Crime Reporting


Apparently I’m now a stealth reporter:


Newspaper Clips from the Crime Beat 





They found Velma Dyrda in bed. She was lying in her own waste, so covered in weepy bedsores that the sheets stuck to her body. She was feeble and malnourished and so emaciated her spine showed through her skin.

Her son, who told neighbors he was taking care of his 82-year-old mother, now is behind bars. Prosecutors say the man’s roommate also is responsible for Dyrda’s severe neglect.

The woman’s condition has saddened and shocked the police officers, emergency room staff and doctors now caring for her at John Muir Medical Center.

“And these are people who generally see a lot of death and injuries and car crashes,” said Walnut Creek police Lt. Loren Cattolico. “It’s not just disquieting to see her injuries, it’s also the thought of how someone could allow another person in their care to get in that condition. It’s a sad case.”

Prosecutors on Thursday filed charges of elder abuse against the son, 44-year-old Richard Stanley Dyrda, and his roommate, 41-year-old Michael Degarmo, said deputy district attorney Phyllis Redmond.

Close to midnight on Monday, police showed up at Richard Dyrda’s house in the 1500 block of Arbutus Drive to investigate a dispute between Dyrda and Degarmo that allegedly involved a gun, Cattolico said.

Inside, officers were met with an overpowering foul odor. While looking for a gun, the officers began to look around for the origin of the smell.

Behind a closed bedroom door, they found Velma Dyrda. Her sheets were covered with urine and feces. Her body was wasted, her bones protruding.

The sight astonished them, Cattolico said.

“She was barely hanging in there,” he said.

Ambulance personnel were afraid if they removed the sheets, her flesh would come with them, so they carried her out wrapped in the bedsheets, he said.

Neighbors say the mother and son had moved into the house a few years ago. Richard Dyrda told several neighbors he was caring for his ailing, elderly mother.

One woman said she hadn’t known anything was wrong.

While it is sometimes difficult to detect elder abuse, residents should not be shy in asking questions or calling police, Cattolico said.

“If you haven’t seen folks who are elderly in a long time, you might say, ‘Hey man, how’s your mom,'” he said.

If the elderly person lives alone, a concerned neighbor shouldn’t hesitate to ask police to check on the person’s welfare.

Officers will start with a phone call or a knock on the door, he said.

If they can’t find the person or any relatives, officers will break into the house.

Dyrda and Degarmo are charged with causing or permitting an elderly person to be placed in a situation likely to cause great bodily harm and also with conduct that caused great bodily injury, Redmond said.

While the District Attorney’s Office occasionally handles elder abuse cases involving neglect that has resulted in bedsores, Redmond said this is by far the worst case she has seen.

“This is a very severe neglect case,” she said. “It’s just a horrible case.”

If convicted, both men face up to seven years in prison, she said.

Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA)March 24, 2000



Author: Kristi Belcamino

WALNUT CREEK – Chris Hoyle was sitting at her desk in the five-story Wells Fargo building, looking out the window Thursday morning, when she was startled by a man falling right past her window.

“His head was down, his feet were up, and he came whizzing by screaming,” said Hoyle, who works for Pac 10 Properties.

Hoyle ran outside where a man was sitting on a low, brick wall.

“Is everyone all right down here? I just saw a man fall off the roof,” she asked.

“Yeah, that would be me,” an uninjured Ken Larsen told her.

Larsen, 34, said he was laying telecommunications cable on the roof of 800 South Broadway, walking backwards and pulling it. His coworker at Digital Communications Group in Pleasant Hill, Rick Williver, 46, had hold of the spool. As Larsen was about to turn a corner of the building, Williver told him, “Hold it a minute.”

Instead, Larsen took one more step backward right off the edge.

Larsen said he didn’t have time to see his life flash before his eyes. All he could think was, “It was going to hurt.”

About halfway down, Larsen realized he might make it. The cable he still clutched had slowed his fall.

After crashing through the branches of a small tree near the ground and unwinding 65 feet of cable, Larsen landed on his feet.

“It wasn’t a really hard landing,” he said. “It was like landing after a parachute jump.”

Meanwhile, back on the roof, Williver shouted, “Oh my God, he’s a dead man.” He braced the spinning spool of cable against a small wall on the roof. After a few seconds, the cable stopped unwinding.

Williver said he was afraid to look.

Lying on the roof, Williver peeked over the edge. He saw Larsen walking around.

After a quick checkup and dusting off, Larsen signed a release form that he had not been injured, said Dave George, spokesman for the Contra Costa Fire District. Larsen escaped with a scratch on his arm and a bruise on his shoulder from the tree branch.

The paramedics told Larsen he was a very lucky man.

“They told me to go buy a lottery ticket,” Larsen said. “And I’m going to.”

Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA)March 21, 2002





Folks around New Melones Lake say it might be awhile before they take a dip or cast a fishing line into the reservoir after FBI divers plucked five bodies from what authorities are calling an organized crime dumping ground.

The gruesome discovery of bodies in the waters where they fish, swim and water-ski has not only sickened residents, but also has them lamenting the return of a morbid notoriety.

It was only three years ago that the same area — near Yosemite in the Sierra foothills about 50 miles east of Stockton — was in the national limelight after the slayings of three women on vacation.

“First, we’re famous for the Yosemite slayings, and now this,” said Heather Parkhurst, of the Historic National Hotel in Jamestown. “God, what do they think of Tuolumne County and hidden bodies and psychopaths? It’s like ‘Great, we’re famous for dead bodies again.'”

Since Sunday, remote-controlled submarines and FBI divers have recovered the bodies of three men and one woman submerged hundreds of feet below the surface of the reservoir, according to Nick Rossi of the Sacramento FBI. A fifth body, that of 58-year-old Southern California developer Meyer Muscatel found floating in October, is believed to be connected. The search for bodies and evidence wrapped up Wednesday.

Rossi said the murders were the work of the Russian mafia.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles grand jury indicted four men last month in connection with the kidnapping of Alex Umansky, a North Hollywood businessman who disappeared in December at the hands of a Russian crime syndicate, according to his family.

In a second case, the kidnappers demanded $5 million in ransom after abducting George Safiev, a foreign citizen whose nationality was not disclosed.

The indictment came as law enforcement authorities point to the growing influence of Russian organized crime in Los Angeles and throughout California.

The grand jury charged Iouri Mikhel, Jurijus Kadamovas, Petro Krylov and Ainar Altmanis with two counts of hostage-taking, and aiding and abetting.

The indictment accused the defendants of threatening to kill, injuring and continuing to detain Umansky and Safiev.

According to the indictment filed in Los Angeles federal court, Mikhel and Kadamovas seized Umansky on Dec. 13 and demanded $234,628 in ransom, which the family paid.

On Jan. 20, the same two men abducted Safiev, according to the indictment, with the purpose of compelling his associate, Kostantinos Tezhik, to pay about $5 million to set him free.

FBI officials and the U.S. attorney’s office declined comment on whether the men were suspected in the deaths of Muscatel or the three men and a woman whose bodies were recovered from New Melones Lake.

Meanwhile, residents in the Sierra foothills are stumped as to why the 12,500-acre reservoir in their rural community became an underwater graveyard.

“Why would people drive up here?” asked Linda Merriam, who lives in Pleasant Hill and owns Chubby’s Diner in Sonora. “There are plenty of places to choose from on the way up here from L.A.”

Merriam, who says the bodies of the Yosemite victims were found only a mile from her family’s place in Yosemite, said most people in Sonora are shocked and saying, ‘That’s my favorite fishing hole’ or ‘I swim there all the time.'”

At the Identities hair salon in Sonora, one woman expressed a common sentiment heard during the past few days: “All I know is I ain’t going fishing there.”

“It’s a little creepy having bodies in the lake,” added stylist Kendra Elmore.

Carla Burns, also a stylist at the salon, said the beauty shop was buzzing with conversation about the bodies.

“I just think people are amazed and curious to know whether the deaths are happening here or they are busing the bodies from other places,” she said. “It’s more like a mystery than fear. People want to know the pieces of the puzzle and how they fit together.”

One resident, Julie Borelli, said rather than a sinister connection between organized crime and Tuolomne County, she believes the area’s rural character makes it good place to hide bodies.

“It’s not like any idiot from up here is doing it,” she said. “It’s people from the city in organized crime, they commit a crime and dump it here. The foothills is a perfect place for murder.”

Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA)

June 7, 2002



It’s almost like waiting to give birth to a stillborn baby.

For 14 years, Kim Swartz has waited for a joyful reunion with her child. At the same time, deep down, she has a sinking feeling that when that day comes, her daughter will have been found dead.

“In a weird way, it’s almost like waiting for the birth of this child you already know and you already have, although this time you know the birth is going to be a dead child,” Swartz said.

Since 7-year-old Amber disappeared in 1988 while skipping rope in front of their Savage Avenue home in Pinole, her mother’s hopes have been dashed dozens of times.

The possibility that her daughter’s remains could be found at the Truckee vacation home of a former priest is just the latest in a long string of leads.

Last month, Stephen Kiesle, 55, was charged with molesting girls 30 years ago, Fremont police said.

Pinole police took an interest after learning he had lived on the same street as Amber, had a molestation conviction before she disappeared, recently told police he liked little blond girls and was a youth minister at a Pinole church.

At the time of the 1978 conviction for molestation, the offense was a misdemeanor and Kiesle was able to expunge his record. Otherwise, police would have questioned him along with other registered sex offenders, said Pinole police Cmdr. John Miner.

While she has waited for word of Amber, Swartz has devoted her life to helping other parents of missing children.

It was not what she was planning as a young woman married to a Pinole police officer.

In 1980, she suffered a staggering blow.

That year, her husband, Bernie Swartz, was gunned down by a murder suspect he was chasing. She was nearly six months pregnant.

On Aug. 19, 1980, she gave birth to Amber Jean Swartz.

With the loss of her husband, Swartz thought her lifetime allotment of tragedy had been doled out.

Then something devastating happened: Amber disappeared.

“Lightning doesn’t strike twice like that normally,” she said. “I thought we had scraped by.”

While she is prepared, Swartz said she isn’t ready for detectives to find a connection between Amber and Kiesle’s Truckee house.

“I don’t think any parent is ever ready to find your child dead because that is ultimately what it would amount to,” she said.

A woman who raised Xiana Fairchild, a 7-year-old Vallejo girl kidnapped and murdered in 1999, agreed.

“A parent’s hope is so strong — even against all odds — that when you get a confirmed answer that your child is dead, it’s devastating,” said Stephanie Kahalekulu.

People are mistaken to think news like that is anything but a painful blow, she said.

“I bite my lip every time someone says there is closure,” she said. “When someone actually finds their child, a different type of pain starts right then. It just begins. You know you have confirmation that your child is dead. There is no way it is closure.”

Over the years, some abducted children have come home. In 1972, Steven Stayner of Merced was kidnapped and held captive for eight years before he was found. Three-year-old Tara Burke of Concord was kept in her abductor’s van for 18 months.

Amber has been gone for 14 years and four days.

“She’s been gone now twice the amount of time I had her,” her mother said. “She would be 22 now. There’s been no word of her or no word from Amber herself. I have this suspicion that whenever we do find her, she will probably be 7 years old.”

Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA)December 5, 2001




MARTINEZ — In her eyes, he was worldly, sophisticated, good-looking and her college instructor.

When they met, she was living at home with her close-knit, Catholic, middle-class family in the Los Angeles suburbs. She had never met anyone like him. He showed her a world she had never seen — long days spent sailing the Pacific Ocean and romantic dinners at a swanky yacht club.

Less than two weeks after they eloped 18 years ago, Stanley Ross pushed his new bride to the ground, sat on her and slapped her until her face was swollen and her eye blackened, according to court testimony Tuesday by Mary Ross, who is on trial for shooting her husband dead one October 2000 night.

Defense attorneys say Mary Ross acted in self-defense. The 41-year-old’s testimony centered on details of years of severe beatings and verbal abuse allegedly inflicted on her by her husband, a former business law instructor at Cal State Long Beach.

At the beginning of her testimony, Mary Ross was asked by her attorney Harold Rosenthal if she shot her husband in the middle of the night at their San Ramon apartment. When she answered yes, he asked her why.

“Because he was reaching for his gun and I thought he was going to shoot me first,” she answered.

Ross provided no further details about the shooting during her testimony, which is expected to continue today.

Stanley Ross required his wife to sleep with a loaded gun on her nightstand, and his own firearm hung in a holster on a bed post, according to court testimony.

During the first year of marriage, Ross testified, her husband severely beat her about a half-dozen times, but would push, slap, punch and kick her on a weekly basis.

Sometimes, she said, if she had been talking on the phone too long, he would disconnect the line, put his hands around her neck, tilt her back in her chair, spit in her face and then release the chair, which would fall backward to the ground with her in it.

Once, when she had asked a co-worker for advice on fixing her car, he pulled a 15-inch carving knife and cut her under her breast, telling her that if she ever involved anyone in their personal problems again, that is what would happen to her and those people, Ross testified.

During the first few days of married life, while she was brushing her teeth one night before bed, Stan Ross told his wife it was too bad her mother had taught her to brush her teeth, but not to remain a virgin until she married.

After that happened a second night, Mary Ross testified, she never again brushed her teeth at night.

At one point during that first year, Stan Ross told her he thought they should divorce because he said he was afraid he was going to seriously hurt her, Ross testified.

Saying she was afraid to agree too heartily, she told him to do what he thought best.

Her response evoked another severe beating, she said. He then told her that to solve their marital problems and save him the embarrassment of a divorce, she needed to come up with a way to kill herself that wouldn’t implicate him.

When she later told him she would hang herself from a beam in the living room while he was at work, Mary Ross said he responded, “That sounds like a good idea. I like that.”

He left the house for several hours and when he came home and saw her bruised and blackened face, he apologized, hugging her and crying, she said. To make amends he took her shopping for clothes, even though she was embarrassed to be in public with her injuries, she said.

Soon after, she ran away to an aunt’s house for a few weeks. One night, Stan Ross showed up at the house with a gun, dragging her outside to their car and repeatedly backhanded her as they drove home. He warned her that if she ever brought her relatives into their marital problems again, he would kill her family.

Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA)December 15, 2002




She wanted a baby so bad she may have killed to get one.

Her own efforts to have a baby had failed. She had miscarried. She felt like God was punishing her. Nobody understood.

She wanted a child, someone to protect the way she wished someone had protected her. She had been molested as a child. Later, a boy had raped her. She blamed herself for violence in her childhood home.

But when baby Le-Zhan looked at her, when she held him in her arms, nothing else mattered.

“When I had somebody to love, all those feelings went away,” 22-year-old Latasha Brown said from a jail cell this week. “I had a reason to live. He made me feel better.”

This week, Brown told this story about how she had ended up behind bars. She is being held in Solano County Jail without bail and has pleaded not guilty to murder, kidnap and arson charges.

Vallejo police Lt. Dave Jackson said that while he can’t give specifics, the story Brown told authorities when she was arrested Dec. 6 differs considerably from this tale.

Six years ago, Brown, then 15, had a miscarriage, she said. She wasn’t very far along. She doesn’t know who the father was.

The loss of the baby sank her into a deep depression. She drank to ease the pain, but that depressed her more. So she took drugs.

Ten days later, in what she said was an alcohol- and LSD-induced haze, a drastic decision was made as she sat on a park bench.

On that day, May 17, 1996, Brown’s thoughts turned to another girl her age, Daphne Boyden, who had just given birth a few weeks before. The two girls had attended the same Vallejo schools, but had not been friends. The father of the newborn was Brown’s ex-boyfriend, Lathan “Young Lay” Williams, an up-and-coming rap artist.

Brown said her memory is cloudy, but that she left the park with her cousin and together headed to Boyden’s house armed with a gun.

She claims to not remember anything that happened inside the Rounds Street house. But when the two girls left, Boyden was dead. She had been shot to death on the couch. The house was engulfed in flames. Neighbors spotted two girls leaving and carrying a bundle. It was Boyden’s 3-week-old son, Le-Zhan Williams.

The next thing Brown said she remembers is sitting on a bus headed for Texas with a baby in her arms.

“I had a nightmare,” she told herself on the bus, looking down at Le-Zhan. “I’ve got to take care of him. I owe him the world. He has nobody else. It’s up to me.”

She stayed with her aunt in Waco, Texas, pretending the baby was her own.

Police said she persuaded her aunt, a registered nurse, to help her falsify a birth certificate, by saying they were hiding from the baby’s abusive father.

After five months, Brown returned to her mother’s house in Vallejo with the boy. She showed her mother the Texas birth certificate for the child and said she had given birth there, Brown said. It showed the baby’s birth date as May 16, 1996 — the day before Boyden was killed and Le-Zhan was kidnapped.

Her mother believed her story, she said, until her arrest Dec. 6.

“I never got to tell her the truth,” Brown said this week. “I’ve always felt pain. I’ve always regretted it. I’ve got innocent people in trouble and it still hurts. My mother — that’s what hurts so bad — she didn’t know.”

Her mother, Delores Ann Brown, a member of the volunteer police department, is charged with helping hide the baby. Her attorney said she has signed a plea deal and fulfilled her end of it by helping authorities find her daughter and Le-Zhan.

The attorney, Carl Spieckerman, said police were alerted by a typewritten note left on an officer’s desk detailing what had happened to Le-Zhan. When police contacted the boy’s elementary school, he and his mother had disappeared.

Latasha Brown said the only two people who knew the truth were her and Ocianetta Williams. The two women never spoke of what happened that night, she said.

For years after, Brown had nightmares.

“I would dream of me being all bloody and just screaming,” she said.

Whether it was an actual memory or just a dream, she doesn’t know.

The murder was always in the back of her mind. She buried it deep inside, she said, but it was always there. For the first few years, she worried other people would find out.

“At first, I thought they could catch me any minute,” she said.

As the months passed without her dark secret coming to light, she relaxed a little and convinced herself she was the boy’s mother.

When he called her “Mama” at 11 months old, she felt on top of the world, she said.

“It may sound crazy, but in my mind he was really mine,” she said.

Her life revolved around him, she said.

“I regret everything that happened, but I don’t regret him.”

Once when she was crying after having a bad day, he came up and patted her on the back, telling her “It’s going to be OK.”

“I just laughed and hugged him and said, ‘Thank you.'”

Police said the 6-year-old was well cared for and in good spirits when they found him.

“I miss him so much,” Brown said, adding that she is heartsick about what he is going through.

“I never meant to cause him any pain. I wish I wouldn’t have done it, but I still love him.”

She hopes someday to have a relationship with him.

In a way, she said, she is relieved to have been caught.

“All along I’ve been living with this pain,” she said. “The pain I gave to (Boyden’s) family, to (Le-Zhan’s) family, to my mom.”

She thinks about Boyden sometimes.

“I think about her, but not about what happened, but I think about how she missed out on his life — this wonderful boy,” she said.

She wants people to know she truly loves the boy and devoted herself to making his life better. She quit the drugs. She was baptized. She was taking classes to become a medical assistant so she could move into a place where he could have his own room.

“I’m not a monster. I’m not a cold-hearted person. It is something I buried inside to keep people from finding out.”

She said she prays the people she has hurt will someday forgive her.

“Only God can change this,” she said. “Nothing can make me feel better.”

LACI PETERSON COVERAGE AND KUDOS FROM MY EDITOR:Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA)April 20, 2003



THE DISCOVERY of human remains along Richmond’s Point Isabel Regional Shoreline opened a whole host of issues for our newsroom this week.

By now you know the story. The decomposed remains of a full-term baby discovered one day, then the skeletal remains of a woman found a mile away the next.

Put two and two together, and you’ve possibly solved the disappearance of Laci Peterson.

Everyone leaped to that conclusion — it was hard not to. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story for us was the secondary story: We led the journalism pack to the story and became a recipient of the national spotlight.

Here’s how it happened. The Times first reported Monday the discovery of a dead baby along the Richmond shoreline.

Unless you read the entire local news section carefully, you probably didn’t even see the news brief. I didn’t see it myself until halfway through my second cup of coffee Monday morning.

Reading it, I looked up at my colleague next to me and told him, “I hope someone is looking into this for a follow for tomorrow’s paper.” That’s what Metro Editors do.

He assured me our police reporter was on it, and I went back to reading.

Of course, that was the end to our normal Monday. What followed was a day of snap decisions that ultimately put the pressure on the very essence of news gathering: trusting sources.

At about noon reports began coming in from East Bay Regional Park District police about human remains found near Point Isabel, and by mid-afternoon three of our reporters, Kristi Belcamino, Brian Anderson and Karl Fischer, had mobilized and were reporting on what became the story of the week.

Then the challenges came, and the first decision.

Belcamino, Anderson and Fischer are all criminal justice reporters — the cops beat — who work out of three separate newsrooms.

On this story, they’re each reporting through normal channels: Belcamino from the county coroner’s office, Anderson from the East Bay Regional Parks police where he has contacts, and Fischer with Richmond police.

As they talk to their contacts and report back to the newsroom, we’re figuring out they’re all hearing similar information.

Badly decomposed remains. Petite female body. Full-term baby. Pieces of undergarments.

The reporters are getting this information because they’re talking to people who know them, and as a result feel comfortable with them and trust their reporting.

That’s why we encourage our reporters to get out into the communities, their beats. They talk to people, cultivate “sources” and develop trust.

That’s the heart of a reporter’s job, day after day. Many times they talk to the same people, but that’s how they develop relationships.

This practice allows reporters to develop background information and not quotes for attribution.

That’s the condition of the conversations. The reporters can trust the information they’re being given because they’re getting it from people they know.

But then we have to decide whether the information we’re getting is credible enough to put out in the public domain. That’s when editors come into play.

We ask questions like, “Tell me who your source is of information?” “Tell me why you trust them?” Sometimes, it’s not enough.

In the case of the human remains, because of its high-profile nature and the damage it can do if we’re wrong, we must be extra careful. So to use the information in a story, we want it corroborated by at least two people, preferably three.

That’s the standard. If you’re hearing it from one person, that’s interesting; it gives us something to go on. If you hear it from two, it must be true. If you’re hearing it from a third, then the information should be golden. We have two, and on some of the details we have three. We’re golden.

Now the next decision. In the age of Internet, the rules of reporting information have changed.

We don’t have to wait for the morning paper to print what we’ve got. We can post a story on our Web site almost immediately.

So the decision we’re faced with is should we hold back, keep reporting and develop what we have for the morning edition? Or, take what we have, mold it into a story that is laced with information that is still developing, and post a story on the Contra Costa Times Web site, pronto?

We decided to go the route of the Web site, and the phone didn’t stop ringing for two days.

First the “Today Show” called. Then The Washington Post. Then the New York Post, CBS radio out of Boston, WOR radio out of New York, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News. You name it, we heard from them.

The Web site gave the Times a competitive advantage on the story. We were first with it. We had the best inside information. From here, all the other media work it for themselves.

The other media outlets requested photographs we had taken. They requested interviews with our reporters who had the inside information.

Our Walnut Creek newsroom appeared on national television. And through it all, our reporters kept working their beats.

That’s how it went this week. The sad thing is that regardless of whether it’s Laci Peterson and her unborn son, or whether it’s two other people altogether, to have human remains washed ashore like this is tragic.

That’s why we have to be careful and responsible with the information. We owe that much to the lives that have been lost here.

Lopez is assistant managing editor/metro editor of Contra Costa Newspapers.

Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA)

May 31, 2002

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