A relaxed but determined Richard Ceballos sips his java inside a Pasadena coffeehouse and reflects on life as a whistle blower.
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.)
“Carol ordered me to prepare a new memo, which would contain only the deputies‘ statements and omit my factual determinations,” he said. “I told her that would be unethical and refused to do it.” Ultimately, a version with some information crossed out was turned over. Pomona Judge David Milton, another former deputy district attorney, eventually denied the defense’s motion to dismiss the warrant. Cuskey was ultimately convicted; then Longoria accepted a plea bargain. Like Ojala, Cuskey and Longoria got a six-month sentence with the option of either doing Caltrans roadwork or reporting to the county‘s tree farm, Ceballos said.
Ceballos claims he was then demoted from calendar deputy to trial deputy, had a murder case pulled from him, was forcibly transferred to El Monte, and was denied a promotion even though he had scored in the top rank of tested deputies and received a 100 percent evaluation from Sundstedt. (Ceballos also received glowing evaluations from Sundstedt in 1998 and 1999.)
The D.A.’s Office and Captain Binkley declined comment on Ceballos‘ federal lawsuit. Sergeant Wall said he won’t comment on the specifics of Ceballos‘ allegations.
However, an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Media Relations spokesperson said, “Upon receiving information from DDA Ceballos, about the alleged misconduct by personnel from the Industry Station, a full investigation by Internal Affairs into the actions of these deputies and supervisors was initiated.”
The Sheriff‘s Department submitted a case involving Wall, the author of the search-warrant affidavit, to the D.A.’s Special Investigations Division (SID). The case was rejected for prosecution on November 3 because of “insufficient evidence.” Deputy District Attorney Jim Cosper, who rejected the case, said he had no doubt that Ceballos was well-intentioned: “However, I reviewed the complete file and didn‘t find any evidence to suggest or prove beyond a reasonable doubt that criminal misconduct had occurred.”
Cosper also denied that there was any conflict of interest in having the D.A.’s Office review this matter since Ceballos has filed suit against the department. “That is why SID is an isolated unit,” he said. “I had no idea that Ceballos had filed suit when the case was brought to me for review. However, Mr. Ceballos is certainly free to ask the state Attorney General‘s Office to review the matter if that is a concern to him.”
An angry Sundstedt called Ceballos a “goddamn liar.”
“His lawsuit is an assault on the integrity of this office, and that of the Sheriff’s Department,” continued Sundstedt. “It‘s nothing more than a thinly veiled, politically motivated attempt to affect the outcome of the election for D.A.”
Ceballos filed his lawsuit on October 18, a month before voters ousted Gil Garcetti. Newly elected D.A. Steve Cooley, the alleged beneficiary of Ceballos’ suit, told the L.A. Weekly, “I don‘t know Ceballos. I have never talked to him about anything, and he was not a contributor to my campaign.”
Sundstedt adamantly denies that Ceballos was ever demoted, and claims that Ceballos sued only because he didn’t get his promotion.
“Ceballos was never dissuaded from testifying at the search-warrant hearing, or threatened with retaliation. Nor did he ever accuse me and Carol of ‘kowtowing’ to the Sheriff‘s Department. Those are just more of his lies,” reiterated Sundstedt.
When Ceballos gave him his first memo, said Sundstedt, he told him that his concerns would be investigated. “And that’s what we did. Ceballos was alleging these deputies had committed crimes. But no one ever elected him judge and jury.”
Najera said she was shocked and saddened by Ceballos‘ charges. “It is totally untrue that I tried to dissuade Richard from testifying at the hearing. That is just ridiculous. I never told him he would be in trouble for testifying or expressing his opinions. He’s just making things up because he didn‘t get promoted.”
Najera also insists she told Ceballos to write a second report only because she believed his first memo included work product, which the D.A.’s Office is not required to turn over to the defense. Although Najera acknowledged that Sheriff‘s personnel discussed the litigious nature of these defendants, “They never said, ’Please, please, file this case or we will get sued,‘” she said.
Ceballos’ federal lawsuit has fueled ongoing charges from defense attorneys that the D.A.‘s Office regularly withholds exculpatory evidence, in violation of the Brady decision. His misconduct allegations against Sheriff’s personnel have also focused renewed attention on another criminal case involving these same deputies.
Last June, defense attorney Luis Carrillo filed a complaint with Sundstedt, Ceballos‘ former boss, claiming that deputies Simpkins and Spitulski had falsified probable cause, conducted an illegal search and engaged in racial profiling in an April arrest of his former client Annese Ramirez on a drug charge. Ramirez ultimately accepted a plea-bargain agreement.
Carrillo said Sundstedt never responded to his complaint. “Nor did I, or the court-appointed attorney who took over the case, ever receive Ceballos’ memos, as required by federal case law,” he said.
Sundstedt acknowledged receipt of Carrillo‘s letter, but contends that his office had no obligation to turn over Ceballos’ memos. “A judge had previously rejected defense claims, in the Cuskey case, that these deputies had falsified probable cause,” Sundstedt said.
However, Gigi Gordon, chairwoman of the Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments Panel of the L.A. County Bar Association and court-appointed defense attorney in the Rampart investigation, emphatically disagrees. “Regardless of who is right or wrong, once Ceballos committed his conclusions of officer misconduct to paper, it became Brady material. The D.A. was then required to turn it over.” She added, “After that, it was up to the defense to decide what to do with it.”