Before handgun-wielding thugs barged into the living room to rob and beat them, Oct. 13 was a typical Friday night for Daniel Daoud and his friends. It was still two days before six men turned the handle of an unlocked door in Mission Beach to rob and then rape the occupants there, and few people were thinking much about their personal security. After all, this was Chula Vista, one of the safest cities in the county.
Daoud and three friends went to one of the friends' home to unwind from the long workweek. The friends all live near each other, and they often leave their doors open to let the good times flow from home to home. This night, they were expecting Daoud's roommate, Rafael Morales, and his girlfriend to join them, so they didn't think it odd when they heard the garage door close.
Two men, a tall one and a short one, entered the garage and closed the door. The living quarters of the three-story condo were on the second floor, where the four friends were kicking back. Unbeknownst to them, the two men entered the first floor, locked the doors and windows and cut the phone line. Then they barged into the living room waving semi-automatic pistols and ordered the group onto the floor.
The taller man wore a mask; the smaller one had a hood up and did most of the talking, mixing English and Spanish. Daoud found himself near the stairwell as the assailants burst past him. He grabbed the shoulder of one to get a look at his face and got socked in the nose. The assailants demanded wallets and cell phones. Daoud realized he was standing near the stairway leading upstairs and, seeing an opportunity, bolted up to the third-floor bedrooms. In his panic, he fled into the one room without a lock on the door. Bereft of his cell phone, he turned to give himself up and got pistol-whipped on the back of his head before being marched back downstairs. He kept trying to turn around and get a look at the man behind him, but a pistol-punch answered each attempt. He began to bleed from his wounds.
The men demanded to know where the jewelry was. They asked for the PINs of the victims' ATM cards and wrote them down on a piece of paper. And, finally, they were ready to steal the cars. The shorter guy marched the other male victim back down the stairs. The victim used a turn in the stairwell to run, screaming for help. The attacker followed, grabbed him and hit him on the head before dragging him back in the garage. But that was enough for the assailants. The pair took off. They made off with Daoud's BlackBerry portable e-mail device, along with cash and ATM and credit cards.
Back upstairs, the four victims closed and locked the doors and windows. Daoud looked a mess.
“I was completely covered in blood-I mean, completely,” he told CityBeat in an interview.
He wanted to go out and find help, but everyone was too scared to let him go.
“They said, ‘Oh, no, what if they're still out there? They'll kill you!'” he said.
Daoud's roommate finally heard the commotion and crossed the street. He saw neighbors gathered at the window and he saw Daoud and the victims in a blind panic, refusing to let anyone in. He called 911 and then grabbed a butcher knife from his own kitchen and went on a fruitless hunt through the neighborhood for the two men.
Chula Vista police responded promptly. Officers on the scene took statements from the victims and questioned Morales and a neighbor. Daoud tried to convey to the officer in charge of the crime scene that the BlackBerry might be a way to catch the two men, but the officer misunderstood him, believing Daoud was more concerned with his belongings than solving the crime. They established a crime scene in the house and began to collect evidence. EMTs arrived and examined the victims. Daoud was allowed to stay and talk to officers before going to the hospital.
All four victims were back in their homes that night, and the police returned to other duties. Daoud spent that first night lying sleeplessly in his bed, in spite of the painkillers he'd been given at the hospital. He had suffered five blows, resulting in four gashes in the back of his head. The other victims woke up the next day and began to call family. According to Daoud and Morales, the other victims were advised by family members to steer clear of the case as much as possible.
“The parents insisted that he not return to the house, not get involved with anything, that he was lucky to be alive,” Morales said, referring to one of them.
“The parents are a typical Mexican family, very protective of children. They probably assumed that if they [worked] with the police, [the criminals] might return and cause more damage next time.”
Only Daoud and Morales agreed to be interviewed for this story. The friend who lived in the unit moved out.
Technically speaking, the investigation begins when police arrive on the scene for the interviews. But in this case, no investigation occurred in the days following the initial response. The possible lead with the BlackBerry went unfollowed. The piece of paper with the PINs was left sitting on the table where the assailants had left it.
“A crime like this is very time sensitive; it has to stay on the front burner as long as reasonable. You stay with that investigation until you are absolutely out of investigative leads,” said Michael Lyman, a police-procedure expert and criminology textbook author. He says canvassing the neighborhood is a crucial early step, to gather recollections “because memory has a way of shifting.”
But police spoke only to Morales and one other neighbor the night of the crime, which left days for the shifting to occur.
In defense of his department, a ranking investigator with the CVPD, Lt. Gary Ficacci, said the patrolmen had turned up no leads. “If they had come up with anything, we would have had someone there the next day,” he told CityBeat.
After a sleepless night and a day spent recovering, Daoud asked Morales to cancel his credit cards for him, as he was still in shock. Morales made the calls and asked if there had been any transactions. The agent told him he'd have to check again after 24 hours. On Monday, Daoud got a call from one of his credit-card agencies: Someone had tried to use a card at a local Gas Depot and at a Ramada in town. Morales called the Gas Depot to see if anyone there could remember the incident, but he got nowhere. He called the Ramada and learned they had a video camera trained on their front desk. Daoud called the police with the new information, but could only leave a message for the police sergeant. On Wednesday he called again and spoke to the sergeant's assistant. On Thursday he spoke to the sergeant himself, who passed the information on to Det. Miriam Byron, who was finally assigned to the case-on Friday, a full week after the crime. Neither Ficacci nor CVPD spokesman Bernard Gonzales could explain this delay.
“It took some time for the case to go through the process, longer than we would have preferred,” Ficacci said. “But the fact is that even had we sent detectives out to the scene that night, the outcome would be the same; I'm confident the outcome would be the same. All the steps were followed as soon as we were made aware of it. It's not that our investigations branch didn't respond to the case-we responded as soon as we were aware of it.”
Yet that delay may have cost police crucial evidence. By the time investigators met with the gas station and hotel clerks, they had no recollection of anyone who may have had a declined credit card seven days earlier. The videotape turned out to be on a 24-hour loop, and had been long since overwritten.
“The police should have been on top of that. They should have called the credit-card agency and the cell-phone companies-you may find the guys right there,” said Timothy Williams Jr., a private investigator with 30 years experience with the Los Angeles Police Department. “Otherwise, everything is cold.”
Once they got on the case, Chula Vista investigators did their best to make it up to Daoud. Byron and her partner spoke to more neighbors who said the group holds parties every Friday, so they didn't pay attention to the noise. The Imperial Beach Sheriff's Office found one of Daoud's credit cards on the street and returned it to him, unaware of the crimes associated with it. Daoud and his roommate gave police the piece of paper with the PINs on it, but neither the paper nor the recovered card turned up any fingerprints. Gonzalez says the CVPD crime analyst found no pattern of similar home invasions. As a last resort, police last week released a composite sketch of the suspect without a mask. At one point, Daoud even suspected his girlfriend, and police dutifully brought her in. She passed a lie-detector test and is no longer a suspect (Daoud says they were fighting at the time, though that has passed. They are still dating). He then suspected her ex-husband, but he, too, was cleared of suspicion.
“We want to solve these things, that's our gig,” Ficacci said. “We get a certain amount of satisfaction out of locking guys up for cases like this. This is an armed robbery with injury-these guys would go away for a long, long time. That's our goal. That's why we exist. Mr. Daoud feels like he's not getting the right attention. I'm sorry he feels that way, but it's the circumstances, but not the effort on our part. Is it perfect? No, it's not perfect. But it never is.”
Return now to Mission Beach, two nights after Daoud and his friends were attacked. A University of San Diego undergraduate had three friends over. Six men, who police later learned had been making mischief on the street all night, discovered the unlocked door of the residence. They robbed the victims at gunpoint, making off with cash, ATM cards, cell phones, an Xbox and a TV. Then they gang-raped the two women before fleeing into the darkness.
The notorious Mission Beach assault galvanized the San Diego Police Department and the local community. Within four hours, 40 officers from the department's Northern Division had converged on the scene. They set up a command center in the area to coordinate all the activity. They secured a large perimeter around South Mission Beach to monitor anyone going in or out. They alerted officials from nearby law-enforcement agencies to keep a look out. They sent K-9 teams on a grid search looking for suspects. Crime lab personnel examined the crime scene for forensic clues. EMTs tended to the victims while officers knocked on doors through the neighborhood and searched nearby Belmont Park.
On Monday night, less than 24 hours after the crime, the neighborhood's representative on the City Council, Kevin Faulconer, held a community meeting with more than 200 attendees. Police contacted the victims' credit-card agencies and cell-phone companies. They reviewed surveillance tape from cameras in the area. Three of the suspects used the cell phones, and others tried the credit and ATM cards. On Oct. 19, three suspects were apprehended. About the time on Oct. 20 that Chula Vista Det. Byron was getting the Daoud case file, San Diego Police captured two more of the Mission Beach suspects. A week later, the last man surrendered at his father's home in Arizona.
Meanwhile, Faulconer's community meetings worked to reassure the public and to help him learn what made people feel unsafe in the neighborhood.
“I think people felt a little like the stepchild of District 2,” said Faulconer's spokesperson, Jamie Fox Rice.
People were worried about dark streets. Faulconer swore to replace blown-out streetlight bulbs himself, if he had to (city workers got the job done). They wanted more surveillance cameras. He's working with community leaders to get security cameras installed. He's working with groups throughout his district to organize neighborhood watches. Throughout the investigation, police kept him constantly informed so he could reassure constituents.
“I am tremendously impressed with the police response,” Faulconer told CityBeat. “I think it showed in the outcome and the number of people throughout the department who were involved. It really was a heinous crime. It affected the members of the police department as much as it affected members of the community. It was the kind of crime that kicks you in the gut.”
In Chula Vista, Ficacci and Gonzalez argue these are two completely different cases.
“No two crimes are the same,” said Gonzalez.
“Sure, they were both home invasions, with multiple suspects, and assaults, but to compare these two crimes is apples and oranges,” said Ficacci. He didn't mention that both sets of criminals were armed with handguns, and both were opportunistic burglaries that escalated to larger, more violent crimes.
There is no doubt San Diego has a larger police force, with about 2,000 officers to protect 1.2 million people. And the Mission Beach crime was indeed more heinous, as it involved rape. But when told the details, the police experts interviewed by CityBeat said the San Diego Police Department handled it in textbook fashion.
The Chula Vista Police Department, not so much.
Meantime, according to a San Diego Union-Tribune report, SDPD officers are dropping off their résumés in Chula Vista. Why would they leave one of the premier police forces in the nation for a suburb?
Easy: Money. Officers in San Diego and Chula Vista made about the same amount last year. But then the officers of the CVPD signed a new contract that would award them a 25-percent raise over five years. In addition, Chula Vista pays the full pension and healthcare costs of their officers. SDPD cops must carve out an ever-growing chunk of their paychecks for those expenses.
Both San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Faulconer support a pay increase for SDPD officers in the next contract negotiations. But Sanders is trying to close a $26 million gap in the 2008 budget, and that's without a potential raise in pay for police or other safety officers. Somehow, he'll have to find the cash. In the meantime, officers will continue to head off to greener pastures. And perhaps we all should keep our doors locked at night.