Bill Kolender
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It was a last hurrah of sorts for two San Diego institutions, the late Bill Kolender and his onetime employer, the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"Almost nobody didn’t love Bill Kolender," said the U-T’s October 6 editorial of farewell. "Unless, perhaps, you were a crook or a political opponent who got creamed by him in an election."

Though unacknowledged, the paper's tribute to Kolender was also an homage to its once-powerful self.

Kolender, who died this week at 80 after years of suffering from Alzheimer's, didn't live quite long enough to witness the final fall of the formerly mighty U-T, but his own power arc was parallel.

Sgt. Kolender in the '60s

San Diego Police Museum photo

C. Arnholt Smith was Nixon's first big contributor back in 1946 and was alone with him on election night in 1968.

Johnny Alessio

Ray Hoobler

San Diego Police Museum photo

He started life on the force in July 1956, when Richard Nixon was vice president, Nixon's pal Jim Copley ran the Union and Tribune, and San Diego was the exclusive financial bailiwick of C. Arnholt Smith, Nixon's political patron, who commanded a financial empire including the United States National Bank, National Steel & Shipbuilding, a tuna fleet, and the Padres.

Kolender walked the beat during that era, witnessing the ways of San Diego law enforcement in the days of backroom gratuities, long before cops wore video cameras.

As he rose in the department and the city's politics, he got to know Johnny Alessio, Smith's protégé who ran the Caliente race track across the border in Tijuana.

Years later, ex–police chief Kolender would pen a letter asking Ronald Reagan to pardon Johnny's son Bud, sent to the slammer for bribing Johnny’s guards while he was doing time at Lompoc for tax evasion.

"He's served his time. He did something for his father, he made a mistake, and he paid for it," Kolender told a reporter in October 1988. "He deserves a chance for a new start. I think he's a good guy.”

Lenard Wolf, the lead FBI agent on the bribery case, told the Times: "That's the way he (Bud Alessio) operates. You know, scratch my back, I'll scratch your back. Butter up people who can do favors for you when you need them."

Smith's bank went bust in 1973 and he was forced into ignominy. Into the power void stepped new-styled Republican mayor Pete Wilson, with his silk ties, spit-polished wing-tips, and the suggestion he was the man to clean up the town's sullied reputation.

In 1975, after then–police chief Ray Hoobler was fired in a dispute over a stash of secret police psych files, Wilson engineered Kolender's appointment as chief.

By then Helen Copley was running the U-T, and Wilson was her candidate. She hoped, as her husband had done for Nixon, to build him into a national contender.

Tall, affable, and with a direct line to Wilson, the self-styled liberal Republican Kolender projected the progressive image of a clean San Diego that the mayor, who coveted higher office, wanted to present to America.

Reality did not always match.

When Wilson moved on to the United States Senate in 1982, Kolender wanted to succeed him as mayor. A 1986 suit against the city by an ex-cop alleged that police intelligence honcho Bill Moller served as Kolender's undercover wingman.

"They came to me, and they said — it was Moller — and he says, 'You have got so much knowledge of who participates in massage parlors. You know our chief is thinking of running for mayor?'" testified Robert Hannibal.

“And I says, 'Yeah.' He says, 'Well, we're trying to find some dirt on Hedgecock. Didn't he frequent the massage parlors?' And I says, 'No, I don't have any information.' And he says, 'Are you positive?' And I says, 'Yes, I'm positive, at least I don't recall.'"

Kolender and Moller denied the charge.

Then on November 9, 1986, the Los Angeles Times revealed that under Kolender the police department had regularly fixed the tickets of the city's rich and influential.

"Last year, San Diego police officials dismissed more than 15,000 parking citations worth about $250,000," the paper reported.

"A month-long investigation by The Times revealed that the Police Department routinely violates its own policies by dismissing thousands of tickets for flimsy or fabricated excuses or none at all."

Bob Burgreen

San Diego Police Museum photo

Added the report, "The Police Department has dismissed tickets for Police Chief Bill Kolender's wife and son; Asst. Police Chief Bob Burgreen's daughter and some of Kolender's friends, among them KSDO radio sportscaster Ron Reina."

Caught red-handed, Kolender told the paper, "We're going to tighten up the policy. It will not be so easy to cancel a ticket in the future."

Said the Times: "For years, journalists have had tickets dismissed by turning them over to police spokesmen Bill Robinson and Rick Carlson, who oversee police-media relations. Since January, 1985, the worst offenders in the media have been Channel 10, with 64 tickets dismissed, and KFMB-TV (Channel 8), with 54."

The investigation also uncovered a cozy ticket-fixing relationship between Kolender's police department and the San Diego Chargers, for whom the San Diego cops were allowed to moonlight as security guards. A big sports fan, Kolender’s third wife Lois was the widow of Chargers linebacker Emil Karas.

"He will not be doing it anymore," said Kolender of officer Dick Lewis, one of those identified as a part-time Chargers employee who fixed tickets.

A week later, the Times ran another exposé, this time revealing Kolender had accepted thousands of dollars in gifts in violation of the police department's ethics policy.

"The free items include vacations in Hawaii and Palm Springs, rides in limousines, season tickets to Charger games, a pass that allows him into any National League baseball game, a pair of annual passes to Sea World, and dinners at fund-raising events with President Reagan and Gov. George Deukmejian," reported the paper.

The Times went on to identify another sport related to the gifts.

"Since 1981 San Diego Padres President Ballard Smith has sent Kolender an annual pass that grants him and a guest free admittance to any National League ballpark."

The story continued, "In October, 1982, Smith's wife, Linda, was cited for making an illegal turn on La Jolla Boulevard. Linda Smith showed the ticket to a family employee, former police detective Wally Yeatts, who took the citation to the Police Department.

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davestutz Oct. 8, 2015 @ 11:11 a.m.

Most people forget or don't know of Kolender's dark side. He fell off his high horse when he played the political game to become Chief. He was a great street cop but entered politics and never was the same. He's not the only one. Look at Gore. Watching Kolender lead Dumanis around by her nose ring edorseing every right wig nut was hard to watch.


swell Oct. 8, 2015 @ 12:33 p.m.

Corporate and government leadership is filled with tall, attractive people who are good at schmoozing, who have connections and who have money support. Their personal interests have priority over the interests of those they are responsible for.

The smart thing would be to fill these positions with people who have an appropriate education, an honorable reputation, and the specific skills required for the job.

Ah, but when has the voter or corporate board ever done the smart thing? We elect B class movie stars to the presidency and pro wrestlers to governorships. And the top candidate for president today is a crackpot entertainer.

Thanks Matt, for a detailed contrast to some of the other comments about this politician.


Visduh Oct. 8, 2015 @ 3:23 p.m.

I guess I was one of the few who didn't love him. He was one of the biggest mistakes Pete Wilson ever made, if in fact, Pete was responsible for making him chief of police. (It would be worth remembering that in those days, SD had a city manager government, not a "strong" mayor arrangement.) But after taking charge of the SDPD, crime in the city ballooned, and he seemed to have no notion of what his department could do about that. And the department became notoriously trigger happy. Ed Miller never charged any of them with murder, but he should have. When the criticism of the SDPD got loud--in spite of support by the Tribune and Union and Helen Copley--ol' Bill just pulled up the ladder and the department refused to accept any criticism and got more isolated with passing years. Many years when the SDPD needed to progress from the hick town department it had been, to a big city department, were squandered.

Bill was a politician, not a real cop.


monaghan Oct. 8, 2015 @ 4:06 p.m.

Whatever else he did, when Bill Kolender became Chief of Police, the cops stopped hassling kids at the Windansea Beach parking lot and detaining people who liked to run through neighborhoods at night. And when he became Sheriff, replacing an odious macho predecessor, Kolender insisted on more civilized and humane behavior from his subordinates.


jnojr Oct. 12, 2015 @ 10:34 a.m.

Kolender's last election should have been overturned. He was already deep into dementia, and was propped up as an incumbent solely for the purpose of using that guaranteed victory to issue the job to Bill Gore. There should have been a REAL election where the voters got to decide. Of course, it's our fault for generally re-electing incumbent Sheriffs with no real review. But we might have wound up with someone who respected the Constitution instead of someone who oversaw the murder of a 14 year old and his mother because some dude was alleged to have a shotgun that might have been a little shorter than some arbitrary length.


Visduh Oct. 17, 2015 @ 10:28 a.m.

I"d plumb forgotten about that sham of an election. Kolender was kept out of sight during the campaign, and the explanation was that he was so revered (and so busy) that there was no need for him to make appearances. Then he did make one and his incapacity was in plain view. If you want to make a case about low-information voters and the power of incumbency, you need look no farther than the sheriff in this county. Duffy ran unopposed most times, as did ol' Bill. Opponents had to conclude that running against either one of them was futile, and might be hazardous to their health.


monaghan Oct. 12, 2015 @ 2:25 p.m.

All probably true about the last Kolender election and Gore succession, but let's reflect for a moment on this Columbus Day about the difference between actual and perceived historical truths. Take a look at the OB Rag's piece on Christopher Columbus and note that Seattle, Minneapolis and Berkeley have renamed this holiday in honor of Native Americans. Proof that we are educable, we can change and do better. Even in local elections.


jnojr Oct. 12, 2015 @ 3:53 p.m.

More like proof that we're malleable. Cristopher Columbus was celebrated for a historic achievement. That's to be thrown away in favor of celebrating people for... what? Existing? "Native Americans" were far more brutal to each other than the "white man" ever was. This is nothing more than bleating, hand-wringing political correctness run absolutely insane.


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