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
* * *
On a hot spring day in 1997, Merritt Sharp Sr. had cars to fix, insurance adjusters to call back and a pair of SeaDoos to paint. He was alone in his Garden Grove body shop, working on a vise, when 20 armed men burst through the doors and driveway entrances. They grabbed the former Marine, threw him down on the concrete floor and handcuffed him.
One beefy raider sneered at Sharp, "You're going down!"
While one held a shotgun to Sharp's head, the others ransacked the shop, going through his desk, toolboxes, closets and paint cabinets. Three drug-sniffing dogs were sent through the storage room. After 45 minutes, the men uncuffed him without arresting him and left. "I was really disappointed because I didn't expect that from the police department," he says. "I told them, 'Fuck you and fuck everyone else in your family!'"
Though the incident was more than 15 years ago, Sharp continues to suffer from pain and nightmares. The warrantless search, which was for Sharp's son, an alleged parole violator, resulted in a $250,000 civil settlement against Garden Grove. "We're supporting our officers," the city's police captain, Dave Abrecht, said at the time. "We don't think that they did anything wrong."
In 1989, Los Angeles County Sheriffs broke up a bridal party in Cerritos. Some 36 members of the party, mostly Samoan-Americans, were beaten by a gauntlet of sheriffs and arrested. Officers claimed the scene was a near-riot, with rocks and bottles thrown. Yet the home had a manicured lawn free of debris, and there were no dents, broken windows or scratches to the 52 patrol cars at the scene. "The police lied about the riot," says attorney Garo Mardirossian, who represented the family in their subsequent lawsuit.
During the beating, members of the family were addressed as "coconut head" and "big Samoan cow." David Dole, now 52, a local high school football star who played for San Jose State, was beaten dozens of times with police batons and heavy flashlights. His sister Emily Dole, now 55, a former U.S. Track and Field Team shot-putter and pro wrestler, was beaten on the head and across the back of her legs.
"You represent a bunch of animals," they were allegedly told by deputies. Mardirossian got the charges against the Doles and their friends and relatives thrown out. Nine and a half years later, the extended family received $24 million, the largest settlement against the LA Sheriff's department; it did not include their continuing medical care.
Although she's cheerful and friendly, former Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling star "Mt. Fiji" Emily lives in a Santa Ana convalescent home. She is confined to bed or a wheelchair due to her leg injuries and a dropped foot.
David still has hand and head injuries from the beating. At 40, the right side of his body was paralyzed by a stroke, which Mardirossian believes stemmed from the nearly 100 blows to his head delivered by LA deputies. "We can forgive, but we can never forget," David says.
"I don't hate the police," adds Emily, as she crochets a pink baby blanket. "There are good apples and bad apples. Without law enforcement, our country would be chaotic."
Indeed, one of the careers young Alex Dole, David's son, is considering after college is police officer. "I want to do something right," Alex says. "I like helping people."
"I love cops," David adds softly. "I hate what happened."
Even in the most egregious cases of civilian misbehavior, law enforcement overreaction can be prevented. Take the case of Norris Phuoc Nguyen, who had reportedly threatened to harm children at a Garden Grove school and recently terrified Orange County by walking away from the Royale Mental Health Center. Police learned of his obsessions in 2011 when he walked into the Westminster Police Department holding an assault rifle, saying he wanted to "die by cop," according to Garden Grove Police Chief Kevin Raney. Instead of getting his death wish fulfilled, Nguyen won a trip to Royale.
Attorney Jerry Steering, who won the civil judgment in Sharp's case, more recently won a $2.13 million settlement in the OC Jail death of Jason Gomez. "He was going bonkers in his jail cell," Steering relates. "The jail didn't give him his bipolar meds, so he was yelling and screaming and broke a nurse's arm. Then he put soapy water on the floor of his cell, and they couldn't Tase him because he put out a mattress. So they beat him, killed him."
Steering, who has been handling such cases since 1987, is profoundly cynical about the system. Most of the people who call him, he says, will not be able to receive justice or compensation. "It doesn't matter what happens," he says. "It matters how good liars the police are. It becomes a reality that never happened."
Judges tend to not want to exclude evidence, no matter how it was obtained, and prosecutors don't want to get egg on their face and lose, he continues. "They understand cops have a tough job, so they have a natural tendency to side with them. The young, ambitious DAs want to get in with the cops so they can become a judge one day."