When the wife of Sgt. John Padilla called the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office on May 17, 2004, she reported a find so mystifying that...

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When the wife of Sgt. John Padilla called the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office on May 17, 2004, she reported a find so mystifying that an Internal Affairs report would later call it “incomprehensible.”

She found a sealed package sent from a DNA laboratory in North Carolina to the sheriff’s office in Everett.

The package held critical DNA evidence — five hairs and a blood sample — connected to an unsolved murder that John Padilla had investigated. But his wife didn’t find it in some evidence room, where it belonged. The package was at home, in a box, inside the master bedroom’s walk-in closet.

And she found it four years after it had been sent to the sheriff’s office.

She stumbled upon it while divorcing John, a man she said punched holes in walls and doors and had cheated on her for years, according to court records. He was no longer allowed in their Stanwood home, because of a protective order.

After she called, the sheriff’s office discovered that Padilla had never booked the package into evidence. Confronted, he said, “I, I, I don’t recall getting it,” according to a sheriff’s report. His bosses called it “deliberate misappropriation” of DNA evidence. They also learned he had checked out other evidence that is missing.

Padilla’s actions — labeled “incompetent (or worse)” by the sheriff’s office — may have cost authorities any chance of convicting someone for this murder, and opened the department to “severe criticism, the loss of public trust, and substantial civil liability,” a top sheriff’s official wrote.

The story of John Padilla and the package found inside his closet has not been reported before. The Seattle Times came across it as part of an ongoing investigation of improperly sealed court files. The newspaper has identified nearly 400 domestic-violence cases that were sealed in their entirety in Snohomish County Superior Court — a staggering figure that reflects widespread snubbing of court rules that restrict such wholesale secrecy.

The Times looked at cases involving people in positions of public trust, and got two files opened in which Padilla had been accused of domestic violence. Then it obtained his personnel file, along with other public records.

Those documents weave together these elements: the unsolved murder of Patti Berry, a young mother who worked as a nude dancer; Honey’s, a strip club operated by one of Seattle’s most infamous families; John Padilla, a former homicide detective described by one lover as a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality; and the curious path of five hairs and a blood sample.

Asked in an interview Tuesday how the DNA evidence wound up in his home, Padilla said: “I don’t remember the package, period.”

“Stalking the truth”

The last time anyone reported seeing Patricia Sue Berry alive was on July 31, 1995. She was headed north on Highway 99, needing air for a soft tire.

Berry was 26 and the mother of a 2-year-old. Tall and tan, she danced under the name Bridgett at Honey’s, a strip joint between Lynnwood and Everett that is part of a nightclub operation run by Frank Colacurcio Jr., and by his father before him. The father has been convicted of racketeering, the son of evading taxes.

At about 1 a.m. on that July night, Berry left work only to discover a flat on her 10-year-old Honda. A couple of customers used a canned repair kit to get some air into the tire. She drove off, alone, looking for a gas station and an air hose.

Two days later, Berry’s family found her Honda behind a car wash only blocks from Honey’s. Blood stained the bucket seats, the driver’s door panel, the brake and clutch pedals. On Aug. 8, a boy found Berry’s body in some woods near the Everett Mall. She had been stabbed in the head and neck.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office assigned Detective John Padilla to the case.

In the summer of 1999 — four years after Berry’s murder — the Everett Herald ran a six-part series about the case and Padilla’s efforts to solve it. The series depicted Padilla as a skilled investigator, “stalking the truth,” applying hunting skills learned from youth, locking suspects with his “pale blue eyes” to elicit confessions.

The series quoted Padilla at length and took readers along with him as he sorted through suspects: the musician who was at Honey’s the night Berry disappeared; a former boyfriend who worked as a high-school teacher; a neighbor of Berry’s who admitted rooting through her car; a man who lived near Honey’s and had stabbed a dancer two decades before; even a sheriff’s deputy who frequented the club and had once appeared at a dancer’s door.

The series mentioned how one of the club’s owners had bought a yellow Camaro for Berry to drive, then took it away; and how the sheriff’s office seized video taken by the club’s security cameras, only to discover that the tapes for the night Berry disappeared were blank.

Berry’s mother wasn’t happy with Padilla, the Herald reported. She complained of the investigation’s slow pace and of Padilla’s unwillingness to share what he knew.

Family members declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Incompetent at best”

On Aug. 11, 1999, two weeks after the series ran, Padilla sent five hairs and a blood sample to LabCorp, a private lab in North Carolina that does DNA testing.

The blood was Berry’s. But the origin of the hairs, found on Berry’s body, was unknown. If DNA testing showed the hairs weren’t Berry’s, they could have come from her killer.

In May 2000, LabCorp mailed the DNA materials back. The package was sent to Padilla’s attention, at the sheriff’s office in Everett.

When investigating, police must follow certain procedures to preserve the validity and admissibility of evidence. Once collected, detectives should book evidence. They should document every time it is moved or touched, to preserve “chain of custody” and to rebut any claims of tampering. And they should write reports promptly, so the investigator is recording recent events, not distant recollections.

In the Berry investigation, Padilla violated all of these basic principles, according to disciplinary records.

He failed to write a crucial report, called a “case narrative,” when he left the Major Crimes Unit in late 1999, records show. A case narrative encapsulates an investigator’s work, alerting successors to leads that went nowhere and to ones that hold promise.

Padilla’s failure to write critical reports in the Berry case and in a second homicide was discovered in 2002, three years after he should have written them. By then he was a sergeant, running the Community Transit unit. His bosses ordered him back to the courthouse to write the reports.

After Padilla’s wife found the DNA evidence in 2004, the sheriff’s office reviewed the entire Berry file. Investigators discovered that Padilla had checked out four crime-scene videotapes in 1998 that were now missing. They also found a different tape — surveillance video of Honey’s taken on the murder’s first anniversary — that had never been booked into evidence.

As for where she found the DNA package, Padilla’s wife told investigators she had gone through the same box in October or November 2003, and the evidence wasn’t there then. This suggests the package was placed there between October 2003 and May 2004.

Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart said he was “amazed” when he learned of the DNA evidence’s whereabouts from an undersheriff: “You could have heard a pin drop in the sheriff’s office when he broke the news to me.”

Questioned by an Internal Affairs sergeant, Padilla said he didn’t remember checking out the videotapes and had no idea where they were. He also said he had no idea how the DNA evidence wound up in his home. He didn’t remember asking for the testing, he told the sergeant. And he didn’t remember getting the DNA package back: “I, I, I don’t recall getting it. I don’t know how I got it, but um, it’s clearly sloppiness, to have anything, to have tapes, to have anything still and have it not be booked.”

A bureau chief wrote Padilla in July 2004: “I do not find your claims that you do not remember seemingly significant events, or your attribution of your possession of the DNA evidence to ‘sloppiness,’ to be credible.” He added: “Your handling of the videotapes noted above in this murder case is incompetent at best, and your deliberate misappropriation of the DNA evidence is not only incomprehensible but inexcusable.

“Your actions undoubtedly will jeopardize our ability to successfully prosecute this matter in the future.”

“Jekyll and Hyde”

Padilla began working at the sheriff’s office in 1986. In newspaper accounts and performance reviews, he shined. His personnel file includes complimentary letters and a meritorious service award. A newspaper clip in 2001 describes Padilla, on foot, crashing into a wooden fence to take down a fleeing robbery suspect.

“He was an intense person,” Bart said. “Everything John did, he did 100 percent — SWAT team, everything else. … I thought he was a great deputy for a long, long time.”

But Internal Affairs records and other documents depict a man filled with rage.

When Padilla’s wife found the DNA evidence, she called Sgt. Gregg Rinta in Internal Affairs. Rinta was already investigating Padilla on two other matters — so the mishandled evidence became investigation No. 3.

No. 1 stemmed from allegations that Padilla had assaulted his wife.

The couple wed in 1981. In divorce papers, Padilla’s wife said he has an “explosive temper,” and “has long ranted, raged and threatened.” In March 2004, she alleged, he called her a “bitch,” smacked her in the back of the head and pulled her hair.

Investigation No. 2 stemmed from allegations that Padilla had assaulted his girlfriend — a woman he admitted having an affair with for at least 10 years. She told Rinta on May 10, 2004, that Padilla had a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality and was “stalking” her.

Padilla, in a rage, twice broke her car’s windshield with his hands, she told Rinta. About a dozen times, he had pulled her hair, she said. He spied on her at a baseball game, and asked questions afterward — Did you take a drink of bottled water from your husband? — to test her, to let her know he was watching, she said.

Her husband told police that Padilla would leave voicemail messages the husband was sure to hear, saying: “Hey, sweetie, give me a call, call me as soon as you can, sweetie.”

Questioned by Rinta, Padilla admitted to inappropriate behavior. But he denied hitting his wife in the head. He denied pulling his girlfriend’s hair. And he denied having a problem with anger. His problem, he said, was with stress.

Police investigated the assault allegations for possible criminal charges as well.

As a sergeant, Padilla made $92,000 in 2003, records show. He drove a Corvette and had a pickup, a motorcycle, a couple of old boats. He and his wife built a new home in Stanwood. The couple also owned two rental properties.

But in 2004, Padilla’s wife and girlfriend obtained protection orders against him. His wife filed for divorce. (It was granted in 2005.) Prosecutors charged Padilla with two counts of fourth-degree assault — one for his wife, one for the girlfriend. And the sheriff’s office fired him.

Police must promote a positive image that inspires public faith, the sheriff’s office wrote. Sworn to uphold the law, Padilla broke it, the memo says. Charged with protecting individual liberties and public safety, Padilla proved incompetent — or worse.

“Your conduct,” the memo says, “exhibits an anti-social component that is not compatible with the basic values of this office.”

Based on what Internal Affairs learned, Bart ordered the Cold Case squad to investigate Padilla as a suspect in the Berry case, the sheriff said. Investigators talked to witnesses and reviewed reports, but haven’t interviewed Padilla.

Bart said “there’s nothing there, at this point,” to indicate Padilla was involved in the slaying.

Law and Justice

In October 2004, prosecutors cut a deal with Padilla. They agreed to defer prosecution and drop the assault charges in two years, provided Padilla obeys the law, stays away from his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, and gets counseling.

Padilla, at times, “becomes overwhelmed by stress and anger,” the sheriff’s office wrote.

Nonetheless, Padilla landed a new job that demands composure — and produces all kinds of stress.

He now works as a prison guard, overseeing inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

The state Department of Corrections said Padilla passed a criminal-records check and psychological testing, and that his references gave glowing reports.

Mike Kenney, a department administrator, said Padilla disclosed his firing and assault charges. But the state knew only that Padilla had been fired for domestic violence — and viewed that as a personal, off-duty issue. The department never asked Padilla why he was fired, Kenney said. It never contacted Bart or learned of the sheriff’s findings of Padilla’s incompetence.

Padilla began working in January 2005 at a salary of $29,000. He has received positive write-ups, commending him for steady attendance and prompt cell searches. This year he completed a bachelor’s degree that superiors say will enhance his chances for promotion.

His degree is in Law and Justice.

“Like strong perfume”

Padilla, 47, was interviewed Tuesday at a Starbucks in Lynnwood. He talked of robberies and murders he solved, and of how he would do twice the work of other detectives.

“It led to professional envy,” he said, “but I made things happen.”

He shared copies of evaluations from the Sheriff’s Office. “Deputy Padilla always puts forth his maximum effort, taking pains to avoid mistakes,” says one. “Detective Padilla is a 110 percenter. He is not content with doing mediocre work,” says another.

The Berry case demanded enough work for a task force, Padilla said, but he worked it mostly alone, inspecting motel logs, interviewing witnesses, collecting physical evidence. He asked for help, to no avail.

“I wasn’t the golden boy,” he said.

The only reason he didn’t write some reports when he should have, he said, was because his bosses didn’t give him the time.

When asked if he knew that the sheriff had ordered detectives to investigate him as a suspect, Padilla looked stunned. “No. Never. How wonderful. That’s incredible. That is incredible.” He started to tear up. “I can’t believe that. I can’t believe it.”

Asked how the DNA evidence wound up in his home, he said: “Apply a little logic here. Do I want to circumvent this [investigation]? That would make me the killer.”

Padilla said he put some people off at the sheriff’s office, that he probably came across as arrogant.

“I’m like strong perfume,” he said. “Very attractive in the beginning, and then very hard to continue to smell after awhile, because it’s too overpowering.”

He said accounts of his temper are overblown. He punched a hole in a wall only once, when he was 25. “That’s how I learned to do drywall work,” he said.

He said he did check up on his girlfriend to see if she was telling the truth about promises she made to leave her husband.

“There would be something that I would call a poor choice,” he said. “I would have been better off paying somebody else to go do that.”

Sheriff’s officials declined to discuss details of their investigation, since the case is still open. They would not disclose results of the DNA testing done on the evidence found in Padilla’s closet.

Someday, those hairs might help solve Patti Berry’s murder. Maybe they’ll match someone entered in a DNA database used by police. But even if that happens, getting the results admitted in court will be a challenge.

“With this batch of evidence, yeah, we’re going to have a fight on our hands,” Sheriff Bart said.

The sheriff’s office could end up with the killer, but no conviction.

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com

Justin Mayo: 206-464-3669 or jmayo@seattletimes.com

Brian Alexander: 425-745-7845 or balexander@seattletimes.com