During his 31-year career, San Luis Obispo police Lt. Bill Proll worked some of the city’s most public and tragic criminal cases.
Proll was there for the Poly Royal riot when the now-defunct annual spring festival partying spawned violent mobs in the streets of San Luis Obispo in 1990.
He worked the double murder-suicide committed by psychiatrist John “Mike” Rivard and the alcohol poisoning death of Cal Poly student Carson Starkey.
There was also the “Geezer Bandit” bank robbery and foiled “Big Money Bandits” robbery, and running security for big-name music acts at the Mid-State Fair and many other memories — good and bad.
And almost all of it was witnessed through the lens of the dark of night, including his most recent 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. For years, he was on duty from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Proll, 54, hung up is badge in late December, after moving up through the ranks from patrol to the department’s third highest post. He is continuing on as a volunteer reserve officer, a position he held for two years in his early 20s before being hired permanently.
“What stands out about Bill is his dedication of being a cop,” Capt. Chris Staley said. “A lot of more experienced cops don’t want to work the night shift because, honestly, it gets harder to stay up all night. But Bill chose to work at night. He was very passionate about his job.”
Over the past three decades, Proll has played a police role in some of the county’s most captivating and heartbreaking criminal cases.
As a detective supervisor, Proll oversaw the case when Rivard, a troubled local psychologist, shot and killed his wife and young daughter in 2007, leaving their two other young children who were in the house when the incident occurred unharmed. They were taken into custody by their grandparents.
“That case was one of the most difficult,” Proll said. “I remember dealing with the grandfather, who took custody of the two surviving kids, and just knowing that in an instant the lives of those two kids were pretty screwed up.”
There were more difficult moments in 2008 when 18-year-old Starkey died from alcohol poisoning in a fraternity-related hazing incident — something Proll said no family can prepare for.
He accompanied Starkey’s parents and brother to the morgue to identify their son. Though gut-wrenching, Proll is encouraged that now more people are calling 911 without hesitation if underage friends have over-consumed.
Fraternity members started to take Starkey to the hospital after he became unresponsive, but turned back and allowed him to go to sleep, a decision that likely cost his life.
Starkey’s parents, Julia and Scott, have played a critical role in bringing awareness through their nonprofit Aware, Awake, Alive, and they and Proll have since become friends.
“Carson’s parents moved to San Luis Obispo from Texas,” Proll said. “They never would have done that if it weren’t for their son’s death.”
Then there was the night of Nov. 12, 1998, when 20-year-old Cal Poly student Rachel Newhouse disappeared — later discovered to have been abducted, raped and killed by serial killer Rex Krebs, a local lumberyard worker. The case still haunts Proll.
“I was working as a bike patrol cop downtown the night Rachel Newhouse went missing after leaving (the former downtown bar) Tortilla Flats,” Proll said. “I always thought somehow I could have done something to stop that from happening.”
Krebs was convicted of raping and killing Newhouse and Aundria Crawford, a 20-year-old Cuesta College student from Clovis.
“In the aftermath, when we still hadn’t identified a suspect, I was doing what everyone in the department was doing — trying to find him,” Proll said.
Luckily, Proll wasn’t hurt seriously in his career.
“It’s so easy to blow out a knee or break a finger trying to break up a brawl, or if you’re in scuffle,” Proll said. “Fortunately, that never happened.”
Getting ‘hooked’ and the early days
Proll, a Danville native, attended Cal Poly from 1981 to 1986, earning a political science degree. It’s where his future path was set when former city policeman Dan Bresnahan gave a guest lecture on search and seizure. Police work piqued his curiosity, and Proll approached Bresnahan during a break to ask him questions about the job.
“I later did a ride along, and I was hooked,” Proll said.
As a young patrol officer, he encountered his fair share of bar brawls, wrong-way drivers and wobbly and passed out drinkers.
He learned if he could help someone by preventing a crime or accident — or by giving a warning rather than a citation (depending on the circumstances) — it could offer a more positive perspective of police officers.
“If I didn’t arrest someone, it could make their day, and that can change their opinion of cops,” Proll said. “I know it’s kind of a cliché, but I really believed in helping people. I wanted to do one thing every day that gave me the satisfaction of helping.”
He stopped to chat with homeless people, maybe donating an item of clothing, and gave talks at Cal Poly about alcohol and decision-making. He worried about young women walking home alone at night.
“Bill is very involved in the community and building bridges between law enforcement and those we serve,” said San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell. “He has high ethical standards and holds himself and others to the highest standards.”
As young officers on the downtown beat, then-officer Ian Parkinson (now San Luis Obispo County Sheriff) and Proll often made colleagues laugh with their enthusiasm.
“We’d see a guy running away, and we’d chase after him,” Proll said. “Our supervisor would start laughing sometimes because he’d ask, ‘Why did you chase him?’ We’d say ‘Because he ran.’ ... Ian and I made a lot of arrests together.”
Parkinson, in an email to The Tribune, recalled, “Bill loved being on the bike.”
“He enjoyed interaction with the students and the freedom of being on a bike,” Parkinson wrote. “Bill has always been very approachable. Bill took enforcement of the law seriously, however he was always fair.”
Many different hats
Proll also served as as an undercover officer working narcotics cases for five years early in his career, donning street clothes and a scruffy look.
Later in his career, Proll collaborated with several law enforcement agencies to thwart a bank robbery in San Luis Obispo planned by a band of Crips gang members from Los Angeles, a group dubbed the Big Money Bandits.
Police relied on a confidential informant to alert them to the scheme. Police and FBI officials caught and arrested the bandits on Prado Road on their way to the heist.
“You learn to work with informants, but you never trust them because they can be playing both sides (the police and criminals),” Proll said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen until it happened.”
Another robbery case that captured local and national news interest was the heist by the Geezer Bandit, who was believed to be using a Hollywood style mask to rob banks statewide.
Proll has become a familiar face around town over the past four decades, and not just through his police work.
As a longtime concert security head at the Mid-State Fair, Proll’s highlights include accompanying country pop star Faith Hill when she walked her dog at the Paso Robles fairgrounds and escorting the band KISS from the airport to their show.
Proll recalls lead singer Gene Simmons’ wisecracks about how “boring” San Luis Obispo County appeared, which Proll thought were hilarious.
While off duty during the day, Proll volunteered to teach racquetball at Cal Poly for more than 20 years, serves on the board of Cal Poly’s athletic booster club and as the regional coordinator for the Special Olympics.
“When someone stops me on the street to say hello, I sometimes have to wrack my brain to think whether I arrested the guy or if I was his racquetball teacher, or if it was from somewhere else?” Proll said. “... What I’ve enjoyed most is the interaction with the community.”
Along with his community and reserve officer work, Proll will continue to run San Luis Obispo’s anti-graffiti program as well, a special project for him over the years.
“He ran the graffiti program throughout the city, mostly on his own time,” Parkinson said. “Bill loved being a police officer and serving the community. He is a very giving person. He would help anybody with any household project or issue, anytime day or night.”
Connection to SLOStringer
A day in Proll’s career that drove home the impact he’s had on the community, which he’d forgotten about, was brought to light recently by the mother of Matthew Frank, known as the SLOStringer. Frank, a local freelancer who documented breaking news, died in a car crash last March on the Cuesta Grade.
Jacquelyn Frank told police that when Matthew was 3 years old, the two were in a car crash on Broad Street. When police arrived at the scene, Proll — one of the responding officers — gave young Frank a small stuffed animal, which he loved.
Earlier this year, Jacquelyn Frank donated a large gift of Beanie Babies to help police comfort children in traumatic situations.
“I’d forgotten about that, but I guess she remembered me,” said Proll, looking off into the distance.
For Proll, it was just another day on the job.