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To Catch a Killer


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(page 4 of 7)

The police department is relatively modest about its achievement. “I’m very pleased with all of our police work, by detectives, patrol and our lab people, and I’m pleased with the outcome,” says Assistant Chief Steve Creighton. Citing the gag order in the case, Creighton wouldn’t comment about anything else, including the February 5 video of Westerfield’s interrogation.

he story behind the video gives insight into the complicated nature of police work, especially on a big case. On the evening of February 4, sources say, an SDPD robbery detective told Westerfield he was being detained—without reading him his Miranda rights. Detectives had just taken a break from the interview of Westerfield. Another detective, robbery’s Johanna Thrasher, was walking past the room.

“They asked her to sit with the guy, so he didn’t do anything stupid,” one of the sources said. “She was babysitting him.” But Westerfield didn’t want a babysitter. This time. He wanted to go home. Detective Thrasher told him no.

“‘Hey, you’re not free to leave yet,’” the source quotes her as saying. But Westerfield was still weeks away from being charged in the case.

Criminal defense attorneys tell San Diego Magazine that visit from Detective Thrasher could have been enough for Judge Mudd to exclude additional statements by Westerfield to the cops—including the February 5 interrogation tape. Mudd held closed hearings on the evidence that was introduced during Westerfield’s trial.

Some cops don’t blame Thrasher for the Westerfield episode. The other detectives interviewing Westerfield didn’t tell her what to do if he started asking questions, those sources say. But a robbery detective’s misstep in what was becoming a homicide investigation didn’t help relations between those two SDPD divisions.

Robbery got Danielle’s case initially. That’s where the department assigns all abduction cases—until they turn into murder investigations and homicide detectives take over. But robbery didn’t want to let it go.

“There was a big power struggle between robbery and homicide,” a source says. “Robbery never gave up the case.”

Another source sees it differently: “Robbery did all the work, and homicide took all the glory. At one point, they were trying to give it to homicide, but they were backing away, [saying] ‘We don’t have a body yet.’”

It was the robbery lieutenant, Jim Collins, who handled the media briefing when Danielle’s body was discovered—at what immediately became a homicide scene. The homicide lieutenant, Jim Duncan, didn’t like Collins’ taking over, the source says. “He was pissed about it. But Duncan’s a company man. He’s been around a long time. He knows how the game’s played.”

In an interview with San Diego Magazine, Lieutenant Duncan called the source’s account “completely inaccurate. There’s no truth to the fact I was upset with Collins at all.”

Duncan said he didn’t handle the press conference when Danielle’s body was discovered because he was several hours away in the desert—investigating the Westerfield case. Collins was closer to the scene, and should have briefed the media, according to Duncan.

And Collins did know all about the case, a source says. “Since Collins had been there from day one, and he’d been with the van Dams, Captain [Ron] Newman pretty much let him stay.”
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