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It started with the kind of minor accident that doesn't even require a police response: no one hurt, no serious damage to either car. But the Manhattan Beach Police Department bungled it so badly that serious damage was done to taxpayers and the department's reputation.

A routine exchange of information could have prevented all the craziness that followed. But after a night of drinking, three off-duty cops crammed into a two-seat Corvette kept going until their crash-damaged car stalled out — just far enough away from the accident to justify the words hit-and-run.

Two years later, it has blown up into a seriously skewed small-town scandal that has dragged in the L.A. County Sheriff and the district attorney, cost the three cops their jobs and cost Manhattan Beach taxpayers more than half a million dollars.

So far.

Throw in a police chief who compared two of the fired cops to al-Qaida terrorists and those same cops demanding $20 million because they fear the federal government is keeping them under surveillance, and you have a Keystone Kops spectacle that has both horrified and amused South Bay residents.

“It's like a three-ring circus that charges too much for admission,” says Bill Victor, a former Manhattan Beach resident who owns property there. “You don't know whether to laugh or cry.”

The crazy case reached new heights of absurdity in November, when two former Manhattan Beach police officers — both involved in the original minor car crash — demanded $10.3 million each from the city, claiming they had been unfairly terminated by a vengeful police chief who compared them to Osama bin Laden.

The decision by Eric Eccles, 36, and Kristopher Thompson, 31, to hire a lawyer — paid for by their police union — and to demand more than $20 million sparked a wave of outrage in this small seaside suburb of 33,000 residents.

“It's preposterous. They're trying to take advantage of a situation they created with their own irresponsible actions,” says Gerry O'Connor, a 25-year Manhattan Beach homeowner. “It's an incredible display of the growing sense of entitlement among public employees.”

The tort claim, a legal requirement before a lawsuit can be filed, was rejected by the city last month. Asked if they now planned to file a lawsuit, Eccles told L.A. Weekly: “All our legal options are being considered.”

Eccles, Thompson and Richard Hatten, 36, were fired from their jobs as police due to events arising from an evening of drinking two years ago, on Jan. 31, 2010, at Grunions Sports Bar on Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach.

The minor accident, grossly mishandled by those involved, quickly ballooned into an ugly drama, with Manhattan Beach police chief Rod Uyeda asking Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to conduct an independent probe.

A few minutes after they left Grunions, Hatten rear-ended a car near the intersection of Sepulveda and Manhattan Beach Boulevard, according to published reports.

But instead of stopping, the reports explained, Hatten allegedly kept going, with the two other cops as passengers, and made a right-hand turn onto 11th Street. His car stalled near the corner of 11th and Dianthus Street.

The driver who was rear-ended called the Manhattan Beach Police Department and described the Corvette that had struck him and vanished.

Once the Corvette stalled, Eccles and Thompson fled on foot, according to the published reports, while Hatten remained with his car. When fellow Manhattan Beach police officer Jeff Goodrich responded to the victim's 911 call, he found his colleague Hatten with the Corvette.

According to an internal investigation, a knowledgeable City Hall source who has reviewed it says Hatten told Goodrich he was not the driver and did not offer that officers Eccles and Thompson had been his passengers. Hatten also told Goodrich that “a guy he met at the bar” had been driving.

Meanwhile, officers Eccles and Thompson fled on foot back to Grunions, jumped into Thompson's pickup and drove back to the stalled Corvette. But when they spotted Officer Goodrich, they kept going, the investigation found.

The day after the accident, the source says, Hatten changed his story. He admitted to police chief Uyeda that he had been the Corvette's driver. Uyeda suspended Hatten but was still unaware that Eccles and Thompson had been his passengers.

Lying low, the city source says, Eccles and Thompson skipped their next scheduled shift and did not tell the command staff about their involvement in the hit-and-run. Finally, two days after the collision, Eccles told Uyeda that he and Thompson had been in the Corvette. Uyeda placed the two officers on paid administrative leave.

Goodrich, the investigating officer, also was put on administrative leave; he died of brain cancer 10 months later.

Eccles and attorney Bill Seki — who represents both Eccles and Thompson — declined to comment on the sequence of actions on the night of the accident and in the days following.

Two parallel investigations launched in early 2010 — by the sheriff and by Uyeda — took about a year. During that time, however, Eccles and Thompson racked up huge payments to stay home from work: Eccles got $171,398 and Thompson $160,459 in salary, pension, benefits and unused vacation time.

On March 18, 2011, Uyeda fired Eccles, Thompson and Hatten. In August, Hatten pleaded no contest to leaving the scene of an accident and was fined $1,000, with three years' probation and 45 days of community roadwork.

The Justice System Integrity Division of the L.A. County District Attorney issued a statement: “There is no evidence that indicates Eccles and Thompson aided, abetted or encouraged Hatten's actions in leaving the scene of the accident. The Vehicle Code does not place any responsibility upon passengers to return to the scene.”

Some disgusted Manhattan Beach residents felt officers Eccles and Thompson, despite being cleared of criminal charges, deserved termination.

“Hatten had to be fired because he was the driver, and it doesn't matter that Eccles and Thompson were cleared of criminal charges,” Victor says. “As sworn officers of the law, they have responsibilities beyond the normal layman. They were in a car involved in a hit-and-run, but instead of reporting it, they covered it up for two days.”

Now the two officers are contemplating making serious money — from taxpayers — to compensate them for the way they were treated after they allegedly confessed their role in the crash.

Attorney Seki says Uyeda failed to abide by the Manhattan Beach Police Department's policy of “progressive discipline.” Seki says, “There were other officers involved in situations far more serious than this one, and they are still employed there.” He notes Eccles and Thompson, both Medal of Valor winners for heroic actions during their police careers, had only a few minor discipline issues.

Uyeda, who retired in April, did not respond to messages from L.A. Weekly.

The two officers say Uyeda fired them on the basis of “years of personal dislike.” They claimed that Uyeda, in internal communications circulated after they were terminated, compared them to al-Qaida terrorists.

In their colorful and sometimes unintentionally humorous matching claims for taxpayer money, the officers state: “The infamy and negative connotations associated with that horrible faction [al-Qaida] have left me scared, distraught and uncertain.”

They even say their “patriotism” was so tarnished by Uyeda's bin Laden jibe that they now fear “unprovoked acts of aggression and … government scrutiny in the name of national security.”

The two officers have appealed their firings. An administrative hearing was held the first week of December, but a ruling is not expected for several months.

The officers insist they're now so reviled in Manhattan Beach that they've considered changing their names and leaving the country.

“I'll be glad to drive them to the airport,” Victor says. “I'll drive carefully. I wouldn't want to get into an accident with those two cops around.”

Reach the writer at paulteetor@ verizon.net.

LA Weekly