Media reports play race card
Both sheriff’s investigators collecting evidence in the Kobe Bryant case are minorities, and attempts to pin racist connotations on the investigation are baseless, said Eagle County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kim Andree.
One of the investigators is Hispanic and the other is Asian, Andree pointed out. Assisting them is a female detective, she said.
Questions of race have been forced to the forefront by national media reports suggesting that because of Eagle County’s lack of ethnic diversity, Bryant might not be able to get a fair trial. National reports also dredge up a 15-year-old federally funded program designed to curb drug trafficking. Eagle County was one of several counties across the country that used what former sheriff A.J. Johnson said was specific criteria to stop automobiles that fit the profile for potential drug traffickers, mules, hauling narcotics across the country.
Some national media reports also hinge on the assertion that both investigations – Bryant and the profiling – could be tainted because Eagle County Sheriff’s Detective Lt. Mike McWilliam was associated with both.
In fact, said Johnson, McWilliam was part of neither the Bryant investigation or the profiling program.
“McWilliam was in the office at the time of program, and everyone’s name came up as part of the lawsuit. Everyone in the Sheriff’s Office was named,” said Johnson. “Apparently that’s all it takes to be branded a racist.”
McWilliam, it turns out, was on vacation when Bryant allegedly assaulted a 19-year-old Eagle woman June 30, and also during the preliminary stages of the investigation. He is the only one on the Bryant case witness list who was with the department when the profiling program operated in 1988 and 1989.
“My department then, and the department today, doesn’t care what the color of anyone’s skin is,” said Johnson.
David Lane, an attorney with the ACLU, said the profiling program amounted to “stopping anyone who’s black with California plates.”
Lane asserted the same mentality was applied in the Bryant investigation.
“The investigators heard the little white girl say, “The big black man raped me!’ so let’s go get him,” Lane said in a television interview.
Not true, said Johnson.
“We hear all the time that they were stopped because they were African American or Asian or Hispanic,” Johnson said. “We put videos in all the cars to make sure there was no activity of that kind going on. Lee Roybal, Hispanic, coordinator of the program, is Hispanic.”
“We analyzed it to see if we were targeting any minority group,” added Johnson. “We studied the data and that was simply not the case.”
Johnson said it’s ludicrous to insist they were out there looking for African Americans.
“We actually stopped more Hispanics and whites than anyone else,” he said.
David Brougham, the attorney who represented the Sheriff’s Office in the profiling case, agrees.
“The Eagle County sheriff didn’t pick out Kobe Bryant. He wasn’t stopped on the road. They didn’t pick the victim,” said Brougham. “You’ve got the evidence, the affidavit and the statement of the victim here.”
The program started in July 1988 and ran through December 1988, and again from February through June 1989. The program, funded by the Drug Enforcement Agency, was designed to help local police identify and stop potential drug traffickers at airports and along highways.
Johnson said officers had 22 indicators that could tip them off, including temporary tags, curtain windows, darkened windows, fast-food wrappers thrown all over, and they had to be from known drug source states.
“Were they known gang members, known mules, was there information out on the car?” asked Johnson. “Part of it was go after illegal drugs and illegal money.”
But first, the driver had to be actually be doing something illegal, Johnson said.
“Those were indicators to look for in a stop situation, but only after you had a probable cause to make the stop,” said Johnson.
If the stop was made and enough of the indicators matched up, deputies would ask for permission to search the vehicle.
“We took a huge amount of drugs. One time it was 23 pounds of cocaine,” said Johnson. “There was marijuana, guns, machine guns, almost anything you could imagine.”
Johnson said that while the program was operating, deputies stopped so many vans full of illegal aliens that they finally had to stop doing it.
“The INS wouldn’t come get them, and we didn’t have any place to put them,” said Johnson. “We’d just notify the INS that a van was headed their way, and let them take care of it.
Rolling 30 Crips
Johnson said the program died over a lawsuit from two members of the Rolling 30 Crips gang out of Los Angeles, who were stopped for weaving.
The Crips were stopped and signed a consent form to allow deputies search their vehicle.
“We’d go into detailed search. We weren’t just popping the trunk,” said Johnson. “We took out screws. We looked at the car carefully.”
Deputies found a pound of cocaine and 3.5 pounds of crack cocaine, said Johnson.
When the issue finally hit trial, the judge ruled the deputies didn’t have a valid traffic stop with the weaving allegation, and that anything after that was also invalid, said Johnson, who added that Carrigan also ruled that the deputies enticed the Crips to sign the search consent form.
Johnson said the two eventually pleaded guilty to interstate transportation of narcotics.
Program breaks down
It was one of those stops where deputies found nothing that finally brought the program to a halt.
Jhenita Howard told the Los Angeles Times that in May 1989, she, her sister and four young children stood along Interstate 70 as Eagle County sheriff’s deputies rifled through their car. She said the deputies scattered clothes, pried open a portable radio and even checked a thermos full of baby formula.
“They told us we fit the profile of drug smugglers because we had California license plates and because of the color of our skin,” Howard, who is black, told the Times. “We stood by the highway for an hour. I can remember the dust hitting us as cars sped past.”
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action suit in Howard’s name on behalf of the motorists, claiming that their civil rights had been violated.
In 1996, the county’s insurance company agreed to pay $800,000.
Johnson said he wanted to fight the case, but was told it wasn’t his decision. He said about 75 people were paid off to the tune of about $2,500 each. The rest, he said, went to attorneys’ fees.