Code of silence
A new book by a former Reno police officer reexamines the life and crimes of a man convicted of two Reno murders
“People put complete trust in law enforcement,” says Jeff Kaye. “And maybe we shouldn’t because sometimes people slip through the cracks.”
On Feb. 11, 1995, Kaye was working as a police sergeant in southeast Reno. He was called on that night to secure a crime scene. A woman’s body, bound with rope, had been found in a Dumpster.
Not being a homicide detective, Kaye’s official connection to that case began and ended that night, but his interest in it did not.
“I didn’t do anything on the investigation other than follow it,” says Kaye. “I was intrigued by it from the start because it was such a bizarre ‘body dump,’ as they refer to it. Once the investigation started taking its twists and turns, I just stuck with it, following it from the periphery.”
The body was missing schoolteacher Kathy Powell. The investigators assigned to the case focused their efforts on suspect David S. Middleton, an ex-police officer and ex-felon who was then working as a cable installer in Reno. In April, while the detectives were still building their case, the body of Thelma Davilla, also bound, was discovered near Verdi. After investigators found Middleton’s storage unit, which had been converted into a makeshift torture room, he was charged with both murders, convicted and is currently on death row.Abuses of authority
That much Kaye knew when he started researching the book that would become Beware of the Cable Guy: From Cop to Serial Killer. But he soon realized that the story stretches back another six years, and involves crimes in Florida and Colorado, where Kaye believes Middleton got away with murder.
In 1989, Middleton, while working as an officer in the Metro-Dade police department, was convicted of false imprisonment and aggravated battery of a 16-year-old girl. This ended his career in law enforcement, but, Kaye argues, Middleton was not prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Middleton committed the assault while in uniform, but “they didn’t prosecute him for oppression under color of authority,” Kaye says.
Upon his early release from prison, Middleton moved to Montrose, Colo. There, he convinced acquaintances, some of whom were members of the local law enforcement community, that he was in witness protection after spending time in a prison as part of an undercover operation.
In November 1993, about six months after Middleton arrived in Montrose, Buffy Rice Donohue went missing. She was last seen getting into Middleton’s car. Her body was not discovered until 1995.
“When I started getting into this book I discovered a whole story behind the Buffy Rice murder,” says Kaye, “My main goal [in writing the book] was to get that investigation reopened and generate public interest in getting him prosecuted for that.
“It’s a sad story that there is no closure to that case,” says Kaye. “Her murder is still listed as open and unsolved in the state of Colorado.”
Donohue’s family was, to say the least, dissatisfied with the investigation into her disappearance. The situation quickly escalated into a feud between the police and the family. There were allegations that law enforcement had harassed the Rices and encouraged Middleton to leave town to avoid arrest. Nude photos of Donohue from her honeymoon were discovered in her home and never entered as evidence; the lead investigator instead reportedly passed them around for the entertainment of his colleagues.
The Rices were charged with felony menacing, false imprisonment, and trespassing after they took matters into their own hands by confronting Middleton and his common-law wife Evonne Haley.
The Rices and Mason Donohue, Buffy Rice Donohue’s widower, claiming their constitutional rights had been violated, sued the lead investigator, the police chief and the city of Montrose. On appeal, the 10th Circuit Court agreed that Donohue’s right to privacy was violated but denied any relief since the suit was filed after the two-year statute of limitations had expired. None of the other abuses the Rices alleged rose to the level of a violation of their constitutional rights, the court decided. In short, the Rices lost, but the court’s written decision is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Montrose Police Department.Watching the detectives
To date, the authorities in Montrose have made no move to prosecute Middleton, “even though there’s tons of evidence to convict him on that,” Kaye says.
For instance, Haley was convicted of being an accessory after the fact to the murder, and in her trial she stated Middleton murdered Donohue. The Montrose authorities maintain that since Middleton is already on death row in Nevada there’s no reason to foot the expense of a trial.
Kaye is skeptical of this explanation. Petty crimes are sometimes not pursued for financial reasons he says, but “nobody can think of another instance where a murder suspect has not been prosecuted because of the cost.”
The explanation becomes even more questionable in light of the offers Montrose received to defray the expense of a trial.
“[Tom] Viloria [the attorney who prosecuted Middleton in Reno] offered to prosecute the case pro bono. The sheriff from the next county over donated drug forfeiture money. I don’t know what their reason for not prosecuting is,” says Kaye.
Kaye seems to hint, without ever saying so outright, that he thinks they don’t want to prosecute because a trial would be embarrassing for the Montrose Police Department.
A call was placed to the Montrose County district attorney, but was not returned.
And it’s this kind of criticism, indirect though it may be, that kept Kaye from writing this book until after he retired from the Reno police department, more than a decade after Middleton’s convictions. He thought that writing the book could have repercussions for him professionally, even if the department he’s criticizing is thousands of miles away.
“In the law enforcement community there is somewhat of a code of silence … so the chief of police of one town calls up the chief of police of another town,” says Kaye. “It can come back to haunt you.”
And though the Reno and Sparks police departments and the Washoe sheriff’s department are depicted in the book in an entirely positive light, and are, as Kaye says, “the true heroes of the book,” not every member of the local law enforcement community was happy with what Kaye wrote.
“My publisher sent the manuscript out to several people in the Reno Police department. One of them asked to not have anything to do with the book, because, in his words, it ‘took potshots’ at other people in our profession,” he says.
Such objections to Kaye’s book, ironically, help support his position. It’s this same impulse to protect other members of the law enforcement community, to trust the good intentions of, and not criticize other police officers, that Kaye implies Middleton exploited to get away with murder. Middleton was able to get others, both the authorities and his victims, to invest in him an overabundance of trust. The most effective tool he had for gaining this trust was his status as a police officer (or former officer). But if the authorities in Florida or Colorado had looked on him with a more critical eye, Powell and Davilla might still be alive, says Kaye.
“I do write in there stuff about the investigation in Colorado and the investigation in Miami that can be construed as saying they were partially to blame,” says Kaye.