No Good Deed by Tom Basinski. Berkley True Crime, 2006, $7.99, 293 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Two days before Christmas in 1998, David Stevens's Chrysler LeBaron exploded into flames in the upscale California neighborhood of La Jolla. The "accident" wasn't enough to hide evidence of homicide: two bullets fired into the skull of the 38-year-old dating-service employee who didn't have an enemy in the world.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"The true story of the murder of David Stevens." -- Publishers Weekly
"It delves into the underworld of strippers, the exotic practice of Santeria, a publication called Testosterone , a murder for hire, and a defendant who insists on representing himself at trial. Basinski's wry humor is an undercurrent that runs throughout." -- San Diego Union-Tribune
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tom Basinski is the father of two, a true-crime magazine writer, and a veteran California police detective.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I called Tom Basinski in San Diego to talk about his new book that revisits a notorious local homicide case. Basinski's worked in law enforcement for many years. Was he still on the job? TB: I actually retired in January of 2005, and then I went to work for the San Diego City Attorney, Mike Aguirre, but I only worked for him for 17 weeks. He fired my boss, and he fired the guy who recruited me, and then came to me and said everything was okay between us, and I said, 'No.' He's fired about 30 of his attorneys since he took office. So, I've been unemployed for about a year.
JJ: And so you've taken up writing?
TB: I've actually been a writer since the early '80s, when I was a homicide detective for Chula Vista PD. A writer from True Detective approached me about a case, and I asked him how to go about contributing to the magazine. Also, my degree is in English, so I've always been interested in writing.
JJ: How did you go from an English degree to law enforcement?
TB: Well, I studied to be a Catholic priest. I had four years to go before getting ordained, but I changed my mind. It was kind of an evolution of thought. I became a police officer [instead]. But getting back to writing, I wrote my [first-hand] stories and then we didn't really have that many homicides for five or six years, and I started writing up murder cases from around the county.
JJ: So how many years did you spend on the force?
TB: I did 17 years with the Chula Vista Police, and I did 17 as an investigator with the San Diego County District Attorney. I actually started my career in Flint, Michigan, where I grew up. I was only there about a year and a half before I moved to California.
JJ: So, 35 years in law enforcement. What is crime like in San Diego? How many major crimes are committed annually? How many of those are murders?
TB: Last, I think they had 58. So, considering the pretty active gang population and what spills over from Mexico's drug hits, San Diego is relatively safe. But, you know, murders go in cyclical fashion. They go up and down. There's really no control the police have over it; it just happens.
JJ: What percentage of the murders are solved?
TB: I don't have those statistics. I think they solve fewer of them now than they did a few years ago because of jurisdictional body dumps. That's when somebody is killed in one city and taken to another and dumped.
JJ: Do you watch those TV shows, CSI and all those forensic programs?
TB: I like American Justice and Forensic Files on the A&E Network, but I don't see a lot of those shows. I do like that one, The First 24. That's on A&E, I believe. As far as the fictional network shows, I seldom watch.
No Good Deed is about the work of Team Three of the San Diego Homicide Division. How many other teams are there besides Team Three?
TB: There're four teams.
JJ: How many detectives are on a team?
TB: Generally, four, but the case took so long that some who were involved were eventually transferred to other teams. It's usually a sergeant and three detectives.
JJ: And a team being "up," what does that mean?
TB: When they're up that means they get every homicide that comes down the road from...I think it's Tuesday morning at 8:30 until the next Tuesday morning at 8:30. So, they're up for one week.
JJ: What do the other three teams do during that period?
TB: The other teams are following leads.
JJ: So they're working for the primary team?
TB: No, no. They're working their own cases that happened during the week they were up.
JJ: So, the assumption is that it's going to take longer than 24 hours to solve a case?
TB: Even if you solve it that fast and take someone in custody, there is always plenty more work to do. Because, though you have enough to present the case to the D.A. and file the complaint, there's so much more work that needs to be done before the case goes to court.
JJ: Describe the murder.
TB: Remains were found in a car fire just before Christmas, 1998. The fire was set to destroy the identity of the victim and any evidence. The burned corpse was identified as David Stevens. He worked for a dating service, and it was difficult to ascribe a motive, much less find the guilty party.
JJ: The solution to the murder took some three years.
TB: Yeah, because nobody connected the victim and the killer. The cops interviewed people endlessly. A lot of leads came up, but the essential information didn't.
JJ: I was very impressed with the diligence -- the pursuit of those many misleading tips and misinformation.
TB: Yeah, they just worked the hell out them.
JJ: Months stretch into years, and the victim's family becomes very frustrated and, early on, engages outside help, or a gentleman sort of inserts himself into the case and adds to the work of the detectives quite a lot. The family goes on San Diego radio shows, sometimes revealing information learned from the detectives, which the police do not want broadcast. Reporters get involved, including a writer from the Reader, filing stories about the case, and there's a lot of pressure on the police. They deal with it as they can, but they're certainly being second-guessed quite a lot. You write: "The case of David Stevens presented a first in the handling of a homicide within the San Diego Police Department," because it was officially shifted to the cold case squad, called the HEAT unit, and had attached to it a deputy district attorney. Do you think that the agitation by the victim's family kept the case active?
TB: My opinion is "no." What it was, was an annoyance to the cops. The case is what's important and it doesn't matter who the victim is. These guys, they never let up, and I don't really think that the pressure had anything to do with it. The investigators would do the same. In addition, they were very certain the family's adviser-investigator was barking up the wrong tree with his theories.
JJ: Did you finally discover that he was actually hired?
TB: I talked to him a couple times, and he wouldn't tell me, but he did indicate that some expenses were paid. Other than that, I don't know. He was, the whole time, trying to pitch this story to 48 Hours or one of those TV magazines. I honestly don't think all that affected the homicide team; they just do their job anyway.
JJ: Was your wife very happy to see you retire?
TB: Yeah, because now when she comes home, dinner is on the table, and I made it.
JJ: Does she work too?
TB: Yeah, she works for the District Attorney's office. She has a degree in criminal justice.
JJ: After years of dead ends, Team Three catches a break. Someone tells someone who calls with a tip.
TB: Yeah. David Stevens worked for a matchmaking company, and the eventual codefendant worked for him, but nobody at that company knew they ever spoke except about work. But they had an attraction, and they did go out socially one time. Keep in mind, [Stevens] was 38 years old, and she had just turned 18. And so they went to his apartment, and they had a sexual encounter. She left there afterward and drove home, and her married boyfriend, this Ronald Barker, was waiting. He was a control freak. He demanded to know where she'd been. She tried to lie but didn't do a very good job. She gave it up. And he said, "All right, you're unclean and the only way you're going to be cleansed of your sin is that I'm going to kill Stevens, and you're going to help me." And that's what they did. They lured him out of his apartment and into his automobile, and Barker shot him in the head.
JJ: What finally broke the case after three years?
TB: Ronald Barker became so possessive, he started beating her. Barker even told his wife that they had killed somebody, and his wife told his girlfriend -- Ny Nourn. If his wife knew, then Nourn figured it was over, and she wanted the beatings to stop anyway. She feared Barker more than prison. And that's why she had a friend call the police and give it up.
JJ: And the wife actually urged the girlfriend not to break off with her husband?
TB: That's correct. She [the wife] said, "He seems more calm and relaxed when he has a girlfriend on the side." She wanted the extramarital relationship to continue.
JJ: You said the homicide detectives probably wouldn't have arrested Barker for outstanding warrants: a fraud and an illegal driver's license. Is it simply that they're not interested in fraud?
TB: There are so damn many warrants out there, thousands of outstanding warrants, that it's the job of the sheriff's department to go out and track these guys down. If the cops had suspected Barker of homicide, they would have used the warrants to bag him. But as far as homicide detectives just arresting a guy they come across on outstanding warrants, they wouldn't.
JJ: Another thing that surprised me was that Mark Carlos, one of the attorneys in the case, is notified that a contract has been taken out on his life, issued from prison. He's notified by the city that, since he isn't a witness for the prosecution, the D.A.'s office would not provide protection for him. As a result, Attorney Carlos withdraws from the case. I was amazed that there was no provision made for protecting an officer of the court in that situation. He was left to fend for himself.
TB: Well, okay, that would have been up to the local police. Also, the D.A.'s office had intercepted the contract.
JJ: The threatened attorney uses his grateful incarcerated clients to sort of take care of matters privately for him and discourage any action against him. But this is strictly private. I was just surprised that law enforcement officially didn't protect the attorney in such a situation. Isn't this a kind of tampering with the judicial process?
TB: I don't know. Maybe. I certainly don't see it that way. I mean, you know a hit was attempted, it was thwarted by the D.A., and this guy was told, "Hey, you may be a target, so protect yourself." Holy Christ, we'd be protecting people all the time. That's what executive protection PIs are for. You may be surprised at that, but that is what the reality is.
JJ: A death committee is convened before the indicted are brought to trial. What is a death committee?
TB: Okay, if a case qualifies as having "special circumstances"-- specific heinous elements -- then the D.A. has to decide whether to try for the death penalty -- execution -- or ask for life without parole. And so that's what the death committee decides. Attorneys from the D.A.'s office convene and discuss the case and vote whether they think they can ask for death or not.
JJ: I've never seen what occurs in this case. Since there are two codefendants in the trial, provision is made for two juries to sit in the courtroom, one for each defendant.
TB: That happens all the time, all over the country.
JJ: So this isn't something unique to California or San Diego?
TB: No, and in fact, I've seen as many as four juries in one case, which would be 38 jurors. It's common.
JJ: Do you miss it -- police work?
TB: You know, I don't. I had a great career. I had a lot of good things happen. But you know, I'm 59 years old and to really do a good job you have to have a lot of energy. And that's why I got out of homicide. When that phone rings, sometimes you're up for 48 hours, and by the end of my term in homicide, I realized it was taking me a long time to recover. In the beginning it would take me, you know, one day. I'd just go home and sleep for 12 hours, and I'd be ready to go, but it's a tough job. So, I don't miss it that much. I really liked doing that work, but, man, it's a killer.