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Beverly Hills Law & Order

When a 19-Year-Old Was Shot at the Home of L.A. Clippers Owner Donald T. Sterling, Police Sought Charges Against His Son Scott. But the D.A.'s Office Declined to File, For Reasons Detectives Still Don't Accept.

December 17, 2000|FRED DICKEY, Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine on hate crime laws Copyright Los Angeles Times

To most cops, it's a routine Friday night thing. Two young men argue. It becomes heated, then raging. Finally, one levels a shotgun and fires. A friend rushes the wounded man to the hospital and the shooter--remorsefully or shrewdly--calls police. When those crimes happen in a poor part of town, criminal law experts say, they are investigated in a matter of days, and charges are usually filed within days or weeks.

That's not what happened in a wealthy part of Los Angeles, with a shooting more than a year ago at the Beverly Hills home of Donald T. Sterling--lawyer, commercial real estate giant, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team and fund-raiser for outgoing Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. The shotgun was held by Sterling's son, Scott, then 19.

Beverly Hills police investigated the shooting quickly. They asked for charges against Scott Sterling within two weeks. Eventually they also called prosecutors' attention to Donald Sterling, citing the transcript of a phone call with a detective in which the elder Sterling resorted to what police regarded as an attempt at intimidation or influence peddling.

More than a year after the shooting, prosecutors decided not to file charges. The victim, prosecutors said, wasn't credible. The conclusion left police frustrated. Medical and ballistics reports show that the victim was shot from behind from at least 15 feet away. Yet young Sterling claimed self-defense. "No rational person would entertain the possibility of his story being true," Beverly Hills Det. Sgt. Jack Douglas wrote in a memo to prosecutors.

The Shooting

The scene unfolds from the bulky case file obtained through a Public Records Act demand to Garcetti's office: Sept. 11, 1999, a little after midnight at the Sterling home on Beverly Drive, a street where peaceful living is as taken for granted as soft-walking servants. Donald Sterling, who is in his 60s and has $1 billion in assets, and his wife were not at home.

Trouble had been growing between Scott Sterling and his best friend, Philip Scheid, 19, a companion since kindergarten. Scheid and his parents, Philip and Terri, also live in Beverly Hills, but with far less wealth than the Sterlings. A major problem seemed to be a girl. Together they had met a young actress and, over a period of months, both became involved with her. She is Lindsey McKeon, then 17, of Studio City, an actress on the TV sitcoms "Opposite Sex" and "Saved by the Bell: The New Class." Sterling had strong feelings for McKeon--Scheid would later say of his friend, "He gets crazy when it comes to her."

McKeon had driven unannounced to the Sterlings' walled mansion. She wanted to hand-deliver a letter to Sterling, with whom she had broken off relations. She parked behind the back entrance, on Crescent Drive. Sterling walked out of the house and joined her, she told investigators later. The two hugged and began to talk. Then Scheid walked around the corner from Beverly onto Crescent and up to them. Scheid claims he'd just come to make peace. But Sterling apparently thought Scheid's arrival was prearranged to embarrass him. Scheid would later tell police the two immediately went face to face in anger, and Sterling then asked Scheid to come onto his property. McKeon stayed by her car.

Once on the property, the two men argued and started to fight. Each man later accused the other of brandishing a knife, but neither was cut. In Scheid's pocket was a non-firable starter's pistol that belonged to Sterling. McKeon heard the arguing, though she couldn't see them. After they stopped fighting, Sterling grabbed a Mossberg Model 500C 20-gauge shotgun that Scheid later told police had been leaning against a wall outside the mansion. He ejected some shells, apparently in a show of bravado.

Out on the street, McKeon heard the shells being ejected. Then a car containing three teenage acquaintances pulled up and slowed to a crawl. Rebecca Duffy, 18, of Los Angeles, was the driver. They began to exchange greetings with McKeon.

Inside the property, Scheid says, he noticed that the starter's pistol had fallen out of his pocket during the fight. He picked it up, along with a knife he said Sterling dropped during their struggle. Sterling then pointed the shotgun at him. Scheid claims he turned and began to walk away. Sterling fired a shot. Scheid says he then started to run. A second shot hit him in the lower legs as he was about to exit the property the same way he had entered--through an open electronic gate to the driveway.

On the street, the four teenagers heard two loud bangs, two to three seconds apart. Stunned, they thought the first shot was a firecracker. But an instant after the second shot, they saw a figure stumble through the gate, away from the Sterling property, and fall down. It was Scheid, bleeding from both legs. Eighteen holes were in the back of his Big Star vintage blue jeans.

Sterling's account of the events couldn't be more different. Sterling later told investigators he did not see McKeon at all the night of the shooting. He says the fight began after he walked outside the mansion for a smoke and discovered Scheid sneaking around the grounds, inside the walls. The electronic driveway gate to the street was closed, he said, which meant Scheid must have scaled the fence. Sterling says Scheid attacked him, pulling a knife, so he threatened to call police and ran into the house. Once inside he grabbed the shotgun and some shells, then glanced out the kitchen window and found Scheid looking at him from the carport doorway.

Next, Sterling says, he left the house, locking the door behind him and loading the gun as he walked. He says he warned Scheid to leave, but the other man advanced with the knife. He says he fired a warning shot into the wall, but Scheid kept coming to a point some 11 feet away--as later measured by detectives investigating his account. Sterling says he fired a second shot toward Scheid's feet, then turned and ran back to the house, hearing Scheid's screams. The maid and a friend who were in the house, neither of whom saw the fight, unlocked the door and let him in.

Outside, Duffy and her passengers feared that they, too, were in danger and sped away as Scheid fell to the ground. Scheid made it to McKeon's car. After a moment of confusion, she drove him toward nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. En route, McKeon learned of the starter pistol and, thinking it was a real gun, protested its presence in her car. Scheid directed her to an isolated spot and threw it into some bushes. McKeon then drove him to the hospital emergency entrance, where she left him, and went home.

Back at the mansion, Sterling made his 911 call to police. He claimed Scheid attacked him with a knife. The 911 tape reveals a rambling, frenetic monologue: "Yeah, someone just tried to stab me with a f - - - ing knife, dude, at my house and I, and I, and I ran in my house, and he was sitting outside and I got my . . . . "

At that point, the dispatcher broke in for a moment. Sterling then went on to say: "He hopped over my fence, he grabbed his knife, then he ran right at me and I ran in my house. I ran around it, I f - - - ing, I told him, I said, leave, leave, I'm calling the cops. He . . . (unintelligible) . . . gate . . . (unintelligible) . . . so I went back out and he f - - - ing ran at me with the knife again . . . . "

Police responded immediately. Detectives checked out the scene, interviewed Sterling and went to the hospital to speak to Scheid. The next morning, the Beverly Hills Police Department issued a news release that gave only Sterling's account of the incident. " . . . the resident stated that he had been involved in an altercation with an individual who came to his home and attacked him with a knife. He said he shot his attacker with a shotgun in self-defense. The other party sustained minor wounds to his lower legs."

If that wording implies that detectives accepted Sterling's version of events, police attitudes soon hardened toward the young man. The off-hand dismissal of Scheid's wounds was also strange because photos and the medical report confirmed that the entire buckshot blast hit him, with some pellets going all the way through the lower legs. Other pellets penetrated the knee and had to be left in by surgeons. He was hospitalized for five days, and surgery brought him back for three more. Fourteen months later, Scheid walks with a pronounced limp and has been told the wounds will cause arthritis.

The Investigation

Six days after the shooting, Beverly Hills Det. Les Zoeller called Sterling's mother, Shelly, to speak with her son for the first time since the night of the shooting. Zoeller was nearing retirement in a career of work on high-profile cases, such as the Menendez brothers and the Billionaire Boys Club. Shelly Sterling patched in a three-way conversation with Scott--who had gone to Connecticut. Zoeller taped the discussion. In the transcript, Sterling's mother often admonishes the young man to tell the truth.

Sterling told Zoeller he never talked to McKeon the night of the shooting--a statement disputed by other witnesses. Then Sterling said for the first time that Scheid had the starter's pistol with him during the fight and hit him over the head with it. Zoeller was aware that Scheid had the pistol because police took possession of it two days after the shooting. But the claim that Scheid used it to strike Sterling was new. " . . . . this is the first I've heard of this," Zoeller said. "You think that you would want to protect yourself by telling the truth."

Sterling said, " . . . . you guys saw me holding an ice pack in the back of my head, but you all never asked what that was for."

Zoeller: "No, you told me . . . that he slammed your head into the ground."

The conversation continued, with Shelly Sterling adding such comments as, "Just tell the truth, Scott," and, "Scott! Answer the questions!"

Zoeller pushed for details. He said that by Sterling's description, the two men were 11 feet apart when the second shot was fired, but a Los Angeles County sheriff's ballistics expert concluded that the actual distance between them was greater.

Sterling disputed that Scheid was shot in the back of the legs. He also claimed that the electronic gate to the driveway was closed when Scheid was shot.

Zoeller said that all the witnesses insisted the gate was open, which led to a discussion of how the wounded man could have left the property if the gate was closed. Sterling suggested that Scheid climbed the fence.

His mother responded, " . . . . no way."

Sterling said, "But Mom, you have no idea what that kid's capable of."

Zoeller returned to the critical question of where the shot had struck Scheid. "My concern is, is that Scott is saying that he's, he's [Scheid is] approaching him, and he's 11 feet away, and Scott fires as he's advancing toward Scott, and yet the evidence shows--and this is the physical evidence--shows that, in fact, Philip is shot in the back of the legs . . . . "

Sterling tried to explain, saying that Scheid was threatening and advancing rapidly toward him as he held the shotgun. ". . . . he was sidestepping. And I think as he saw me about to shoot him, he tried to turn around."

Zoeller circled back to the point. "My main concern is . . . by him attacking you, the bullets [buckshot] certainly wouldn't be in the back of him. How can you show that he was attacking you?"

Scott responded: "I'd like to ask you about that, too. How--how is that?"

Toward the end of the interview, Shelly Sterling said that Scheid had called to say his kneecap was shattered.

Scott said, "Who--who cares, Mom?"

"I care," she responded. "And you care."

"I think I care a little bit more about my life than his," her son replied.

As the investigation continued, Beverly Hills police ordered a second ballistics test by an independent consultant, who estimated the shooting range from 15 to 30 feet. Police continued to urge the district attorney to file charges, which could have been as serious as attempted murder, and grew increasingly concerned that prosecutors weren't pursuing the case aggressively. Police also were aware of Donald Sterling's stature--and connections. He is well known as a friend of law enforcement. Indeed, on Oct. 22, 1999, six weeks after the shooting, the elder Sterling was honored as Jack Webb Humanitarian of the Year by the LAPD Historical Society in "recognition of his support for law enforcement."

Several times, Beverly Hills police believed they had the investigation wrapped up, but each time the district attorney's office wanted more detective work, Capt. Frank Salcido said in an interview this fall. Police were also mystified when told that higher officials, all the way up to William Hodgman, the No. 3 ranking official in the D.A.'s office, had been brought in.

On April 18 of this year, Det. Mike Hopkins, Zoeller's partner, phoned Shelly Sterling to seek a time for her son to come to the police station for an interview. The phone call was taped, a practice police are not required to disclose to participants.

The police transcript quotes Shelly Sterling expressing fears about possible danger from Scheid, and perhaps his friends. As the conversation drew out, Donald Sterling, Scott's father, came on the line. On the tape, which The Times has heard, Sterling indicated he thought it was unfair for his son to submit to further interviewing. Then he added, "And I, you know, am very close to the police chief in Beverly Hills . . . . So I'm very close to the Police Department, and I want to cooperate as much as possible."

Sterling tried to engage Hopkins on the merits of the case. The detective was evasive, but deferential.

"Yeah, you know, and I'm so close to the Police Department," Sterling said.

"Yeah," Hopkins said.

"One day you will meet me in the course of things," Sterling said. "I'm so active in the community."

"Oh, I'm sure I will," Hopkins replied.

"You know Baca [Lee Baca, sheriff of Los Angeles County]?" Sterling asks. "I went with Baca to dinner the other night, and I'm close to Parks [Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks]. I'm just very involved with the Police Department."

Sterling continued: "I wish that you'd give me a little advice. One day in life you're gonna be passing through, and you may need a lawyer to give you good, honest advice."

"Yeah, well . . . ." Hopkins responded.

"And I'm that lawyer," Sterling said. "Donald Sterling, on the corner of Wilshire and Beverly Drive."

Hopkins hemmed and hawed and tried to change the subject, but Sterling returned to it. "But the bottom line, I'm asking you, officer, and please put my name somewhere in your wallet. Sometime in the course of your career, you will want to call me. You know what I'm saying? And your name again is spelled . . . may I put your name down?"

The comments inflamed the Police Department. In a memo to prosecutors, Sgt. Douglas wrote, "We are requesting that your office give special attention to the attached transcript of the telephone call between Det. Mike Hopkins and Shelly and Donald Sterling . . . . There are a number of statements by Donald Sterling that amount to an outrageous attempt at intimidation and influence peddling."

(When the Los Angeles Times Magazine sought a response from Sterling, his Beverly Hills attorney, Douglas Walton, responded with a letter on his behalf: "Mr. Sterling never spoke to anyone whatsoever regarding this incident and he unequivocally denies that such a conversation as you described occurred on April 18 or on any other date. In fact, our records reflect that he was out of town during that time period.")

Salcido said in an interview that Beverly Hills Police Chief Marvin Iannone "is not a close friend of Mr. Sterling. In fact, they met a couple of times in social gatherings, but as Mr. Sterling indicated they were close friends, that is absolutely not true." He also said Sterling had never been honored by the Beverly Hills department.

In memos to the district attorney's office dated May 2 and May 4, Douglas summed up the position of Beverly Hills police: "There is overwhelming justification for filing a criminal case against Scott Sterling." He called Sterling's self-defense claims "preposterous" and said, "No rational person would entertain the possibility of his story being true."

The D.A.'s Office

The case was given to Ann Rundle of the Airport Branch of Garcetti's office. D.A.'s investigators questioned the teenage witnesses for hours with multiple interrogators, often in the presence of two deputy district attorneys and once with three deputy district attorneys--something one senior official in the D.A.'s office later calls an astonishing waste of manpower. "If a prosecutor can't sort something like that out in short order, they're in the wrong business," says the official, who was not involved in the case. A former high-ranking official in the D.A.'s office said in an interview that it is unheard of for so many prosecutors to sit in as interrogators on such a low-level case.

The D.A.'s file shows that questioning of the teenage witnesses uncovered minor inconsistencies, admission of marijuana use by passengers in Duffy's car, lies and half-truths. But the essential picture remained unchanged. From the street, the witnesses saw very little. They heard two shots, a few seconds apart, and saw a wounded man stumbling through the open gate and off the property.

What happened inside the walls is known only by Sterling and Scheid. But Sterling quickly stopped talking, and Scheid had some trouble talking straight. In fact, investigators found that both Scheid and Sterling had problems telling the truth, as police interrogations and statements of their acquaintances make clear. Nor is either a stranger to drugs. Scheid admitted to having ingested Valium on the night of the attack, while McKeon said Sterling had used drugs.

Multiple witnesses described Sterling as a gun lover who owned several weapons. Friends said both men own knives and have been seen carrying them in public.

On Sept. 15 of this year, more than a year after the shooting, Rundle circulated a confidential memo recommending that charges not be filed. The memo was directed through two superiors and up the chain to Hodgman. Rundle said she based her conclusion on Scheid's lack of credibility.

At the time of the shooting, she wrote, Scheid had had relatively minor scrapes with the law and had lied about some details surrounding the shooting, including his conflicting statements about the knife and starter's pistol. "His closest friends describe Philip as a liar, 'shady' and as scum," she wrote. She also noted that, "While at the hospital, Philip lied to the nursing staff about his smoking in the hospital room." In another example, she said, Scheid had initially lied about ownership of a bag found on the Sterling property after the shooting. It contained women's lingerie, a swimming suit and a man's cap that looked like a mask. No one knows whether the bag is significant, and Rundle offered no explanation or theory.

Rundle also said Sterling could not be compelled to testify, so she would be left with only Scheid's account, and that he could be torn apart on cross-examination.

The two ballistics tests provided to Beverly Hills police had estimated that the shooter was at least 15 feet away--and most likely 25 to 30 feet from the victim. Physician statements and hospital records confirmed that Scheid was hit in the back of the legs. Rundle sought further analysis by the consultant who conducted the second test. So he dressed a mannequin in Scheid's blood-stained pants and inserted rods to show the path of the buckshot. Rundle believed the photos of the experiment showed that the pellets entered at a side angle, which indicated that he could have been turning away from Sterling at the time. She said the angle could suggest that Sterling started the motion to fire when Scheid was coming at him, then discharged the weapon simultaneously with Scheid's starting to twist away. In police terms, this is known as "lag time."

Douglas, in an earlier memo to prosecutors, had already disagreed with that theory. The shot came primarily from behind, he said. "The firing of the initial round by Sterling eliminates the 'lag time' factor. If Scheid had suddenly changed his position, it would have been as a reaction to the first shot, and not the second one," Douglas wrote. His point is that when Sterling prepared to fire the second shot, a couple of seconds after the first, Scheid would not have been threatening him.

As for Donald Sterling's comments to Det. Hopkins, Rundle said she was "outraged" by them, but she did not feel they warranted prosecution.

Asked about her recommendations later, Rundle bridled at any question about her motivation. "I am deeply offended that anyone-- anyone--would try to say that my recommendation not to file this case was based in any way on who Donald Sterling is, who he may know, or who he may be friends with. Before I was handed this case I had never heard of Donald Sterling. I couldn't care less who he is . . . . I wanted to file it. But in order to [do so], I had to have corroboration [supporting witnesses] of my victim. I am not allowed to file a one-on-one case without corroboration, and ultimately that was what this was. I spent a year of my life trying to corroborate Philip Scheid's story, and I could not do that."

Garcetti's office failed to respond to inquiries by The Times about ties between him and Sterling. Sterling co-sponsored a $500-per-person fund-raiser for Garcetti on Oct. 5, a month before he lost his bid for reelection. Both Scott and Donald Sterling, through a lawyer, declined to answer questions about the incident, as did Hodgman.

The Fallout

Scheid has filed suit against the Sterlings, and they have countersued him. Scheid's lawyer, John Girardi, has told him not to talk to the press about the case, although Scheid did speak to another reporter for this magazine last spring.

It is not unusual for police and prosecutors to disagree about cases, although the police have taken an uncommonly strong position on this one. Donald Sterling's ties to law enforcement may have had nothing to do with the decision not to prosecute. Certainly a prosecutor would not relish having intense scrutiny from supervisors three levels up as she investigated a case. Under their gaze, small wrinkles that would be taken in stride in a normal case can become huge when imagining the specter of doing battle with formidable defense attorneys such as Barry Scheck or Johnnie Cochran.

Criminal law specialists concede that prosecuting Sterling would not be easy, given the absence of witnesses who saw the fight. But they all return to the facts that a man was wounded by a shotgun blast in a quiet residential neighborhood, that the physical evidence strongly indicates the shot came from behind, and that the slow deliberations and top-level involvement in the D.A.'s office suggest special treatment.

"Why would Hodgman be involved?" asks Stan Goldman, professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School. "Ordinarily he is called in on death penalty cases. One wonders, if this were the son of an East L.A. truck driver--as I once was--if it would climb that high."

San Diego criminal defense attorney Christopher Plourd said that given the facts of the case, "I would expect a filing. Unless the favorable evidence was overwhelming, it would be very tough to defend a shooting from behind as self-defense."

"Someone is shot from behind and not even a lesser weapons charge, not even a misdemeanor assault, is ever filed? That's absolutely astounding," says Kenneth F. Eichner, a Denver defense attorney who handled hundreds of gunshot cases as a prosecutor in the Washington, D.C., area. "If prosecutors move forward only on neat and clean cases, indictments will drop 50%. Isn't that why we leave these things to a jury?"

Asked about Rundle's concern that Sterling could refuse to testify, the lawyers pointed out that jurors could still be made aware of the 911 call and the phone conversation with Zoeller. Also, as a practical matter, they said, if someone claims self-defense, jurors might well wonder why he refused to testify.

Goldman also does not understand why prosecutors would refuse to push ahead with a case because the victim would make a weak witness. "How about Rafael Perez as the main witness in the Rampart case?" he asks, referring to the ex-police officer. "What's his credibility? If you had to corroborate every victim, how could you ever file some rape cases?"

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