Town of Sand & Fog 

In which a Lafayette cop falls for a woman whose case he's investigating, then unwisely takes her side in a contentious child-custody battle.

Did a Lafayette man lose custody of his sons because a police detective became smitten with his ex-wife? That's the claim of a 35-year-old suburban dad who has supplied shocking evidence: e-mails from the amorous Lafayette cop. The missives -- presented in divorce court and in a legal claim the man has brought against Contra Costa County -- were written around the time the officer aggressively pursued a parental-abduction complaint the father's ex-wife made last August. On February 1, the Contra Costa County Sheriff's office, which contracts police services to Lafayette, sent the man a letter saying it was sustaining his complaint against Detective Paul Zill for "unbecoming conduct."

"You are much more than a crime victim too [sic] me," Zill confessed to the woman in an e-mail on August 25, shortly after she went to Lafayette police headquarters to report her ex-hubby for allegedly violating a custody order. "I really feel for you, much more than I could ever explain. I am having feelings for you that leave me in a very Grey [sic] area ethically."

Zill, a fifteen-year police veteran, went on to say that he understood the divorcee was vulnerable: "You are a mother that lost her children and I became your Knight in Shining Armour [sic] when I got them back." The woman politely rejected any romance, but suggested they be friends. Zill and the woman kept up an e-mail correspondence for a few weeks. He even invited her out to dinner after a scheduled court hearing (later postponed) in which Zill was supposed to testify on her behalf in her custody battle.

In a sad mid-September message supposedly putting an end to their e-mail fling, Zill typed: "You are a woman I could easily fall in love with, and would love the opportunity to try, but I can't go there ... Ever. I think we should limit our contact from now on to what is needed for me to finish what I've agreed to do, provide my testimony at the upcoming hearing." In the same message, he told her the Sheriff's Department had just named him "Officer of the Month" and nominated him for a promotion. A week or so later, Zill e-mailed her a photo of him on his Harley, which the detective called his "boy toy."

Shortly before Zill confessed his feelings, the detective had shown up at the dad's home on a Sunday morning with an emergency protective order he'd persuaded a judge to authorize that day. The order was unnecessary, according to the dad's attorney, Michael Treppa: "He [Zill] gets that so he can take the kids away and give them to her with no strings attached." The irked and bewildered dad, an unemployed tech salesman, asked Zill that morning why the detective was treating him badly and suggested that Zill meet him sometime for a beer while off duty to discuss the whole thing. Zill wrote in his report that he took this invite as a veiled threat. He also wrote: "I do not socialize with people ... I have professional contact with."

The big question is: Did Zill's crush on the woman lead him to overzealously chase down her ex? Feeder knows (from watching the TV) that most cops are loath to thrust themselves in the middle of a messy domestic disputes -- which this most definitely was. At the time, the Lafayette couple (for the sake of discretion, let's call them Tech Dad and Soccer Mom) had been embroiled in a nasty divorce for nearly two years. Their two sons, aged four and six, were stuck in the middle.

Detective Zill got involved in August when the divorced couple -- who shared custody of their two sons -- fought over when Tech Dad had to return with the boys from a camping trip. When Tech Dad was a no-show, Soccer Mom reported him to the Lafayette PD. She told Zill her ex-husband had called her and threatened he might never return. Tech Dad and his lawyer later insisted to Zill by phone that Tech Dad wasn't required to be back for a few more days.

When Zill presented his case to Deputy District Attorney Jason Peck on August 20, the prosecutor declined to file charges against the dad right away. Peck told Zill he wanted to wait until August 24, the date Tech Dad believed he had to return. Peck told Feeder last week that since Lafayette police had already been in contact with the father, he felt they should wait this out.

Instead of waiting it out, Zill got a court order allowing him to track the dad's cell phone to make sure he "is not fleeing the State of California or United States with the minor children." In his affidavit, the detective made a point of mentioning that Tech Dad was of Middle Eastern descent -- Tech Dad was actually born in Pennsylvania -- and had family there, implying the guy might flee overseas with the kids. Zill also issued an alert with photos of the dad and the kids underneath the heading "Child abduction by parent." The alert said Tech Dad had a history of domestic violence, an assertion based on Soccer Mom's word and nothing else, judging from Zill's police report. The detective also appeared in family court on the mom's behalf. The judge -- not the one who had presided over their divorce -- ordered Tech Dad to return the kids to Soccer Mom. As a result, Treppa says, for more than three months Tech Dad could see his boys only during supervised visits monitored by a third party like Safe Exchange, an organization that provides awkward visitations in which a noncustodial parent typically has to pay for the supervision.

Tech Dad didn't discover Zill's romantic intentions until early November, when he saw the e-mails from Zill to his ex-wife. Exactly how he got hold of them is a matter of controversy. He says that they were mysteriously forwarded to him from his ex-wife's Yahoo account. Soccer Mom, however, said in a court declaration that Tech Dad hacked into her e-mail. "He is so filled with the need for vengeance against me that he does not consider the needs of our children," she wrote. "Breaking into my e-mail is one example."

It's unclear how Zill's bosses disciplined him. The sheriff's letter to Tech Dad says only that "appropriate corrective action has been taken." In an interview, Lafayette police chief Mike Fisher defended Zill's investigation as proper and justified under the circumstances. "The bottom line is he [the dad] refused to bring the kids back when he should have," Fisher reasons.

Tech Dad, of course, believes the Lafayette cop's actions were neither justified nor proper. In his legal claim against the county -- which the Board of Supes rejected on March 15, paving the way for a future lawsuit -- he sought $58,500 for legal expenses and emotional distress. He hasn't decided if he'll take the next step and sue the county. In the meantime, Tech Dad can see his kids unsupervised once again. In late November James Libbey, the commissioner handling the couple's divorce case, restored the shared-custody arrangement the couple had prior to last summer's drama. In his order, Libbey sounded fed up with all involved parties and chided the warring exes as "obnoxious." Libbey ordered that the two have no contact with each other -- not even through their lawyers and, uh, definitely not by e-mail.

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