Officer at Center of Search Once Suspected in Suspicious Fires
Jun. 15, 1996
GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) _ The search for an infant supposedly thrown off a bridge into a river was suspended Friday as new questions arose about a police officer at the center of the mystery.
Narcotics detective Billy Vasser, who claimed to have nearly rescued a baby from the Coosa River following an anonymous tip Tuesday, apparently has a history of getting involved in situations that provide him with opportunities to be a hero, sources told The Associated Press.
The search for the baby was suspended Friday for a lack of progress, and Vasser was placed on paid leave as the department's internal affairs division took over the investigation, Lt. Randy Phillips said.
``Working a case as difficult as this demands that all angles be explored,'' Phillips said, including ``examining our own officers.''
Vasser has not commented to reporters. Phillips would not say whether he was cooperating with the police investigation. The officer who responded to the call with him was not placed on leave, Phillips said.
Dozens of volunteers had been working round-the-clock since Tuesday, when police arrived at the river to find a sobbing Vasser sitting waist-deep in the water, clutching a tiny blue shirt trimmed with lace.
Vasser said he lost his grip on the child in the swift current, and police appeared certain at first that the report was valid.
``Everybody would like to hope it was a doll, but it wasn't. It was a baby,'' Phillips said Wednesday.
But rescue squad members searching for the child, along with some other officers, privately doubted many aspects of the story almost from the start, including how an infant's wet shirt could have come off.
Vasser was suspected a decade ago of starting two fires that he reported in unoccupied rooms at a motel where he worked, at a time when his father was a fire department commander, sources said on condition of anonymity.
Former desk clerk Tom Bowman, who helped extinguish one of the blazes at the Holiday Inn in Attalla, said, ``His dad worked for the Fire Department and he wanted to be a fireman.''
A motel manager who spoke on condition of anonymity said Vasser was fired after the second fire and told to seek psychological counseling.
Juvenile records are sealed, but the state fire marshal's office said a 16-year-old was charged following a fire at the motel on Aug. 12, 1986.
Vasser was 16 at the time. His father, the late Robert Vasser, was a commander with the fire department.
The department was unaware Vasser had any connection to the fires.
``He's just very exemplary. He's what you'd consider a rising star,'' said Phillips. In the last two years, Vasser has been honored as officer of the year and ``Outstanding Young Man of Alabama'' by a civic group.
But Vasser has also been connected to several other suspicious reports.
Last July, Vasser and several other narcotics officers reported being ambushed after responding to calls saying a big drug deal was taking place in an isolated area. Those calls, like the one involving the baby, went to a phone line that was not automatically recorded.
No arrests were ever made.
Later, an anonymous letter was sent to a City Council member from someone claiming to be a police officer, alleging the whole thing was set up to gain publicity for the narcotics division.
Police Chief John Morris was subsequently suspended for four days, at the recommendation of the mayor, after being accused of failing to adequately investigate the ambush. Morris denied trying to block the probe.
After the ambush, Vasser claimed a bullet was fired at the narcotics office, which is separate from police headquarters. No arrest was made in that case either.
In the case of the baby, a woman who didn't identify herself called the city planning office and said a Hispanic woman had thrown a baby into the river off an unspecified bridge. The caller instructed a worker to call 911.
Vasser, who raced to the Coosa River with Officer Janell Wissler, told colleagues he spotted the child in the water near a rail trestle as he drove past on a road overlooking the river, near police headquarters in the town 52 miles northeast of Birmingham.
Vasser jumped in and later said he briefly had the child, only to lose his grasp in the swift current.
Mayor Steve Means said he was troubled by the possibility of a hoax.
``Right now it's a no-win situation,'' Means said. ``We've either got a dead baby or another problem.''