Brothers file harassment lawsuit against investigators

08/29/2014 7:00 PM

08/29/2014 11:21 PM

Two brothers who say they have been repeatedly harassed by law enforcement involved in the Korey Kauffman murder investigation filed a claim Thursday against the cities of Modesto, Turlock and Ceres and Stanislaus County, as well as five investigators.

Baljit Athwal and his brother Daljit Atwal, who spells his last name differently, claim the police falsely arrested them, inflicted emotional distress, caused physical injury and violated their civil rights during searches of their homes and businesses in March. The brothers own the Pop-N-Cork Liquor stores in Turlock. Baljit’s wife, Navneet Athwal, also is a claimant.

They allege investigators continued to harass them, their employees and customers after the searches and made defamatory remarks to their friends and family by suggesting their involvement in criminal activity, according to the lawsuit.

The claim, filed by San Francisco-based attorney Raj Chatterjee of Morrison & Foerster, does not specify the amount of damages sought.

Chatterjee did not return calls for comment Friday.

This is the second claim filed in relation to the Kauffman investigation in the past month.

Bail agent Praveen Singh is seeking $20 million in damages, asserting he has been harassed repeatedly by investigators from the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, who’ve pressured him to provide information that links well-known Modesto defense attorney Frank Carson to the death of Kauffman.

Daljit Atwal contends investigators demanded he wear a wire and work as an agent for the police, and told him to “falsely testify against another person.” That person was not named in the claim.

Carson has denied any involvement in the homicide, and his attorney has advised him not to speak about the case with news media so as not to risk violating attorney-client privilege because he has represented people involved in the criminal case.

Baljit Athwal claims that when his home was searched March 3, his hands were bound tightly with a plastic tie that caused injury to his wrists.

He was forced to sit outside in his underwear while investigators searched his home.

According to the claim, investigators “bullied” Baljit Athwal’s young children and “terrorized” Navneet Athwal by, “among other things, telling her that (Baljit) Athwal was having a sexual affair and was having sex with prostitutes,” the complaint reads.

Baljit Athwal was put into a patrol car driven by a Turlock Police Department detective. As they drove out of the neighborhood, the detective’s car collided with another car. Baljit Athwal claims the collision caused injuries that continue to cause “significant pain and suffering” to his back, neck, shoulder, hip and other parts of his body.

Daljit Atwal asserts that investigators searching his home also “terrorized” his wife and 6-year-old son.

They destroyed property in his home, “including breaking down his door by gunfire and destroying and desecrating a prayer room,” the claim reads.

The brothers say that in their stores, investigators cut wires for security cameras, destroyed multiple doors, ripped out wires from the walls, broke and cut out the store’s alarm system, smashed holes in the walls and broke bottles of alcohol, according to the complaint.

It also alleges that property was seized without probable cause from all four search locations, including money in prayer rooms and weapons that were legally obtained.

The claim identified five investigators involved in the alleged acts: District Attorney’s Office Investigators Kirk Bunch, Dale Lingerfelt and Steve Jacobson; Modesto police Detective Jon Evers; and Turlock police Detective Timothy Redd.

Those who responded to The Modesto Bee’s request for comment said they could not yet speak specifically about the claim because of the ongoing homicide investigation but said they were eager for that day to come.

“I will look forward to the court process, where I’m confident that the truth will come out through evidence, and witnesses statements,” Bunch said in an email.

Speaking in general, Jacobson said in an email, “Local law enforcement professionals are trying their very hardest to protect their communities from those set on destroying. … I understand that our mission oftentimes gets misunderstood by those who have received minor infractions, those that have had adverse contacts with law enforcement, or just by those in the community who have asked for our help but just can’t seem to get it because of the other 10 percent (gang members, career criminals and the like) who predominately occupy most of our time.”

The brothers have staged several protests in front of the District Attorney’s Office since the searches, claiming harassment and abuse of power and asking for intervention from the federal government to take over the investigation.

After one of the protests, Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office Chief Investigator Dan Inderbitzen defended his investigators, saying they have acted appropriately and “by the book.” He said it’s not uncommon for subjects of criminal investigations to file complaints or civil claims against officers with the misguided belief that it will slow or stop the criminal investigation.

During the interview in April, Inderbitzen said more arrests were “imminent” in the Kauffman case. But only Robert Lee Woody, arrested the day of the searches in March, has been charged in Kauffman’s death.

In a criminal complaint filed against Woody, prosecutors listed three other people as co-conspirators B, C and D but have not revealed their names.

Kauffman went missing in late March 2012 and his body was discovered by hunters a year ago in an isolated area of Mariposa County.

Of the four government agencies listed in the complaint, only the Stanislaus County counsel’s office responded to inquiries Friday. The office received the complaint, but Liability Claims Manager Kevin Watson was out of the office and had not had an opportunity to review it.

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