Ten members of Antioch and Pittsburg, California law enforcement were charged in a federal investigation into corruption. The probe found that the officers had also committed civil rights violations, fraud, and lying on police reports to cover up the use of excessive force, according to Ismail J. Ramsey, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California.
On August 17, 2023, a federal grand jury indicted the officers on charges for various crimes ranging from excessive force to fraud, announced U.S. Attorney Ramsey and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Special Agent in Charge Robert K. Tripp. The charges were described by U.S. Attorney Ramsey and Special Agent in Charge Tripp at a press conference held Thursday.
“Police officers promise to enforce laws for the protection of the public and to protect the rights of the accused,” said U.S. Attorney Ramsey. “That is the job. The indictments describe officers who are alleged to have violated this oath. When this happens, the damage done to the public trust cannot easily be calculated. This office will not rest until all persons who have engaged in this sort of behavior are apprehended and prosecuted.”
“This case is one of the highest priorities for the San Francisco Field Office,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Tripp. “Law enforcement officers bear a tremendous responsibility to police our communities lawfully in keeping with the Constitution, and we must always be true to that guiding principle. I want to extend my sincere appreciation to the FBI agents, analysts, and law enforcement partners who worked tirelessly on this case and whose efforts culminated in the operations today.”
During the press conference, U.S. Attorney Ramsey described the first indictment as the “college degree benefits fraud indictment” after six of those charged engaged in a conspiracy to defraud police departments out of taxpayer dollars, including the Antioch and Pittsburg Police Departments in California. The officers claimed they had earned college credits toward degrees when they instead paid others to attend classes and take exams for them.
Beginning in June of 2019, Officer Patrick James Berhan of the Pittsburg Police Department utilized a person identified as “Individual 1” to complete multiple college courses for him. The courses were credited toward Officer Berhan’s completion of a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice. After Officer Berhan received the degree he applied for and received reimbursements and pay raises from the Pittsburg Police Department.
The indictment also alleges Officer Berhan “promoted Individual 1’s services” and “benefited from payments received by Individual 1 in furtherance of the scheme.” The indictment describes how five other members of both police departments retained Individual 1 to complete similar coursework from the university. Individual 1 was paid to obtain a degree based on fraudulent coursework. The other officers also applied for benefits including reimbursements and increases in pay from their law enforcement employer.
The second indictment charged two officers with conspiring to distribute anabolic steroids. The indictment describes how Officers Daniel Harris and Devon Wenger – both employed by the Antioch Police Department – conspired to distribute the illegal drugs to a customer who is unnamed. The indictment also alleges that Harris possessed and attempted to possess the drugs and that Wenger attempted to delete evidence of the scheme from his cellular phone prior to handing the phone over to law enforcement officers.
The third indictment charged one officer, Timothy Allen Manly Williams (Manly), also then with the Antioch Police Department. The three charges – two involving alleged interference with a wiretap investigation and the third involving the illegal seizure and destruction of a cell phone. The charges allege that on March 23, 2021, Manly was assigned to a “wire room” where he was supposed to monitor communications between a target and others who contacted the target by telephone pursuant to a court order.
While monitoring the target, Manly allegedly used his personal cellphone, dialed a special code to ensure his number would not appear to others, and called a target of the investigation. After dialing the number, Manly also designated his call to the target to be “non-pertinent” ensuring the 14-second conversation would not be recorded. Manly also allegedly altered the wire logs to suggest that his call resulted in no answer and no audio.
The third indictment further alleges that on May 6, 2021, Manly was on the scene when another officer deployed a police dog while arresting a person. Upon seeing a witness recording the aftermath of the incident, Manly seized the witness’s telephone and destroyed it.
The fourth indictment charges three Antioch police officers – Morteza Amiri, Eric Rombough, and Devon Wenger – with conspiracy against rights and deprivation of rights under color of law. The 29-page indictment describes how the defendants allegedly communicated with each other and others about using and intending to use excessive force against individuals in and around Antioch.
The uses of excessive force included the deployment of a K9, the deployment of a 40mm “less lethal” launcher, and other unnecessary violence. The indictment also alleges the defendants deployed uses of force as “punishment beyond any punishment appropriately imposed by the criminal justice system,” and allegedly made repeated reference to or suggestion of violating the civil rights of their victims.
Some examples in the indictment include the following:
- On July 24, 2019, Amiri allegedly pulled over a bicyclist, identified as A.A., for failing to have lights on after dark. The indictment alleges that “[i]n the course of apprehending A.A., Amiri punched him multiple times; K9 Purcy then bit A.A. in the arm, injuring him.” Amiri then shared pictures of the victim’s wounds with other Antioch police officers who exchanged text messages including: “Yeah buddy good boy pursy,” “Fuck that turd.” Amiri later stated “Detectives already called PRCS and got him a 45-day violation and we are gonna leave it at that so i don’t have to go to court for the bite. easy.” In response to a question from another officer about what cut the dog’s face, Amiri responded, “that’s a piece of the suspect’s flesh lol.”
- On October 8, 2020, Amiri allegedly sent a text message identifying a transient living in Antioch identified as M.Z. stating, “anyone that finds him gets code [a free meal]. This fucker stole my mail and was trying to open accounts under my name.” Wenger responded, “Lets beat his fucking ass I’m down after work morty”. The recipients of Amiri’s message located M.Z. later that evening. Amiri then arrived on the scene, shoved M.Z. against a wall, and threatened to kill him. The indictment also alleges that a few months later Amiri texted another group of officers in reference to M.Z., “few months ago, I tracked him down and dragged him to the back of a car to ‘discuss’ the matter,” and “putting a pistol in someone’s mouth and telling them to stop stealing isn’t illegal … it’s an act of public service to prevent further victims of crimes”
- On May 5, 2021, Rombough accompanied other Antioch police officers who responded to a report that transients were living inside a privately-owned unit. While responding, Rombough and another officer located a couple lying on a bed inside a room. Rombough deployed a 40mm less lethal launcher at one of the persons on the bed, hitting them in the chest and knocking them off the bed.
- On August 24, 2021, Rombough accompanied other Antioch police officers as they executed a search warrant at a residence in Antioch. Officers located a subject—identified as J.W.—inside a locked bedroom holding a video game controller while sitting on an air mattress, with a video game on a television screen. J.W. removed a pair of headphones and raised his hands as officers, including Rombough, entered the room. One officer took J.W.’s left arm to arrest him as four other officers surrounded J.W. As the other officer held J.W.’s left arm on the bed, Rombough deployed the 40mm less lethal launcher at J.W., injuring him.
During the investigation into corruption, authorities found strings of text messages between as many as 45 Antioch cops using racial slurs, describing violence against suspects, and violence against Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe who is Black. The texts contain language describing Balck people as “gorillas” and the n-word was used at least a dozen times. The texts also mentioned recently retired Police Chief Steven Ford, who is also Black, in racially derogatory terms and they also contained homophobic slurs and suggested violence against unhoused people.
In one text, an officer wrote: “lol putting a pistol in someone’s mouth and telling them to stop stealing isn’t illegal… it’s an act of public service to prevent further victims of crimes.” Because of the texts, 45 of Antioch’s roughly 100 officers were placed on leave.
“Today’s announcement reporting the arrest of current and former APD officers is disheartening and undermines the incredible work our staff does on a daily basis,” said Antioch Police Department’s acting Chief Joe Vigil via a statement. “Any police officer who breaks public trust must be held accountable, especially because our effectiveness relies heavily on confidence and support from our community. I would like to thank the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office, California Department of Justice, and United States Attorney’s Office for their diligence in this investigation. From the beginning of this investigation, our administration has been fully cooperating with these agencies, and will continue to do so. No individual – including a police officer – is above the law.”
“In September 2021, the Pittsburg Police Department became aware of allegations of illegal activity by an employee,” said a statement from the Pittsburg Police Department. “Pittsburg PD immediately contacted the District Attorney’s Office and asked it to conduct a criminal investigation. That investigation, which the FBI joined, led to a Grand Jury indictment and the arrest of two former Pittsburg employees and several current and former officers from the Antioch Police Department. Consistent with our previous statements, we cannot expand on the details of this allegation as there is an ongoing investigation and, now, a criminal proceeding. The Pittsburg Police Department will continue cooperating with investigators from the FBI and Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office.”
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