The Wersching Machine
By the time Officer Mark Wersching shot to death an unarmed man two years ago, Huntington Beach police officials knew their man had a habit of breaking the law and then lying about it.
Even without that background, an LA jury last month found the city responsible in the May 5, 2001, death of Antonio Saldivar, an unarmed 18-year-old Wersching shot in the back.
In preparing for the trial, lawyers for the Saldivar family and Wersching wrangled over a summary of Wersching's prior "bad acts"—all of which came from his lengthy HBPD disciplinary file. Ultimately, the judge ruled that the plaintiffs could not introduce Wersching's record at trial because doing so would unreasonably prejudice the jury.
The file reveals the following highlights from Wersching's five-year career as a Surf City cop:
• In January 1998, HBPD investigated Wersching for driving his car into another city vehicle, an incident that led to a complaint by a supervisor.
• In October 1998, two women filed a complaint alleging they saw Wersching use excessive force in downtown Huntington Beach. Wersching was arresting one man when another apparently yelled, "Fucking pigs!" Wersching arrested the interloper on suspicion of resisting arrest and interfering with a police officer. The man claims he was roughed up and has sued Wersching. That case has yet to go to trial.
• In May 1999, HBPD investigated Wersching for an off-duty "altercation." Wersching, who had been drinking that evening, was hit in the head with a bottle.
• On July 5, 1999, Wersching and a fellow officer stole a large quantity of confiscated fireworks from a locked container at the Huntington Beach Fire Department—and then celebrated by setting off the fireworks at the HBPD union headquarters. Because of the value of the stolen fireworks, the fire department filed a felony grand theft report, which HBPD spent months investigating before determining that Wersching was one of the officers responsible for the theft. Then-Chief Ronald Lowenberg recommended Wersching be suspended for just 30 hours without pay.
That's the minor stuff. In January 1999, Wersching and several fellow off-duty HBPD officers and their wives and girlfriends were celebrating a victorious softball game by barhopping around the city. Late that night, Wersching offered to drive an officer and his wife home, but took a detour—onto the city beach. Reaching speeds of 50 mph, he raced his car along the beach until crashing into a cement ditch and totaling the car. Passenger Adrianne Caouette, a HBPD civilian employee, suffered a partially collapsed lung and broken ribs.
Rather than report the accident and request an ambulance, however, Wersching had another passenger drive Caouette to the hospital and called the police dispatcher to send a tow truck to pull his car out of the sand. If not for a passerby who saw the accident and called police, Wersching's supervisors might never have found out what happened. Sergeant Ron Burgess, who then worked for the HBPD's Internal Affairs Division, remarked that "Wersching thought he might be able to make this incident go away" by failing to report it. Wersching's superiors suspended him for 60 hours—for improper conduct, failing to report acts of misconduct and violating the law. Caouette also sued Wersching; the case was settled out of court.
More than a year later, on Jan. 20, 2001, HBPD investigated Wersching again, this time for having grabbed and choked someone by the throat, then punching the person in the chest.
A police spokesman refused to discuss Wersching or provide any details about the department's policies regarding the conduct of police officers, other than to say that officers are required to obey the law.
Ray Brown, a lawyer with the firm Sayre & Chavez that represented the Saldivar family in the recent lawsuit, says the jury didn't need to know about Wersching's disciplinary record to reject the officer's version of Saldivar's death. Last month, the jury awarded Saldivar's family $2.1 million. Reflecting evidence presented at trial that Wersching shot Saldivar in the back and side, jurors rejected the cop's claim that he shot Saldivar in self-defense. Their verdict also contradicted three official investigations—by HBPD, the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the Orange County District Attorney's office—that had cleared Wersching in the shooting (see "Shot in the Back," June 6).
Immediately after the shooting, Wersching claimed Saldivar was a gang member he had been chasing moments earlier. But after a local gang member stepped forward to say he was the person Wersching had been chasing, Wersching said he pulled the trigger because Saldivar was pointing a rifle at him. The HBPD later acknowledged that a rifle found near the scene was devoid of fingerprints—and was actually a plastic toy left outside by Saldivar's 5-year-old neighbor.
Wersching's claim that Saldivar was crouched behind a wooden fence and pointing what looked like a rifle at him may have won over sheriff's investigators and county prosecutors, but it didn't match with the fact that no bullets struck the fence and contradicted forensic evidence showing that Saldivar was shot from the side and behind.
Besides determining that Wersching wrongfully shot Saldivar, the lawsuit charged Wersching with failing to render medical aid to Saldivar for "precious minutes," and "contaminating the crime scene" by grabbing the toy rifle from under Saldivar's body and throwing it to the side while Saldivar was being handcuffed by his partner. A "theory of the case" attached to the lawsuit also charged that "a conspiracy was in place and continuing between the police officers involved in this incident to conceal the wrongfulness of their conduct" and accused the HBPD of having "knowledge of the prior misconduct of the officers involved in the incident."
Eighteen months after the Saldivar slaying, HBPD promoted Wersching to detective.
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