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
Thomas Brewster has done a lot of bad things.
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Sunday, December 15, 2002
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
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
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
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
"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?"
"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
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
"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
"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
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
The Bee's Denny Walsh can be reached at (916) 321-1189 or firstname.lastname@example.org