Poisoned Probe

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

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.

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