Several Prince George's County detectives, including the current acting police chief, planned a series of convenience store holdups in 1967 in which other officers killed two suspects who had been solicited for the crimes by police informants, according to a Maryland state police report released yesterday.
The findings of the state police investigation, which had been triggered by a series of articles in The Washington Post last February, confirm the earlier newspaper accounts of how the county police staged three holdups, recruited the participants and staked out the scenes of the robberies.
In addition, the state investigators said they uncovered three more instances in which informants said they were "under pressure by the police to solicit a number of suspects to perpetrate a series of crimes, and once they were recruited, the police assisted with the planning and details of crime . . ."
According to the state probe, the holdups were "instigated" by two county officers now in high-ranking positions on the county force -- Joseph D. Vasco, the acting chief of police, and James Fitzpatrick, the supervisor of police training. The report says Vasco and Fitzpatrick persuaded police informants to "assume leading roles" in the commission of the crimes.
Current police regulations in Prince George's and elsewhere prohibit officers from active involvement in setting up crimes, especially those involving the use of weapons.
While confirming previously reported details of the staged holdups, the state police concluded that the officers involved in the shootings at the convenience stores did not commit homicide because they "had no knowledge" that the robberies had been planned by their colleagues.
It was the shooting deaths of the two suspects that earned the Hyattsville-based detectives a macabre nickname, "the Death Squad." Although stories about "the Death Squad" had circulated in the county police department for most of this decade, the detectives' actions had not been investigated until this year.
Shortly before the articles appeared in The Washington Post last February, Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan, acting on Post inquiries, ordered an internal county probe of the reports. That investigation -- concluded in a few weeks -- cleared the police of any wrongdoing. But the state police, at the end of their more thorough, four-month probe, said they found "major discrepancies" between the county investigation and their own.
Hogan and Arthur A. Marshall Jr., the state's attorney in Prince George's County, said last spring that the country's internal investigation disproved the existence of a "Death Squad," contending that the standards for police behavior were different in 1967 and the police actions then should not be judged against the standards of today.
They repeated those statements last week, when Marshall received, and refused to release, a copy of the state police report. And they said the same things again yesterday after state police released their findings at the urging of Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs.
Acting Chief Vasco, who has maintained that the staged robberies were part of a legitimate effort to thwart the waves of convenience store holdups in the late 1960s, reiterated the Hogan and Marshall position in a statement yesterday.
"I am still satisfied that what was done by members of this department in 1967 was proper at the time and not in violation of any federal, state or local laws," he said. "These actions . . . must be evaluated in the proper context, and compared to the standards of 12 years ago."
According to the state police probe by Corporals A. Wayne Cusimano and Francis L. Donaldson, three informants and a former police detective, who refused to participate in such stakeouts following the first fatality, took and passed lie detector tests.
Vasco, Fitzpatrick and retired Lt. Blair Montgomery, who then headed the detective squad, all refused to take lie detector tests and were, according to the state police report, "for the most part, unable to recall many of the details" of these cases. Vasco also refused to be interviewed with only his attorney and the state investigators present, the report said.
Although the investigation of the 1967 incidents is generally concluded, Maryland Attorney General Sachs, in a letter advising the state police to release the report, said two related matters are still being investigated.
Sources said one matter still under investigation involves allegations contained in the report that police directed informants to place stolen goods with persons they wanted to arrest. The second relates to possible obstruction of justice during an internal county police investigation of the "Death Squad" earlier this year, sources said.
The state police said they found the informants to be generally cooperative and believable during the course of their probe.
"Throughout this investigation of events that occurred more than a decade ago," the state police said "it has been necessary to rely substantially on the veracity and recollection of some persons whose conduct -- past conduct, at least -- will certainly generate doubts concerning their motives, trustworthiness and truthfulness.
"But it should not go unnoticed that each has taken a polygraph examination . . . and none has indicated deception in the opinion of the examiners.
"The police informants were not working together. They were involved in separate cases at different times and places. For the most part, they didn't even know each other. And yet there are striking similarities in their accounts of what they did, what the police did and what their accomplices did." a
The report released yesterday deletes the names of informants, two of whom were publicly identified in the published Post articles. Incident by incident, the state investigators found the following:
On June 8, 1967, a High's store at 9101 Riggs Rd. in Adelphi was held up by an informant, Gregory Gibson, and two accomplices he had recruited at Vasco's behest, the report said. During the late night holdup, 18-year old William H. Mathews Jr. of Takoma Park was killed by police, allegedly firing in self-defense.
Before the incident, the report said, police helped Gibson obtain a car for the crime at Bob Banning Plymouth in Hyattsville. After the car was riddled by bullets during the holdup, police filled out a false report of a "stolen vehicle."
"Vasco, the state report said, "directed [to Gibson] major details of the crime which amounts to the actual planning of the robbery."
The informant's account was corroborated by former detective John R. Cicala, who told The Post he drove around with Gibson and Vasco selecting the store to be robbed.
Five weeks later on July 13, 1967, Gibson himself was critically wounded by Vasco during a early morning attempted burglary a block from the University of Maryland in College Park, Gibson told state police and The Post he believed he had been set up by another Vasco informant, who is now dead.
The official report in 1967 said Vasco had received an annonymous telephone tip, but state police said they obtained other police testimony that Vasco knew the caller, a doughnut shop owner named Joe Bonds "then under threat of arrest on an open warrant by Vasco unless he provided criminal information."
"Gregory Gibson was encouraged by Joe Bonds to break into a jewelry store," the state report said.
Gibson was shot be Vasco as he exited into a narrow alley behind 7402 1/2 Baltimore Ave., allegedly holding a crowbar, according to the official version at the time.
Ron Cook, a former detective who accompained Vesco, told state investigators the official report "did not reflect the incident as he now recalls it. . . ."
At the time of the shooting, Cook later told the state police, he "was uncomfortable with what happened and remains so today."
For his refusal to act as a store clerk on Nov. 24, 1967 during an armed robbery stake-out at a 7-Eleven store in Cheverly, Det. John Cicala was fired from the police force for "conduct unbecoming an officer." Five months later, he was reinstated with full back pay by a county merit panel.
There was no such vindication for Pedro-Gonzales, the man lured into committing the crime by informant John Crowley. Gonzales was injured on the scene and then went to prison for his offense.
Crowley, whose name is largely but not completely deleted from the public state police report, told state probers: "The plan was in no way his idea or Gonzales' idea." He added, "had he not been pressured [by Vasco and Fitzpatrick] into asking Gonzales to participate in this crime, neither he nor Gonzales would have done this crime."
Two days later, on Nov. 26, William C. Harris was killed by police during an attempted robbery of a Chillium 7-Eleven. David E. Wedler, another participant in that robbery attempt, went to prison for his role in the crime. He insisted he was encouraged by Sidney J. Hartman, later revealed to be a police informant.
Hartman confirmed Wedler's version in an interview with state police.
Details of the robbery were worked out with Vasco and Fitzpatrick, Hartman and his former wife said. Hartman said he agreed to recruit the participants in return for the officers' help in quashing a public drunkenness charge that could affect his parole status from an earlier crime.
"He made me feel this was the only way out other than going back to prison," Hartman's ex-wife told The Post.
According to Hartman, state police reported "the idea for the crime and stakeout" came from Vasco and Fitzpatrick. "He complied with their orders, solicited accomplices, planned an armed robbery with police help, and conducted the armed robbery with the unsuspecting accomplices."
The state police interviews with informants disclosed three other instances in which Vasco and Fitzpatrick allegedly "engineered crimes in order to allow the scenes to be staked out and the perpetrators arrested."
These included a liquor store break-in and an appliance and television shop burglary.About the same time, the report said, one of the informants who participated in the liquor store break-in said he was asked by Vasco and Fitzpatrick to deliver stolen goods to persons named by the officers, who would then make arrests.
Reached at his home yesterday, Fitzpatrick said he had "nothing to say" about the state police report. Vasco issued his statement through the county police public affairs office, defending his 1967 actions and decrying the release in 1979 of "a criminal investigative report."
In advising state police to release the report, Sachs said there was substantial and legitimate public interest in the results of the investigation . . . We can think of no other governmental function where integrity and objectivity are as important, or where it is more vital to maintain confidence in the rule of law, than the criminal justice process."