Bob Crane Case Still Casts Shadow On Scottsdale Police -- Acquittal Of Dead Actor's Friend Won't Help Its Reputation

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - For years, the city's Police Department has been saddled with the reputation as the force that bungled a high-profile celebrity case, the 1978 slaying of actor Bob Crane.

If you want to commit a murder, the joke went, do it in Scottsdale because you'll never get caught.

Last week's acquittal of John Henry Carpenter, the man who police zeroed in on almost immediately as the prime suspect, won't help.

The department today is 16 years older and wiser.

"To say we didn't make any mistakes would be naive," said Sgt. John Cocca, the department's spokesman, who was in high school when Crane was killed. "However, the department has grown and matured. We're more professional because the public demands it. The officers demand it, too."

Charles Hyder, who was Maricopa County attorney in 1978 and who reportedly was furious then over how evidence in the case was handled, praises the department now.

"This case was probably the genesis of them looking at how they operated," he said last week. "They came in for some great criticism from other law-enforcement agencies."

From the start, the department was accused of bungling the Crane investigation.

An actress who found the body was permitted to answer the phone at the crime scene, possibly before technicians could dust for prints. Her large handbag never was searched.

Officers trooped in and out of the Scottsdale apartment where Crane's body was discovered June 29, 1978. Evidence was dumped into one garbage bag, allowing for the possibility of tainting individual items.

Moving men working at the complex the morning of the slaying never were questioned. The next day, Crane's business manager and son were allowed to remove items from the apartment before all of the items had been checked for fingerprints.

Investigators already were focusing on Carpenter as a suspect, but they never searched his hotel room.

Based on what he had, Hyder declined in 1978 to prosecute Carpenter.

Only after 14 years had passed were charges brought by County Attorney Rick Romley, based on new evidence: a police photo that shows a sliver of substance resembling fatty tissue on the door of Carpenter's rental car.

Carpenter was charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of Crane, the former star of the TV sitcom "Hogan's Heroes," who was appearing in a dinner-theater production at the time of his death. Crane, 49, was bashed on the head while sleeping at the apartment.

A weapon never was found, but prosecutors believe it was a camera tripod that Crane, who had a penchant for videotaping his numerous sexual trysts, must have bought.

They say the motive was Carpenter's rage over the actor's attempt to end a friendship that had allowed him to have sex with women attracted by Crane's celebrity.

Carpenter, now 66, a video-equipment salesman, has always maintained his innocence. At his trial, defense lawyers hammered away at the police investigation, saying officers handled evidence sloppily and did not look for other suspects. They also pointed out that the speck on the rental-car door was gone and that expert witnesses could only speculate about what it was.

After a little more than two days of deliberations, a jury acquitted Carpenter.

Romley said the verdict could have gone the other way if the speck had been preserved, but he refused to criticize the investigation.

Dennis Borkenhagen, a retired Scottsdale detective who was one of the original investigators, said much of the criticism has been unfair. He pointed out that the man detectives believed in 1978 was the killer was the one finally brought to trial.

Criticism of a police probe by defense attorneys is common, he added.

"That's their job," he said. "You see that in the O.J. Simpson case - attorneys throwing up all the crap they can."

Simpson's lawyers have attacked how police, prosecutors and the medical examiner in Los Angeles have handled evidence in the case against Simpson, who is accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend.

Ron Dean, a Scottsdale police lieutenant in 1978, also sees parallels. "It's their job to discredit the police department and the prosecutor," Dean, now retired, said of defense attorneys. "They did it quite well in the Crane case, and they're doing it well in the O.J. case."

Dean said accusations that police failed to secure the Scottsdale slaying scene was an early attempt by defense lawyers to discredit the case.

The Scottsdale Police Department isn't the only Arizona law-enforcement agency criticized for its handling of a criminal probe.

The probe of a 1991 massacre of nine Buddhists at a temple near Phoenix generated criticism of the sheriff's office, especially over its interrogation techniques.

Four Tucson men were initially charged after one of them, a patient in a mental hospital, contacted police. The four eventually were freed after sheriff's investigators failed to produce any evidence against them and after weapons had linked two west Valley youths to the killings. The county paid $2.8 million to settle false-arrest suits over the probe.

In the Crane case, some cite the Scottsdale Police Department's organization as the source of problems.

In 1978, the city was divided into geographic districts, and detectives assigned to each area handled all crimes. They had no specialized training in homicide investigations.

Now the department has a central bureau to handle major crimes.

Hyder, now a federal prosecutor in Phoenix, still works occasionally with Scottsdale police. "The cases I've had with them now are top-quality," he said.

Cocca agreed that his department's reputation should not be marred forever by the Crane slaying.

"To judge it based on what happened 16 years ago is not fair," the sergeant said. "The public demands professionalism, and they get it."