A Durham police investigation into reports that on-duty officers were having sex with a prostitute ended abruptly after an unrelated chase and shootout interrupted an undercover operation.
Two officers resigned after news of the case broke in the fall, and Police Chief Jose Lopez recently confirmed for the first time that they were being investigated on suspicion of sexual misconduct. The Durham district attorney last week referred the case to Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose staff will decide whether anyone will face prosecution.
For months after the Nov. 6 chase and shooting, Lopez and other city officials kept a tight lid on information about the internal investigation. But in several interviews in recent weeks, Lopez has provided some new details about the case and confirmed others, making it possible to piece together a partial account of what happened.
The case began last fall, when a 33-year-old prostitute told investigators that she had had many sexual encounters with on-duty officers. The police began an internal investigation focused on five officers, Lopez said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
On Nov. 6, a woman stood in the post-midnight darkness near a seedy East Durham corner. According to Lopez, she was wearing a concealed microphone so undercover officers parked nearby could hear her and was expecting to meet with one or more of the suspected officers.
But there was an unscripted interruption. As the woman waited, four teenagers in a stolen SUV pulled up and pointed a gun at her. The undercover officers, hearing what was happening, radioed for a marked police car to stop the vehicle. That turned into a chase, which led to the fatal shooting by a Durham officer of a 16-year-old in front of the Durham Public Library's main branch.
The chase and shooting were all over the news later that morning. What the public did not know, however, was that the incident brought the undercover investigation to a premature end.
Word got around
The officers who watched the woman didn't reveal their cover, Lopez said. But word of the inquiry quickly got around within the department.
The five suspected officers found out about the investigation -- and that they were being placed on administrative leave -- when they reported to work the next night.
Lopez disclosed Nov. 8 that that an investigation involving "possible sexual misconduct" was under way and that some officers had been placed on leave, but he provided no details. Three officers were cleared days later, Lopez said.
The investigation focused on Sgt. Keith Cheeks, 46, and Officer Demond Gooch, 35, Lopez said. Interviews involving each of them, the woman and investigators followed. Lopez, citing personnel laws, wouldn't say whether either officer admitted having sex with the woman, but a search warrant filed in the case in December made clear that the woman had provided police with DNA evidence.
The focus on Cheeks and Gooch became public in January when the police department released a cryptic statement saying the internal investigation of "alleged sexual misconduct by members of the department" had been completed. It said the department was awaiting results of DNA testing. And it said that in the course of the investigation, it was discovered that Cheeks and Gooch had been involved in "misconduct unrelated to the original allegations" and that both had resigned.
The January statement merely implied that Cheeks and Gooch were involved in the sexual misconduct case. Lopez now confirms that this was true.
Details of the unrelated misconduct remain in the officers' personnel files, which are largely confidential under state law.
Whether Cheeks and Gooch will face criminal charges for dealing with the woman will be determined by the Attorney General's Office. Durham District Attorney David Saacks referred the case to the state office last week. Such referrals are common when the accused has had personal or professional dealings with the prosecuting district attorney's office. Saacks said Cheeks testified in one of his cases years ago.
There was no word from the Attorney General's Office when a decision would be made whether to prosecute.
Gooch declined to be interviewed for this story. Cheeks did not return requests for comment. The woman who accused them, Diana McKinney Denby, has been in and out of jail since and could not be reached for comment.
The officer threw her $10
Denby first told her story to investigators in an Oct. 4 interview, according to a search warrant served Dec. 7.
Denby is named in the search warrant, but Cheeks and Gooch are not. The document recounted Denby's description of encounters with two officers, referring to them as Officer 1 and Officer 2.
According to the warrant, Officer 1 was on patrol when he met Denby on Oct. 17 at Sherwood Park on Cheek Road. They met near the tennis courts. She performed oral sex on him. He used a condom. She later gave that condom to an investigator.
"At conclusion, Officer 1 threw $10 at [Denby]," the warrant said.
On Nov. 4, Officer 2 came across Denby at a North Briggs Avenue home. She was sleeping in a rear bedroom and was wanted for arrest under an alias.
"At this point, Officer 2 advised her that depending on how she handled this would determine if she went to jail," the warrant said.
The warrant said she performed oral sex on the officer. He did not use a condom. She saved evidence in a washcloth and gave it to an investigator.
DNA evidence was collected from Officer 1 on Nov. 28, from Officer 2 on Nov. 29 and from Denby Dec. 7. That evidence was analyzed at a SBI Crime Lab. Durham police have known of the results since March but have not disclosed them.
(Staff writer Joseph Neff contributed to this report.)