Poisoned Probe

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

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.

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