Bill Leasure was among the least ambitious officers ever to wear the badge for the Los Angeles Police Department. He was content to work the traffic beat and only rarely gave out tickets.
He also ran scams that netted him countless riches, from stealing yachts to collecting guns and cars. And he further enriched himself by setting up a murder-for-hire ring. Was he in it for the thrills? Was he a cop playing both sides of the law for the fun of it? Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Edward Humes explores the lies and psychopathy that enabled Bill Leasure to fool even the most savvy of city prosecutors, his own wife.
“Rife with vivid description. Disturbing.” —The Miami Herald
“Fascinating . . . A superbly crafted chronicle of one of the most complex, enigmatic criminals in memory. Far stronger and more compelling than most crime fiction.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Excellent . . . Authoritative, impeccably documented and disturbing.” —The Orange County Register
“Painstaking research and hair-trigger pacing.” —Publishers Weekly
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As the yacht La Vita eased into its slip and the Skipper throttled the twin engines down to a quiet rumble, Bill Leasure leapt lightly from the deck and stooped to tie the mooring lines. He was an average man of average build, his balding scalp a fiery red from the California sun, a man who resembled, more than anything else, a kindly accountant, with his wispy brown mustache and owlish features. He was the sort of person you might look full in the face one moment, then be unable to describe a few minutes later — unless you happened to notice the watchful hazel eyes behind his metal-rimmed glasses, eyes that quietly, dispassionately dissected and observed. Cop's eyes.
Leasure finished securing the lines and climbed back on board the cabin cruiser, where he began stowing gear and packing his bags. They would be leaving the La Vita for good that afternoon, another successful trip up the California coast, another blending of profit and pleasure. This trip to sell a yacht made an even dozen, and Leasure felt well satisfied. Calling in sick to his LAPD sergeant, who had heard enough about Leasure's chronically troublesome stomach to last a lifetime, had paid off handsomely once again. Or so it seemed.
The day was Thursday, May 29, 1986, and the La Vita had just sailed into a trap. Bill Leasure didn't know it yet, but after this day, he would not see the sun again for more than five years.
Both he and the Skipper had felt uneasy on this journey, though neither could say why. They originally had planned to take the boat to Seattle, but the weather of the Pacific Northwest still churned with the change of seasons — too rough a ride that time of year, even for a stout forty-two-foot vessel like the La Vita. They discussed canceling the voyage, but then said no, that would be silly. Instead, they had returned once again to the milder waters of San Francisco's Bay Area, setting aside their vague misgivings.
Now, as he packed, Leasure calmly studied the somnolent harbor. Nothing seemed amiss. This was a weekday, early afternoon, and the marina was deserted, all the boats tied down, their sails furled and covered, outboards lifted from the corrosive salt water.
Even on weekends, the Marina Bay Yacht Harbor remained sleepy, a doggedly upscale enclave carved out of an industrial slum in Richmond, California, part of the coastal sprawl stretching north from San Francisco. Huge cranes, derricks, and towering stacks of rust-speckled shipping containers the size of semi-trailers were visible at the heavily commercial Port of Richmond across a half- mile stretch of water, an image that the gay blue paint and ersatz Cape Cod architecture of the yacht harbor couldn't quite overcome. The oily scum of freighter bilge still migrated from the port, staining the brackish waters of the marina and the glossy white fiberglass of the pleasure boats moored inside. Still, there were plenty of motor yachts and sailboats moored at Marina Bay, and the sound of riggings clanging against metal masts filled the air around Leasure, a chorus of anvils.
As he gathered his things, the Skipper, a short and wiry dock rat by the name of Robert Denzil Kuns, left the La Vita's bridge and headed for the marina clubhouse. "We'll wash up, then go get something to eat," he called to Leasure. "I'm starving."
Leasure nodded and watched his friend make the long walk from their slip — the farthest from the pier gate, carefully chosen for its privacy and its ease of entry and exit. The sun glinted off Kuns's hairless head as he wound through the rows of sailboats and yachts, and Leasure had to chuckle: He always told Kuns he cut quite a figure, with his shining, shaven scalp, Lincolnesque whiskers, and calloused bare feet. As unobtrusive as Leasure might be, Kuns always stood out.
They looked to be an odd pair, but in truth, they had much in common: Both were quiet, even shy at times, able to spend long hours at sea together in a comfortable, close silence. When they did talk, it was usually at night, sitting above deck, their ship and their skin silvered by starlight, their boat hissing through black waters on a cushion of ghostly foam. In wistful voices, they would dream aloud of making their fortune together, then moving to a Caribbean island — preferably one they could buy for themselves. Then they could spend their days chartering boats, basking on the beach, sipping margaritas like a couple of retired buccaneers. This was not idle talk; this was The Plan. And if you were to ask either of them what they thought of the other, they would say, without hesitation, that each trusted the other as a brother. Not bad, considering one wore the midnight blue uniform of the Los Angeles Police Department, while the other sported a rap sheet for armed bank robbery.
"I'm the kind of guy who always sees the best in a person," Leasure would say when some friend on the force would pull him aside and question the propriety of this friendship. "He's a good guy who made a mistake. He deserves the benefit of the doubt." Leasure's LAPD colleagues trusted his judgment, so they shrugged off their concerns. They were certain Bill was a good cop, and good cops didn't hang out with assholes: It was that simple. And when Leasure would bring the other guys from LAPD's Central Traffic Division out on his yacht, with the cooler full of beer and the fish biting, well, any lingering doubts about the Skipper vanished in the spray.
A novice on the water when he first met Kuns, Leasure had become an accomplished seaman under the Skipper's tutelage, capable of navigating treacherous seas and, in the end, becoming a more daring yachtsman than his teacher. Leasure loved nothing better than throttling the engines to the red line, then blasting off into a rough chop, sending the boat lunging and leaping through the waves. Kuns, who tended to imbue boats with human feelings and personality while Leasure considered them mere machines, would wince at such pounding treatment. "You've got to have a feel for what you're putting this poor boat through," he would admonish Leasure time and again. But his normally restrained and unemotional friend would just laugh into the wind, then continue banging ahead at full speed, ocean spray making him squint, a mischievous grin splitting his face. Kuns would end up laughing, too — these trips turned them both into kids.
They had set sail three days before from Southern California, intent on selling the La Vita to a Bay Area yacht broker Kuns had dealt with in the past. The broker, Mervin Gray, possessed Kuns's favorite quality: He asked few questions. Leasure had never met the man before, but a short while after Kuns left for the men's room, a smallish, middle-aged fellow approached the La Vita and hollered hello. Leasure knew it had to be Gray.
"Come on aboard, I'll show you around," Leasure offered.
With quiet pride, he showed Gray the staterooms, salon, and galley, a mixture of rich dark woods and smooth fiberglass. "I'm getting to know a lot about boats," Leasure said as he conducted the tour. "This one, we brought up from charter service in Mexico. It's really fast. It'll do fifteen knots."
But when Gray asked him the simplest of questions — what make of boat the La Vita was — Leasure stammered. "I don't know," he said. "I'm just helping Rob out, crewing for him. He's the expert." Then he changed the subject, offering to show Gray the twin turbocharged diesels that gave the La Vita its speed and power.
"I bought a yacht a lot like this one," Leasure remarked a few minutes later, as he dropped the hatch on the engine room. "Only bigger."
"Oh really?" Gray asked. "What kind is that?"
Again Leasure hesitated, looking a trifle embarrassed. "You know, it's a funny thing, but I can never remember that. It's some Taiwan make. They're all the same."
Gray was surprised, but he dropped the subject, biting back the next logical question: How could you possibly buy something as expensive as a yacht and not know what kind it was? Leasure just smiled at him and went about his packing.
By then, Kuns had returned to the boat. He and Gray had settled on a price of forty-five thousand dollars for the La Vita, a boat worth at least two and a half times that much, despite its age and weathered condition. "I need a quick sale," the Skipper explained when they shook hands to close the deal. "We want to get on the first plane out of here." The Skipper still was feeling uneasy — something about Gray seemed odd, strained. Again, Kuns chalked up the feeling to an overactive imagination, suppressing the urge to flee. Instead, he and Leasure accepted Gray's offer to take them to lunch in Berkeley, at their favorite Italian restaurant.
Leasure, Kuns, and a third man who had crewed on the La Vita, Gino, headed to the yacht broker's motor home in the marina's windswept parking lot. Leasure had started to take their duffel bags off the boat, but Gray suggested they leave them behind. They could come back for the bags after lunch, then head to the airport from the marina. When they agreed to his plan, Gray covered his sigh of relief with a cough.
Now, he knew, there would be ample time to bait the trap.
While the men dined on marinara and pasta, Gray's wife, Gloria, called the Oakland Police Department. Investigators there had been waiting the past week for her call, ever since they learned, quite by chance, that the last yacht Kuns had sold the Grays was stolen. This yacht, the Coruba, also was supposed to have been a retired charter vessel out of Mexico. In truth, the Oakland police had discovered, it was really the Wildcat, a yacht stolen from the Southern California city of Long Beach.
At the time, the police were not sure who the real thief might be — the Grays, Kuns, or someone using them both as fronts or dupes. The police knew only that the thief was a master. Whoever had stolen the Wildcat had skillfully concealed its true identity by rechristening it with a new name, modifying its hull serial numbers, adding new canvas, slapping on a fresh paint job, and, most important, by obtaining genuine registration papers in the name of the Coruba. Because the papers were legitimate — the nautical equivalent of obtaining a dead man's birth certificate and claiming it as your own — the transformation and theft were perfect, virtually untraceable. Discovery came only through the unlikeliest of flukes: The sole West Coast distributor for that make and model of boat just happened to drive across the Oakland Estuary at the very moment the Coruba was temporarily docked below the bridge for some repairs. The dealer recognized the boat from a wanted poster he had received in his Southern California office a few days earlier. He quickly called the police — and Mervin Gray had a lot of explaining to do.
Cornered in a dismal gray police interrogation room near downtown Oakland, things might have gone badly for the little yacht broker, especially when police investigators hunted down three other boats Kuns had sold Gray in the past year. Those yachts also had been altered with fresh paint and phony hull numbers, then resold by Gray to unwitting yachtsmen throughout the Bay Area. The police knew then that Kuns had to be the thief, and they would have charged Gray as an accomplice as well, except for one thing: He mentioned that Kuns had telephoned just a few days earlier and promised him another yacht within a week or so.
"Maybe I can help you catch him?" Gray suggested, a strained hope making his voice hoarse. "He trusts me, you know."
And, that simple, the trap was laid. Four yachts recovered so far — a half million dollars worth of boats, with more on the way. They didn't know exactly who would be ensnared with Robert Denzil Kuns, but the Oakland Police investigators sensed they were on to something big.
Once Gloria Gray's call came in, the police engineered an elaborate stakeout at the marina. A police helicopter, a Coast Guard cutter, and a SWAT team were deployed, enough firepower to keep a platoon of Marines at bay. The Grays had warned detectives that Kuns often boasted of keeping machine guns on board for security on the high seas. The police decided to take no chances.
Oakland Police Detective Sergeant William Godwin drew the assignment of searching the La Vita, checking for evidence that it was stolen while the stakeout team awaited the crew's return from lunch. Burly and ruddy, with thinning gray hair, Godwin crossed the weathered boardwalk leading to Kuns's slip, a good ten- minute walk from the locked marina gate. From the dock, he checked the engraved hull serial numbers on the transom. Sure enough, he could see they had been altered and replaced with a phony code, just like the Coruba and the other boats Kuns had brought to the Bay Area. There was fresh paint on the transom as well. Godwin knew the La Vita was another hot yacht.
He clambered on board, peering into the cabin and staterooms to make certain no one was hiding below deck. Then he began a leisurely search of the boat. For the most part, he saw a typical jumble of charts, fishing gear, and cooking utensils — the necessities of daily life aboard any seagoing vessel. There were no machine guns, no obvious contraband. But when he picked up a green canvas athletic bag from the floor of one of the staterooms, he felt a familiar heaviness inside. Godwin unzipped the bag and found a loaded .45-caliber semiautomatic Detonics pistol, two extra clips of ammunition, and a shoulder holster. A quick check of the gun's serial number by police radio gave him the name of the owner: William E. Leasure, address, care of the Los Angeles Police Department.
"Uh-oh," Godwin said to his companion officers. "Whoever stole this boat stole a cop's gun along with it."
He had his dispatcher patch him through to LAPD in an attempt to reach Leasure. He wanted to ask his fellow officer when he had last seen the pistol. Godwin eventually got routed to LAPD's Central Traffic Division, where, he learned, Leasure worked traffic patrol and investigated auto accidents. After several telephone transfers and holds, he was connected to Leasure's watch commander.
"Officer Leasure's not in today," the sergeant told Godwin. "He's home on sick leave for a hiatal hernia."
"Can you call him at home?" Godwin asked, a new suspicion dawning, one he hated to consider, but which suddenly seemed a distinct possibility — that this cop might not be a victim of a theft, but a thief himself.
After a long pause, the sergeant reported that Leasure wasn't answering at home.
"Uh-oh," Godwin said. "We might have a situation up here ..."
Rob Kuns is a unique individual. We were friends. He's very likable. He knew a lot about boats, and what he didn't know, he made up. How would I know any different? We had fun. I admit that. It was fun. But I was Kuns's dupe.
Sure I helped him crew five boats. He offered me airfare, expenses, and a sailing trip on a boat. I said sure. Why not? But I never stole a boat in my life. I never knew he was stealing boats. He used me. I can't believe someone who was my friend would use me like that.
And, clearly, I acted like an innocent man. I told people about the trips. I used my own name. I kept records of my expenses and profits — the things the police are using against me now, to say I'm a crook. But if I was a crook, I wouldn't have done those things, I wouldn't have been so open about it. I took other police officers on the boats. That's not the way a guilty man acts. I think people will see that.
The arrest did not go as planned.
As the police questioned Mrs. Gray, she grew confused about where Kuns and Leasure might be headed after lunch. She thought they might be departing for L.A. right after eating. The SWAT team, the helicopter, and most of the policemen who initially set up an ambush at the marina then raced off to the Oakland Airport, incorrectly assuming that the crew of the La Vita was about to elude arrest by taking to the air. By the time Sergeant Godwin found the gun and duffel bags on board the yacht — sure evidence that the crew would return to the La Vita — it was too late to recall the troops in time.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murderer with a Badge"
Copyright © 1992 Edward Humes.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The jury sure had their hands full deciding after listening to months of testimony who was the bigger liar. Once the trial started you just wanted to skip pages to get to the end.