Gun law claims a rich recluse

Suspicion of murder hangs over the sheriff's deputies who killed a millionaire in a drugs raid. Phil Reeves reports from Los Angeles
Click to follow
The Independent Online
FRIENDS and relatives of Donald Scott, an eccentric multi-millionaire, were gathering at his mountain ranch outside Los Angeles yesterday to mourn his death and to ask themselves again: why was he killed?

Those who attended a memorial ceremony for Mr Scott, a friend of the actor Clint Eastwood, don't know whether he was legitimately gunned down when a drugs task- force burst into his home, or murdered in cold blood.

There is nothing unusual about the police in California shooting dead a suspect. But it is far less common for them to kill the heir to a fortune, the former lover of a Hollywood leading lady, and a society high-flier who used to collect Cadillacs and visit Tahiti just to buy paintings.

It happened at breakfast time as the sun was rising over Mr Scott's 200-acre, wooded ranch in the Santa Monica mountains. The 61-year-old millionaire, something of a bon viveur, was sleeping off the previous night's skinful, and knew nothing of the squad of police vehicles that was charging up the rough track to his cabin, churning up a plume of dust.

More than two dozen officers in all arrived, armed as if about to encounter a Colombian cocaine baron. They had high-powered weapons, flak-jackets, dogs, a battering-ram and a search warrant.

Most of the big agencies were represented: the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, the Los Angeles Police Department and even the National Park Service. It was, the officers no doubt told one another, supposed to be a small but worthwhile triumph in the never-ending battle against drugs. They came in search not of hard drugs, like cocaine or heroin, but of marijuana.

What happened next is in dispute. Mr Scott's wife, Frances Plante, recalls officers bursting in, grabbing her, and placing a gun at her head while she begged them not to shoot her. Woken by the commotion, an apparently confused Mr Scott emerged from the bedroom, holding a loaded .38 calibre revolver above his head. Whether he knew what was going on is unclear: his eyesight was badly impaired by a recent operation for cataracts.

Ms Plante says that, three times in rapid succession, the police ordered Mr Scott to drop the gun. As he lowered his arm, he was shot at from close range by two sheriff's deputies. Two bullets struck him in the upper torso, killing him instantly. Nick Gutsue, the family attorney, says Mr Scott was merely complying with what turned out to be a deadly order. Why, he asks, did they not order him to turn around and face the wall, then disarm him? The sheriff's department claims that he pointed his weapon at one of them. When the deputies telephoned the emergency services to report Mr Scott's death, they accidentally activated a recording machine on his telephone.

The tape includes a conversation between a narcotics officer and one of his colleagues: 'I told him to put it down . . . he had it pointed up in the air originally . . . as he brought it down, he was kind of pointing towards the deputy, and I don't know which deputy it is right now . . .'

Several days earlier, officials from the DEA had flown over Mr Scott's land in a light aircraft. They thought they saw about 50 marijuana plants but, despite searching for hours after the shooting, nothing was found. Ms Plante, a feisty 38-year-old Texan, insists that he did not use drugs. 'They kept saying, 'Where's the plants? Where's the plants?' I told the dumb (deputies) I am the only Plante here.'

The death of Mr Scott who, according to his lawyer, had no criminal record, adds to a fattening file of controversial cases involving the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, which has been severely criticised by human rights organisations for shooting dead suspects without justification. By September, officers had shot and killed 10 suspects this year. The district attorney's office in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, has launched an inquiry into the Scott killing, but it is far from clear whether it will decide to prosecute the officers involved.

Mr Gutsue is now beginning to unravel his client's complex financial affairs, reportedly including a sizeable holding in IBM. Mr Scott has heirs in Britain, cousins on his English mother's side of the family, who are entitled to half of a dollars 1.3m ( pounds 787,000) trust. They have yet to be contacted with the news of his death.

In the meantime, details are emerging about his life, which scarcely conformed to that of a typical police-shooting victim. Mr Scott's grandfather made a fortune through Scott's Emulsion, a health tonic that was once widely sold in Britain and is still being made.

For the most part, Mr Scott evaded publicity, although he made the gossip columns in the Sixties because of his turbulent affair with Corinne Calvet, the French-born film star. They eventually split up, and fought a bloody legal battle over property. Two marriages, which produced four children, ended in divorce. He married Ms Plante only three months ago, after a ceremony beside a waterfall on his ranch.

According to Mr Gutsue, Mr Scott was an airline pilot in the Fifties, but never worked after that. He took to racing Mercedes and Ferraris and collecting Cadillacs, before becoming a recluse on his ranch, preferring the company of his dozens of Rottweilers and Alsatians to Hollywood high life. On moving to the hills, he got rid of his servants and became known as the Malibu millionaire who was more comfortable in tatty jeans than tuxedos.

He also collected Persian carpets, china and guns, but disapproved of hunting and allowed deer, coyotes and other wildlife to roam free on his ramshackle estate. In his last few months he was contemplating selling his ranch in order to buy a dollars 50m yacht called The Other Woman. Whether he would have gone through with the deal is doubtful.

He believed his land (long coveted by the federal government which wants to include it in a national park) was to be revered. But as it was once the home of the Chumash Indians, he felt it should be left unaltered. Mr Gutsue, a friend as well as his lawyer, observed: 'The Chumash were once massacred on that land, and the creek ran red with blood for three days. It's sacred ground. And now Donald's blood has been shed there as well.'

(Photograph omitted)