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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on August 3rd, 2011, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 12, Issue 20 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 12, Issue 20

Betraying the badge?

Former Santa Maria police officers allege mishandling in reputed prescription drug thefts

By JEREMY THOMAS

In the predawn hours of April Fools’ Day 2004, Santa Maria resident Alane Avila awoke in her bedroom with a start.


Larry Ralston, Lompoc Police Capt.
‘When we get a citizen’s complaint, it gets investigated to some degree. It doesn’t sound like this got investigated at all.’

“I just heard this bang and a flash,” Avila recalled. “I jumped up and my door came flying open, and there’s all these guys with ski masks on and guns pointed saying, ‘Get on the ground!”

It wasn’t until Avila was rounded up with the other members of the shared household that she realized her perceived intruders were officers from the Santa Maria Police Department’s SWAT team, who were searching the home for a suspected drug dealer.

Avila, now living in Madera County, was renting a room in the house at the time, and had no connection to the man the authorities were looking for. However, upon the officers’ departure, she found her bedroom had been thoroughly ransacked.

“When I went back to my room, the mattresses, everything was pulled out of the closet, everything was just pulled out of the drawers, everything,” Avila said. “Drawers turned upside down. It was a mess.”

In the aftermath of the raid, Avila noticed something amiss. Recovering from a major knee surgery, Avila had filled her doctor’s prescription for 80 hydrocodone—a synthetic opiate—the night before. After the officers left, only 15 pills remained in the bottle.

Avila knew someone had taken them. They were there when she went to bed just hours before, she said, and she was the only one who had access to her room.

“I just thought maybe the officers took them,” Avila said. “Basically, I grew up all my life thinking it was the officer’s word against yours, so I didn’t know what to do. My hands were basically tied. I called my doctor and informed him that the prescriptions were lost.”

Piecing the pill puzzle

Days after the raid, Avila placed a call to Santa Maria Police Sgt. Greg Carroll, then supervisor of the department’s narcotics suppression team, to explain the situation.

“She said she was missing some pain medication,” Carroll recalled. “I told her sometimes things happen during search warrants, things get tossed around. The pills may have been dropped on the floor. She said no, the pill bottle was in the exact same spot in her bedroom and dresser drawer.”

Investigating further, Carroll visited Avila’s home on Depot Street the following day.
She showed him her pill bottles and the receipt for her recent refill.

“I go out there and she had left everything the way it was,” Carroll told the Sun. “She showed me where she had surgery, showed me the prescription, when it was filled, and what doctor. Everything she was telling me was on the up and up. She didn’t fit the description of a drug addict or someone who was strung out on pain medication or anything.”

Because the search warrant was served at multiple locations, the SWAT team had help from the department’s detective bureau. Carroll talked to the team’s lead officer.


CHIEF CONCERN:
A recent deposition made by Santa Maria Police chief Danny Macagni reveals he’s unsure as to how a complaint was handled. The chief declined to speak to the Sun about the issue, citing a non-disclosure agreement—though Santa Maria city attorney Gil Trujillo said Macagni and others were instructed to send inquiries about the matter to Trujillo’s office.
FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

Carroll’s inquiry ultimately centered on an officer who will be referred to as “Joe Friday” for this article.

After speaking with Avila, Carroll explained the situation to his lieutenant, Larry Ralston, now a captain with the Lompoc Police Department. Ralston was supervisor of the SMPD’s detective bureau when the alleged theft occurred.

“I was instructed by [Ralston] at the time to write up a citizen’s complaint, to do basic follow up, which I did, just to see if there was any factual basis to the complaint, which there was,” Carroll said. “So I wrote it up.”

In an interview with the Sun, Ralston confirmed Carroll’s version of the events, adding he had sent the complaint to Santa Maria police chief Danny Macagni after reviewing it.

“I had asked [Carroll] to prepare a memo about what happened and then I prepared a memo with his and forwarded it to the chief. I was told some time later that the chief handled it, and that was the end of it as far as my involvement,” Ralston said. “I inquired several other times, but I was never given any more specific information.”

“I don’t remember [Macagni] telling me who, if anybody, investigated anything,” Ralston continued. “I was given the impression that he handled it, and if I remember right, it was more along the lines of he handled it himself, that he talked to [Friday].”

According to Carroll and Chuck Rylant, a former Santa Maria police detective who served for 15 years, instead of sending the complaint to Internal Affairs for investigation, per usual procedure, Macagni showed the complaint to Friday and asked him if he’d stolen the drugs; Friday denied the accusation.

Carroll said Friday then stormed into his office, “ranting and raving,” and claiming no involvement in the alleged theft. Carroll later heard it wasn’t the first time Friday had been suspected.

According to Carroll, Ralston explained that another Santa Maria officer had reported suspecting Friday of stealing prescription drugs during a previous search warrant, served in 2003 at a residence in Nipomo. Police were led to the home looking for a suspect in a credit card theft case.

When asked to supply a copy of the police report describing the search warrant under the California Public Records Act, the city refused in a June 24 letter. Instead, city officials sent the Sun a copy of a booking record for the credit card theft suspect from Santa Barbara County Jail and a brief description of the raid.

According to Carroll, Ralston wrote up a memo detailing the complaint brought by the officer who suspected the theft. Though Ralston recalled hearing accusations against Friday, Ralston said he couldn’t remember if he’d actually written up a formal complaint or not.


BLOWING THE WHISTLE?
Former Santa Maria Police sergeant Greg Carroll, who recently settled his lawsuit against the city, believes Chief Danny Macagni failed to properly investigate suspected prescription drug thefts involving one of the agency’s own officers.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

The officer who’s alleged to have complained refused to comment for this story.

At the time of the suspected thefts, Ralston said Friday was dealing with an injury that required doctor-prescribed medication.

“It was a legitimate injury,” Ralston said. “There was nothing illegitimate about it at all.”

Ralston added that as far as he knew, there was never any disciplinary action taken against the officer, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

 “I think it’s remote, but there’s a chance [Friday] could’ve been disciplined and we would have never known about it,” Ralston said. “There’s a chance.”

According to Rylant, who also worked in the officer bureau, it was believed around the station that the accused officer had an addiction to medications, which caused no small amount of concern.

“Everybody knew this was going on, and no one dealt with it,” Rylant said. “It wasn’t a surprise, but it was kind of a surprise to see it at this level. It blew me away.”

Carroll feels that the chief didn’t do enough to get help for someone who needed it.

Months passed, and Carroll claims whenever he inquired about the status of the complaints, he was told Macagni was taking care of it.

“I heard nothing back from it,” Carroll said. “I had actually made a suggestion to [Ralston] at the time that we should set up a sting and have this officer come in on a search warrant and plant some prescription meds in the room, and let him search it and see if they come up missing, that would definitely tell if he was involved or not. [Ralston] took it to the chief, because he thought it was a good idea, too, and the chief said, ‘No, I’ll handle it.’”

Carroll, who began working in Santa Maria in 1990 and won the department’s Supervisor of the Year award in 2001 and 2004, said he’d never seen anything like it before in his entire career.

“Internal Affairs should have been brought in,” he said. “I think the best way would have been to do a sting, because we do search warrants all the time, and it would be easy to set up a room and put some prescription drugs in there, let him search it without his knowledge and have IA [follow] it all the way through.

“People were shocked it was handled the way it was,” he added.

Coming to light

On June 17 of this year, former SMPD detective Rylant filed a citizen’s complaint with Santa Maria city attorney Gil Trujillo regarding the allegations against Friday. The complaint accuses Macagni of violating California Penal Code Sec. 832.5, a state law requiring police departments to conduct prompt investigations of suspected employee misconduct.


Chuck Rylant, former Santa Maria police detective
‘It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a surprise to see it at this level. It blew me away.’

“This is the most serious allegation I’ve ever been privy to during my fifteen-year law enforcement career, however, it was brushed under the carpet as being insignificant,” Rylant writes in the complaint. “If you study police corruption such as the famous Rampart scandal, it was City Council and City Management overlooking these serious seeds that led to even more serious corruption, such as drug sales and murder by police officers.”

In the highly publicized Rampart scandal, uncovered over the course of a decade in the early 2000s, more than 70 officers in the LAPD Rampart Division’s anti-gang unit were implicated in crimes ranging from stealing and planting evidence, to dealing drugs and gang activity.

“This is where it begins, with small crimes,” Rylant told the Sun. “When you overlook that kind of stuff, it keeps going and going.”

Former SMPD sergeant Carroll, who recently retired from the force, claims he has nothing to gain by coming forward with the allegations. However, it should be noted that in 2008, Carroll sued the city of Santa Maria, police chief Macagni, and city manager Tim Ness in federal court, alleging he’d been passed over for promotion in retaliation for his efforts as president of the Santa Maria Police Officer’s Association and subsequent public support of former police chief John Sterling, who retired after reaching a settlement with the city in 2003. Carroll won a $110,000 settlement in April.

According to Rylant and Carroll, complaints about Friday’s suspected misconduct never reached the department’s Internal Affairs lieutenant at the time, Chris Vaughan. Vaughan, currently employed by the SMPD, did not return the Sun’s requests for comment; however, the former officers’ claims appear to have been substantiated during a sworn deposition given by Chief Macagni in Carroll’s case on Nov. 29, 2010.

On page 90 of Macagni’s deposition, Macagni is asked about the complaints regarding Friday by Carroll’s attorney Michael McGill and a lawyer for the defense, Jeffery Stockley. The transcript of the deposition reads as follows:

Q: BY MR. MCGILL Who looked into it?

A: [MACAGNI] I don’t recall, I don’t remember.

Q: Okay. So the part of the paragraph here where it talks about it never going to IA, that’s inaccurate?

A: I don’t think it went to internal affairs per se. I know it was looked into, ’cause I remember there was some issues that came about, some medical issues that were revealed by another employee’s wife.

MR. STOCKLEY: Again, we don’t want to get into the detail of that.

THE WITNESS [Macagni]: Okay, there was some issues; it was looked into.

Q: BY MR. MCGILL: The part of the paragraph that talks about—Well, Carroll indicates that you, the chief, had asked the officer if he had taken medication, and the officer replied no.

Do you recall having that conversation with the officer?

A: No.

Q: So when you say it was looked into, you don’t actually recall what steps they took to look into it?

A: No, I don’t. I didn’t look into it personally. It was assigned to somebody.

Who the complaints might have been assigned to, as Macagni claims, remains a mystery. When the Sun asked him to comment on the revelation, Macagni said, through his secretary, that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of Carroll’s settlement and couldn’t speak about anything in his deposition.


Catherine Lombardo, defense attorney and law expert
‘For a chief to say, ‘I don’t know, I think it was investigated,’ or ‘No, we never really investigated it,’ I’d say he’s responsible for that.’

However, the Sun obtained a copy of the settlement, which contains no mention of a non-disclosure agreement by any of the parties involved.

Santa Maria city attorney Trujillo told the Sun that, as a result of Rylant’s citizen’s complaint against Macagni, Trujillo has instructed Macagni and all other city employees to refer questions about the alleged drug thefts and investigation to Trujillo’s office, a standard practice in ongoing investigations. Trujillo wouldn’t comment on any details of the case.

“It involves allegations against the chief, so it’s a personnel matter,” Trujillo said. “Pursuant to our statutory obligation, we investigate all citizen complaints, and we are doing that in this case.”

According to Trujillo, the city has retained a third party independent investigator, a retired Orange County Sheriff’s lieutenant named Art Romo, to examine Rylant’s allegations against Macagni and determine whether the complaints against Friday were ever seriously investigated. Romo has until June 17, 2012, to complete his inquiry.

“It’s necessary to preserve the integrity of the investigation that the investigator be able to look into all facts without any interference,” Trujillo said. “That’s just standard operating procedure.”

The thin blue line

Like most police departments, the SMPD employs an Internal Affairs (IA) officer to review citizen complaints, and if they’re found to have merit, forwards them to independent third parties for investigation. If the complaint involves someone above the IA officer’s rank, it’s immediately referred to an independent investigator. The purpose of the process is to protect citizens, individual officers, and the integrity of department.

Former SMPD lieutenant Ralston said, to his knowledge, the complaints raised against Friday didn’t follow the department’s normal procedures.

“We put it into a memo to go up the chain to be assigned to the Internal Affairs investigator. Normally it would have been handled in that manner,” Ralston said. “When we get a citizen’s complaint, it gets investigated to some degree. It doesn’t sound like this got investigated at all.”

By law, whenever a citizen complaint is issued, the Internal Affairs unit or similar internal policing body of the police department must conduct a formal investigation.

The Sun contacted Catherine Lombardo, a Los Angeles-based attorney and legal expert with a background in Internal Affairs investigations, to weigh in on the case. Lombardo said she was “shocked” the suspected thefts appear to have never been subject to an independent probe.

“Absolutely it should have gone to Internal Affairs,” Lombardo said. “It’s not just a rubber stamp process; it should be thoroughly investigated.

“If this case isn’t investigated, then the system is broken,” she continued. “Whether it’s frivolous or whether it has merit, every citizen complaint must be investigated.”

Serious inquiries into all citizen complaints are essential, she said, because the complaints are added to each officer’s personnel file, and can call into question the officer’s integrity as a witness. Lombardo said in this case, there could also be rights violations that have yet to be brought to light.

“If he took this lady’s prescription pills, that’s a civil rights violation and it’s a crime,” Lombardo said. “If this officer in fact committed a crime and a civil rights violation against a citizen while wearing a badge, and if it went un-investigated and the cop is still working, it’s pretty clear he violated their mission statement.”

In a smaller police department such as Santa Maria’s, Lombardo said, the buck stops on the chief’s desk.

“It’s not unreasonable to expect that the chief of police would have knowledge of and perhaps some responsibility for an investigation like this,” Lombardo said. “For a chief to say, ‘I don’t know, I think it was investigated,’ or ‘No, we never really investigated it,’ I’d say he’s responsible for that.”

Former SMPD officers Carroll and Rylant said they believe the Friday case was never subject to serious inquiry because the accused officer was a supporter and friend of Macagni’s. Not formally investigating the suspected thefts, they say, sets a dangerous precedent, hurts morale throughout the department, and could lead to more serious corruption, if it hasn’t already.

“We’re getting permission to break into somebody’s house to go steal their property. That is beyond everything,” Rylant told the Sun. “With these rare exceptions, a judge gives you permission to violate the Constitution and go into somebody’s house, but when the government oversteps the bounds, there are supposed to be checks and balances.”

According to law expert Lombardo, it’s common for cops to be protected by their supervisors. Incidents where officers are caught and convicted of stealing in a court of law are “very rare.” Equally rare are terminations as a result of citizen complaints.

In cases where investigators determine complaints to be “founded,” officers are usually offered counseling, or retraining first. Suspensions without pay may also be levied.

Like Rylant, Lombardo drew comparisons in the Friday case to the Rampart scandal, and said corruption, like a virus, tends to spread when alleged misdeeds are ignored.

“If there’s dirt inside a police department, a dirty cop, a dirty higher up, they bury things,” Lombardo said. “Was this buried? Maybe. Will the officer eventually be punished if the facts come out and it’s true? Absolutely.”

Lombardo added what could’ve been resolved at the outset on an individual basis now presents “a huge problem” for the SMPD.

“The entire department is going to be subject to ridicule, scrutiny, and questioning,” she said. “Now, all the focus is going to be on the department.” m

Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas can be contacted at jthomas@santamariasun.com.




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