The resolution of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre investigation into suspected financial crimes depends on police Sgt. Michael Yore, the case's lead investigator.
But Yore's professional integrity was called into question by a April 24 article in the Palo Alto Daily News, which highlighted his testimony about a mid-1990s investigation he led. Police Chief Lynne Johnson issued a rare statement criticizing the article, which she said contained information that is "incomplete and inaccurate."
"The way the article was written and excerpted statements were chosen, it appears as though the newspaper intended to discredit the Palo Alto Police Department and impugn the reputation of a highly regarded detective sergeant," Johnson wrote.
The Daily News stands by its story, Executive Editor Mario Dianda said Friday.
Yore, who has been working fulltime on the Children's Theatre case since January, has been off-limits to the press and public per Johnson's orders. The unavailability has created an aura around the detective whose work will determine the fate of the theater case and of the three employees who are on administrative leave.
However, court documents, archived news articles, the chief and two of Yore's colleagues all offer a glimpse of the 55-year-old investigator, creating a rough profile.
Yore enjoys motorcycles, cars and firearms. From a large family, Yore graduated from Saratoga High School and earned a bachelor's degree from San Jose State University in psychology.
He joined the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department as a deputy in the mid-1970s before being hired by the Palo Alto Police Department in 1981.
Assistant Police Chief Dennis Burns called Yore a "quintessential detective."
"He's got a very analytical mind; he's an excellent interviewer," Burns said. "He can relate to a wide variety of people, from a person we would consider a common criminal to a very sophisticated Stanford professor and everyone in between."
Yore's current boss, Capt. Mark Venable, said Yore has a "unique, innate ability to look at these complex cases and the multitude of angles that these cases have.
"He has an ability that can sometimes transcend the noise and the commotion of a case and get into more of the heart of what happened."
Yore is fluent in Spanish, a former SWAT team member and a firearms expert, Burns and Venable said.
Yore volunteers to work on tough cases, said Venable, who has worked with Yore for about 20 years.
"I trust Mike. He is a very dependable and reliable detective, and I trust his insights and his instinct. I trust, too, that Mike has had years of experience to know when we work cases, it's a team approach. No one individual is making decisions or going off on paths without the collective think of the group," Venable said.
Yet in two previous well-known cases, and the current Children's Theatre probe, Yore's behavior has been criticized.
Yore was a lead investigator in the death of Palo Alto resident Josephine Galbraith.
Although Galbraith died in 1985, her former husband, Nelson, was arrested for murder 16 months later. He was acquitted in 1998 and then initiated a lawsuit that rebounded through the court system (even after his 2002 death) until it was settled last Tuesday, with a $400,000 payment and apology from Santa Clara County.
In a 2005 day-long deposition, Yore appears as though he didn't prepare to testify, often answering, "I don't know." But as he also stated during the deposition, he considered the family's lawsuit "ludicrous."
"What are some of the typical characteristics of the corpse [that has died from a non-hanging strangulation?" Galbraith's attorney Michael Goldsmith asked him.
"The typical characteristics would be the fact that, No. 1, the corpse is cold to the touch in many cases. We have lividity. We may have — in varying stages. We may — obviously the corpse would not be breathing. Obviously, there's some other aspects of petechiae that are present in many of the occasions, both in the forehead and the eyes. The fact that there is oftentimes a purging, which is a symptom — a purging from the throat and that certainly depends on how long and how tight and a number of different issues. And that's all I can think of at this point in time," Yore said.
Later in the examination, Goldsmith pointed out that all corpses become cold and livid, with blood pooled down, and Yore agreed.
Yore also told Goldsmith that he considered Josephine Galbraith's death suspicious and asked for additional investigation, such as photograph-taking, that wouldn't usually be done if suicide was known.
Yore still believed that Nelson Galbraith had murdered his wife and had never considered the case a suicide, he said.
But though he considered the death a murder, he didn't ask for the initial police report, which indicated Galbraith's death had been a suicide, to be corrected. The report had been written by an officer Yore was supervising, who said that Yore indicated Galbraith's death had been a suicide — an error, Yore told Goldsmith.
He said he considered it insignificant, because suicide and "unattended death" are nearly synonyms, and the facts were stated accurately.
Monday, Goldsmith would comment only briefly on his experience with Yore: "We might say the county's decision, based on medical evidence, to change the manner of death from murder to suicide demonstrates the errors of Michael Yore's way."
In another case, the 1994 murder of Stanford University graduate student David Liu, one of the men eventually convicted of the murder, Eddie Pereles, reportedly told his attorney Yore had threatened to tie him to a billboard and leave him with a rival gang member.
That attorney, Deputy Public Defender Craig Kennedy, confirmed Pereles' statement Monday.
Assistant Chief Burns said all audio from interviews is recorded.
"We'd be pretty apparent if we were doing anything untoward or trampling on people's rights," Burns said.
Venable said Yore is a very careful detective.
"I've never known or would believe Mike to step over the line. Mike doesn't do that," he said.
Instead, Yore organized a robbery task force because police didn't have enough evidence to convict Pereles, then 22, whom they believed was involved in a string of robberies with another man, Burns said.
"They were able to arrest them on the robberies and during the interview of the robberies, Sgt. Yore was able to elicit the confession," Burns said.
Yore gained widespread recognition for cracking the 1985 Niebauer case in 1998.
Abigail Niebauer died in 1995 in the Mariposa Avenue home she shared with her husband, James. James told police at the time he had been refurbishing his gun when it accidentally fired.
The case's discrepancies piqued Yore's interest in 1993, and he spent five years pouring over the case, building forensic evidence.
By 1997, he had enough proof to win the support of a Santa Clara County Grand Jury, and by the end of that year, the 69-year-old James Niebauer was arrested for his wife's murder 12 years earlier.
Burns said he stills sees Yore pop up occasionally on a cold-case television show.
Yore also received a heroism award for his rescue of a drowning child when he was a sheriff's deputy, Burns said.
Yore's handling of the Children's Theatre case, which has placed three well-known city employees on administrative leave, their reputations tarnished at least, has provoked widespread community concern.
"If they had something, it should have come out," theater supporter Suzie Stewart said recently.
And theater Director Pat Briggs' attorney, Diane de Seve, was even more direct.
"(Yore has) basically turned a straightforward burglary into a complete disaster, not only for my client but also for the Palo Alto community," de Seve said. "I think he needs some adult supervision.
"This is solely being driven by Det. Yore. ... He's committed himself; he started it; and he's determined to find some wrongdoing," de Seve said. "His interest is so broad and so unfocused."
But to those who know him, Yore isn't a mystery man commanding an investigation gone wrong, Venable said.
"Behind all the hyperbole is a great detective with 30-plus years of public service and great records," Venable said.