By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
An 11-year veteran of the L.A. County District Attorney‘s Office, Ceballos has earned a reputation as a tough, ethical prosecutor. Now he is suing two of his supervisors and former D.A. Gil Garcetti in federal court, claiming they retaliated against him after he alleged that L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies made up information to obtain a search warrant in an auto-parts theft case. No trial date for Ceballos‘ civil action has been set.
The suit alleges a “historical custom and practice in the D.A.’s Office” to protect and cover up police officers who engage in misconduct, and encourage law-enforcement agencies to “enforce the police officer code of silence.”
“I believe my supervisors, Pomona Head Deputy Frank Sundstedt and Assistant Head Deputy Carol Najera, set aside their ethical obligations to satisfy a request for prosecution made by Sheriff‘s officers,” Ceballos said in an interview.
Ceballos’ transformation into whistle blower began in late February, when a defense attorney claimed that Sheriff‘s deputies Daniel Spitulski, Murray Simpkins and Detective Keith Wall had lied on a search-warrant affidavit. The warrant, signed by Magistrate Thomas Falls, a former deputy district attorney, led to the arrests of Randy Longoria, Michael Cuskey and Douglas Ojala in August 1999.
Ceballos said he was skeptical when he began his investigation. As calendar deputy for that office, his duties included supervision of all ongoing prosecutions. He reviewed the file, talked with Detective Wall, who has since been promoted to detective sergeant, and visited the scene of the arrests.
Ceballos discovered that Sheriff’s deputies had actually been looking for stolen auto parts and had ended up arresting the three men on weapons and methamphetamine charges. Ceballos also learned that deputies had brought along a narcotics-sniffing dog to assist in their auto-parts search. However, no auto parts were ever identified as stolen.
Cuskey‘s property was a veritable auto junkyard, and Ceballos learned that it had been targeted by a joint county--Sheriff’s Department zoningabatement team for cleanup. Deputies Simpkins and Spitulski, he discovered, had gone to the property several times, and Cuskey had responded to the pressure by filing a federal lawsuit charging harassment. The case was eventually dismissed, but the battle lines between Cuskey and the deputies had been drawn.
Ceballos told the Weekly that he found factual discrepancies in the affidavit. Deputies claimed they followed truck-tire tracks to a “driveway” that led directly to Cuskey‘s house. However, Ceballos said, the so-called “driveway” was actually an access road shared by all the residents on the street. The road, he continued, was a mixture of asphalt, gravel and dirt, making it impossible for anyone to follow tracks along its surface.
In addition, an abandoned truck was found about 400 feet away from Cuskey’s property, not the 30 feet later claimed in court by these deputies during the hearing to dismiss the search warrant.
They also got the address wrong on the search warrant. Wall wrote that the deputies found a stripped-down pickup parked across from “214 3rd Street in Bassett,” an unincorporated area of the county. The correct address was 241 Third Street. Spitulski and Simpkins said they inadvertently transposed the number.
“I believe the deputies‘ real purpose was always to look for narcotics, and they used the abandoned truck as a red herring to disguise their intention,” Ceballos said.
In March, Ceballos gave Frank Sundstedt a memo accusing the deputies of making statements or omissions of fact that were “deliberately false, or in reckless disregard of the truth.”
Ceballos wanted to quash the search warrant and dismiss the cases against Cuskey, Longoria and Ojala. He then gave Sundstedt a second memo, charging that Wall had asked him to change a word on the already served search warrant. Ceballos refused to replace the word tracks with gouges. “That change would have created a more believable scenario,” he said, since it was impossible to follow tracks on the driveway.
Ceballos ADDEDTHAT his office problems began in March with a “confrontational” meeting with his supervisors -- Sundstedt and Najera -- and Sheriff’s representatives.
“The Sheriff‘s people verbally attacked me. They demanded I be removed from the case because I was acting like a defense attorney,” he recalled. “And Captain [Robert] Binkley said the department was concerned the arrestees would file a lawsuit if we dismissed the case.” Ceballos had no intention of backing down, but almost immediately thereafter, his supervisors directed him to end all involvement with the case.
Ceballos said he accused Sundstedt and Najera of “kowtowing” to the Sheriff’s Department‘s fear of civil litigation. The only positive development, he said, was that Sundstedt agreed to free Ojala before his sentence was finished. Ojala had previously accepted a plea bargain of six months in County Jail, said Ceballos.
His problems, he said, intensified when the defense subpoenaed him as a witness at a hearing held to examine the legality of the search warrant. Ceballos said Najera tried to “dissuade” him from testifying, a criminal violation that she denies. They also argued, he said, over his “factual conclusions” and the D.A.’s “Brady obligation” to give his memo to the defense. (This refers to the 1963 federal case Brady vs. Maryland, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors must turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense.)