San Francisco police have ordered an internal probe and reassigned a veteran investigator amid allegations that he mishandled a report of domestic violence by a homeless woman whose body was later found in a suitcase in the bay, The Chronicle has learned.
In the months before her death, the victim had told various authorities she had been repeatedly attacked and threatened by the man suspected of eventually killing her, but police did not put two and two together until it was too late, according to department sources.
"The bottom line is we are concerned - and we are looking at all aspects of the investigation to determine if there was some violation of department policy," said Assistant Police Chief Jeff Godown.
The case involves Pearla Ann Louis, 52, who was beaten so badly in January that she was hospitalized with four broken ribs and a gash on her forehead. The department's domestic violence unit handled the case.
At the time, police had only a bogus name for the suspect and did not make an arrest. But interviews and documents uncovered by The Chronicle revealed apparent missteps, including a decision by an investigator to interview the victim in the same room with the man police now say attacked and killed her.
When the case stalled, investigators then failed to follow up on a report by a social worker naming Lee Otha Bell, 48, as the man who attacked Louis in January.
Police problems persist
The enormity of the missteps did not become apparent until after May 18, when Louis' strangled and battered body was found in a suitcase floating off the Embarcadero. Bell was arrested in June on murder charges after a surveillance camera allegedly caught him on tape carrying a suitcase matching the one that Louis' body was stuffed inside.
Police watchdog groups say the case shows that problems still persist in the way San Francisco police investigate domestic violence cases a decade after the slaying of Claire Tempongko led to an overhaul of the system and a $500,000 settlement with the victim's survivors.
"It really points to policies and protocols that need to be shored up," said Beverly Upton, executive director for the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, a coalition of advocacy groups. "This case shouldn't have fallen through the cracks."
The sad, tangled tale began Jan. 20, when Sgt. Al Lum, a veteran San Francisco domestic violence investigator, was summoned to UCSF Medical Center for an interview with Louis. She recounted a nightlong ordeal at a Tenderloin hotel during which she was beaten and threatened with a knife by a boyfriend. She managed to escape and was treated at the hospital for the broken ribs and a large cut on her forehead.
Louis complicated her own case by giving Lum an apparently phony name for the man who beat her. The description she gave of the suspect, however, matched that of Bell, who had been seen hanging around Louis.
The next day, Lum came to interview Louis and brought along Bell's mug shot, hoping she could identify him as the man who attacked her. But when Lum arrived, Bell was in the hospital room with Louis, calmly eating sugar out of a packet, according to Lum's account in his police case log. He questioned them both. The decision to interview a possible suspect and victim together, experts said, was a critical blunder.
No SFPD rule
"That is not supposed to happen," said Upton of the domestic violence group, stressing that separation is vital to assure police obtain a complete statement without any chance of intimidation.
"It is common practice to separate the parties because of the danger of the abuser hearing what the victim is saying to law enforcement," said Katie Ray-Jones, director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Assistant Chief Godown said that while the decision to allow the two to be interviewed together is a concern, the department has no hard and fast rule on the issue.
The fact is, though, that had Bell - who was on probation - been arrested then as a suspect in Louis' beating, a life might have been spared.
To his credit, Lum did not dismiss Bell entirely as a suspect and Louis was far from cooperative. She never showed up at police headquarters and the phone numbers she provided were no good. Lum asked beat officers to check if Bell had been staying with Louis.
One more chance
But by mid-March the case was going nowhere. Then police got one more chance to go after Bell.
On April 1, domestic violence investigators got a call from a social worker who recounted a March 8 conversation in which Louis accused Bell of attacking her as many as 20 times and putting her in the hospital in January with broken ribs.
A narrative - written by the social worker at the city's Adult Protective Services and included in the police report - recounted Louis saying that Bell had repeatedly threatened to kill her and that she "fears he is capable of doing it."
Still, Louis refused to go to the police or get a restraining order, according to the social worker's account.
Upton said that when a victim displays a fear for her life - even reluctantly or through an intermediary - the case must be investigated immediately. But Lum never mentioned the second domestic violence report in his crime investigation log.
"Victims need to know that the system is paying attention and it will respond to them when they say their lives are in danger," Upton said. "Until the system recognizes them as fragile victims and supports them, bad things will happen."
As it turned out, Sgt. Lum did not pick up the case again until after Louis was identified on the 10 p.m. news as the woman who had been strangled, stuffed in a suitcase and dumped in the bay. The beating case was not officially closed until the week after her death.
Lum, who was not available for comment, has been reassigned to a desk job in the operations unit.
Capt. John Ehrlich, who oversees domestic violence investigations, said the unit - which recently has lost nearly half of its investigators to reassignment - lacks a way to quickly cross-reference cases and victims. He said he does not believe Lum knew about the second domestic violence report.
"We don't have the computer system that links all our victims together," he said.
Bell pleaded not guilty to the slaying and is awaiting a preliminary hearing in San Francisco Superior Court.
Lum's earlier role
This was not the first San Francisco domestic violence controversy involving Lum. He also played a pivotal role in the case involving Tempongko, who was stabbed to death in front of her two children on Oct. 22, 2000. Police identified her killer as Tari Ramirez, a man the victim had accused of choking and threatening to kill her a month before her death.
Lum was assigned to the domestic violence case, but, rather than sending the case to prosecutors, he referred Ramirez, who had a history of domestic violence, to probation officials. He told The Chronicle at the time that Tempongko had been drinking, had not been hospitalized and had not called police to check on the progress of the case.
No one in probation ever reported getting the file.
Upton said the Louis case is further proof that the department's policies need further review.
"I feel terrible," Upton said. "If there's any evidence this could be avoided, clearly we need to take the steps that need to be made."
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/09/05/MNR81F22V2.DTL#ixzz0yqpakP97
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