No Good Deed by Tom Basinski. Berkley True Crime, 2006, $7.99, 293 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Two days before Christmas in 1998, David Stevens's Chrysler LeBaron exploded into flames in the upscale California neighborhood of La Jolla. The "accident" wasn't enough to hide evidence of homicide: two bullets fired into the skull of the 38-year-old dating-service employee who didn't have an enemy in the world.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"The true story of the murder of David Stevens." -- Publishers Weekly
"It delves into the underworld of strippers, the exotic practice of Santeria, a publication called Testosterone , a murder for hire, and a defendant who insists on representing himself at trial. Basinski's wry humor is an undercurrent that runs throughout." -- San Diego Union-Tribune
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tom Basinski is the father of two, a true-crime magazine writer, and a veteran California police detective.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I called Tom Basinski in San Diego to talk about his new book that revisits a notorious local homicide case. Basinski's worked in law enforcement for many years. Was he still on the job? TB: I actually retired in January of 2005, and then I went to work for the San Diego City Attorney, Mike Aguirre, but I only worked for him for 17 weeks. He fired my boss, and he fired the guy who recruited me, and then came to me and said everything was okay between us, and I said, 'No.' He's fired about 30 of his attorneys since he took office. So, I've been unemployed for about a year.
JJ: And so you've taken up writing?
TB: I've actually been a writer since the early '80s, when I was a homicide detective for Chula Vista PD. A writer from True Detective approached me about a case, and I asked him how to go about contributing to the magazine. Also, my degree is in English, so I've always been interested in writing.
JJ: How did you go from an English degree to law enforcement?
TB: Well, I studied to be a Catholic priest. I had four years to go before getting ordained, but I changed my mind. It was kind of an evolution of thought. I became a police officer [instead]. But getting back to writing, I wrote my [first-hand] stories and then we didn't really have that many homicides for five or six years, and I started writing up murder cases from around the county.
JJ: So how many years did you spend on the force?
TB: I did 17 years with the Chula Vista Police, and I did 17 as an investigator with the San Diego County District Attorney. I actually started my career in Flint, Michigan, where I grew up. I was only there about a year and a half before I moved to California.
JJ: So, 35 years in law enforcement. What is crime like in San Diego? How many major crimes are committed annually? How many of those are murders?
TB: Last, I think they had 58. So, considering the pretty active gang population and what spills over from Mexico's drug hits, San Diego is relatively safe. But, you know, murders go in cyclical fashion. They go up and down. There's really no control the police have over it; it just happens.
JJ: What percentage of the murders are solved?
TB: I don't have those statistics. I think they solve fewer of them now than they did a few years ago because of jurisdictional body dumps. That's when somebody is killed in one city and taken to another and dumped.
JJ: Do you watch those TV shows, CSI and all those forensic programs?
TB: I like American Justice and Forensic Files on the A&E Network, but I don't see a lot of those shows. I do like that one, The First 24. That's on A&E, I believe. As far as the fictional network shows, I seldom watch.
No Good Deed is about the work of Team Three of the San Diego Homicide Division. How many other teams are there besides Team Three?
TB: There're four teams.
JJ: How many detectives are on a team?
TB: Generally, four, but the case took so long that some who were involved were eventually transferred to other teams. It's usually a sergeant and three detectives.
JJ: And a team being "up," what does that mean?
TB: When they're up that means they get every homicide that comes down the road from...I think it's Tuesday morning at 8:30 until the next Tuesday morning at 8:30. So, they're up for one week.
JJ: What do the other three teams do during that period?
TB: The other teams are following leads.
JJ: So they're working for the primary team?
TB: No, no. They're working their own cases that happened during the week they were up.
JJ: So, the assumption is that it's going to take longer than 24 hours to solve a case?
TB: Even if you solve it that fast and take someone in custody, there is always plenty more work to do. Because, though you have enough to present the case to the D.A. and file the complaint, there's so much more work that needs to be done before the case goes to court.
JJ: Describe the murder.
TB: Remains were found in a car fire just before Christmas, 1998. The fire was set to destroy the identity of the victim and any evidence. The burned corpse was identified as David Stevens. He worked for a dating service, and it was difficult to ascribe a motive, much less find the guilty party.
JJ: The solution to the murder took some three years.
TB: Yeah, because nobody connected the victim and the killer. The cops interviewed people endlessly. A lot of leads came up, but the essential information didn't.
JJ: I was very impressed with the diligence -- the pursuit of those many misleading tips and misinformation.
TB: Yeah, they just worked the hell out them.
JJ: Months stretch into years, and the victim's family becomes very frustrated and, early on, engages outside help, or a gentleman sort of inserts himself into the case and adds to the work of the detectives quite a lot. The family goes on San Diego radio shows, sometimes revealing information learned from the detectives, which the police do not want broadcast. Reporters get involved, including a writer from the Reader, filing stories about the case, and there's a lot of pressure on the police. They deal with it as they can, but they're certainly being second-guessed quite a lot. You write: "The case of David Stevens presented a first in the handling of a homicide within the San Diego Police Department," because it was officially shifted to the cold case squad, called the HEAT unit, and had attached to it a deputy district attorney. Do you think that the agitation by the victim's family kept the case active?