From catching waves to catching crooks, Encinitas detective retires after 20 years

From catching waves to catching crooks, Encinitas detective retires after 20 years
A laid-back surfer who later became a detective, Robert Stevenson proved that law enforcement takes all kinds. Photo by Jared Whitlock

ENCINITAS — Recently retired Sheriff’s detective Robert Stevenson didn’t exactly fit the law enforcement mold when he applied to the department in the late 1980s. 

For one, Stevenson was 15 years older than most candidates, and he didn’t have a background in crime fighting.

A Texan with a passion for surfing, Stevenson moved to Hawaii in his 20s, working as a waiter and bartender during the night so he could surf all day.

After going through a divorce, he moved to Carlsbad from Hawaii to start anew at the age of 39.

He was open to change, and it just so happened that a friend working in the Sheriff’s department encouraged Stevenson to give police work a try.

“I put my application in thinking that’s as far as I thought it would go,” Stevenson said. “Lo and behold to my surprise, I began going through the process.”

Unexpected as the position was, it gave Stevenson newfound purpose. And throughout his career, he proved that law enforcement takes all kinds of personalities.

Conrad Berlinsky, a senior detective who worked with him for nearly 20 years in Encinitas, said that Stevenson always kept a cool head.

“He always brought calm to situations — a sense of maturity,” Berlinsky said. “That’s important when you’re thrown into situations like finding evidence at bank robberies or called to stop an assault.”

Stevenson’s even-keeled demeanor was tested throughout his career. He distinctly remembers getting a call at 2 a.m. to investigate a crime scene.

Half an hour earlier, a man had shot into a home in Leucadia when residents inside were asleep. The man then sped away in a van. Shortly after, a deputy stopped him. The man drew a gun and pointed it at the deputy. The deputy fired shots, and the man again drove away while the deputy trailed him. At one point, the man rammed the deputy’s car during the chase, and was later apprehended.

Emotions were running high when Stevenson arrived on the scene as the primary detective.

“It was overwhelming at first,” Stevenson said. “But I tried to stay calm and put things together step by step.”

To a person unfamiliar with the legal system, with the deputy as a witness, it might have seemed like an open-and-shut case. But tying the man to the shooting and officer assault required physical evidence — not an easy task since locating bullet casings can be like “finding a needle in a hay stack,” Stevenson said.

Over the next few weeks, Stevenson, who was in charge of the case, and other detectives closely swept the crime scene for the bullet casings. Doing so involved coordinating with the forensics team to determine the trajectory of spent rounds. And there was much more legwork — talking with the suspect’s friends, for instance — that had to be done.

“The case file was very thick when I turned it in,” Stevenson said.

Eventually, the man was convicted of assaulting a police officer with a weapon, evading arrest and shooting into an inhabited dwelling.

Yet years before Stevenson was taking the lead on big cases, he questioned whether he was cut out for law enforcement. His laidback surfer vibe, which he exudes to this day, didn’t gel with the department’s regimented approach during the first few weeks at the training academy.

“Most of the officers at the training academy were younger than me and were real paramilitary,” Stevenson said. “They’d yell at you if you didn’t follow strict guidelines — it was all about, ‘Sir, yes sir.’ I wasn’t used to that.”

Later, Stevenson realized officers barking orders at him shouldn’t be taken personally.

“I figured out that it’s kind of a game; they’re trying to intimidate you to prepare you for real-life situations,” Stevenson said. “I said to myself, I’m going to play their game, and I’m going to beat them at it by getting through this.”

Stevenson was first assigned to a Vista jail. Two years later, he was promoted to patrolman and asked where he wanted to work. He chose Encinitas, because of its proximity to the coast and his history with the city.

He grew up in Galveston, Texas just as the surfing craze hit in the early 1960s. After watching surfing flicks, he pined to hunt waves abroad.

“Surfing in California or Hawaii was the dream for everyone in Texas,” Stevenson said.

In high school, he visited Encinitas on surf trips and has fond memories of paddling out at Grandview and Beacons, even though locals were sometimes less-than-friendly.

“There were so many Texans coming out here that locals displayed signs that said go home Texas,” Stevenson said with a laugh.

Later in life, Stevenson developed an intimate familiarity with downtown Encinitas as a patrolman. For years, he was the first responder to calls ranging from bar fights to burglaries.

His time as a patrolman coincided with a push for data-driven policing. By continuously analyzing where past crimes occurred, the department allocates resources accordingly to preempt future crime — an approach used today.

This gave Stevenson an understanding of how to use databases and DNA to make cases. For example, his knowledge of a database solved a Rancho Santa Fe burglary last year. But equally important in his mind, Stevenson gained what he called a “sixth sense” that comes with experience. More than being observant, Stevenson said patrolmen gain a “feel” for their beat.

“You learn how to read people and the streets,” Stevenson said. “That’s something patrolman and detectives have to have.”

He further honed his intuition once becoming a detective a decade later thanks to special training in interrogation and other techniques.

“You can tell if someone is lying by looking at their eye movements, how they talk, how they move — you just know,” Stevenson said.

Of course, Stevenson said that “just knowing” isn’t enough to solve cases. But sometimes, a sense of whether someone is being truthful or not, or a hunch at a crime scene, steers detectives in the right direction.

Over a decade, Stevenson investigated robberies, assaults and burglaries. Some cases were never solved due to a lack of witnesses or evidence. For those that were, the best part of the job was recovering property or knowing a victim felt a sense of justice.

“The feeling was very rewarding; I know it motivated me every time I was investigating,” Stevenson said.

Now, Stevenson said he’s looking forward to enjoying the retired life with his wife. This includes travel time and lots of surfing and outrigger canoeing.

“I’ve kind of come full circle; I’m back to being a beach guy,” Stevenson said.

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