The double-homicide in June of Millbrae residents Fernand and Suzanne Wagner is the latest crime to highlight the role of the Sheriff’s Office as the go-to agency for large-scale investigations in a county of small towns and smaller police forces.
The Sheriff’s Office, armed with more detectives and greater forensic expertise and investigative experience, often takes the lead in murder investigations and some sexual assault cases — most recently the Wagner killings, for which friend and caretaker Joseph Cua has been arrested and charged.
Though Redwood City, San Mateo and Daly City police are fairly self-contained, the rest of the county is not, Sheriff Don Horsley said. In addition to providing extra patrol personnel, Horsley said his department also can provide connections with the federal Department of Justice, the crime lab and crime scene profilers.
"If we need a crime lab, forensic specialists and investigators, it’s a little much for our two detectives," Millbrae police Chief Tom Hitchcock said of the arrangement.
Despite the benefits, Millbrae and some other communities have taken steps to become more self-sufficient.
A couple years ago, the Sheriff’s Office was set to provide 12 deputies, four sergeants, detectives and a lieutenant, among other personnel, on contract to Millbrae, which requested help because of severe fiscal problems, Horsley said.
But City Manager Ralph Jaeck said that since Hitchcock came on a year ago, department officials have decided to do more work in-house, except on big cases.
Millbrae currently only contracts with the county for dispatching and record-keeping services. The contract, approved last year, saves between $300,000 and $400,000 annually, Jaeck said.
In East Palo Alto, also, the Sheriff’s Office transitioned more than a year ago from doing all the investigations for the city — plus providing some patrol services — to just a five-person street gang unit based there, Horsley said.
Horsley said the change came at the request of East Palo Alto police Chief Ron Davis and allows city police to do awider range of work. The Sheriff’s Office still helps out with large investigations, most recently when East Palo Alto police Officer Richard May was killed last year.
Sheriff’s Office Capt. Don O’Keefe said he doesn’t think the high-profile investigations, which are relatively few and far between, put much of a burden on his department’s resources. Horsley agreed that his office is most strained by overcrowding in the jails, not by providing services to other cities.
Millbrae is expected to pay for some of the costs incurred in the Wagner investigation, but neither Jaeck nor O’Keefe knew how much that will amount to.
"We’ve never turned down a city looking for help with an investigation," O’Keefe said. "We’ve got many resources they just don’t have."