SoCal Police's Blood Money

When the DA declines to prosecute bad cops, the only justice families can get is financial

Despite McDonnell's hopes, the Zerby family remains bitter. Mark Zerby, 59, says McDonnell falsely claimed Doug had a two-handed grip on the nozzle, similar to that of a gangster in a movie, and that his only intention was to put together a bulletproof police report and choreograph every detail. "McDonnell needs to resign," he fumes.

"When the DA rubber-stamped the case, we couldn't go after [the police] criminally," adds Eden Marie James. "What happened to my brother, in addition to being tragic, was a horrible crime. I'm going to fight for justice."

Even in civil cases, Chemerinsky believes jurors can send a message about police misconduct. "I believe civil litigation against cities is a key way of deterring this conduct," he says.

“You’re going down,” cops told Merritt Sharp Sr.
John Gilhooley
“You’re going down,” cops told Merritt Sharp Sr.
Attorney Garo Mardirossian
John Gilhooley
Attorney Garo Mardirossian

Following the death of Doug Zerby, his family filed a $21.5 million federal civil-rights and wrongful-death suit against the city. James claims the city delayed the civil trial and issued a citywide "gag order," forbidding employees from commenting or possibly assisting the Zerbys. LBPD declined to comment for this story; the Long Beach city attorney's office did not respond.

When the civil trial finally took place this spring, almost two and a half years after the killing, the city claimed Zerby was homeless, didn't contribute to society and would have lived only a few more years. This was profoundly upsetting to his family. The Zerbys have lived in Long Beach for more than 50 years and have known many cops. "There's a quietness in the ranks; it's all hush-hush, " Mark Zerby says.

Mark operates Bottoms Only, a boat-cleaning service that frequently employed Doug; he had spent thousands of hours diving with his son and had planned to leave the business to him. Zerby's mother, Pam Amici, is a highly rated math teacher at Long Beach Poly.

Zerby's sister, James, described her brother as a champion high-school swimmer and free spirit who gave a homeless man the jacket off his back. "He traveled all over the U.S. as an expert snowboarder," she says. "Doug's best friend was Jason Lezak the Olympic swimmer. Jason and his family came to Doug's funeral."

But Doug had fallen off the wagon, she concedes. "He wasn't proud of the fact that he struggled," she says. "He was being responsible when he reached out to my father that day for a ride." If he had driven home drunk instead of waiting for a ride, she says, he might be alive today.

After the killing, Mark says, "Police cars would pull up in front of my boat, and the cops would stare at me."

"Cops I knew socially disappeared off my Facebook and never reappeared," adds James. "They were not allowed to talk based on orders from the city attorney."

James remains resentful of the city's attack on her brother's character during the trial. "They went into this knowing they would lose," she says. "But they wanted to pay the lowest amount they could. . . . The city spent a whole week minimizing my brother's value."

After hearing weeks of testimony in the federal civil trial, including what James bitterly calls expert witnesses hired at astronomical fees, the six women and two men of the jury deliberated for a day. They returned to deliver a unanimous verdict that Long Beach police violated Zerby's civil rights. Officers Shurtleff and Ortiz were declared liable, with the jury finding that Zerby's Fourth Amendment rights ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures") were violated and that police were negligent and committed battery on Zerby.

The $6.5 million verdict, while less than one-third of what the family had sought, was a clear victory for the Zerby family. "You can't just murder my innocent, surf-loving brother," says James. "People thought it only happened to gang members, or minorities. But it's happening all over the U.S. People are fed up."

The verdict also joins a depressingly long list of recent payouts by area taxpayers. Among others, these include:

• A $1.55 million payout to Renee Alexander, the widow of Julian Alexander, and his daughter, after Alexander was shot and killed by an Anaheim police officer for holding a stick in 2008.

• Kelly Thomas' mother, Cathy, settled for $1 million against the city of Fullerton for the wrongful death of her son. (This does not include Ron Thomas' upcoming suit against the city.)

• In 2010, Matthew Fleuret was arrested on suspicion of obstructing a deputy after getting into a bar fight on St. Patrick's Day. Never prosecuted, he received a settlement of $750,000 for excessive use of force.

• In 2011, the family of Jason Jesus Gomez, 35, agreed to a $2.1 million excessive-use-of-force settlement after his wrongful death in the Santa Ana jail.

• In April 2013, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a tentative settlement to the family of late Marine Sergeant Manuel Loggins. It was approved despite the DA clearing the sheriff's deputy of wrongdoing in an early-morning shooting of Loggins at San Clemente High School. No payment has yet been announced.

Of course, police brutality cases are nothing new in Orange County. As writer William Faulkner famously put it, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

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