Page One

Police About-Face On Decades-Old Cop Killing Charges

Friday May 28, 2004

Though Berkeley Police Tuesday were trumpeting the arrest of a former Black Panther as a key figure in Berkeley’s first cop killing, by the next morning the tone was considerably less triumphant. 

Don Juan Warren Graphenreed was arrested in Fresno Tuesday on a no-bail warrant for murder and conspiracy to murder in the Aug. 20, 1970, slaying of Officer Ronald T. Tsukamoto. 

But in a Wednesday morning press conference in front of the Ronald Tsukamoto Public Safety Building on Milvia Street, BPD spokesperson Officer Joe Okies told reporters that his department and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office had made “a joint decision not to charge” Graphenreed with either crime. He remains a suspect. 

Okies said the “cold case” reinvestigation initiated two years ago would continue. Though he allowed that detectives under Lt. Cynthia Harris had identified multiple suspects in the killing, Okies said “I can’t comment on the number.” 

News of the sudden switch from arrest to non-arrest didn’t reach Mayor Bates in time to stop the release of a written statement by his chief of staff at 2:27 p.m. Tuesday—more than four hours after the press conference. 

“I join the entire Berkeley community in applauding our police department for their hard work, dedication, and perseverance in this case. I am pleased that the police have apprehended one of the suspects in the terrible crime and look forward to the day when all the perpetrators have been arrested and convicted,” said the mayor in the formal announcement. 

Ten minutes later, a follow-up e-mail arrived from the mayor’s chief of staff announcing, “DeVries, Cisco, would like to recall the message, ‘Statement from Mayor Bates on Arrest of Supect in Officer Tsukamoto killing.’” 

Thirteen minutes later came yet another e-mail from DeVries, affirming the recall, with the added comment, “Obviously, circumstances have changed and it is no longer relevant.”  

Officer Tsukamoto had been wearing his badge less than 10 months when he stopped a motorcyclist for making a U-turn on University Avenue about 1 a.m. on that fateful August day almost 34 years ago. 

He was talking to the cyclist when a man in a long, dark coat approached him. The two spoke briefly, then the man pulled out a pistol and fired twice. One round missed but the other struck the young patrolman in the eye, killing him instantly. 

Police immediately launched a massive investigation, but there had been no arrests until Monday.  

Tsukamoto was born behind barbed wire on July 29, 1942, in the Tule Lake Segregation Center—five months and 10 days after President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens. 

The family moved to West Berkeley after their release. The young would-be officer graduated from Berkeley High School in 1960 and attended Oakland City College, Contra Costa City College and San Jose State University before joining the Berkeley Police Department as its first Japanese-American officer.  

“We were raised here in Berkeley” said his older brother, Gary Tsukamoto, who talked to reporters on the sidewalk near the press conference site. “He always wanted to be a policeman. My parents were totally in shock when he was killed.” 

Tsukamoto said Berkeley police had contacted him Friday to let him know they had a suspect in the murder. “It’s surprising they would release him,” he said. “I would like to hear first-hand what is happening.” 

After the press conference, the slain officer’s brother was able to meet with detectives.  

Graphenreed, 55, was occupying a jail cell in Fresno at the time of his arrest, awaiting trial on burglary charges. Okies said Wednesday he’ll be sent back. 

Detectives and D.A.’s investigators had questioned Graphenreed “several times over the past few days,” Okies said. “The investigation will continue. Viable leads have been found, and investigators will take it from there.” 

The investigation had been reopened two years ago when detectives began a review of cold cases, Okies said. 

Though then-Berkeley Police Chief Bruce Barker blamed Black Panthers and other militants for stirring up mentally unstable people with their violent anti-police rhetoric, Okies yesterday declined to comment on any possible connection to the Panthers or other militant groups.›