Illustration by Bob AulHuntington Beach Police officer Mark Wersching became Surf City's most expensive cop last month when a federal jury awarded $2.1 million to the family of Antonio Saldivar, an unarmed man Wersching fatally shot two years ago.
Unfortunately for Huntington Beach taxpayers, the Saldivar verdict wasn't the first time Wersching cost the city wads of cash. By the time Wersching shot Saldivar in the back, the city had already paid an undisclosed sum to a female city employee who suffered a punctured lung and broken ribs when Wersching crashed his truck into a ditch while racing along the beach after a night of barhopping in January 1999.
It wasn't the last time, either. Just days after the Saldivar verdict, the city settled a separate police brutality lawsuit against Wersching for $400,000. And Wersching faces yet another lawsuit, which also charges him with using excessive force in a separate incident.
The latter suit stems from an arrest Wersching made at about 2 a.m. on Dec. 23, 1997, outside Huntington Beach's since-closed Rhino Room. Anthony Matteson, a 30-year-old Gulf War veteran and auto mechanic, had been drinking that night with his brother and some friends when an altercation broke out in front of the club. Matteson tried to break up the fight but, according to his suit, Wersching grabbed him while he was standing next to his car and "threw him against a parked Porsche, violently twisting his arm behind him," and then pushing "him chest-first into the pavement where he was handcuffed."
Wersching allegedly told Matteson he was being arrested for interfering with a police officer. When Matteson protested his innocence, the lawsuit claims, Wersching told him he was under arrest for being drunk in public. After Wersching brought him to the city jail, Matteson claims, he was insulted by a female officer and then assaulted by another city cop, who pushed Matteson face-first into a wall and tripped him, causing him to fall facedown. Finally, the lawsuit alleges, Matteson was fingerprinted and photographed that night, then released without charge.
The lawsuit that Huntington Beach settled two weeks ago for $400,000 stems from Wersching's arrest of Edward Rezek in downtown Huntington Beach on Oct. 24, 1998. At about 10:15 p.m. that night, Rezek, a rocket scientist and engineer with the Boeing Co., was leaving a movie theater with his date, Leah Graber, a Garden Grove Police Department civilian diversion officer for at-risk youth. They saw Wersching and two other police officers detaining several young men in a pickup truck that contained unopened bottles of alcohol.
As Wersching confiscated the liquor, someone apparently yelled, "Don't let 'em do it! They don't have a search warrant! That's fucked!" In his police report, Wersching later wrote that Rezek was the person who did the yelling and that his comments "were causing the crowd to gather around our vehicle stop and the crowd was beginning to become energized by Rezek's comments." Wersching's report states that he arrested Rezek for interfering with a police officer. When Rezek attempted to slip out of his grasp, Wersching claimed, he placed Rezek in a wristlock and then used his foot to trip Rezek and place him facedown on the ground.
Wersching wrote that as he escorted Rezek into a nearby police substation, the arrestee "told me he was sorry for being a 'dick' and blamed it on the marijuana he had smoked earlier that evening. It was obvious by looking at Rezek that his eyes were extremely red and glassy." Wersching also booked Rezek for being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. At that point, Wersching stated in his report, Rezek denied needing any medical attention. Wersching added that "Rezek's girlfriend [Graber] wanted to apologize to me . . . for her boyfriend's carelessness and disregard for law enforcement."
But a toxicology report conducted at Hoag Memorial Hospital—dated less than 12 hours after Rezek's arrest—shows he tested negative for smoking marijuana. And in an interview with an investigator with the Orange County Public Defender's office, Graber stated that "in the year that she knew Edward [Rezek] she could not recall a time that he drank an alcoholic beverage or used any type of drug."
A Huntington Beach police spokesperson refused to discuss Wersching or any of the lawsuits facing the city. Tom Beck, the lawyer for both Matteson and Rezek, said he believes the city settled the latter suit because it wanted to avoid the bad publicity that would have come with another jury trial involving Wersching.
"I think it was in the city's interest to settle the case," Beck said. "By paying Rezek what a jury would have awarded him, they took out the risk of a trial. They knew dirty laundry would come out at trial and my guess is they didn't want that to happen."
Besides charging Wersching with excessive force, the two lawsuits charge the Huntington Beach Police Department (HBPD) with allowing Wersching to remain on the job, despite knowledge of his alleged tendency to brutalize the public.
"It is particularly noteworthy that with only three years on the job, Officer Wersching accrued a total of nine complaints, internal and external, and three lawsuits," Beck told the judge in the Rezek case. "This by itself is extraordinary. It is proof the department's management tends to be deliberately indifferent to vital statistics with respect to the conduct of its young officers."
As proof of that knowledge, Beck cited the numerous complaints filed against Wersching, often by his superiors. Those included Wersching's theft of fireworks (a felony) and his late-night car crash on the beach, which involved at least two felonies, because Wersching was drinking and failed to report the accident (see "The Wersching Machine," June 13).
Another incident took place on March 7, 1999, while Wersching was off duty and driving with a woman passenger. As he drove down Beach Boulevard, he nearly ran over a Latino pedestrian. When the man slapped the side of Wersching's car, Wersching responded by striking the pedestrian over the head with a beer bottle. The pedestrian's friend then did the same thing to Wersching—which resulted in him—and not Wersching—being charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
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Beck found out about the incident when he was allowed to review Wersching's disciplinary file while preparing Rezek's lawsuit. So he questioned Wersching about it, according to a court-hearing transcript attached to Rezek's lawsuit.
According to the transcript, Wersching responded by saying, "Yes, I was considered a target of this complaint and somehow or other, it got shifted into something where I wasn't the target. And so, hence, it's not on my jacket."
The victim subsequently filed a complaint against Wersching and even supplied witnesses, Beck asserted under oath. But HBPD's Internal Affairs Division declined to file any charges against their officer.
"The victim and his witnesses supplied Internal Affairs with evidence sufficient to prosecute Officer Wersching," Beck told the judge. "The department disciplined Wersching for wrecking a city vehicle and failing to attend court, but refused to discipline him for maliciously arresting and injuring citizens."