Sacramento Bee

Controversy is crime's dark legacy

The costs of a badly handled investigation of a long-past killing and assault are varied and high.

By Denny Walsh -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Sunday, December 15, 2002

Thomas Brewster has done a lot of bad things.

His rap sheet shows convictions for assault with a deadly weapon, battery causing serious bodily injury, illegal possession of firearms, theft and various drug offenses.

In addition, court records say he has been violent toward women and a drug addict much of his life.

But he did not kill 18-year-old Terry Arndt or sexually assault Arndt's teenage girlfriend in 1984 on an isolated road in Shasta County.

Brewster was exonerated eight weeks into his 1997 capital murder trial by DNA testing initiated by his defense team on a semen-stained blouse that had been in law enforcement's possession since 1984.

In October, Shasta County officials agreed to pay the the 49-year-old ex-convict and his lawyers $360,000 to settle Brewster's civil rights suit, in which he claimed the constitutional guarantee of due process had been trampled.

The lawsuit claims that two overzealous detectives manipulated the sexual assault victim into a belated identification of Brewster as her attacker, an accusation that is vigorously disputed.

"It's an example of these officers and prosecutors building a case for self-aggrandizement, as opposed to investigating a crime," one of Brewster's attorneys, Rolland Papendick, said in an interview. "The entire focus was on how to convict Mr. Brewster. There was no pretense of fairness.

"That kind of power in the hands of people who will abuse it is scary."

Shasta County Counsel Karen Keating Jahr declined to comment on the settlement and the still-unsolved murder and sexual attack.

A year after Brewster's trial ended with the dismissal of all charges, he sued Shasta County and its Sheriff's Department, two of the department's detectives and the California Department of Justice.

The detectives vehemently deny they coached the sexual assault victim to identify Brewster.

"The decisions complained of were ones of discretion, made during the real-life process of attempting to solve a brutal and apparently senseless murder and sexual assault," said John Hagar, outside trial counsel for the county and the detectives.

But by far the most intriguing question remains: Why didn't the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Forensic Services conduct DNA testing on the young woman's clothes before Brewster was charged?

Shasta County officials insist that the chief of the bureau's Redding laboratory was told in 1996 that the testing was needed, but, inexplicably, it wasn't done.

A review of the evidence convinced U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter A. Nowinski that the department "bungled the laboratory investigation at the outset."

State and county officials point fingers at one another.

"We don't ever want to convict the wrong person," county Undersheriff Larry Schaller said in an interview. "That's why we made repeated requests for forensic analyses, which was not performed as requested.

"Now, we've ended up paying the price."

The state Justice Department's Division of Law Enforcement promised to respond to a request for comment, but did not.

Comparison of the county's position with sworn testimony from Bruce Palmer, the assistant director of the state's forensic services laboratory in Redding, reflects a startling contrast.

Palmer acknowledged in a December 1999 deposition that the blouse was not tested for DNA. He testified that he was told by the sheriff's evidence officer that the woman had been forced to remove her clothing before the attack and had no contact with the blouse and most of her other garments following the attack.

Further, Palmer insisted, the Sheriff's Department never specifically requested DNA testing,and when he sought clarification as to what the department wanted done, no one called him back.

Palmer said it was not until he learned that a private laboratory retained by Brewster's defense team had located semen on the blouse that he was told by a prosecutor the woman picked up her clothes after the attack.

Conversely, Assistant District Attorney Gerald Benito said in a court declaration that the importance of DNA material was impressed upon Department of Justice personnel "in various meetings. It was my understanding that Mr. Palmer knew that all of the clothing had to be tested."

"When I received the results from DOJ stating that no DNA material had been located on the clothing ... I had no reason to doubt that the testing had been done, and that the results were accurate," Benito said.

Palmer recalled meetings with Benito and detectives working the investigation.

"You just don't recall them stating to you this is how the crime went down, and this is why it's so important that you check all the clothing?" Hagar asked.

"No, sir. I don't recall that," Palmer replied.

But the state Justice Department got off the legal hook. A motion to dismiss the agency from Brewster's suit was granted on legal grounds in 1999 by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton.

On the night of Dec. 14, 1984, Arndt and his girlfriend were in his parents' car on a secluded road near the mountain town of Burney, when the driver's window was shattered by a bullet.

Arndt had been shot in the neck. He cried "get down" and pulled her toward him. She heard a second shot and looked up to see him hit with a third shot in the back of his head.

A man holding a rifle ordered the woman out of the car and up a nearby hill. In a clearing, he directed her to remove her clothes and then assaulted her.

After the attack, she gathered her clothes, and he ushered her down the hill, back into the car and disappeared. Unable to move Arndt's body, she climbed on top of it and drove to Burney, where she flagged down a California Highway Patrol officer.

By mid-1985, the investigation had reached a standstill. The initial leads were exhausted, and no new ones emerged. The detectives handling the matter were reassigned to other homicides.

In late 1994, Sgt. Harry Bishop, who had worked on the Arndt case, was promoted to lieutenant in charge of the Sheriff's Department's Major Crime Division.

"Over the years, I could not forget about Terry Arndt's murder," Bishop said in a court declaration. "However, I was not in a position to reactivate the case until ... I was promoted."

Bishop selected then-Sgt. Bradd McDannold to revisit the file "because of his experience, tenacity, and objectivity."

McDannold, now a lieutenant, was joined in the probe by then-Detective David Compomizzo -- now a sergeant -- and Benito.

After reviewing the file, McDannold narrowed the field to a handful of original suspects -- including Brewster.

In a court declaration, McDannold related that the surviving victim's clothing was re-submitted on Jan. 8, 1996, to the state's forensic lab in Redding "to determine if any DNA material was present."

"While DNA testing was not available in 1984, by 1996 it was a viable investigative tool," McDannold noted. The clothing was returned to Palmer "specifically to be checked for semen."

A major factor in the decision by the District Attorney's Office to charge Brewster was the sexual assault victim's positive identification of him in an August 1995 lineup -- something she had been unable to do six days after the attack.

Brewster's attorneys alleged that the investigation team employed suggestive procedures to ensure the identification.

McDannold said in his declaration that he was careful not to do that.

"I remain confident in the integrity of my actions, as well as the actions of Detective Compomizzo and the entire investigative team," he said. "Prior to this case, I did not know Thomas Brewster. I had no agenda to 'get him.' Furthermore, I did not feel pressured to make an arrest."

Benito added in his declaration, "In spite of the inherent difficulties in investigating an 11-year-old murder, I strongly believe in the credibility of the investigation. Due to my role as the prosecuting attorney, I was in a position to review essentially everything (McDannold and Compomizzo) did. I believe that both officers acted professionally."

Brewster was arrested on Dec. 16, 1995. He waited a year and nine months in the Shasta County Jail for a trial that could have resulted in his execution.

As part of Brewster's civil suit, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found a year ago that "the evidence supports a conclusion that the detectives manipulated" the witness.


About the Writer
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The Bee's Denny Walsh can be reached at (916) 321-1189 or dwalsh@sacbee.com.



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