Damacio Diaz of McFarland cross country fame admits to police corruption and drug charges, faces federal prison

McFarland_4
Damacio Diaz, right, shakes hands with Tomas Valles as the team readies for the start of the Southern section championships in the 1987 season.

Damacio Diaz, one of the three “running Diaz” brothers who helped build the McFarland High School cross country dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s and whose adventures were a key story line in the inspirational Disney film “McFarland USA,” has admitted to an array of charges stemming from a federal police corruption investigation and will almost certainly spend time in federal prison, according to published media reports.

Diaz, who went on to become a detective with the Bakersfield Police Department and was employed for 17 years, was arrested in November, 2015 and charged with 16 counts in a federal indictment. He resigned three months ago, on February 24. According to a Bakersfield Californian article published today and written by Steven Mayer and Christine Bedell, “Diaz admitted to a litany of crimes while he was working as a cop, including taking bribes, large-scale distribution of methamphetamine, working in partnership with a known drug dealer, stealing evidence and providing police intelligence to criminal partners.”

Federal prosecutors are recommending lenient sentencing for Diaz in exchange for his testimony and cooperation in their continuing investigation of the case. However, the amount of time Diaz might have to serve in prison has not been disclosed, and it will be up to the federal judge who handles the case to accept or reject the deal. Some of the charges against Diaz carry lifetime prison terms. The willingness of federal prosecutors to offer leniency for such serious crimes seems to indicate that the corruption scandal, in their view, might extend well beyond just Diaz and his former partner, who, according to The Californian, is expected to also be charged.

The Diaz arrest and admission is yet another devastating blow to the community of McFarland. The success of the cross country program has been a source of pride for the small agricultural community located 20 miles north of Bakersfield, which in the 1980s  endured unspeakable heartache and tragedy. Those included a cross country practice accident that took the lives of two members of the girls team, the death by heart attack of the school’s football coach, a Valentine’s Day car crash that claimed the lives of six teenagers from McFarland and neighboring Delano, the accidental deaths by drowning and a car accident that claimed two other teens, and a mysterious and unsolved cancer cluster that afflicted and claimed the lives of several children living in a several-square block section of McFarland.

The story line involving the Diaz brothers in the film “McFarland USA” highlighted the cultural differences between McFarland’s residents and the community’s burgeoning population of Mexican immigrants and their children. In the film, and presumably in their real lives, coach Jim White wants the Diaz brothers to run on the cross country team, but meets stiff resistance from the Diaz brothers’ father, who insists that they must work alongside him in the fields before and after school. The Diaz family also provided one of the film’s funniest scenes, when coach White, played by Kevin Costner, joins the family for dinner and is fed almost to the brink of unconsciousness by Mrs. Diaz. The film, while not accurate in many respects, still reflected positively on McFarland and has been well received by its residents. Many of the athletes who competed for coach White have had successful careers as adults. The other Diaz brothers, Danny and David, work as educational administrators.

The charges against Diaz – and the speculation that the scandal might run deep inside the Bakersfield Police Department, according to statements made by Diaz’s attorney – come at a time when law enforcement in Kern County is facing tremendous national and international scrutiny. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian, one of the world’s best investigative journalism outlets, published a series in which it declared police in Kern County to be the deadliest in America. Several of the cases highlighted were Bakersfield police cases.

The Bakersfield Californian articles report this story in depth. Click here to read yesterday’s story by Steven Mayer and click here to read today’s by Mayer and Christine Bedell.

The Guardian series declaring Kern County police the country’s deadliest

Twinkies, Hawaii and messages in the sand: The story of Sylvia and Herlinda

The real “McFarland USA” beach scene, from the album of Silvia Diaz

Photos from the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA”

A look at the real “McFarland USA” kids and coach Jim White

Update: Show the world what has happened to my son

McFarland’s never-ending heartache

Prom night, a crash and six teens lost

_1040429
Damacio Diaz signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the Disney film “McFarland USA” in February, 2015.

 

How not to photograph a severed head

planecrash2webSometime in the early 1990s, I believe, I was sent to the area of Frazier Park, California, to cover a reported small plane crash in the mountains between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. Small planes that crash in the mountains present quite a challenge to news photographers, as they are often difficult to find, and if access is cut off by authorities, there’s not much we can do about it because they are covered under federal law, not California law. The state provisions that give news media access to accidents and disasters, regardless of whether law enforcement wants us there, do not apply under federal jurisdiction.

The reporter (I don’t remember who it was) and I found the location where emergency vehicles – fire trucks, an ambulance and some sheriff’s cars – had parked. The fact that they were parked was an immediate clue that wherever the plane had crashed, it was inaccessible by vehicle and the rescuers had to walk to the site. We, of course, had no idea where that was. It could be a couple of hundred yards into the mountains, or it could be several miles. We were going to start walking in, hoping the familiar red ribbons rescuers tie to trees to guide others to the location would lead us to it, when a van pulled up. It was the Kern County Coroner. “Oh, shit,” I thought, “This I don’t need.”

The relationship between The Bakersfield Californian’s photographers and the Kern County Coroner in the 1980s and early 1990s was beyond toxic. It was contentious, volatile and confrontational. The tone was set by then- coroner Helen Frankel, who believed that the news media had no business observing and recording the field work of her investigators. This isn’t a conclusion I’ve drawn based on my experiences, though it easily could be. Frankel said it outright, during a debate at Cal State Bakersfield with Californian Executive Editor Bob Bentley on media ethics and the coverage of death. She flat out said it should be illegal for news photographers to photograph the removal of bodies at crime and accident scenes. Nice of an elected official to make up her own laws, huh? Frankel’s attitude was embraced with a flourish by her investigators, especially Susan Loperena and Tony Ferguson. These two investigators openly sought confrontation with photographers at scenes. On two occasions – one on the Kern River and one at a homicide in Bakersfield – Loperena attempted to have deputies remove me from scenes. At the river, she ordered that I just not leave the scene, but that I leave the 16-mile canyon where a search for drowning victims was underway. At the homicide scene, she would not begin her work until I was removed from the scene, where I was positioned outside the barrier tape. And in the irony of ironies, on both occasions, the sheriff’s sergeants at the scenes sided with me, informing Loperena that I had a right to be there. That’s pretty interesting, given the sheriff’s office and I were not exactly on a friendly basis. At a terrible scene in Wasco one morning, where a child died in an apartment fire, Ferguson sought me out, walked up to me and sneered “Are you having fun?” and walked away. No sense sugar coating it here. They did not like me, and I did not like them.

So when that coroner’s van pulled up, I just knew that Loperena or Ferguson was going to step out and the unpleasantries were about to immediately commence. But it wasn’t either of them. It was some new guy, someone I had never seen before. He walked up to us and introduced himself. His name was Jim Malouf, he was a new coroner’s investigator. He then started to walk toward where the crash site apparently was, turned around and said to us, “Well, are you coming? It’s not too far.” Holy fuck! Holy, holy fuck! Was this really happening? This had to be some kind of a twisted dream. We chatted as we walked in – it was about a half mile, if I recall – and this Malouf seemed like a pretty good guy. I guess I’d find out for sure once we got to the plane and saw the scene.

We got to the there, and Malouf, the reporter and I walked right up to the plane, right to the deputies and others who had assembled. Normally, when news media approaches a plane crash scene, even small plane crashes, all hell breaks loose. (See my post “Attacked by a sheriff’s sergeant, 1990” for an example of that.) We are almost always ordered away and have to find a vantage point where we can shoot and they can’t see us or have to wait for an official escort to the scene, which can take hours or even days. Perhaps they thought we were with the coroner since we walked in, or perhaps Malouf had given an OK, I don’t know, but I was free to shoot with remarkable, unrestricted access.

After moving through the scene for a few minutes, Malouf came up to me, and pointing to an area in the wreckage said, “There’s a severed head outside the plane. Just thought you should know that.” But it was what he didn’t say that was remarkable. He didn’t say, “There’s a severed head outside the plane, don’t take any pictures of it.” He didn’t say, “You can’t take any more pictures, you have to leave the scene now.” He didn’t say, “There’s a severed head outside the plane, I better not see that picture in the newspaper.” He just pointed it out and went about doing his work.

A severed head in real life doesn’t look like a severed head in the movies. In the movies, severed heads are perfectly positioned, beautifully lit, sheer terror frozen on the face. It’s all designed to get an audience reaction. In real life, a severed head can be a mottled mess of hair and blood. It’s not perfectly positioned, it lands where it lands. In this case, it was well camouflaged in the still-smoking rubble of the plane, turned away so that what I saw was mostly hair. I probably never would have noticed it if Malouf hadn’t pointed it out. But once he did, it was pretty glaring and hard to mistake for anything else. And you can rest assured, even in a wide shot of the entire scene, readers would have spotted it. We had about 85,000 subscribers at the time, and there were more than a few, well known to us, who literally went over every inch of the newspaper with a magnifying glass. Had it gotten published, it would have been missed by most, but spotted by some, and the newspaper would have had quite a controversy on its hands.

So now, I had a dilemma. The location of the severed head in the middle of the wreckage made it difficult to shoot an overview of the scene, which I felt was the picture I needed. I tried kneeling down to see if I could hide it behind something, but it didn’t work. I knew what angle I wanted, but that severed head was right in the middle of it. Right about now, you’re probably asking, can’t you just remove the severed head from the picture after you shoot it? The answer is no. A resounding no. Any action that changes the reality of a photo is strictly prohibited by photojournalism ethics. Does it happen? Sadly, yes. But not at most papers. Never with our staff. It’s a fireable offense, and a few photographers and editors have rightly lost their jobs for doing so. I had to find a way to photograph the scene and not show the severed head. I waited. And waited. And waited as Malouf sifted through the scene. Then it happened. He moved to a position and stopped for a few seconds, shovel in his hands, his right thigh perfectly blocking the severed head. That was all I needed. I got the shot and the picture you see is the one that ran in the next day’s paper, with no mention of the severed head. (For the record, asking Malouf to block the severed head was also not permitted by photojournalism ethics, and a similar action not involving a body, but the positioning of a fire fighter to make a dramatic photo, once got a Los Angeles Times photographer fired.)

Malouf and I went on to have a great working relationship. He did his job and left me to do mine. He was extremely media friendly, despite the somber nature of his work, and I’m not aware of any confrontations after he joined the office. I have no idea what became of Loperena and Ferguson, I don’t know if they were gone when Malouf joined the coroner’s office, or stayed on and I just never encountered them again. That was fine by me. Sometime later, I think in the 1990s and after Frankel’s tenure, Kern County voters changed the structure of the coroner’s office, eliminating the position of coroner and making the sheriff both sheriff and coroner. Malouf became chief coroner’s investigator, which in the new structure, effectively meant he ran the coroner’s division. He held the position until 2006 and retired when sheriff Mack Wimbish placed a sworn sheriff’s officer in charge of the division.

Jim Malouf was everything a public official who deals with the media on a regular basis should be. He was professional. He was friendly. He did his job and didn’t tell the media how to do theirs. He took an awful, conflict-ridden relationship between The Bakersfield Californian photographers, and presumably the television news photographers, and turned it into one of professionalism and respect, even when dealing with sensitive and emotional situations. That’s all we ever wanted.

You gotta start somewhere. The first image

Firstimage_webWe need to make a deal. I’ll show it to you on the condition you not get too excited. Here it is, the very first image I ever shot as a Bakersfield Californian staff photographer, on September 14, 1981. It is a group of Oildale residents at a Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting to discuss some course of action that would affect their community. I have long forgotten what the issue was. I had made plenty of images for The Californian during the nine months I worked as a reporter, but this is the first one I made on the day I moved to the photo department, achieving my dream of becoming a newspaper staff photographer.

We were responsible for filing our own negatives, which we kept in boxes on our desk. This is largely why I am able to do this project. I have a bunch of boxes full of my negatives from almost the entire decade of the 1980s! Here is what that “filing system” looked like before we got a library and a staff that began keeping track of everything we shot.firstassignmentwebWhat do I remember most about that first day? I remember my boss, chief photographer Jack Knight, welcoming me and showing me my desk on the fourth floor photo department. On it were two Nikon F2 camera bodies and an assortment of lenses. They were the equipment of Earl Day, the recently-retired photographer I replaced. The cameras were fine, but the lenses were all off-brand lenses that even a rookie wanted nothing to do with. I had a few of my own Nikkor lenses so I put those into service. Felix Adamo was the envy of the photographers – he had the only 180 mm f2.8 Nikkor, then the crown jewel of the department. I was envious, but drew even a few months later when my parents bought me one for Christmas. Within a year or two, The Californian began investing in serious photo equipment, and soon we were equipped with the best stuff in the business. The other thing I remember about that day was the labeled re-loadable 35 mm film canisters on my desk. We would roll our own film off of 100-foot bulk rolls of Tri-X. Jack Knight, I soon learned, loved – and I mean loved – his label gun, and just about everything in the photo department had a label on it. Being the mischievous types we were, we took great pleasure in hiding Jack’s label gun every now and then.

And then that first assignment. Oildale residents at the Board of Supervisors for some issue, and updated file shots of the supervisors. Exciting? In retrospect, not at all, but on that day, Monday, September 14, 1981, it was heaven.

 

Oh my God, you’re Pete Tittl!

Whenever a picture of Pete Tittl was needed, we shot him with a bag over his head. This one was shot by Liz Snyder in 1994.
Whenever a picture of Pete Tittl was needed, we shot him with a bag over his head. This one was shot by Liz Snyder in 1994.

Pete Tittl was the most feared journalist in Bakersfield. Just who is this Pete Tittl, those of you not from our town might ask? Was he a crack investigative reporter, a master at tracking how public monies are obtained, allocated, distributed and potentially abused? Nope. Was he a columnist keeping tabs on the city’s movers and shakers, ever on the lookout for the slightest hint of hypocrisy or impropriety? Nope. Pete Tittl was, and still is, The Bakersfield Californian’s restaurant reviewer. The mere thought of having Pete Tittl and his always unnamed “companion” visit a restaurant had owners quivering like a bowl of Jello and shaking like the earth under the San Andreas fault. And I had two encounters with restaurant owners regarding Pete Tittl that I have been delightfully sharing for three decades now.

First I should point out that Pete Tittl caused me many an aggravating photo shoot. You see, the restaurant owners never knew when Tittl was in their establishment, but every now and then, The Californian would want some pictures of the place, and the food, for the upcoming review. They would call the restaurant, tell the owner it was the subject of a review and arrange a photo shoot, and while Pete and his companion happily ate somewhere else, I would have to deal with the nervous restaurant owner, asking me, sometimes begging me, to tell him or her what was in the review. I never knew, and told them so, but that didn’t help matters any. So many times I would tell these owners that it really didn’t matter what the review said, it was going to be good for business. If Tittl gave a good review, people would flock to the restaurant to see if they agreed. If Tittl gave an unfavorable review, people would flock to the restaurant to see if they agreed. It did little to comfort the owners. I bring this up only because Pete Tittl reads this blog, just in case he wants to feel sorry for all the angst he has caused me over the years.

Now, back to my stories. In the early 1980s, just after I joined The Californian staff, we had a company-sponsored softball team. One day, after a game, we went to a popular local bar and grill for some food and drink. We were wearing uniforms with the company’s name on them, and I had my camera and was taking pictures, so it was no secret to the owner who we were. He came up and began talking about Pete Tittl and how he really wanted to know what he looked like in case he ever came to visit his restaurant, a place on California Avenue. Then he made me an offer: he would pay $300 for a photo of Pete Tittl. What the poor fool didn’t know was that Pete Tittl was on The Californian’s softball team and was sitting right there, right under his nose. At the time, I found nothing funny about the offer, and immediately reported it to the editors. I was young, right out of journalism school and full of that youthful journalistic righteousness and exuberance. I saw the offer as an attempt to subvert the journalistic process. I was a defender of truth, a believer of the importance of independent reporting and its role in keeping its citizenry informed. I was a regular freaking Jimmy Olsen, a guardian of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken the guy’s $300 and given him a picture of my dad, then told my dad about this great restaurant he and my mom needed to go try.

In the fall of that year, or maybe the next, I would have an even more bizarre Pete Tittl experience. Californian sports writer Mike Griffith and I were sent to Tehachapi, a small mountain town east of Bakersfield, to cover a high school football game. We had heard about a pretty good steak house in the town, so we headed there early to try it out before the game. After placing our order and as we waited for our food, Mike pulled his notebook out of his pocket and began flipping through it. Mike was not a prep football reporter. His primary beats were auto racing and hunting and fishing, and his duties included producing the newspaper’s wildly popular weekly racing and outdoors pages. As he’s flipping through his notes, a woman shrieks, “Oh my God, you’re Pete Tittl!” I look up, stupidly expecting to see Pete standing inside the restaurant’s entrance. But she is staring right at Mike. Now she’s at the table, and she’s repeating herself. “Oh my God, you’re Pete Tittl. You’re here to review my restaurant.” No, we’re not, Mike explains. We’re here to cover the high school football game. I’m a sports reporter, he’s the photographer. We’re just having something to eat before the game. But she’s not buying it. She’s on to us. That’s obviously our cover story, in case we’re found out. Mike is Pete Tittl, and I’m his companion. And don’t you try to fool me. Again, we tell her we are in Tehachapi to cover a football game, and this time we show her our Bakersfield Californian IDs. But that too, she’s convinced, is part of the ruse, all an elaborate cover story to protect the mysterious Pete Tittl from discovery.

And then the food starts coming. And coming. And coming. Here, I want you to try this. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Now I want you to try this. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. She’s at the table constantly, fussing, moving utensils as we eat. Try this steak. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Try this chicken. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Try these potatoes. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Try this pork. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. More bread? OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. And so it goes for the entire meal.

Now Mike and I have a little bit of a dilemma. The Californian, like all newspapers, has strict guidelines regarding the acceptance of gratuities, and we take our ethics policy seriously. Freebies are absolutely forbidden, a crucial component to responsible journalism. Your reporting cannot be trusted if you take anything from the people you are covering. Cash, food, alcohol, gifts. It’s all forbidden. So we had to figure out what to do about this very weird encounter. We were not in this woman’s restaurant to do a review. We were not in her restaurant in any capacity related to The Bakersfield Californian. We told her repeatedly that we were not Pete Tittl and offered her proof. Yet she unloaded on us a volume of food far beyond what our bill totaled. We decided we were not in violation of the newspaper’s ethics policy. We paid our bill, and just to be safe, we left a very sizable tip for our server. I did not have a particularly good shoot that night. I was lethargic and did not feel like moving around to get into position for my shots. I think I may have eaten a little too much.

Nowadays, more than 30 years later, people still ask me about Pete Tittl. Is he a real person? Yes. Is that his real name? Yes. Who is his “companion.” I really don’t know, but I assume it alternates between friends, coworkers, his wife and his now-grown children. What I  haven’t been asked again is if I would be willing to provide a picture of Pete Tittl for $300. If it happens, this time I’ll be ready. Hey, Dad, smile for the camera!