Allegations in lawsuits during Adam Christiansons time as Stanislaus County sheriff range from police brutality and K-9 bites to serious accidents with patrol cars and unintentional deaths. Five cases were brought by survivors of people who died while in custody and eight involve employees who felt they were abused.
The Bees review of 41 cases featured interviews with attorneys and people who sued as well as file research in Stanislaus County Superior Court and U.S. District Court. The following provides a snapshot of many of these lawsuits.
• Columbus Allen Jr. II complained that the county jail, staffed with Stanislaus County sheriffs deputies, provided him with substandard dental care and failed to protect him from racially motivated attacks by other inmates while he awaited trial. Allen was charged with the 2006 murder of California Highway Patrolman Earl Scott. Allen pleaded guilty in 2010, was sentenced to life in state prison without parole and is no longer in the countys custody.
• Sheriffs employees Alejandra Arenivaz, Jackie Bernal, Charmaine Morad-Daniel and Marlena Younan claimed racial discrimination in a 2008 lawsuit. Arenivaz left the case; the others received a total $545,000 settlement, avoiding trial. Most of that money, $400,000, went to Morad-Daniel, who said then-Undersheriff Bill Heyne had referred to her as an organizational terrorist. Sheriff Adam Christianson said the women should have received nothing and lobbied unsuccessfully for the county to try its chances with a jury.
• A sheriffs K-9 latched onto an unarmed 17-year-old boy who had nothing to do with a body reported nearby in July 2011, his attorney said. A deputy handler used a Taser on the dog to get it to release James Britt, who sustained permanent nerve damage. The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in December.
Modesto attorney Cort Wiegand: There was no legitimate reason for the dog to do what he did. The deputy had no idea whom he was chasing or for what, but he let the dog go (to attack).
• Reserve deputy Del Camara claimed he was blacklisted by superiors after ratting out slacking co-workers. A judge in 2010 threw out his discrimination lawsuit in midtrial, saying Sheriffs Department managers showed Camara no bias toward age, race, gender or any other characteristic protected under fair employment law.
• UPS driver Paul Ciprianos delivery truck was struck by the patrol car of a deputy racing at 125 mph toward a shooting call in 2009, seriously injuring the officer and leaving Cipriano with head, neck, back and shoulder injuries. The county agreed to settle, paying $90,000.
Modesto attorney Gary Nelson: It knocked the crap out of him.
• Former sheriffs detective Kari Abbey initially was charged with second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter in the off-duty death of Rita Elias, who brandished a BB gun during a confrontation with Abbey in September 2010. Abbey shot her with a service weapon issued by the Sheriffs Department. A judge dismissed major charges but ordered her to stand trial, scheduled for June, on other felony counts. Elias survivors sued.
County Counsel John Doering: Our position is Abbey was not within the course and scope of employment during the shooting.
• Survivors of a locksmith killed alongside a deputy during a 2012 eviction on Modestos Chrysler Drive have sued in federal court, saying Glendon Engert was murdered because authorities ignored warning signs. Two investigations found fault with deputy Bob Paris, his partner and sheriffs management, leading to the deadly ambush, a lengthy standoff, an inferno and the gunmans suicide. Engerts family requests a November 2014 trial and the county recommends May 2015.
• The former owner of an Oakdale medical marijuana dispensary sued various agencies, including Stanislaus County, saying officers terrorized his family while raiding their home in 2007. They were not prosecuted. A federal judge threw out Addison DeMouras most serious civil rights claims, but he demanded the return of seized equipment, records and cannabis. A $41,000 settlement was reached in November, with $5,000 paid by Stanislaus County.
DeMoura: They ripped my son out of bed under machine gun cover, at 2 years old, and they thought this was appropriate. Theyre cowboys. They probably couldnt become welders or doughnut makers so they decided to become heathens, and Christianson is probably one of the most crooked law enforcement officers Ive come across in my life.
• Former deputy Mark Drewry sued the Sheriffs Department, saying he was forced to retire in 2011 after a series of surgeries on a wrist injured in an on-the-job scuffle with a domestic violence suspect. The case has an August trial date.
• Ken Evitt said he was inspecting rental property west of Modesto in 2009 when deputies kicked him in the head and beat him in the torso with a baton, breaking ribs and injuring his liver and a kidney. He claimed officer brutality in a lawsuit; a judge sided with the county.
Evitt: They cited me with five felony counts of assault, one for each officer that beat me while I lay face-down in handcuffs. (He pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor count of obstruction.) I dont know why (the attack occurred,) but I know thats not public safety. It makes no sense. Citizens are not the enemy.
• Former deputy Michael Galvan received a 16-month prison sentence for coercing a sex act from a woman by threatening removal of her children while in uniform. She sued and the county settled before trial, agreeing to pay $250,000. The assault occurred in December 2005, a few months before Christianson was elected, and Galvan was fired in December 2006.
• Dr. Robert Lawrence claimed that Christianson and other county officials in 2007 conspired to break his county contract for forensic pathology in favor of hiring a less expensive examiner who had worked for Lawrence. He initially offered to settle for $360,000, but the county wanted a trial. The judge recently awarded Lawrence a tentative $1.8 million, the largest single payout in Christiansons tenure, although it has not been finalized.
• A man high on methamphetamine scuffled with deputies, one of whom repeatedly punched him in the head, weeks after Christianson was elected in 2006. Ramiro Garcia died a few days later. Christianson blamed Garcia for fighting, but his survivors attorney said standard law enforcement training prohibits blows to the head with a fist. Jurors sided against the county, which paid $254,000 in damages and attorneys fees for both sides.
Attorney Benjamin Nisenbaum: Usually, officers know what the rules are and would never admit flat out to it if they knew it would get them in trouble. But they didnt think there was any issue. You have to pass a test to graduate from the police academy. They must have known it then, so what happened after they got to the department? Its clear they were not well trained at all.
• A homeless woman was stopped in 2009 by a deputy for driving her pickup too slowly. After a chase, Deborah Hicks ditched her vehicle and a K-9 ripped gashes in her arm, leaving her with nerve damage. She sued and a judge ruled in the countys favor.
• Having been arrested and placed in the back of a patrol vehicle, Nicholous Kiele was injured when the deputy driver missed a turn and went off the road. Kiele sustained permanent hearing loss, sued in 2009 and was paid $65,000 in a pretrial settlement.
• Former Sheriffs Department clerk Lydia Lopez lost a sexual harassment lawsuit after a five-week trial in 2010 in which she claimed to have been forced out after accusing a superior of sexual advances followed by management retaliation when she reported him. The county sent her a $738,000 bill for attorneys fees. A judge reduced the judgment to $31,000.
• A doctor in January 2012 recommended a 72-hour psychiatric hold for an inmate who had attempted suicide, but jailers returned him to the jails general population, where Steven Vigil Rodrigues was harassed by other inmates, an attorney said. Rodrigues hanged himself with bed sheets within 48 hours. A pretrial proceeding for a lawsuit brought by his parents and his children is scheduled for December.
Attorney Joshua Lynn: Once you take custody of an individual you have a responsibility to see to his health and welfare to the extent possible. He was assessed as one in need of care and they failed him.
• A woman sued in federal court after she was hurt and her home ransacked in a 2008 late-night raid by police and deputies seeking a man who rented her barn and pastures east of Modesto. Sue McClelland won a $40,000 settlement, evenly split by the city and county.
• A woman was held overnight in a case of mistaken identity after Turlock police confused her in 2007 with a woman who had the same name but was 16 years younger. Barbara McFaddins lawsuit against the city and county went nowhere.
• Survivors of people killed in a 2007 head-on accident with a drunken driver fleeing deputies claimed that officers should not have chased Francisco Martinez through heavy traffic in north Modesto. Christianson blamed the suspect who chose to run from law enforcement. The lawsuit never made it to trial. Martinez was sentenced to more than 29 years in prison.
• The mother of a man having a bad reaction to psychiatric medication asked deputies to escort him to the hospital, her attorney said. Instead, they shot Steve Orlando with a Taser and he fell, injuring a shoulder. A jury sided with deputies in 2009.
Attorney David Axelrod: He wasnt fighting or resisting. Deputies made the situation many times worse. You want law enforcement to help the situation. Theyre supposed to be the peacekeepers. Either theyre unclear on the concept or theyre just not doing it.
• Daniel Pereira wanted to put shoes on when he was arrested, his attorney said, but deputies forced him to stand barefoot on hot pavement, scorching the soles of his feet. Jurors in 2009 awarded him $63,750.
Attorney Randy Thomas: Nobody would buy (the countys) line of malarkey. All I had to do was show the pictures to the jury and sit down.
• Jailers used Tasers and pepper spray to subdue Craig Prescott, a former jail guard himself, who was suffering from mental problems, while trying to move him to a safety cell after his arrest in 2009. He died two days later. A coroners report said he succumbed to heart disease, but an independent autopsy found that deputies suffocated him. The county agreed to pay $565,000 in a March settlement.
• Former deputy David Reisz claims that administrators refused to engage him before he was dismissed in 2011 after a knee injury. The county contends that he should pursue a worker compensation claim. A trial date is scheduled for December.
• A jail inmate fractured his skull when he passed out in his cell, perhaps from a seizure, in 2011. Ryan Rogers was treated too late and died five days later, says a lawsuit brought by his parents. A December trial date is scheduled.
• A deputy in a sport utility vehicle and another hauling a horse trailer with a pickup collided in foggy weather in 2008, striking Christopher Romeros car and shoving him into yet another vehicle. He suffered serious back injuries and underwent two surgeries. His initial attorney submitted a claim against the county for $13,500; Romero switched counsel and won $1.2 million in mediation.
Attorney Joe Yates: He was not able to return to work, so hopefully he can make it last the rest of his life.
• A family claimed that deputies used excessive force while taking a man into custody. The county agreed to pay $13,200, split among nine plaintiffs.
Doering: That was the nuisance value, to avoid further getting into the weeds with attorney fees and costs.
• A former deputy said a sergeant kissed and groped her and showed her a cellphone video of him having sex with another sheriffs employee. When Valine Sarmas complained, management subjected her to an internal affairs investigation, she said in a lawsuit, and she was fired. The county avoided trial with a $42,500 settlement in 2011.
• Officers taunted Wayne Smith, hurt disabled friend George Denton and arrested Smiths mother, Tammy, when she tried to intervene, their lawsuit said. Christianson took office three months after the altercation at the 2006 Apricot Fiesta in Patterson and was named in the lawsuit, which the county paid $160,000 to settle.
• A Modesto police officer suffered back injuries in a collision while practicing vehicle pursuit maneuvers at a county-owned training track in 2010. Kerry Scott Usserys lawsuit against the county and other agencies is scheduled for a November pretrial proceeding.
The county contends that everything except the property the cars, equipment and staff involved were provided by the city.
Doering: This is about as ridiculous a case as we have.
• The first trial for deputy Dennis Wallaces lawsuit, in 2012, exposed the departments limp, lame and lazy list of injured employees, forcing a public apology from Christianson although the trial ended in a hung jury. Wallace subsequently passed a physical exam and returned to work but pursued a second trial to recover wages and benefits from missing two years. Limp, lame and lazy evidence was excluded and jurors in May sided with the county. Wallace is appealing the verdict; the county wants him to pay $150,000 for the departments attorney fees.
Attorney Steve Murphy: Its distressing when you sacrifice your body in the line of duty and youre not allowed to return to work.
• Deputies beat and used a Taser to subdue a man disoriented after an epileptic seizure, then left him handcuffed and face-down on a Waterford lawn, where he died in 2007. The parents of James Edward Wells sued, saying the county failed to train deputies on how to interact with epileptics. The county paid a $200,000 settlement.
• An attention lapse by a deputy who had just received an emergency call caused a collision with driver Terra White, who was injured. She sued in 2008 and won a $675,425 settlement.
Note: Judges in four cases won by the county ordered those who filed the lawsuits to reimburse a portion of the countys attorney fees, for a combined potential recovery of $109,000.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.