By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
A Bad Break
Robert Zilliott's drinking problem had cost him nearly everything. But he was stone-cold sober when a Laguna Beach cop broke his bones
Robert Zilliott just wanted to lie on the sand and forget his problems.
It was just before noon on June 24, 2006, a beautiful summer day in Laguna Beach, one of the most scenic and serene beach towns in California. Zilliott, a recovering alcoholic who had been out of work for months, walked across Pacific Coast Highway from his mother's apartment, where he'd had been sleeping ever since his second wife in a row had walked out on him. He went down the staircase next to the Montage Resort & Spa, one of the most expensive hotels in the country, and stepped onto Treasure Island Beach.
He would later regret leaving his wallet—and, more important, his identification—at home. With his beach towel and a pack of cigarettes in hand and wearing a T-shirt, a pair of swim trunks and sandals, Zilliott looked pretty much like your average beach-goer. Except for the alcohol-monitoring band on his ankle, of course. A few months earlier, Zilliott had volunteered to wear the device, which tested his perspiration for alcohol every 30 minutes, after he'd been arrested for drunk driving, a second offense that otherwise would have sent him to the county jail.
As Zilliott strolled along the sand below the Montage, he looked across the Pacific Ocean, took a deep breath and smiled. Thanks to alcohol, he'd lost two marriages, two daughters, a career as a lawyer and a succession of jobs. But now he'd been sober for 82 days. He felt great. Maybe, just maybe, he'd finally turned his life around.
Within an hour, Zilliott would be on his way to a hospital with a broken wrist and a smashed hand, charged with resisting arrest and assaulting and battering police officers. It all started when a man on the beach—Zilliott was later told the person was a guest at the Montage—spotted Zilliott's conspicuous ankle decoration and alerted a pair of beach-patrol officers, saying that as a father of young children, he worried for their safety and wondered if the man with the ankle band was some kind of sex offender.
What happened on the beach in the shadow of the Montage led to Zilliott's conviction in December 2007 on charges of battery and resisting arrest. It is also the subject of a federal civil-rights case, although Zilliott, the plaintiff, doesn't currently have an attorney. Along with the bizarre death in April 2007 of a couple staying at the Montage—who engaged in a shootout with police after other guests reported seeing one of them running around naked at the hotel—it's an incident that casts a disturbing shadow on Laguna Beach's well-earned reputation as a peaceful respite from the madness of the rest of Orange County, where officer-involved shootings and allegations of police brutality are commonplace.
In the past few years, violent crime has been on the rise in Laguna. Police say there have been four bank robberies in the coastal town the past year alone. Perhaps more than any other chunk of real estate, the Montage Resort & Spa is supposed to be a sanctuary. Even the police hold their annual breakfast there. The last thing guests want to see while paying hundreds or thousands of dollars per night to stay at the hotel is a guy walking down the beach who looks like he's just gone AWOL from a house-arrest program. But nothing could have prepared them for the violent confrontation that ensued when Zilliott found himself surrounded on the beach by beach patrol officers and a plainclothes cop and decided that he had as much right to be there as any hotel guest.
* * *
On a recent rainy afternoon, Robert Zilliott drinks a cup of cold water. He looks exhausted, his eyes rheumy above a stubble-covered face. Because of his two drunk-driving convictions, he doesn't drive a car. He lives in a Christian sober living home in Huntington Beach and has just taken a bus halfway across the county on his one day off each week from his minimum-wage job stocking furniture at a warehouse. He speaks in a gentle, patient voice, confessing his sins in a blunt, matter-of-fact tone that suggests a certain familiarity with Alcoholics Anonymous, a program of which Zilliott concedes he's long been an active member.
His problems with the law began years before his arrest on Treasure Island Beach. He moved to Laguna Beach from western Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1955 and graduated summa cum laude from Slippery Rock University 22 years later. His first attempt at law school, at the University of Dayton in Ohio, lasted only three months before he decided to follow his dream of becoming a drummer in a rock & roll band. He worked day jobs at an insurance company and as a maintenance worker at a lumber yard, got married, and in 1979 moved with his first wife to Laguna Beach. He took a job as a financial analyst with Wells Fargo Bank in Newport Beach.
At night, Zilliott played drums at clubs in Orange County and LA and constructed a music studio at a three-car garage on Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. In 1986, the same year his wife gave birth to their oldest daughter, he quit his white-collar job and dedicated himself to music. "I spent the next decade or more putting bands together: Sensible Shoes, Nomad, Sojourn, Duck Soup, Nude Girls Tonight," he says. "I was the drummer, but I basically managed them, did the logistics, booking and record-company solicitation. We never got signed; We got really close to signing with Atlantic Records, but the band fell apart. Basically, every band fell apart just prior to getting signed. That is the nature of bands: They don't want to be successful. They want to sleep in. It's a self-destructive lifestyle."