A group of Prince George's County police detectives became widely known on the force as the "Death Squad" after police planned an armed robbery in June 1967, lured two teen-agers into committing it and then shot and killed one of them during the robbery, according to a former member of that detective squad and a police informant.
"If was cold-blooded murder," retired detective John R. Cicala said. "The whole thing was planned from A to Z."
The "Death Squad" also set up two other stakeouts during 1967 that resulted in police shootings and the death of one more man.
Other members of the squad in 1967 vehemently deny that the shootings amounted to murder. But they say that using informants as participants in crimes -- the method of operation in the stakeouts then -- would not be allowed today.
The stakeouts were stopped in late 1967 after Prince George's State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. told police that he no longer would grant immunity to informants who participated in such crims, Marshall said recently. He also said he had no knowledge of police participation in soliciting or planning the robberies.
By the time Marshall stopped the stakeouts, the "Death Squad" had become a legend in the police department, and its activities have been discussed openly in police circles for years. Those activities never were fully investigated.
In fact, dozens of interviews with police officers and others show that official reports filed at the time of the stakeouts were incomplete and in some cases inaccurate. In many instances, current recollections of several participants contradict the official reports.
A six-week investigation by The Washington Post of hundreds of pages of official police records and court records strongly suggests that, in 1967, Prince George's police engaged in questionable, if not illegal, practices such as entrapment, solicitation to commit a crime and falsification of official reports.
That investigation came to the attention of new Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan and, 18 days ago, he ordered his own investigation of the "Death Squad."
In that probe, an associate county attorney recently concluded, based on official records and 10 interviews, that there was no criminal wrong-doing by police.
The stakeouts, conducted by Hyattsville-based county detectives, were designed to stop a rash of conveniencestore robberies in 1967. According to participants, the stakeouts worked.
"After those people were blown away," a former squad member recalled, "we went 43 days without a stickup in the north end of the county."
Lt. Col. Joseph D. Vasco, a key member of the "Death Squad" and second-in-command of the police department for the last three years, said, "We did what we had to do. I had a job to do, and I did my job."
Vasco denied wrongdoing and said the stakeouts were routine police work. He said he had not heard the name "Death Squad."
But Cpl. Richard Hart, a former member of the squad, recalls hearing the name. "We were never officially given that kind of title," he told a police investigator recently. "It's just something that people called up because we done our job. It went with the assignment... 'Zap Squad,' 'Kill Squad,' 'Murder Squad'... It was a name that went along with the job."
The job was to stop the robberies, and the police informant actually participated with others in commission of the crime.
"That's the only way you could get them (the holdup men) to go," said Lt. Richard Salter, another "Death Squad" member. "If the informant couldn't go, the other people wouldn't go."
The stakeouts that involved shootings occurred June 8, Nov. 24 and Nov. 26, 1967. Fatalities occurred June 8 and Nov. 26.
In the June 8 stakeout at a High's store at 9101 Riggs Rd., Adelphi, one man was killed, leading to the "coldblooded murder" characterization by former detective Cicala.
All of the parties involved agree on some principal elements in that incident -- police knew that a robbery would be attempted; they staked out the store and substituted a detective for the store clerk; one of the holdup men, William Hunter Matthews Jr., was killed by police wielding shotguns inside the store; another, Marvin Powell Rozier, was arrested, and informant Gregory Gibson was allowed to escape. All three were 18 years old at the time.
On other elements, some of them basic, there is disagreement.
One of those basic elements involves whether police participated in setting up the crime, thus ensuring that one would be committed.
Cicala and Gibson, the informant, said that police were involved and that they and Vasco were present when major details of the robbery were planned.
In an interview last month, Vasco categorically denied any role in planning the crime. Interviewed by police investigators a few days later, he said he had found in his files what he termed an "unsigned" note concerning the crime and speculated that he may have written that note for his files.
"According to this (note)" Vasco said, "together we picked the location." Asked by police investigators whether "we" referred to Gibson and other participants, Vasco replied: "I'm not sure. That part's not clear."
Gibson and Cicala agreed to talk only after being approached by reporters investigating the "Death Squad" allegations. In separate interviews, Gibson and Cicala said they and Vasco were riding in a car and discussing the major planning details on June 6, 1967. During that ride, the High's store in Adephi was selected as the site for the robbery attempt, they said.
"The High's was convenient for them," Gibson said. "It was wooded then... It was their choice and my job to get it to happen...
"There were people all over the county Joe [Vasco] thought were doing wrong. Vasco let it be known that [William H.] Mathews [Jr.] was somebody he was almost positive was doing wrong. He said to encourage him on," Gibson said.
Gibson said Vasco never specifically said, "Get me Mathews." But, Gibson said, "I knew what he wanted... Joe said he wanted it to happen this way, and I was to see it got done. That was my job."
Cicala -- referring to notes he made in 1967 -- recalled that during the car ride, Vasco told Gibson: "Get me a couple of patsies... They're going to be blown away. They're not gonna be around."
Cicala and Gibson also recalled that a time was set for the robbery and that arrangments were made with a local car agency for a getaway car. Official reports refer to the car as a "stolen vehicle," but agency employees later told police they were unaware it was missing.
Vasco told The Post he could not recall where the getaway car was acquired or precisely how he learned about the holdup. "The only thing I got from the informant is where and when," he said. "I'm assuming a lot of things because I don't remember.. I don't even recall getting who [would commit the crime], to the best of my recollection."
But Lt. Salter told police investigators knew who the holdup man was because they warned us that [Mathews] last month: "They [the detectives] would kill, that he had shot people before, he had done a lot of holdups." There is no publice record showing that Mathews had any criminal convictions in the county.
Before driving around that day with Cicala and Vasco, Gibson, a high school dropout with a history of juvenile offenses, brought a shotgun he owned into the Hyattsville detective bureau to have it loaded with blanks. Police said they filed yhe firing pin so the gun would not fire. The blanks later were replaced with live ammunition but the firing pin was disabled, according to Gibson and official reports.
Events that would culminate two days later in the robbery and shooting death now were in motion.
On this day, Gibson said he went to the local car agency and picked up a car by prior arrangement. He then went to the Takoma Park home of his friend, Marvin P. Rozier. Gibson said he knew that Rozier was a friend of Mathews, and Gobson met Mathews at Rozier's home.
"He [Gobson] said that he wanted to rob a store," Rozier later told poilice. "I asked him if he was crazy... I told him, 'I don't know.' He said 'Aw, come on, man, let's get up there.' He said 'Everything will be all right.We can make it.' I said, 'Naw, man, I'm getting ready to get married, and I don't want to get into any trouble.' So we talked and talked, and finally I told him [Gibson] okay..."
That night, the three drove to the Adelphi High's store where the police were in place in the stakeout. But Gibson called off the robbery at the last minute. The car had a troublesome fan belt and "something was out of place," he said.
Gibson "wanted to do it [another] night," Rozier later told Vasco in a recorded statement, "but I told him I was scared... I told him, 'Let's go back home.'"
"Vasco had to call the informant and talk him into it all over again." said Richard A. Shaner, then a detective in the Hyattsville bureau. "After it didn't go down the first night, it had to be rescheduled," Shaner said in a telephone interview last month.
This night, there was no turning back, according to Rozier. Gibson, Rozier later told police, supplied a shotgun and a pistol, encouraged him and drove the way. About 11 p.m., they arrived at High's.
For identification, Gibson wore a blue jacket with his police nickname, "Enny." He could get police "Ennything" they wanted, he boasted.
Rozier recalled: "I told him. 'Let's not do it and go back home." So he got mad and told me to give him the gun and he would go in there... So he jumped out of the car and told the other boy [Mathews] to come with him."
"It was a last-minute change," Gibsom recalled, "I prayed like hell."
Det. Shaner, now a captain, was behind the counter at High's acting as the clerk. Vasco, armed with a shotgun was partly hidden behind a magazine rack in the rear of the store. Dets, William R. Cook and Lawrence R. Wheeler, also armed with shotguns, were positioned in the rear overlooking the scene, Cook atop a freezer and Wheeler behind some boxes.
Gibson took the shotgun from his trousers, demanded money and was handed $165 in cash. At that point, according to several police accounts, Mathews cocked his pistol and aimed it at the back of Shaner's head.
At this moment, Wheeler said he yelled: "Halt, police," then fired his shotgun as Mathews turned toward him from about 15 feet away. Shaner said he still believes that Wheeler saved his life. There is no indication that Wheeler was involved in any of the planning that preceded the hold-up.
Immediately after Wheeler fired, so did Cook. "Somebody said, 'Police,' then boom," Gibson said. "I dropped the money and hit the floor." So did "clerk" Shaner, behind the counter.
"Mathews was right beside me with his chest opened up," Gibson said. "I smelled blood."
Vasco emerged from behind the magazine rack, crouched, peered around the counter and from 10 feet away, he said later, fired one round at Mathews. Vasco said Mathews, on the floor, was reaching for his pistol wth his left hand.
As Mathews lay dead or dying, Shaner said he leaned over him and sopke in his ear. "Your buddy did it to you," Shaner said he told Mathews. "He set you up."
According to official reports, Gibson then escaped. Gibson said that Vasco ordered him to "make it. Get out of here."
The autopsy report said that Wheeler's blast had hit Mathews in the heart and that Vasco's shot had ripped Mathews' stomach.
One slug from Mathews' pistol was found embedded in the store's rear wall near Wheeler's position. When that shot was fired and who fired it is disputed.
Gibson contends that Mathews never fired. In his official report at the time, Vasco said he saw Mathews "face in the direction of Sgt. Wheeler and raise and fire his pistol. A split second later, I heard a shotgun blast."
Vasco said in a recent interview that he is uncertain who fired first. "I don't believe I could see [Mathews] fire his gun," Vasco said. "I heard, 'Halt, police.' The next thing I heard was a shotgun blast. A split second later, simultaneously or just before, I heard a small arms blast."
Wheeler said in his official report that Mathews fired first. He is uncertain now. "I wasn't going to wait to see if he shot or not," Wheeler said recently. "I just fired."
Cook said at the time that Wheeler and Mathews fired simultaneously. Recently, he said he thought the pistol discharged as Mathews reeled from Wheeler's blast.
Shaner said in the official police report that Mathews fired first. Now, he said he does not know who fired Mathews' gun because he was on the floor behind the counter during the exchange of fire.
Salter, who arrived at the scene in time to interview witnesses, told police investigators recently that he remembers being told that "somebody had fired [Mathews'] handgun after the shooting was over, but I don't remember who said that."
Salter said he interviewed one witness who said he heard "loud bangs, then one small bang." Another witness told a diferent detective that he heard two shots one second apart. "I heard a shot go off, and I saw the boy fall," said the witness, who was in an apartment across the street.
Stationed on the High's roof were Cicala and Lt. Blair L. Montgemery, the head of the detective bureau who Cicala said originated the idea of using informants in armed robberies.
When the shooting started, the getaway car, with Rozier inside, began to move. Cicala and Montgomery riddled the car with shotgun pellets, and Rozier surrendered.
Three days after the holdup and shooting, Gibson followed instructions and turned himself over to police. Charges were placed against him but later dropped and, five weeks after the High's holdup, he was shot critically by Vasco during a burglary attmept.
Rozier, who had no prior history of serious involvement with the police, was sentenced to five years on probation.
Cicala had been a county policeman since 1960 but was new to detective work in 1967. In the wake of the High's holdup, Cicala said, "I thought, gee, this is really how things have to be done... gung-ho... like on TV." But, he said, he soon had misgivings.
They gnawed at him in ensuing months, he said. On Nov. 24, 1967, when two men -- one an informant -- held up a 7-Eleven store in Cheverly, the Hyattsville detectives were there. Except for Cicala.
Cicala said he had decided "it was wrong, morally, legally wrong. It was something I felt in my gut. My idea of a stakeout is you act on an anonymous tip. Then you're covered by the law. But you don't plan it from A to Z."
Cicala said he refused to play the role of clerk in the next stakeout. He said he told Montgomery and Vasco, "It's wrong," Vasco said he had "no recollection" of Cicala's remark.
According to police reports, the Nov. 24 robbery occurred, as expected, at 5:30 p.m. The two men fled with the money. The informant was allowed to escape, according to police reports and interviews. The other, Mexican-born Pedro Gonzales, 34, who had no prior record, was shot in the back and wounded.
Gonzales later told police that the informant had recruited him to "do a job." Gonzales was sentenced to six years in prison, and his appeals for leniency were denied. He could not be found for comment.
Two days later on Nov. 26, William C. Harris was killed by police during an attmepted robbery of a Chillum 7-Eleven.
Daivd E. Wedler, another participant in that robbery attempt, said a man -- later identified in official interviews as one of Vasco's informants -- talked him into committing the robbery.
Wedler, now 30, said recently that he and the informant, Sidney Joseph Hartman, were passing time at the Langley Park Shopping Center one night. "We were high, drinking, smoking grass. He says, 'You wanna make some money?' He said, 'My cousin manages a store.' All we had to do is go down there and make it look good. I didn't want to do it at first. I didn't feel like doing anything at the time."
Wedler said Hartman suggested they "go get Bill [Harris].He said he needed three of us. I said 'Why?' He just said he needs three of us. We ran into Bill in the shopping center. He said, 'Okay, why not?'"
Hartman "insisted we have guns," Wedler said. "I said, 'What do we need guns for if it's your cousin [in the store]?' He said, You don't know who's gonna watch.'"
According to Wedlers account in court records, Hartman "told me the job had to be done at exactly 11 p.m." Their faces concealed under nylon stockings, they entered the store precisely at 11:20 p.m.
"I'm thinking it's a big game, Humphrey Bogart stuff. Then we come out the damn door, and it [the shooting] sounded like World War II," Wedler said in a recent interview. "They [the police] didn't say stop, goodbye or nothing."
As they ran, Harris was fatally wounded by pellets from police shotguns.
According to the official police report, the detectives shouted, "County police, hold it." "As far as I'm concerned," said James Fitzpatrick, the detective who wrote the official report, "it was a legitimate everything." Hartman could not be located for comment.
Cicala was not part of the Nov. 26 stakeout.For refusing to volunteer to act as clerk two days earlier, Cicala was fired for "conduct unbecoming an officer."
"I respect his convictions," Vasco said recently. "I have no problems with the decision Cicala made" to refuse the clerk's role.
Cicala's dismissal was upheld by a police trial board, but five months later he was reinstated with full back pay by a county merit panel. State's Attorney Marshall testified on his behalf. "He was a good officer," Marshall said the other week.
In his official report on the Chillum holdup, Fitzpatrick wrote that he and Vasco had "interviewed" Marshall prior to the holdup. Te three discussed, Fitzpatrick wrote, "our source of information and any legal problems that might arise regarding this case and other stakeouts.
"It was the opinion of Mr. Marshall that no legal problems existed," wrote Fitzpatrick, now in charge of the police special operations division.
Marshall said he recalls such a conversation but not in detail. Police, he said, "were granting immunity themselves. They were assuring people they would not be prosecuted without getting the prosecutor's okay."
The whole thing "did not sit well," he said, so he did what he could to stop it.
The work of the Hyattsville detective bureau was cited in 1967 by a Prince George's County grand jury. In its final report, after sitting for six months and hearing evidence about a multitude of crimes, including two of the incidents that ended in police shootings, the panel gave the detectives a "special commendation" for their actions.
Next: The aftermath .