The Chicago Syndicate: Two Police Detectives Honored for Mafia Probe

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Two Police Detectives Honored for Mafia Probe

Like all of their cases, it began with a body.

Summoned to a rural road in Somis on the night of May 12, 2006, Ventura County Sheriff’s Detectives Mike Powers and Scott Peterson found Fred Williams shot dead in his sport utility vehicle, holding a cell phone in his right hand. His foot was pressed down on the gas pedal, revving the parked vehicle’s engine.

The body was found after a passing motorist called authorities. Someone heard a shot, but nobody in the neighborhood saw the murder.

Led by Powers and Peterson, detectives spent more than 19 months investigating the killing. They ultimately determined Williams, 29, was killed in a contract hit by a friend in the Black Mafia gang, of which he was also a member. The case ended with the 2008 convictions of three people, including the man accused of ordering the hit.

The case dealt a blow to the Black Mafia, a violent street gang involved in drug dealing and prostitution, authorities said.

This year, when the Peace Officers Association of Ventura County was winnowing a field of detectives from agencies around the county for its first Investigator of the Year award, the case led the group to choose Powers and Peterson. They received the award in May.

“They are the stuff of legend,” said Senior Deputy District Attorney Cheryl Temple, who worked with the detectives when she prosecuted the suspects in Williams’ murder.

To solve the Black Mafia case, the detectives had to get information from witnesses who included thugs, prostitutes and pimps, Temple said. She said she was impressed by Powers’ ability to “talk gangster” while maintaining his professionalism, and the way Peterson went into “gang-infested” communities where he was an outsider and persuaded people to talk to him.

A team for almost 10 years, Powers and Peterson said they were humbled by the award. "There are other detectives who deserve the award just as much,” Peterson said.

This was no 9 to 5. Powers and Peterson were among deputies who worked a total of 5,700 hours of overtime on the case. Authorities wiretapped more than 50,000 calls.

During the first seven months of the investigation, Powers and Peterson took 12 days off between them. During one stage of the investigation, they slept about four hours a night in a five-day period.

While it was hard on their personal lives, the soft-spoken detectives have fond memories of the investigation. “What keeps me going when I’m exhausted, quite frankly, is the mere fact that I just want to know what happened,” Peterson said.

On the night authorities found Williams, much about his death was a mystery. The detectives determined he was killed just after 9 p.m. and they suspected the killer was someone close to Williams.

The first big break came from the cell phone Williams held in his hand. Williams received his last call seconds before 9:01 p.m. from a number saved in the phone as BS, Powers said.

Oxnard police later helped the detectives determine BS stood for Baby Sag, the moniker of Bakeri Pitts, one of Williams’ longtime friends.

Investigators got records for the “BS” phone and learned it was first used two days before Williams’ killing and last used less than an hour after. “Based on that, we believed that phone was purchased with the intent to murder Fred Williams,” Powers said.

Investigators received permission to wiretap all of the numbers the “BS” phone had called, most of which belonged to members of the Black Mafia, the detectives said. After three days of listening, detectives “hit the home run” on May 19, the day of Williams’ funeral, Powers said.

Marlon Thornton asked Pitts when he would get his money and then told him a woman close to Williams had put up a memorial at the funeral, which upset Thornton, Powers said.

Thornton later told Pitts: “ ‘I don’t want to do any hits anymore,’ ” said the detective. “With that phone call, we pretty much had our suspects,” Powers said.

With the help of hundreds of people from agencies including the U.S. Secret Service, Oxnard police, U.S. Marshals and the California State Parole Board, the investigators worked to collect evidence on Pitts and Black Mafia boss John Lewis.

They arrested Pitts on June 9, three days after Thornton was taken into custody.

In the months that followed, investigators learned Williams’ death was part of a series of shootings that began when Jimmy Hunter killed Williams’ cousin Davaun Washington in November 2005, according to court testimony. Hunter was an alleged associate of the Black Mafia gang.

Williams thought one of his cousin’s killers was Kufanya Gentry, an associate of Lewis’, Powers said.

Williams shot Gentry with help from two other men, according to the detectives and court testimony. Gentry was seriously wounded, but survived.

During Lewis’ trial, prosecutors alleged he ordered Williams killed in retaliation for Gentry’s shooting. Pitts testified Lewis gave him $5,000 and a pound of marijuana to kill Williams. Thornton testified he drove the getaway car for the murder.

Lewis was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Pitts pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 55 years to life. Thornton pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison.

The case contributed to the murder convictions of Hunter in two 2005 murders, and Lewis Brown, another Black Mafia member, in a 2005 slaying, Peterson said.

Powers and Peterson continued investigating after Williams’ killers were sentenced, and their work led authorities to seize more than $8,000 from Lewis for restitution payments he owed Williams’ mother.

While monitoring Lewis’ jailhouse phone calls, Peterson heard Lewis trying to have his assets deposited in an account that couldn’t be tapped for victim restitution, the detective said. With Temple’s help, authorities got a court order and seized all but $300 of that money, Peterson said.

Several months after Williams’ killers were sentenced, his mother received a check. She thanked the detectives and hugged them both. “That’s a good feeling,” Powers said, recalling the moment.

When Pitts, Thornton and Lewis were taken to prison, Peterson went along. He was given the identification armbands the convicts wore in Ventura County Jail, which he keeps as a reminder of the killers he helped put away. “Just my little memento,” he said.

Thanks to Adam Foxman

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