. Storvick moved four times in four years, trying to get away from George and Angela. Each time they found him, and each time he let them back into his life.

Storvick moved into an apartment above the French Village delicatessen in 1989, says his friend and former lawyer, Kjell Bomark-Noel, and everything seemed fine at first. George and Angela would bring him food and run errands for him and keep him company. Then Angela began climbing into bed with him.

Storvick became suspicious. And aroused. The amalgam of lust and distrust went unresolved until Storvick began feeling funny after eating the food the couple brought him. Bomark-Noel remembers Storvick saying he would feel incapacitated, as if in a zombie state, after eating the food. Storvick was in one of these fugues when he heard the words that made him flee the pair for the first time.

"Boy, this old man is tougher than we thought," Storvick reportedly heard a voice saying.

Storvick fled to new apartment after new apartment; time after time, the indictment claims, the couple found him. Ironically, it was their diligence in tracking him down that eventually drew the attention of police. During a period when Storvick evidently trusted the couple, he changed his will, cutting out Norwegian relatives and leaving everything to Angela. Bomark-Noel, of course, opposed the move. In March 1991, Angela took Storvick down to the Mission Police Station and tried to swear out a complaint against Bomark-Noel, the attorney who created the original will, accusing him of trying to defraud the old man.

She made her report to Officer Michael Gallegos, who called Bomark-Noel and got a much different story. Gallegos visited Storvick the next day and, after asking Angela to leave, was told a disturbing tale that included mysterious joggers who tried to knock the elderly man down when he went for walks with Angela. Storvick also told the officer that he was drugged by the couple after dinner with something that made him go to sleep.

He knew he was caught in the web of a confidence scam, he told the officer. He knew he'd made a mistake by changing his will. "Storvick stated that he has accused [Angela] of trying to harm him and stated [Angela] then cries to gain sympathy," Gallegos wrote in a March 12, 1991, report.

Court records show that Storvick eventually changed his will back to its original form. In 1992, he moved into a nursing home with the help of two kindly bank employees who had befriended him. Two weeks later he was dead of respiratory failure brought on by pneumonia. A relative says several thousand dollars were missing from the old man's bank accounts when he died.

Gallegos forwarded his report to then-Lt. John Erlich of the SFPD fraud detail. But it would take another two years for the police to launch an investigation. Even then, only sustained pressure from a private investigator named Fay Faron would finally spur the department to action. Faron's nickname, Rat Dog Dick, is testimony to her relentlessness. Unfortunately, Faron's dogged fixation on the investigation had at least as many negative as positive impacts on it. In the end, her short-lived partnership on the case with another private eye, and her own desire to make money from the probe, would contribute heavily to the undermining of Foxglove.

Faron learned of the Gypsies and their alleged wrongdoing through her involvement in a civil action brought by an old and crotchety woman named Hope Victoria Beesley. The old woman said she had been tricked into signing a joint tenancy deed with Danny Tene, Mary Steiner's son. The deed gave Danny a half-interest in Beesley's $400,000 home at 1045 Balboa Ave., right around the corner from the Liotweizen house. But Danny Tene eventually prevailed in court and was able to keep his half-interest in the house.

While preparing the case for Beesley, Faron did the usual legwork, and in a matter of days established through public records and interviews that three Tenes (Angela, Mary, and Danny) appeared to be doing the same suspicious things with the same method of operation to the same class of vulnerable people. But Beesley died of a heart attack in November 1992, and Faron was left without a client.

But she couldn't turn her alarm bells off. So she went free-lance.
Faron's next step was almost a detective novel cliche. She started collecting garbage. For several weeks she would drive out to the 14th Avenue home where Angela and George lived -- that is, the old Bufford home -- and in the pre-dawn hours she would take their trash. Driving a few blocks away to an all-night gas station, Rat Dog Dick would paw through the filth. She found documents with initials and bank account numbers; she found love notes from Angela to the old men. Rat Dog had an operative tail Angela and George. The operative discovered Angela and George's latest projects: a retired Caltrans worker with a fondness for White Owl cigars named Harry Glover Hughes, and another elderly gentleman, Richard Nelson.

Fay Faron knew the case was too big for her to investigate on her own, without a real client. She took her information to the police in early 1993. An acquaintance who was a retired cop suggested she talk to Greg Ovanessian, an inspector in the SFPD fraud detail who was considered the department's Gypsy expert.

Ovanessian and his partner, Inspector Daniel Yawczak, launched a formal probe into the alleged murder-for-profit scheme in March 1993. A draft affidavit written by Yawczak, detailing police work from March 1993 to January 1994, suggests the investigation was sluggish, at best. For the first six months of the inquiry, the two inspectors relied heavily on information supplied by Faron and George Lama's brother, Jerry Lama. Jerry says he informed on his brother because he and his relatives came to believe his mother was the next intended victim of the Gypsy scamsters.

Fay Faron and Jerry Lama herded a steady stream of informants down to the fraud detail. Faron sent the Liotweizen tenants down, to tell of an invasion of Tenes. The inspectors heard the heart-wrenching "baby bird" story. Jerry began bringing down family members. Jerry's sister, Nicole, told the inspectors about Storvick. She said she witnessed Angela and George poisoning food at the deli. Lama relatives told the inspectors about the pharmacist who provided the digitalis. They told the cops about how Angela and George had attached themselves to bank accounts, and the titles to cars. Jerry Lama brought in his nephew Roland Dabai, a supposed accomplice of George and Angela, who told the inspectors he had helped the couple drug Storvick with Halcion, a powerful sedative.

But all this dramatic information seemed to be disappearing into a fog of police lethargy. No surveillance is recorded in Yawczak's affidavit. No independent document research is mentioned. The two cops just seemed to be listening and taking notes. Bodies were not being exhumed and tested for digitalis. The apparent next victims, Nelson and Hughes, were not being warned, or tested as a way of confirming informants' statements.

The slow pace of the investigation frustrated Faron and Lama, who met, shared their mutual frustrations, and decided they had to take control. If the two fraud inspectors didn't do the right thing, Faron and Lama agreed, they'd go to the press.

Before going public, Faron tried one last time to get some legal authority to take the case as seriously as she did. She called City Attorney Louise Renne in the fall of 1993. Renne referred Faron to the head of her investigative unit, Tim Armistead.

Armistead soon shared Faron's sense of alarm: Harry Glover Hughes and Richard Nelson were apparently targets of a plot to poison and defraud them, and Ovanessian and Yawczak hadn't given the victims any warning. That, Armistead felt, was a violation of the California Penal Code section 368 (a), which reads this way: "Any person who ... willfully causes or permits [an] elder or dependent adult to be placed in a situation such that his or her person or health is endangered, is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year, or in the state prison for two, three, or four years."

After waving the law at the police brass and the two errant inspectors, Armistead and other investigators for the city attorney joined the case, conducting surveillance at the homes of Nelson and Hughes. Nelson was finally warned that he was being poisoned and defrauded. He was tested twice for digitalis; both blood samples came back positive, according to Yawczak's affidavit. It's unclear if Hughes was warned or tested.

After Armistead shined a light on the bumbling fraud investigators, the SFPD formed a task force of homicide and fraud inspectors to look at the poison-for-profit allegations. It fell apart in less than a week, Faron remembers, because of internal squabbling over turf and personalities. The police, angry over being shamed into action by Armistead, soon cut him out of the investigation.

Each new decision seemed to further harm the case.
On Oct. 25, 1993, investigators found Angela at Nelson's house, detained her, took her to Taraval Station, and told her she was a suspect. Then they not only let her go; according to Angela Tene's attorney, Robert Sheridan, police drove her back to Nelson's home -- the very home where her supposed prey lived.

"They [the police] must not have thought Nelson was in too much danger," Sheridan said with evident glee during a recent interview.

In the spring of 1994, the police finally had the bodies of Bufford, Storvick, Liotweizen, and Steiner exhumed and tested for digitalis. The coroner has refused to release the results of those tests.

By the summer of 1994, the Foxglove case had apparently fallen victim to some sort of Gypsy curse. The lethargy of 1993 began to be replaced with outright incompetence and flagrant misconduct. After a string of shocking and embarrassing mishaps and revelations, Ovanessian and Yawczak would be brought up on departmental charges, and Hall of Justice insiders would begin referring to Foxglove as "the case from hell."

The collapse of Foxglove started when Roland Dabai sought out Sheridan and voluntarily recanted his previous testimony that Angela Tene and George Lama had poisoned food and had him bring it to Storvick. Sheridan says Dabai told him he gave his original false testimony under pressure from Jerry Lama, who allegedly threatened to create other legal problems for Dabai unless he cooperated. The attorney says he will argue in court that Lama is the main progenitor of the poison theory, a theory allegedly concocted out of whole cloth because of a long-standing rivalry between Jerry Lama and his more successful brother, George.

Sheridan brought Dabai's taped recantation to the prosecutor handling the case, Al Giannini, during the last week of June 1994. Giannini immediately went on vacation. Upon returning, he resigned from the case.

Three days later, with the case near collapse because its primary informant had changed his story, Fay Faron decided to leak the details of the Foxglove investigation to the press at perhaps the absolute worst possible time, from a law enforcement standpoint. And she leaked big time. Front-page stories in major Bay Area newspapers blared the story of a Gypsy poison murder ring. Faron served up Jerry Lama to reporters like a juicy hors d'oeuvre. Ovanessian was quoted almost everywhere. Faron portrayed herself as a plucky private eye who was trying to make the cops do the right thing. She went national with the story, and the television magazine 20/20 broadcast a segment on it. Self-promotion, it seems, had become at least as important as catching the bad guys.

And if these bungles were not sufficient to undermine the case, more and better were soon to follow. And again the chaos stemmed from the involvement of private investigators in matters that should have been handled solely by police.

Inspector Ovanessian introduced Fay Faron and another local private investigator, John Nazarian, in 1993. Nazarian, who had detailed knowledge of the Gypsy community, its traditions, and its organization, was a natural ally for Faron. The two soon moved into offices together and began working on the case.

Each layer of the story they unpeeled made it seem more fascinating, more tantalizing, more and more like a Hollywood movie. Before long, the two PIs and the two police inspectors began talking about making a movie, or writing a book. The introduction of the Hollywood angle would be fatal to the investigation.

Movies and books based on true crime stories need verifiable source information. With Foxglove, that information was in the heads of fraud inspectors Ovanessian and Yawczak, and inside their file drawers. Both private eyes evidently began to covet the confidential information the police controlled. And what they coveted they apparently got.

Eventually, the two dicks were given what appears to have been free reign of the Police Department's fraud detail, according to the misconduct charges the SFPD has filed against Ovanessian and Yawczak. "The investigators viewed or took copies of confidential information and documents in the possession of the department which had the effect of compromising the cooperation of some witnesses and therefore compromising the investigation," the charges state.

Faron says she never viewed or took any police files.
One of the purloined documents, when leaked to the press, exposed a confidential witness and led to threats against her, forcing her to move, the charges state. The biggest leak, however, came in late summer of 1994. Nazarian saw an opportunity to score a valuable artifact for the potential movie or book project: a 42-page draft affidavit, written by Yawczak, that outlined the entire Foxglove investigation.

But how could Nazarian get his hands on such a sensitive internal document? What force was powerful enough to induce a police investigator to endanger such a time-consuming and difficult investigation?

In the end, Nazarian suggests, the force was love -- or, rather, unrequited love. Nazarian claims that Yawczak had a crush on Faron and, when Yawczak figured out that he and the shapely private eye were not going to connect in the desired manner, he hit the roof. He wanted revenge, Nazarian claims, and he wanted to cut Faron out of the movie or book project. Nazarian suggested that the inspector release the affidavit, so he could take it to Hollywood and secure movie rights to the Foxglove story, cutting Faron out in the process. (Yawczak and Ovanessian and their attorneys declined numerous requests for interviews.)

A real private investigator, Nazarian acknowledges that he subsequently tried to play both ends off the middle; once he obtained the affidavit from Yawczak, he gave Faron a copy. But after she obtained the document, he claims, she reneged on her agreement to do a movie or book with Nazarian. She apparently saw all she needed in the detailed investigative log provided by the hapless Yawczak.

Everyone, it seemed, was screwing everyone. The two private eyes had a bitter split. They still hate each other with something approaching biblical passion. Faron calls Nazarian "evil." He calls her worse.

What bothers Nazarian the most about his former partner is her continued attempts to portray herself as a person concerned mainly with the well-being of the elderly.

"I'm a sleazebag, and I'll admit it," says Nazarian, warming to his subject. "That's what private detectives are. But for her to play this holier-than-thou, rights-of-the-elderly thing is just a crock of shit."

When Nazarian says he's sleaze, he's not kidding.
Once he had Yawczak's affidavit in his hands -- the affidavit detailing most of the investigation police had done in the Foxglove case -- he offered his services as an investigator to Robert Sheridan, the attorney representing alleged poison-murder conspirator Angela Bufford, nee Tene.

After a year schmoozing the two lead inspectors on the case, extracting what they knew and feeding them information as well, Nazarian wanted to turn around and provide that knowledge base -- as well as the 42-page affidavit, complete with the names of several police informants, including Jerry Lama and his sister, Nicole -- to one of the chief suspects. The asking price: $10,000.

Nazarian denies that he approached the defense to offer either his services or Yawczak's affidavit. But Sheridan and other sources confirm the events.

"We said, 'Thanks but no thanks,' " Sheridan says.
A major breach had occurred: The most sensitive details of the Foxglove investigation were in the public domain, and the informants who had fueled the probe no longer trusted the police. But the next revelation would rock the investigation even more powerfully.

Investigators discovered that the French Village deli -- the deli where food was allegedly sprinkled with poison, just before it was fed to elderly victims -- was co-owned by a San Francisco police officer named Al McPheters. Jerry Lama accused McPheters of leaking information about the probe to George Lama and Angela Tene. McPheters was investigated as part of the ongoing criminal probe; prosecutors say no evidence was found to support Lama's allegation. But McPheters was brought up on departmental charges for running an outside business without disclosing it to his supervisors at the SFPD. He retired in 1995 before the disciplinary case against him could be heard and refuses to discuss Foxglove.

To no one's great surprise, then-Chief Anthony Ribera kicked Ovanessian and Yawczak off the case after the investigative affidavit was leaked to the press. Ribera assigned the case to inspectors Phil Tummarello and Mike Stasko. The team moved out of the Hall of Justice to a secret location, hoping that the new investigation would not be contaminated by the previous botched probe.

Police officials say Tummarello and Stasko began the probe from scratch. Three years later they presented their evidence to the grand jury; that presentation took nearly six months. On Nov. 5 of this year, the jurors returned indictments for fraud, murder conspiracy, and embezzlement charges against eight defendants: George Lama, Roland Dabai, and all of the Tene-Bimbo family members.

Much is known about how the Foxglove case was screwed into the ground. It's the whys that are missing.

How Ovanessian and Yawczak could so thoroughly mishandle the case, and why it took the police brass from March 1993 until late 1994 to realize that a major investigation had unraveled are just two of the enduring mysteries of Foxglove.

Was the pathetically slow progress of the case caused by simple laziness on the inspectors' part? Evidence suggests sloth was part of the problem. At one point, Ovanessian and Yawczak complained to Faron that the case was taking too much of their time. According to the official department charges against the two cops, Yawczak told an investigator for the City Attorney's Office, "I'm too busy to do the case. We'll wait until the men die, and then we'll have a murder case."

But laziness does not seem sufficient to explain all the problems of Foxglove.

Ovanessian apparently had long-standing ties to the Gypsy community. At least, Yawczak's affidavit suggests that his partner had prior relationships with some of the Foxglove suspects. Were his loyalties divided between doing justice and maintaining source relationships? Again, the evidence suggests this might be the case. One of the charges against Ovanessian and Yawczak is that they let a Gypsy suspect wanted in another jurisdiction go free after a local Gypsy leader intervened.

But even if all the charges against the two inspectors are true, there is the matter of the lack of oversight and intervention police brass exhibited during Foxglove. That inattention underlies the biggest unanswered question in the mystery of the imploding murder-fraud investigation: Why were so few resources assigned to what appeared to be a serial murder conspiracy?

Faron says Ovanessian and Yawczak complained to her repeatedly that their superiors, who knew of the complexity of the Foxglove case, kept burying them under a steady barrage of minor fraud cases, never giving them the leeway to launch full bore into Foxglove. How many of these complaints constitute the whining of incompetents, and how many are valid complaints of experienced investigators is hard to determine to a certainty. But one episode during the investigation lends credence to the inspectors' criticism of their superiors.

In December 1993, just before the Foxglove case went south, then-Police Chief Ribera personally ordered the reassignment of Ovanessian, the department's foremost Gypsy expert. It is a change in assignment that may have caused significant damage to the Foxglove case.

Ribera assigned Ovanessian to fraud allegations involving parking lot operations at Candlestick Park. The case was as politically charged as it was complex, says one of the lead investigators of the case, Sgt. Bill Herndon. As Herndon describes it, the case was an intricate filigree of city leases, several parcels of land, a variety of contractual arrangements with different city agencies, and what appeared to be a lot of missing money. If those complications weren't daunting enough, accusations began to surface that someone close to the lieutenant governor was involved, and a police official on the Candlestick detail was on the take.

The investigation was a quagmire, full of political mines and departmental trapdoors. Tossing a cop into the middle of it could easily be perceived as a hostile act. Hostile or not, Ribera's decision to move Ovanessian slowed the Foxglove case. For six months, the parking case took up the majority of Ovanessian's time, and Yawczak was left without a full-time partner. Ribera is retired now, safely ensconced as a police management instructor at the University of San Francisco. He refused to comment on the case.

The police administrator with the most direct oversight of the Foxglove case is still in the department. In fact, he's the chief of police, Fred Lau. And Lau, too, is declining to comment for the record on the Foxglove investigation.

It is clear, however, that Lau expects to be called on the carpet in regard to Foxglove. He has told those around him that he is not to blame for the investigation's many deficiencies, contending that Ribera moved Foxglove out of the bureau Lau ran as part of a long-running turf battle between the two men. (That battle erupted after Lau investigated Ribera for sexual harassment in the now-infamous Joanne Welsh case. Ribera eventually was cleared of all charges by the Police Commission and a federal jury.)

The questions about Foxglove will only mount as the case approaches trial. The chief inquisitors will naturally be the attorneys for the defendants.

Was the investigation into McPheters' role thorough? Could a police officer secretly own a business where the poisoned meals were allegedly regularly prepared and not suspect anything untoward was going on?

What did Lau know about Foxglove, and when did he know it? Did Ovanessian and Yawczak ask their bureau chief for help? Were they denied that help? Did Lau fail to realize what was going on under him? Or was he truly cut out of the picture by Ribera because of an ongoing feud?

Why have Ovanessian and Yawczak yet to be disciplined? They were removed from the Foxglove investigation in 1994 -- some three years ago. Have the departmental charges against them already been shelved -- either to win their cooperation, or to ensure their silence?

What possible reason could Ribera have for throwing Ovanessian into the center of a politically charged case that, he must have known, would impede the Foxglove investigation?

Did Ovanessian and Yawczak develop blind spots or ignore exculpatory evidence because they were intent on the prospect of a Hollywood movie -- a movie whose prospects would be enhanced by guilty suspects?

If tests for digitalis were performed on the bodies in 1994, why were no arrests made until 1997? Were the tests not conclusive enough for arrests?

Why no murder charges? If the prosecution thinks there was intent to kill, why not charge the defendants with murder? Is the DA's evidence of murder-by-poison that weak?

How much of the poison theory can be traced to Roland Dabai, now a defendant after recanting his original statements on the purported digitalis plot, and Jerry Lama, who allegedly pressured Dabai to lie as part of a brotherly feud?

These are just a small sample of the tools the defense will use while trying to convince a judge or prosecutors to drop the charges before trial, or if the case is tried, to create reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors. None of these holes in the Foxglove probe means the defendants are innocent, and, of course, there is some evidence that suggests guilt.

Clearly, though, police delay and missteps have handed the defense tools it wouldn't normally possess, and that's the main reason no one involved in the official investigation wants to talk voluntarily about Foxglove. Foxglove is a poisoned case, in all the meanings that might attach to the term.

About The Author

George Cothran

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  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

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