From the files of NYPD Blue's 15th precinct, the Case of the Dropout Detective. Suspect: David Caruso, who plays Det. John Kelly on ABC's NYPD Blue, is accused of pulling a Farrah Fawcett, copping out of a much talked-about series after just one season. Caruso who became a prime-time sex symbol thanks to his sensitive tough-guy demeanor and high-profile bare-butt scenes was reportedly looking for $100,000 per episode next season, more than double last year's $40,000-a-show salary. ABC and producer Steven Bochco reportedly discussed $80,000, but the actor is still not expected to last the season.
Evidence: A terse statement released by ABC on Aug. 8 that read, ''Steven Bochco Productions and David Caruso have settled their differences and David Caruso will be back at work on Tuesday.'' But the statement begs more questions than it answers. How long will Caruso work? Will he receive more money? Will he be replaced by L.A. Law's Jimmy Smits? Caruso spokesman Stan Rosenfield simply says: ''They have made some alterations on his contract.''
Possible Motives: Besides a heftier paycheck, it's no secret Caruso openly covets a movie career (his most recent feature was last year's Mad Dog and Glory). He recently finished work on Kiss of Death, an upcoming drama, for which he received $1 million. But witnesses claim Caruso is overestimating his drawing power. ''Guys like this don't remember that the public forgets,'' says a former network exec. ''What happened to Harry Hamlin after he left L.A. Law? What happened to Daniel Travanti [after Hill Street Blues]?''
Victims: The cast of NYPD Blue. The show, which received 26 Emmy nominations, succeeded as an ensemble piece and could be hurt by the departure of Caruso; he and Dennis Franz play the most popular characters. ''You hate to f--- with chemistry and this show has some good chemistry,'' says a source close to the program. ''It could hold up without him, but he and Dennis are the foundation.'' Then again, ensemble shows weather departures better than most. ''A year ago, no one had heard of David Caruso,'' says media analyst Paul Schulman. ''It was Bochco's program and fantastic writing that made David Caruso. ''
The Lowdown: Caruso, along with Franz ,was nominated for a Best Actor Emmy, but he may have jeopardized his chances at winning. Says one observer: ''A lot of [voters] might say, 'Screw you, you're walking away from [the television industry].'''
The winner in the case may be Franz. Critics have lavished much attention on Caruso's partner in crime-fighting, partly because his character has had a higher profile in recent story lines. ''As a show progresses, people develop offshoot followings,'' says a Franz spokeswoman. ''Things change.'' Not enough, however, to rouse the unflappable Franz. When things were going down, the actor could not be reached for comment. He was out playing golf. Reporting by Heather Keets, Jessica Shaw, Frank Spotnitz, and Frank Swertlow