On a mid-October night in 2008, a farewell party was rocking in Delhi. Jarrod Ridge had joined the Navy, and his house was filled with about 30 of his friends for his send-off. Amid the revelry and drinking, some at the party were enjoying another kind of fun. A few people were passing around a swastika armband, and according to some, gesturing in the air with their arms in a Nazi salute to Hitler. Many at the party viewed the antics as beer-doused humor and left it at that.
But Peter Duncan, who’s half-Korean, did not -- and said so. Soon Duncan and one of the alleged armband-wearers -- Will Hibdon -- were trading blows in a fight that eventually enveloped much of the party.
Duncan was upset because of what he considered racist play by Hibdon. The brawl ended when Duncan pulled an unloaded pistol from his truck and threatened several people coming after him. Duncan and two friends then fled the party. When Merced County sheriff’s deputies arrived, one of their rank-and-file was already there. At the time, Hibdon was a Merced County sheriff’s deputy. He was off-duty.
Beyond those details, what happened at the party is unclear since there are conflicting accounts of who started the fight and who wore the swastika armband. What is clear is that Hibdon was fired soon after because of his alleged involvement in the fight; by the beginning of 2009 he was no longer a sheriff’s deputy. Despite that, Hibdon quickly found a new job — as a reserve police officer with the Dos Palos Police Department. He’s worked there ever since. Even so, he wanted his old job back. So Hibdon appealed his firing and, just this month, won.
By March 15 Hibdon will once again wear a sheriff’s department badge. The about-face will reverse the Merced County Sheriff Department’s discipline and firing of Hibdon more than a year ago. The county and the sheriff’s department have maintained silence on why Hibdon was fired and why he’s now being rehired. But his lawyer argues that not only did the department botch its investigation into the Delhi incident, but also there was no evidence linking Hibdon to any swastika or racist remarks. Despite Hibdon’s rehiring, and his lawyer’s claims, the picture of what happened that night is murky.
A party in Delhi
Witnesses interviewed by sheriff's deputies said that before the party in Delhi degenerated into a huge fight, the actions by Hibdon and a few others at the party were less than tasteful.
Arthur Guerrero told deputies that a bunch of people at the party, including Hibdon, had been slipping on the armband as a joke. Even Latinos had worn it. Guerrero said that it was the swastika that "set Duncan off."
Angelo Saldana, who had come to the party with Duncan, told deputies that Hibdon had been wearing the armband.
Jason Brantley, who also came to the party with Duncan, told deputies that someone at the party "made motions with his hands which he described as waving to Hitler."
Another guest at the party, Chris Brackett, said he saw a man named "Bubba" -- Joel Derrick Harris -- wearing the swastika armband. According to police reports, Brackett told deputies: "He noticed Bubba had a swastika armband on. He said he commented to Bubba and Bubba's wife, asking why Bubba had that on." Brackett then told deputies, "Bubba has his own opinions on race."
Harris told deputies he had indeed worn the swastika armband. "It's who I am," he told deputies. He also said he had a swastika tattoo and a "white pride" tattoo. He said he didn't recall if Hibdon had ever worn the armband.
Harris declined to talk to the Sun-Star about that night.
Hibdon told deputies he hadn't worn the swastika. He also declined comment to the Sun-Star about that night.
In any case, most witnesses said it was the swastika armband that sparked the fight. But depending on who's telling the story, the fight began in two different ways.
Duncan said the fight started because he stood up to Hibdon and Harris -- Harris had head-butted Duncan at another party -- because of the armband and their racist comments. He said they called him a "chinker." He told the Sun-Star, "They were in the backyard saying, 'white power' and 'white is right.' You know, stupid things like that."
Duncan told deputies that he called Hibdon "a disgrace to law enforcement." Duncan also said he saw Hibdon wearing the armband. Duncan told Harris he didn't like the arm patch -- and that's when Hibdon got in his face. He said Hibdon asked him, "If you don't like it, what are you going to do about it?"
Duncan said he knew Hibdon was a cop and said he didn't want to fight him. Then, according to Duncan, Hibdon took off the red jersey he was wearing and said, "I'm not a cop now." Duncan punched Hibdon in the face. After that, the fight grew into a brawl, and Duncan and his friends were outnumbered, he said.
To escape, he told deputies and the Sun-Star that he went to his truck to get his pistol. He said it was unloaded and he drew it to scare away the people who were coming after him and his friends.
Saldana, who told deputies Hibdon hit Duncan first, said they had called each other out after they started arguing. According to police reports, he told deputies, "He said Will (Hibdon) was telling Peter (Duncan) that he hated 'stupid little chinkers' like him." Then he said that Duncan said, "I hate stupid white racist people like that."
Hibdon, on the other hand, said the fight started suddenly when Duncan just "flipped out." According to police reports, Hibdon told deputies: "He said Duncan accused him of being a racist. He told him, 'Peter, I'm not like that,' at which point Duncan struck him in the head with a bottle."
Harris, who said he was extremely drunk at the party, remembered that the fight started suddenly. He was talking to a friend when he looked over and saw Duncan punching Hibdon.
Megan Simmons, another guest, told deputies she saw Duncan and Harris arguing about the armband. While she didn't say who was in the fight, she did say that Hibdon tried to break it up.
Another witness, Chris Hardy, said he thought Harris and Duncan were fighting.
Soon after the Delhi incident, it appears the sheriff's department began investigating Hibdon and the incident. They were granted a search warrant for access to Hibdon's MySpace page to check for any "white power" messages there, according to police reports obtained by the Sun-Star.
There were no racist elements on Hibdon's MySpace page, according to the reports. In an interview with investigators, Hibdon said he "planned on fully cooperating with the internal affairs investigation process."
While the extent of the investigation is unknown, it's clear that Hibdon later attended a disciplinary meeting known as a Skelly hearing, according to Larry Katz, who represented Hibdon at the time.
While it isn't known what was said or decided at the hearing -- the county counsel's office wouldn't provide documents because it said they're personnel files and not public -- Hibdon lost his job afterward. He was officially "separated" from his county employment Jan. 2, 2009, according to the county. He had been a deputy since 2005.
Barry Bennett, Hibdon's lawyer today, said Hibdon was let go, not only because he allegedly wore the swastika armband and was in the fight over it, but also because he was accused of lying to investigators.
The sheriff's department has declined to comment on Hibdon's firing and rehiring. But Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the sheriff's department, did comment on the department's policy about discrimination and bigotry. "We have a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination. We swear to uphold a code of ethics, and we hold our officers to that code."
After Hibdon was fired, he got a job as a reserve office in Dos Palos, where he's worked ever since.
Dos Palos Police Chief Barry Mann said he's aware of what happened in Delhi, but said police reports are only one version of the story. Hibdon, he said, has been an exemplary officer in Dos Palos. "As a black chief of police, I don't think anybody can say that I promote racists," said Mann.
The department did a thorough background check, said Mann, adding, "We did not feel Officer Hibdon was a threat to the profession." Mann said Hibdon has indicated he soon may submit a letter of resignation, but didn't say why.
Almost as soon as he started working in Dos Palos, Hibdon filed an appeal to his firing, said Bennett. As Hibdon's lawyer in the appeal process, Bennett sent his own investigators to question the witnesses who were at the Delhi party. What they discovered, said Bennett, is that the witnesses remembered the events differently from the original police reports.
While Bennett declined to comment on any specific testimony, he said: "The most the department would be able to show is that someone at that scene had a swastika armband, but that it wasn't Hibdon and he wasn't associated with it."
Duncan, who stands by his original story about the fight, said he was never interviewed by anyone except the police about it.
Still, Bennett said he presented the findings of his investigation to the county -- and officials decided to give Hibdon back his job. "They've never acknowledged that as such," he said, but "it was decided that the best thing to do was to put him back to work."
The county declined to comment on the issue.
Bennett said if the county had wanted to take the case to a hearing, it would have exposed the botched investigation by the sheriff's department.
But, he added, since Hibdon's firing there's been a change in administration at the department, which he thinks will change how the department deals with such cases in the future. In the past, there was a kind of guilt-by-association when such incidents happened, said Bennett, who has tried several such cases with the county.
Bill Blake, who was the undersheriff at the time of Hibdon's discipline, said the department takes a lot of care in everything it does, especially in disciplinary matters. "We don't do those things lightly," he said.
As for Bennett's comments about the investigation, Blake said, "If he thought the investigation was botched, he's absolutely wrong." The interviews right after an incident are often closest to the truth, said Blake, and after time passes, stories change. "It is standard procedure to say the investigation is botched when they have nothing else to fall back on," said Blake.
Blake said he couldn't comment on why Hibdon had been fired, but said the department had acted correctly.
Why the county is rehiring Hibdon, Blake couldn't say. He did point out that when a disciplined deputy doesn't receive back pay, it is usually a sign he was partly in the wrong.
It remains unclear whether Hibdon will get back pay.
Back pay aside, Bennett hopes Hibdon can now finally clear his name. "I want him to go back to work without a cloud over his head," he said.
Come March 15, Hibdon will again be in a Merced County Sheriff's Department uniform. Whether the incident in Delhi will continue to haunt his career is another matter.
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.