Charles Samuel Couch, who grew up in Hawthorne, is attending Temple University on the East Coast this year, but the 22-year-old's dream had been to stay on the West Coast and attend perhaps Stanford or the University of Washington.
But an unsettling incident last year prompted the longtime Eagle Scout to get out of Southern California, after he was wrongfully, publicly, named by the Manhattan Beach Police Department for luring a boy into a public bathroom for sex.
His ordeal began in 2012 when Couch was arrested and charged with resisting arrest during a "gay sting" of a public bathroom near the Strand. His laptop with all his schoolwork on it was confiscated by a police officer and never returned, forcing him to drop out of El Camino College.
The cops soon acknowledged that they had mistakenly arrested Couch, and that should have been the end of things.
But then, an even worse event prompted Couch to move nearly 3,000 miles away.
On April 2, 2012, full-on personal disaster struck Couch: The Daily Breeze posted an online story about the sex sting and, in a kind of rogue's gallery of those arrested, it published his photo, name and city of residence. Two days later, the print version topped page A3; his photo ran on A6. (The photos aren't online anymore, apparently lost with others during a web system overhaul.)
"I was horrified," Couch says. "I was shocked."
He's now asking for $5 million in damages from the city of Manhattan Beach and 16 of its police officers for harassment, discrimination and violation of his rights. He also wants his name removed from the Internet in conjunction with the case.
"We're looking for the cops to file with the court a petition to seal and destroy the records of the arrest," Bruce Nickerson, Couch's attorney, says. "I will use that to try and get a factual finding of innocence from the court."
Couch's unusual case fits the old adage that no good turn goes unpunished.
Since his teenage years, Couch has volunteered to help people with special needs. At 18, he took a job with Cambrian Homecare in Long Beach in order to be a caregiver for a child identified in his lawsuit as "D.K.," the young son of a family he'd known most of his life.
"We have been longtime family friends through the same church," Couch says. "They began looking for someone to be a caregiver for their child — they approached me first."
D.K. suffers from Prader-Willi syndrome, a disease that causes an insatiable appetite, behavioral problems and incomplete sexual development.
Couch took D.K. on regular walks on the beach so that he'd get enough exercise. On March 9, 2012, as he and D.K. walked near Marine Avenue and the Strand, the boy needed to go to the bathroom. Couch found a public restroom, showed D.K. in and waited for him in the changing area.
"Another man came in, and we exchanged hellos and I didn't think much of it," Couch tells L.A. Weekly. "And he then went into one of the other stalls. A brief time later, the child came running out of the stall, very startled, and said, 'That man is looking at me through the hole.' At that time I said, 'OK, let's go.' "
That peeping Tom, it turned out, was allegedly undercover Manhattan Beach police officer John Nasori. Nasori and his fellow cops were conducting a sting — and the public bathroom they'd chosen was frequented by gay men cruising for sex.
"The police had received some complaints from lifeguards," Nickerson says, "chiefly that that particular bathroom was a place where gay persons meet to either go home or conceivably to engage in sexual conduct while they are inside the stall."
Couch knew none of this. As he and the boy hurried away from the peeping Tom, Nickerson says, Officer Nasori followed them, demanding, "Why are you leaving so quickly?"
Couch told D.K. to keep walking, but they soon were surrounded by several men who "looked like thugs," he recalls.
"In my mind, it was this child's safety," Couch says. "Initially I thought these guys probably have a malicious intent. It's likely they are gonna try to kidnap this kid for I don't know what reasons."
When Couch stood up against the men, "I was tackled, thrown to the ground . ... I had guys on top of me, other people grabbing my legs, arms."
The "thugs" turned out to be the beach city's police. The officers phoned the boy's parents and discovered that Couch really was his caregiver, and ultimately let him go with a "detention certificate" stating that he'd been arrested but not charged.
Yet the police weren't done with Couch. They refused to return his laptop for more than a year, Couch alleges, after having confiscated it from his car when a police officer said he needed to get D.K.'s backpack.
Nickerson says an officer ransacked Couch's car and took the computer from under a seat.
"He thinks there's kiddie porn there," a fed-up Nickerson says. "He still thinks my client is a pervert."
Manhattan Beach detectives found nothing incriminating, Nickerson says — just Couch's complicated computer science college work.
Eleven months later, Couch received a letter in which Manhattan Beach police informed him they were charging him with resisting arrest by an officer. A judge dropped the charges but not before Couch was compelled to attend several hearings.
What happened to Couch is atypical. But Jim Key, chief public affairs officer at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, says Couch's plight is one reason why sex-sting operations, and public release of names and photos of those involved, are problematic.
"We are opposed to the police department releasing the names and the pictures of these people who were simply charged with this victimless crime," Key says, in part "because there could be some people who are not guilty."
Key blasted Manhattan Beach for publishing names and photos of those arrested, saying that the singling out of gay men can ruin lives. "People in other cities who have been humiliated in a public manner have tried to kill themselves," he says.
Officials from the Gay and Lesbian Center have met with Manhattan Beach police to suggest better ways to clean up gay cruising locations, he says, and the organization has worked closely with the L.A. Police Department to minimize cruising.
But Key has received no indication that Manhattan Beach plans to change its ways.
"We would be happy to work with them," he says. With LAPD, "We worked to help spread the word, through LGBT media, social media and at public events, that that type of behavior will result in charges — you can be arrested."
On a broader level, Nickerson says gay stings are discriminatory. "They never do a sting operation with those kinds of officers if men are trying to pick up women — unless there is money involved," he says. "They only do it with men soliciting men."
That kind of bias, Key says, leads some gay men to cruise, because "a lot of people lead repressed or hidden lives, so they turn to this type of behavior."
Manhattan Beach police declined comment on Couch's federal lawsuit. Their lawyer, Eugene Ramirez, of Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester LLP, tells the Weekly, "I'm still looking to see if there are areas I can attack, or if we will just file our response."
Couch fears that his public naming by cops and the local newspaper — which potentially lives forever on Google — will hurt his career and dreams as he starts to look for internships in software engineering. His aim is to work for an organization such as NASA.
"Right now, I'm in the stage of my education career where internships are a very real thing," Couch tells the Weekly. Top employers, he says, "should be open to me. However, they do require a measure of security clearance, and ... I don't have the confidence of being able to check that box of saying, 'Yes, you may run a background check,' that they will find nothing."
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