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."
In 1988, Zilliott became a father again. The financial pressure of raising two kids and his lack of monetary success in the music industry led him to give up his drumming career and work as a carpenter for a construction firm. But when he stopped playing music, he lost what he saw as his passion in life. "I started turning to alternatives and found cocaine to be an alternative," he says.
Zilliott recalls the next five years as a blur of drugs and extramarital affairs. In 1991, he started marriage counseling and checked himself into a drug-rehabilitation program at South Coast Medical Center. "When I was in rehab, I decided that the truth would set me free and confessed certain shenanigans to my wife. Infidelity was all part of the insanity of drugs. She divorced me and moved with the kids to Nevada."
Zilliott says he spent the next several years trying to kick his habit and maintain a relationship with his kids, which wasn't easy, he says, because his ex-wife had married a born-again Christian and didn't approve of his lifestyle. To pay child support and fight his ex-wife's efforts to win sole custody of their children, he managed a law office in Newport Beach. He remarried, and in 1999, he got his law career back on track after being accepted to Whittier Law School. Three years later, he received his law degree. By then, however, his cocaine addiction had morphed into a serious drinking problem. He became a regular customer at Costa Mesa's Shark Club and Goat Hill Tavern, downing shot after shot of Patron Silver tequila.
On Dec. 4, 2001, his last day of law school, Zilliott got his first arrest for drunk driving. He had just pulled out of the parking lot in his Volkswagen convertible and was fishing around in the passenger seat for a brand-new Elvis Presley Christmas CD. "I was swerving, and the next thing I knew, I had flashing lights behind me," he says. "That was the beginning of the legal ramifications of my alcoholism." In May 2002, Zilliott got drunk at the White House, a bar and restaurant in Laguna Beach, in a misguided effort to blow off steam as he studied for his upcoming bar exams. He got into a heated argument with a bouncer.
"I had enough tequila in me to kill a horse," he recalls. "They pushed me out the door violently backward, and when my ankle hit the sidewalk, it gave and broke in three places. That led to a lawsuit, but I had to disclose it to the state bar, and now I had a DUI and a drunken altercation on my record. You have to pass a very rigid moral-character test for the state bar, and I had very obvious alcohol issues. They said I needed to address my alcohol usage, and my moral-character application was denied."
Zilliott pushed on with his bar-exam study regime, aided by a steady supply of Vicodin tablets. "I took the bar addicted to Vicodin because of my broken leg and could barely even physically get up to the test site in Ontario," he says. "I failed the bar. I don't even remember taking it."
With his legal career on permanent hold, Zilliott managed to find work with a company that handled worker's-compensation cases for a medical-equipment company. The job required him to travel around the state. The long hours, combined with his drinking habit, gradually destroyed his second marriage. His company placed him on a leave of absence for four months after he failed to show up for a week at court hearings in Fresno. He'd spent the entire week drinking in his motel room. Zilliott used his time off to become a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. "I'd get sober for 60 days, and then go back [to drinking] again," he says. "My second wife left me at that point in time. She couldn't take the problems."
In early 2005, Zilliott went back to work. Almost immediately, he resumed his drinking. In April, his two daughters flew from Nevada to John Wayne Airport for a scheduled visitation. It was a Friday afternoon, and the previous day, Zilliott had just found a new apartment he could afford to live in now that his second wife had moved out of their house. He'd celebrated that evening with a few cocktails and kept drinking throughout the night and the next day. "I never showed to pick them up," he says, adding that he hasn't seen either daughter since. "I was at home getting drunk. I lost the relationship with them I had been trying to build for 14 years. And as a result of that binge, I never made it into work, and they fired me."
After several jobless months in his new apartment, Zilliott was evicted by his landlord in November 2005 for drinking and using drugs. He moved into an apartment with his mother on Wesley Drive across Pacific Coast Highway from the Montage Resort & Spa. Every day for the next several months, he'd cross the street and go for a run on Treasure Island Beach. "I was serious about getting sober," he says. But after just three months, in February 2006, Zilliott got his second DUI. He had just pulled up to the Harbor House Café in Dana Point at 2:15 a.m.
"They pulled in right behind me," he says of the cops. "They just wait for idiots like me to arrive drunk." Zilliott's options were jail time, house arrest, drug court, or an alcohol-monitoring device he would have to wear on his ankle. He chose the latter because he felt it would force him to remain sober.
"For people who really want to quit, it is a viable choice," he says. "But it's very expensive—$500 a month—and if you drink, they know it because it tests your perspiration every half-hour and sends the results to a monitor. If you drink, you go to jail."
* * *
Determined to kick his habit, Zilliott resolved to continue his regimen of daily runs at Treasure Island Beach. He'd been keeping to that schedule for several weeks and was walking on the sand below the Montage Resort & Spa when two beach-patrol officers—non-sworn civilian volunteers for the city of Laguna Beach armed with pepper spray and the power to write misdemeanor citations for things such as littering or illegally collecting shellfish—approached him at about noon on June 24, 2006, and asked him about the device on his ankle.
"I said, 'Did by any chance a Montage [guest] make the call?' and they said 'Yes, since you're asking,'" Zilliott says. "I was cooperative, and I answered all their questions and volunteered as much information as I could, but the conversation lasted a lot longer than it should have. I chose to walk away, and that's when this whole shit started."
According to police reports, the officers were told about Zilliott by a person on the beach who "was not comfortable with this male subject, not knowing if he was a sex registrant or under house arrest." The officers determined that the band on Zilliott's ankle was indeed an alcohol-monitoring device, but they nonetheless asked to see his identification, which he had left at home. The reports say Zilliott pushed one of the two officers after he grew angry with them for demanding to see his identification.
Zilliott denies this ever happened, but he admits that when he tried to walk away, he pushed a man he thought was a civilian interloper—a man who turned out to be a plainclothes beach-patrol supervisor and a sworn Laguna Beach police officer. "[The officer] assaulted me," he says. "He jumped right in my face and screamed, 'Show them your ID!' I was standing there in my bathing suit with my feet at the edge of the water and obviously didn't have an ID on me. I thought he was a redneck beach-goer. I didn't know he was a cop. I pushed him and said, 'Get the fuck out of my face!'"
At that point, Zilliott says, the supervisor instructed his men to pepper-spray Zilliott. "I was insane with pain," Zilliott says. "It was in my eyes, nose, ears, everywhere." Zilliott began waving his arms around trying to protect himself from the pepper spray. He waded into the ocean, leaned over and splashed water into his eyes.
That's when a Laguna Beach motorcycle cop walked up behind him and, according to both police reports and witness accounts, whacked him twice with a collapsible baton. The officer's report states that Zilliott was acting "aggressively . . . and in a threatening manner," that he "engaged Zilliott and struck him in the upper thigh/buttock area," at which point Zilliott "yelled in pain and took another step toward me."
The officer swung his baton again. "However, this strike struck Zilliott in the left hand as well. Almost immediately following the second baton strike, Zilliott became complied [sic] with orders to go to the ground." The blow fractured Zilliott's wrist and smashed several bones in his left hand. The officers wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, and charged him with assault and battery on police officers and resisting arrest. Because of his injury, police didn't book Zilliott in jail, but rather called for an ambulance to take him to South Coast Medical Center, where he spent the next four days.
On June 5, 2007, Zilliott filed a federal civil-rights case against the city of Laguna Beach, alleging that the officers' use of pepper spray and the baton constituted excessive force. Neither attorney Dan Doyle, who filed the case on Zilliott's behalf, nor Matthew Richardson, a deputy city attorney for Laguna Beach, would comment for this story. Doyle dropped out of the case in January after a jury convicted Zilliott on Dec. 20, 2007, of two counts of simple battery and one count of resisting arrest. The jury believed his testimony that he didn't know the man he shoved was a cop, and found him not guilty of assaulting or battering a police officer.
Three witnesses also testified at Zilliott's two-day trial, including beach-goer Cheri Martocci. In an interview, Martocci said she was sitting 100 feet from Zilliott with her young daughter when she noticed he was wearing a device on his ankle. "I wasn't too worried about it, but other people, I guess, were, and so they alerted Montage security," she says. She watched the beach-patrol officers surround Zilliott and talk with him for several minutes. Martocci stopped paying attention, so she didn't see Zilliott shove anyone, but she did see the officers deploy their pepper spray.
"He looked really distressed," she recalls. "He was in the water, he was in pain, and I saw him splashing water in his face, and then the cop came up, and I saw him hit him. It was really loud. You could hear it from down the beach." Martocci says the incident was traumatic to watch. "What took place shouldn't have taken place. It definitely shouldn't have happened in front of the kids and stuff. I didn't see him act in any aggressive manner toward them, so I felt he was wrongly abused and publicly humiliated."
Lifeguard Jack Bond also testified. He had seen Zilliott at the beach several times before that day, but he had never spoken to him. The lifeguard says he watched the cops go up and speak with Zilliott for several minutes without incident, but that Zilliott was clearly becoming impatient with their questions. "They were harassing him because some parent thought he could be a criminal," Bond says. "He got fed up and pushed them away. What happened [next] didn't seem right to me at all. He wasn't being combative. They could have calmed him down without the pepper spray."
Bond says the cop who hit Zilliott with the baton swung his club like a baseball bat. "He hits him twice, really hard," Bond says. "It was baseball swings, like he was swinging for the fence." Everyone on the beach seemed to be staring in disbelief. "He just wanted to go on with his day," Bond adds. "He was having a peaceful day, and these guys interrupted him and wrongfully accused him."
Another lifeguard, Ben Hester, who was named Lifeguard of the Year in 2006 and is now taking pre-med classes at an East Coast college, also testified at Zilliott's trial. He failed to respond to numerous messages to his cell phone, but he did sign a sworn declaration attached to Zilliott's lawsuit. In his statement, Hester wrote that Zilliott was a frequent visitor to Treasure Island Beach. He says one of the beach-patrol officers who confronted Zilliott approached him to ask if he was familiar with Zilliott; Hester told the officer that "Zilliott was a nice man who was not causing any difficulties at all."
Hester then went back to watching the water. About five minutes later, he heard Zilliott yelling and saw all three officers spraying something in his face. "I next noticed Mr. Zilliott was on all fours at the edge of the water, screaming and trying to avoid being Maced any further," Hester wrote. "At this time, a Laguna Beach motorcycle officer approached Mr. Zilliott and the other three officers. He went right to the scene and did not stop to inquire of the other officers as to what was going on, but merely removed his nightstick and struck Mr. Zilliott two times in the hand."
According to his declaration, Hester called a police watch commander to complain about "this brutal assault," but he never heard back and never followed up with a written complaint. "There were many beach-goers who were asking questions as to why Mr. Zilliott was so viciously attacked," he wrote. "It appeared to me the Laguna Beach Police Department utilized an excessive amount of force concerning this incident with Mr. Zilliott, as he was not doing anything I detected out of the ordinary for a beach-goer and certainly did not provoke and/or strike any of the police officers from my view where I was located."
Sergeant Jason Kravetz, a Laguna Beach police spokesperson, refused to comment on Zilliott's allegations against the department because of Zilliott's lawsuit. But he said that Zilliott would not have necessarily had to walk across the street to fetch his identification to go about his merry way. He simply could have waited while officers took his name and birth date and matched it with a court-ordered alcohol-monitoring device.
"We would have initiated a records check to make sure that ankle bracelet is actually tied to a DUI case and not someone on house arrest for burglary, and that's what they would have verified," Kravetz said. "Then they would have thanked him for being cooperative and sent him on his way."
Zilliott's arrest didn't exactly make headlines. On June 30, the Laguna Beach Independent ran a brief and erroneous item on the incident in its police blotter: "Beach Patrol officers made contact with a man on the beach, asking for identification. The man immediately became uncooperative. When a training officer interceded, Robert Zilliott, 50, of Laguna Beach, allegedly became combative and refused to comply until a Taser was used."
Much more high-profile—for entirely understandable reasons—was the fatal confrontation that took place 10 months later at the Montage Resort & Spa when Kevin and Joni Park booked a $2,200-per-night bungalow at the hotel under assumed names. Neighbors and family friends would later say that they had been acting strangely in recent weeks. The couple had recently met with Orange County Sheriff's Department deputies and had filed a civil lawsuit concerning their family-run real-estate business. The Parks brought with them to the hotel a box of documents, a semi-automatic handgun and a hefty supply of ammunition.
Early in the morning of April 22, 2007, Montage security informed police about a domestic-violence call from the Parks' bungalow. Guests told police they'd seen a naked woman running around with a gun. Four officers surrounded the bungalow and pleaded with them to drop the weapon. They refused, and a gun battle ensued. Both the Parks perished. The Orange County district attorney cleared the officers of wrongdoing; the Laguna Beach Police Department's review of their actions is still pending.
After being found guilty of resisting arrest and shoving two police officers, Zilliott was sentenced to minor court fees, 80 hours of community service and three years of informal probation. Zilliott could have faced up to a year in jail, but prosecutors didn't ask for that. "In a misdemeanor case, it's not uncommon for there to be no jail time," said DA spokesperson Susan Kang Schroeder. "It didn't amount to a felony."
* * *
Zilliott's life hasn't exactly improved since his arrest. He moved out of his mom's house in Laguna a month after the incident and wound up in a Laguna Beach homeless shelter. He spent a few months on the streets. He's living in a Huntington Beach sober-living facility. As a result of his criminal conviction, his attorney dumped the lawsuit and Zilliott is currently looking for another lawyer.
"The last time I drank was in the beginning of November," Zilliott says. "I was homeless. I got a bottle, and the next thing I knew, I was on the telephone, calling South Coast Hospital. I've been sober since then, and finally—hopefully—I have surrendered to the fact that I'm not in control. I have surrendered my life and my life's will over to God and believe he or she or whatever you want to call it is the only way out of my alcoholism."
As of press time, Zilliott had been sober for 100 days.