The Ukiah Daily Journal
Local controversies mirror state and federal cases
An emerging pattern of police misconduct involving alleged sexual assaults is dogging Mendocino County prosecutors who remain stubbornly silent in the face of growing public scrutiny.
No doubt a string of local police misconduct cases involving beatings and alleged sexual assault is overshadowed by yet another national example of the deadly use of excessive police force. The brutal police beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis has plunged public confidence in law enforcement to a new low, according to the latest Washington POST-ABC News poll.
While rural Mendocino County is far removed from the national spotlight, it too has experienced excessive use of police force up close. Two known cases have cost the city of Ukiah taxpayers $1.3 million to settle with the victims.
Less than a year ago the city paid $211,000 to settle a federal lawsuit that alleged a naked, mentally ill man was knocked to the ground in 2020 and beaten by a squad of Ukiah officers.
In the highest profile case regarding the use of excessive force locally, Ukiah paid $1.1 million to settle another federal lawsuit filed by a disabled Navy veteran severely beaten by a disgraced police sergeant.
In that case Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster's office originally charged victim Christopher Rasku with resisting arrest after his violent encounter in 2018 with former Ukiah Police Sgt. Kevin Murray. It was later learned that Murray appeared to perjure himself during a preliminary court hearing.
The $1.1 million settlement on behalf of Rasku was won by Sonoma County attorney Izaak Schwaiger who filed the federal civil rights lawsuit against Murray and the Ukiah Police Department.
Schwaiger in 2020 also won a nearly $1.5 million settlement to settle civil rights lawsuits lodged by eight drivers who claimed rogue Rohnert Park police officers robbed them of money and marijuana during roadside stops along Highway 101 near the Sonoma County line with Mendocino County. In December, a federal grand jury indicted Joseph Huffaker, a seven-year veteran of the Rohnert Park police department, on new charges of impersonating a federal officer, falsifying records, and aiding and abetting, according to a superseding indictment filed Dec. 13 in the U.S. District Court for Northern District of California.
Mendocino County authorities have denied any knowledge of the actions of the Rohnert Park cops.
Lawyer Schwaiger, a Marine Corps veteran and a former Sonoma County prosecutor, is unsparing, however, in his criticism of policing in Mendocino County, and the role DA Eyster plays in it.
“Nowhere is there any less accountability than in Mendocino County,” he said.
Schwaiger said during
Eyster's decade-long tenure as the county's chief law enforcement officer the notion of prosecutors following the law and seeking justice has given way to an “us vs. them” attitude.
Eyster as an elected district attorney enjoys wide legal discretion and is in reality subject to little judicial oversight. In turn that gives him major influence on oversight of local police.
Nationwide the second ranking crime problem behind the excessive use of force involving police is alleged sexual assaults by police, and in that too Mendocino County ranks high.
Five women have now alleged in criminal cases and pending civil lawsuits that they were sexually assaulted by three local officers, including Ukiah's former police chief.
Besides fired Chief Noble Waidelich, the other two accused men are former Sgt. Murray, and Derek Hendry, a lieutenant with the Willits Police Department. Before that Hendry was an eight-year veteran of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office.
DA Eyster refuses to publicly comment on the emergence of the local police misconduct pattern or why he supported a controversial plea deal last summer that allowed three serious sex charges to be dropped in a criminal case against Murray.
Eyster also will not publicly address the status of months-old investigations into the allegations of sexual misconduct against the other two cops, and why the cases languish unresolved with no public explanation.
While Eyster boasts that he in fact is the county's “chief law enforcement officer” he will not publicly discuss prosecution policies as they relate to the growing number of assault allegations against local cops.
Also under question is the district attorney's apparent selective use of legal disclosure requirements surrounding suspected police misconduct.
Decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a prosecutor has a legal duty to turn over to the defense any evidence that might impeach a material prosecution witness. The result is a so-called “Brady List” that is entirely up to the discretion of district attorneys.
In one high profile local case, Eyster used the Brady obligation to suppress a woman deputy probation officer who filed domestic violence and economic abuse allegations against her live-in partner — a then Ukiah police officer named Noble Waidelich. He rose through the ranks and was eventually promoted to police chief in November 2021.
Within a year, however, Waidelich was fired by city officials after he became entangled in a still pending sexual assault claim from another Ukiah woman. He was accused of being in his police chief uniform at the time he went to the woman's home and demanded oral sex.
Eyster used the Brady provision to label Waidelich's former live-in partner Amanda Carley untruthful as the result of a sheriff's department investigation into her 2017 domestic violence and economic abuse complaints. Waidelich, a local cop who ranked high in local law enforcement circles, was not prosecuted.
Eyster's labeling of Carley led to her being stripped of her abilities to be a peace officer and carry a gun while taking errant parolees into custody or protect herself, if necessary, while on duty dealing with convicts on probation. Eventually Carley left Mendocino County after securing a state investigator's job in Southern California. She recently settled civil litigation against the county of Mendocino, and Waidelich.
Eyster also used the Brady label to go after a newly hired Willits cop in 2019 when the DA was engaged in a feud with the then acting Police Chief Scott Warnock. Officer Jacob Jones, who had left the Eureka Police Department under a police misconduct cloud, was branded with the Brady label by Eyster, blocking local prosecutors from using him as a witness in local criminal court proceedings.
Eyster publicly ripped Warnock, widely distributing a letter to North Coast media castigating the then police chief for withholding background information on the former Eureka officer.
But the DA'S stance on police misconduct disclosure apparently is selective.
When former Mendocino County Sheriff's Deputy Derek Hendry was fired for dishonesty involving pay and reimbursement claims, Eyster did not impose a Brady listing on him. The dismissed sheriff's deputy was subsequently hired by the same Willits police force that Eyster had earlier publicly reprimanded.
Now Hendry, promoted over time to become a lieutenant with Willits police, is the latest local law enforcement officer to be accused of sexually assaulting a woman while on duty and in uniform.
Hendry was fired from the Willits department last June and is the focus of the second outside probe into local sexual assault claims against Mendocino County law enforcement officers in the past year.
Hendry also figured prominently in a civil lawsuit filed by former Willits Police Chief Alexis Blaylock who quit in 2020 just a month after taking the helm because she reportedly faced a hostile work environment, harassment, sexism and racism. In late 2022, the city of Willits agreed to pay Blaylock $250,000 to settle her lawsuit.
With those and other cases looming in the background, DA Eyster's silence on the three sexual assault allegations is deafening to alleged victims, their attorneys and the public at large.
Attorney Jessyca Hoagland, a former Mendocino County public defender, is now with a Santa Rosa law firm that recently filed a new civil lawsuit on behalf of a woman who originally agreed to testify in the criminal sexual assault case against Murray. The woman, a friend of a former fiancée of Murray's, claims he twice sexually assaulted her and she was aghast to learn last summer that the DA dropped all felony sex charges against the cop as part of a plea bargain.
Hoagland said, “At the very least in order to maintain transparency with an already skeptical and concerned public, Eyster should make a public statement.”
It could be even as simple, said Hoagland, as updating the public “that the investigations have been concluded, and that a determination was made that prosecution is forthcoming, or in the alternative that there is not enough evidence to warrant prosecution.”
So far there is no indication that DA Eyster intends to update the public about any of the local police misconduct cases.
Eyster broke established office policy last summer by not issuing any post-sentencing statement about the conclusion of Murray's criminal case. He continues, however, to write his own press releases about the outcomes of other Mendocino County trials including misdemeanor DUI cases.
While Eyster refuses to discuss any of the police misconduct cases publicly, behind the scenes he blames local judges for trial delays, witnesses who are either uncooperative or lack credibility, and “mischaracterizations” of the cases in local news coverage.
Experienced law enforcement leaders are concerned about the rising level of police misconduct cases here, and across the state and nation.
They believe there is little doubt that the “bad apples” among the hundreds of competent, hard-working law enforcement officers in the county are few, but the damage they do to public perception of law enforcement is immense.
“Even a small number of police misconduct cases tarnish the badge so many of us have worked hard to achieve,” said new Fort Bragg Police Chief Neil Cervenka.
Cervenka last week joined his Sonoma County counterparts in immediately publicly condemning the brutal beating and killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. He was the only Mendocino County law enforcement official to do so.
“The officers involved brought shame upon their badges and the law enforcement profession as a whole. They betrayed their oaths, their department, their community, and their country,” said Cervenka.
Cervenka is a newcomer to Mendocino County law circles, but he brings with him 22 years of law enforcement experience in the Central Valley. He is a second vice president of the 27,000 member California Peace Officers Association.
Cervenka said police body cameras can readily identify perpetrators of violent assaults, but they do not typically document sexual assault cases, the allegations against officers that tend to be most difficult to prove in a courtroom.
Medical exams are helpful but they only document physical injuries suffered during rapes. More often it is the victim's words, and background, that goes up against the status of the accused officer.
“They are difficult cases, and sometimes there is just no evidence to support the allegations,” said Cervenka.
Santa Rosa attorney Hoagland and others agree sexual assault cases are difficult to prove in court, especially those involving police. If investigations drag on, or prosecutors decide to let a case “grow a beard” in hopes it will go away, potential witnesses often fold.
Philip Stinson is a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who is a national expert on police crimes and misconduct.
Stinson was quoted in a recent NPR Network/kqed report that policing today “is a closed-door society, it's an us-vs-them mentality.”
“There's a blue wall of silence in many places,” said Stinson. “Sexual misconduct is such a normalized part of the police subculture in many places across the country. It's just business as usual.”
Sonoma County lawyer Schwaiger agrees.
“Police violence is less about race than the popular narrative tells us. It is about the psychology of power and the us-versusthem mentality that permeates modern policing.”
Hoagland's co-attorney Richard Sax said Murray's alleged rape victim is determined to find justice through her newly filed civil litigation targeting the disgraced Sgt. Murray.
“We won't let him (Murray) off the hook like the DA did,” vowed Sax.
“Even a small number of police misconduct cases tarnish the badge so many of us have worked hard to achieve.” — Fort Bragg Police Chief Neil Cervenka