Stiffed

Amidst all the murders in San Francisco, some suspicious deaths are hidden in a secret burial ground of bureaucracy.

Former Alameda County Sheriff Charlie Plummer, who served five terms as sheriff and ran the coroner's office, was more direct. "That's bullshit," he says. "They're selling you a line of crap. We contracted for a pathologist in Alameda, and if it took that long to turn around an autopsy, the contract would have been canceled." Both Stasko and chief medical examiner Hart have refused to say what is causing the delay, but a forensic pathologist in the medical examiner's office told a Peplies family member that the office is waiting for DNA results. Neither the police nor medical examiner would say where the DNA was being analyzed, but the majority of the city's testing is done by the SFPD's crime lab. Crime lab forensic services director Cydne Holt did not return calls to SF Weekly asking whether her division was analyzing the DNA from the Peplies and Schirra cases.

The crime lab, which is under the purview of the police department, has had a troubled history of not keeping up with its workload. It receives an estimated 14,000 annual requests to analyze evidence that includes chemicals, narcotics, breath alcohol results, firearms, documents, and, of course, DNA evidence from rape, assault, and homicide cases. A 2003 Legislative Analyst Report found the crime lab was understaffed and underfunded compared to other labs. It had a backlog of more than 500 DNA cases. At the time of the report, DNA cases took an average of six months and some as long as 10 months.

Rigda says she is unsympathetic to stories of overwhelmed police laboratories, and that dealing with the SFPD over the last year has been a rude awakening. "There's been so much stonewalling, it's made me question whether they are trying to cover something up," she says. "The idea that the authorities will do everything they can to figure out what happens when someone dies like this is very, very comforting. We have not had that feeling in this case at all."


Poorly handled homicide cases are nothing new in the San Francisco Police Department. In 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle published a three-part series on the department's substandard violent crime investigations. The series depicted a homicide detail hamstrung by lax policies, promotion standards that favor mediocrity, embarrassingly low solve rates, scant resources (homicide inspectors did not have city e-mail accounts or Internet access until last year, according to Inspector Tom Walsh), and poor oversight.

And, unsurprisingly, the homicide detail had the third-worst clearance rates of 20 other similar-sized cities. Using a five-year average, the Chronicle determined that the homicide detail cleared 50 percent of the homicides, while other large cities cleared an average of 61 percent. According to FBI criteria, a case is considered to be cleared when an arrest is made or a suspect dies, is incarcerated, or extradition is denied. Whether a suspect is actually charged doesn't matter.

Homicides in San Francisco have increased since 2000, when there were 59. In the last four years the annual number has been in the high 90s, except for 2006 when it dipped to 85. As of September 5, there have been 73 homicides in San Francisco. Of the 98 homicides in 2007, inspectors cleared 25 percent of the cases compared to the statewide average of 53 percent, according to California Department of Justice statistics.

As chairman of the Public Safety Committee, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has been a vocal critic of the homicide detail's poor clearance rate and its treatment of victims' families. But he has also defended the bureau by shifting responsibility to Mayor Gavin Newsom, who he says has the power to fix the problems. "It's unacceptable," Mirkarimi says. "The city needs to upgrade all levels of customer service, especially when it comes to something so profoundly heartbreaking as murder. The only person who can fix the problem is the mayor, and instead there seems to be a great effort to avoid the subject because of the effect it could have on one's political ambition."

One problem, Mirkarimi says, is Chief Heather Fong. It has been widely speculated that Newsom, who has begun to collect campaign contributions for a possible run for the governor's office in 2010, is reluctant to fire her because it might alienate Asian voters. Newsom's press office did not return numerous calls and e-mails seeking comment for this story. Nor did Fong, who is known for avoiding the press and cultivating an air of secrecy around her office (see SF Weekly, "The Chief Is In (for Now)," Aug. 6).

One case that demonstrated a lack of departmental accountability was the bizarre death of Hugues de la Plaza. De la Plaza was found dead in his apartment with one stab wound to his throat and two to his torso. When homicide investigators seemed to be in a rush to classify the case as a suicide, even though they found no bloody knife in the apartment, they were not prepared for de la Plaza's ex-girlfriend, Melissa Nix.

Nix is an experienced journalist who covers an education beat for the Sacramento Bee. As a reporter, she is unintimidated by bureaucracy and has a working knowledge of government accountability. Along with a committed group of de la Plaza's friends, she was relentless in pursuing a 16-page list that contained 13 detailed complaints about such things as neglected witnesses, a lack of fingerprint analysis and technical expertise, false information leaks to the press, and poor communication with the de la Plaza family.

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