[Moxley Confidential] The Strange Case of the Deputy-Confiscated Videotape

Tape? What Tape?
You’ll be shocked—shocked!—to hear that a civilian videotape of a rough arrest by sheriff’s deputies has gone missing

Here’s one of those unwritten rules that should probably be written down somewhere: If you disobey and assault sheriff’s deputies, expect the full force of the criminal-justice system to slap you upside your head. A group of five Orange County residents—including two nationally recognized professional wave riders and a reality-TV model—learned that lesson after a bizarre early-morning incident.

The officers claimed they had been kicked in the groin and face and otherwise physically thwarted from performing their duties. But on the eve of the scheduled late-August trial, this tale took a twist: Prosecutors lost confidence in the deputies’ version of events and dropped all 10 charges.

Dominic Prietto
Steve Lerum
Dominic Prietto
Morgan Just
Steve Lerum
Morgan Just

The case-ending controversy now centers on the Dana Point-based officers: Jose Pelayo and Brett Gardner. Did they unnecessarily provoke an ugly confrontation with people (one holding a toddler in his arms) who were trying to enter an apartment to go to sleep after visiting a San Diego water park? Had the deputies really been attacked? Was the use of force really necessary?

There’s also the issue of some missing crime-scene evidence that would have helped a jury assign fault.

But this much is certain: Orange County Sheriff’s deputies did not appreciate Make Me a Supermodel contestant and Laguna Beach native Dominic Prietto filming them at the Sept. 15, 2007, scene where William Jennings Bryan (yes, that’s his real name!), Morgan Just, Miriam Lew and Steven Lerum were being manhandled and arrested. They ordered Prietto to stop filming, arrested him when he didn’t comply, confiscated his video camera and, after taking the equipment to a sheriff’s office, emerged claiming the footage had disappeared.

“That story stinks,” said defense attorney Scott Borthwick. “Perhaps they thought it was plausible to suggest that the person operating the video camera hadn’t known how to use it, had forgotten to hit the record button. What they didn’t know is that Dominic Prietto has professional video-production experience. I believe they didn’t want a jury to see what he filmed.”

There’s evidence Borthwick is right. Days after the incident, two independent witnesses who describe themselves as pro-law enforcement were so disturbed by what they saw they complained to the sheriff’s department about the deputies’ conduct. They had been close enough to hear every word uttered and recalled a man in the group asking the deputies, “Why are you being so mean?” That man was arrested.

“The officers were very aggressive and shouting [fuck you] very loudly,” one of the witnesses reported, according to documents obtained by the Weekly. “I couldn’t understand why the officers were so angry and using such force.”

The second witness recalled, “There was just a young couple with a young toddler of about 3 years old. The sheriff’s deputies continued to shout at the couple using the most extreme profanity, while the father [Bryan] had the little girl in his arms. The little girl was quite upset, and it seemed there was no end to commanding these young adults to do one thing or another. They were handling the young woman in a very rough and physical manner.”

But another mystery loomed. In the weeks leading up to the trial date, Borthwick demanded that deputies return Prietto’s allegedly “blank” Fuji Film videocassette so he could have an expert test whether contents had been erased.

Drum roll, please.

Deputies then claimed the tape itself had disappeared, too.

“Now, we have two stories that stink,” said Borthwick. “It’s very suspicious, to say the least.”

Susan Kang Schroeder, public-affairs counsel at the Orange County district attorney’s office, confirmed that the missing tape had been critical to dismissing the charges.

“We have to work with the evidence they [deputies] bring us or, in this case, don’t bring us,” Schroeder said.

Deputies Gardner, who in the past has won an award for outstanding service, and Pelayo did not respond to an interview request. Sheriff’s office spokesman John McDonald said he couldn’t comment on the case because the exonerated defendants can potentially sue the department.

The Strange Case of the Deputy-Confiscated Videotape in Dana Point reminds me of another recent suspicious event. Remember the John Derek Chamberlain jail murder? The one in which on-duty deputies said they couldn’t be held responsible because they had been busy watching television while dozens of nearby inmates spent about 30 minutes stomping, punching, kicking and horrifically mutilating Chamberlain, an in-custody suspect awaiting trial in late 2006? The one in which deputies altered the crime scene and reneged on a long-established agreement to let independent district attorney’s office investigators control the crucial early stages of the probe? The one that prompted a special grand-jury report that took more than 80 pages just to summarize unethical conduct by deputies? The one in which deputies also asserted they accidentally erased the department’s video of the murder?

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