Sitting on the witness stand last month inside Orange County’s West Justice Center, Christina Natividad claimed a foggy memory about what she’d been doing as a Costa Mesa Police Department (CMPD) officer outside the Triangle Square shopping plaza just before 2:30 a.m. on June 28, 2014. But she was sure it had been investigating a crime. “[It was] either assault and battery,” she testified, “or kidnapping, or rape.”
However, Natividad insists what happened next—something relatively trivial—is seared into her mind. About 60 feet away, across the street and inside Dippity Donut, two guys standing in line, one of them 20-year-old Alexander Sorto, flirted with a woman in front of them. In response, the lady pushed Sorto’s pal in the chest, and then her boyfriend punched him in the jaw, according to surveillance video reviewed by the Weekly. The shop’s owner triggered a panic alarm, and five cops quickly arrived, taking control of an already-diffusing scene.
That was it: brief flirting, cursing, a shove and a punch involving four people. No weapons were involved. Nothing was broken, and at its crescendo, the one-sided scuffle lasted no more than 30 seconds.
But the cops would later tell a different, more threatening story in hopes of justifying their excessive force against Sorto. Natividad recalled under oath seeing “like, 20 or 30” people in “a melee” inside Dippity Donut. Then, she claims, she witnessed Sorto, who was in the parking lot, launch an unprovoked attack on officer Christopher Walk, her CMPD partner who is the size of a middle linebacker.
“[Sorto] swings around and pushes officer Walk,” Natividad testified during late-June pretrial hearings in Sorto’s criminal case for allegedly battering Walk and obstructing three other officers. “And I seen [sic] my partner on the ground.”
Deputy District Attorney Alyssa Marie Staudinger followed up, asking, “Did you see where on [Walk’s] body the defendant pushed him?”
Natividad replied, “By where the, how I was coming up on them, I could only see the back of [Sorto]. But I could see him shove officer Walk.”
Staudinger tried again to capture specifics and won only a guess from the witness, whose husband, Ryan, is facing felony charges he fabricated an on-duty insurance claim as a CMPD cop. “Officer Walk is a pretty tall guy,” said the 34-year-old Natividad, who took a medical retirement in January. “He’s probably 6-foot-1. So if he were to push him, probably in the chest.”
The deputy DA pressed, hoping to get support for the battery charge. “Did you see the defendant’s hands on [Walk’s] collar, and then [did] you see officer Walk fall to the ground?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Natividad agreed, noting for the record the officers had feared for their lives, the prerequisite to using force—even lethal force. “The whole thing that I remember is, when I saw officer Walk fall, was just how Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall. I know it sounds terrible, but I remember him just kind of falling. And he rocks back, that he hit hard, that his feet were in the air, and then he kind of came back down—just like Humpty Dumpty.”
According to the CMPD version, two other cops, Jonathan Tripp and Arnold Alegado, tackled and held Sorto after Walk recovered from his fall—apparently, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could put him back together again—caught up with a supposedly fleeing attacker, and struck the unarmed, much-younger man in the leg with a baton.
Because the defendant had been so “violent,” Natividad claims, she barked lines such as “If you don’t comply, I’m going to Tase you” before firing two metal darts from a Taser into Sorto’s lower back. He screamed in agony. Seconds later, she removed the dart wires. She asserts she voiced a second round of warnings and slammed the Taser’s electrical voltage directly into Sorto’s shoulder as the officers began placing handcuffs on him.
“He [could have been] reaching for a weapon in his waistband,” Natividad speculated. “There’s . . . He could be . . . anything. There could be a necklace with a knife on it.”
CMPD’s policy permits the use of a Taser to block “an immediate threat” to officers after providing the targeted citizen with “a verbal warning.” Natividad’s story didn’t just make herself a hero saving her colleagues from risk of potential death. She also became a textbook adherent to the department’s professional standards.
But her tale has multiple problems, starting with her own partner. Recall that Natividad said she saw Sorto shove Walk, who then fell backward in a dramatic fall. Walk said the opposite, stating he fell forward.
Neither version was truthful, according to court records filed by Sorto attorney David Swanson. It seems improbable, if not impossible, that a person shoved violently in the chest would fall toward the attacker. But there’s also police-cruiser dash-cam video that proves Walk fabricated his rationale for detaining Sorto, Swanson says. That video also shows Natividad looking in the opposite direction when Walk fell, meaning she did not see Sorto shove him unless she has eyes in the back of her head.
After medical personnel at a hospital removed the Taser darts from Sorto, he was taken to the city jail, questioned and, under pressure to tell the cops what they wanted to hear, described that Walk “charged me, and I moved to the left, pushed him, and he fell.” Yet, even that version doesn’t match Walk’s original story—one that absolved Sorto of committing battery. At the conclusion of the incident, a police audio recording captured him telling a fellow cop what happened: “So, basically, I went to grab him around his head and take him down, and I missed his head and overshot him,” he stated. “I missed him, and he spun out on me.”
That same audio makes two additional contributions to reality. It reveals Natividad telling a handcuffed, compliant Sorto she’d “love to” Tase him a third time. It also obliterates the officer’s account of her Taser use. Police issued commands to Sorto only after she’d fired the weapon without giving proper warning.
With the government’s fabrications alarming Judge Mary Kreber Varipapa, the case against Sorto was dismissed on June 27. But there are larger implications to what could be seen as a national misdemeanor incident. Facing widespread calls for a U.S. Department of Justice probe into local law-enforcement corruption, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas guaranteed he recently enacted reforms to give citizens comfort that the justice system is now clean after years of ugly revelations in the jailhouse-snitch scandal. Those supposed reforms included training his deputy DAs to behave ethically and not adopt a win-at-all-costs mentality.
The Sorto case demonstrates, however, that without on-the-ball legal representation by Irvine-based Swanson, an innocent man facing four trumped-up charges and the possibility of losing his freedom even if only for a month or two easily could have been convicted. After getting Natividad to lock in her story, Swanson asked the court to play the bombshell dash-cam footage. Deputy DA Staudinger objected, claiming its contents were irrelevant. She also made an incredible inadvertent admission about her dereliction of duty and willingness to blindly accept whatever cops tell her. She told the judge, “I don’t know what this video is.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.