By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In early November, Hill transferred Birdsall out of public integrity and into the DA's civil litigation section. Hill did, however, allow Birdsall to keep the integrity cases he already had.
In January, Eric Mountin took over as new public integrity chief. Mountin quickly got an underling: Heath Harris, a young assistant district attorney. Hill told Birdsall he could indict Roper on the additional counts, so long as Mountin and Harris, who is black, agreed.
They did. On March 3, Roper was reindicted with an additional count: stealing $42,000 from Homar Gracia. But, as ever, there was a catch. Birdsall and others say Birdsall was informed he couldn't use Danny Maples as a witness, because "it wouldn't look good" to have a white officer, who was getting probation out of the deal, testify against a black officer, against whom the state was seeking serious time.
At Roper's trial, a succession of drug dealers, junkies, and illegal aliens testified against the handsome, beefy cop, who never seemed to realize he was in trouble, that their story might make more sense than his. Roper stuck to his blanket denial, claiming the whole thing was a plot by criminal defense attorney Frank Perez and his clients. For the first few days of the trial, the blue wall was parked in the courtroom behind him, complete with guns, uniforms, and scowls. DPD headquarters issued a hasty directive, and the guns and uniforms disappeared--if not the cops themselves, many of whom testified that Roper was a fine, upstanding member of a fine, upstanding force.
If it was meant to send a message to the jury, it backfired. "A lot of the police officers [who] testified for Roper, we didn't believe them," says one juror, who asked that his name not be used. As for Roper himself, "we thought that he was very arrogant, and not very truthful."
Birdsall, prosecuting his last PI case, begged management to use Maples. On the next-to-last day, they relented--but the judge refused to allow it because of a technicality. Roper took the stand and didn't always help his own cause. The jury, consisting of four blacks, one Hispanic, and seven whites, took slightly more than two hours to convict.
Roper's friends and family seemed stunned, and even more stunned when Roper was sentenced to 17 years. One burly man burst into the hallway, pouring out his heartfelt grief. "This is bullshit," he wailed. "Bullshit."
Letters of protest by the dozens poured into the court from members of the black community, which held out Roper as a hero and a role model, claiming that the system made a terrible, terrible mistake. Roper's supporters are religious in their faith, convinced that he will turn out to be another Joyce Ann Brown or Lenell Geter.
In the wake of the verdict, a host of black police officers and officials have questioned the conviction. Thomas Glover is quick to say that, speaking for himself and not the TPOA--an organization to which Roper did not belong--he has some questions. "The concerns I had were the usual ones--use of witnesses who got something out of the deal, conviction of a black officer by use of drug dealer testimony."
Indeed, it is not Roper's conviction so much as the quality of the evidence used to convict him that upsets black officers, in particular. To them, it seems but one more instance of a phenomenon they believe to be true: that black men are routinely indicted and convicted on the basis of evidence that would not be deemed sufficient to indict and convict a white man.
Glover goes so far as to say that black cops should not be indicted, much less put away, based solely on testimony from drug dealers, drug users, prostitutes, and illegal aliens, all of whom, he says, stand to gain from testifying. "That's not enough," says Glover. "That's not enough to convict [an officer], based on the word of these people."
A week after his court appearance, the FBI met with the DA's office and the DPD public integrity squad in a debriefing session. "I think they got embarrassed [by their role in the failed sting]," says one person familiar with the probe. "And I think they've always been concerned that the investigation didn't go far enough."
Admittedly, many of Maples' leads are not very concrete. Because of the way Roper ran his affairs, Maples says, he can't know for sure who else, besides him, got money from Roper. And some of the cops Maples named hotly dispute his story. "He's never even met me!" exclaims one. "We never socialized."
But none of the other cops has been, nor is likely to be, subjected to a full-fledged investigation of the type used to make cases against Roper and Maples. Three of the officers named by Maples were interviewed and asked if they were corrupt; not surprisingly, they denied it, and the matter was not pursued.
The DPD has had its fill of Maples, the rat, for whom everyone seems to have developed quite a dislike. IAD is still on the job, investigating the officer who came to Maples' jail cell and allegedly told him he'd "better pray," as well as a handful of other names that came up along the way. But it's a safe bet that if the probe, which many officers view as a witchhunt, nails anyone, it will be on the most trivial of charges.