Stanislaus County sheriff: I wanted deputy back on job

gstapley@modbee.comMay 24, 2013 

    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government

— In court testimony Friday, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson downplayed his 2011 role in dismissing an injured deputy, saying he merely approved a staff recommendation.

"I wanted him to come back to work," said the sheriff, who made that happen two years later when deputy Dennis Wallace passed a physical exam.

Wallace, 50, returned to duty in January and is suing for two years of lost wages and benefits. The trial follows one that ended with a hung jury last summer, when Wallace was off work with no pay.

The first trial uncovered a habit among managers of calling injured deputies "limp, lame and lazy," leading to Christianson's public apology and an outside investigation, the results of which remain under wraps until the current trial ends in a week or so.

The sheriff's testimony this time was much less explosive.

Before the second trial started last week, Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson ordered lawyers not to bring up the "limp, lame and lazy" list. It was relevant to the first trial, Johnson reasoned, which centered on Wallace's disability discrimination claim, but not to the current case, which focuses on his contention that the county failed to accommodate his injuries.

The county faces other lawsuits from two former deputies who say they were dismissed after being injured.

"Dennis has done a great job over the years. His work with juvenile services and young people was spectacular," said Christianson, who approved sending Wallace home when a doctor put restrictions on work he could do. Although the sheriff recently began rehiring, at that time he was implementing a series of layoffs that drained a quarter of his department.

"As busy as we are, I need all hands on deck," Christianson said.

When asked about Wallace challenging him to a foot race to prove his fitness for duty, the sheriff smiled but said he didn't remember. He had shaken Wallace's hand in view of jurors just before taking the witness stand.

In other testimony, Wallace on Thursday and Friday said he loves his job and felt "like an outcast" when turned away. He never agreed with the doctor's order not to walk on uneven surfaces, among other restrictions, and continued refereeing high school football games, running several miles at each, as well as coaching soccer and golfing regularly, he said.

His wife, Mercedes Wallace, testified Friday that he moped in depression while off work, irritating her when he refused to shave. After returning to duty, she said, "My Dennis was back. It's what he's been asking for since they sent him home."

His brother, Dave Wallace, is a Modesto police officer who took him on a ride-along to boost his spirits when he wasn't working. Going after bad guys that night with lights flashing and sirens blaring, "Dennis was like a kid in a candy store," David Wallace said.

The trial is expected to continue at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in Department 23 on the fourth floor of the City Tower building, 801 10th St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or (209) 578-2390.

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