T■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
he Valley Chronicle last week filed suit against the City of Hemet in an effort to force compliance with the California Public Records Act.
The newspaper for months had been requesting information – unsuccessfully – on a variety of issues it felt were of interest to the public, in particular how much money the Hemet City Attorney was billing taxpayers to mount a questionable legal defense of Hemet’s deputy police chief named in a wrongful death suit.
In order to force the City of Hemet to reveal how much money was spent defending Deputy Chief of Police Charles “Rob” Webb in the Anthony Norman wrongful death case, The Valley Chronicle, through its parent company, Verican Inc., filed a complaint June 15 in Riverside Superior Court against City Clerk Sarah McComas, the City of Hemet, and “Does 1-5.”
Until The Valley Chronicle found out last fall about Webb’s involvement in the homicide of Anthony Norman, and later, the City of Hemet injecting itself into the matter without any cause, the Norman vs. Webb wrongful death litigation was buried somewhere in the archives. Nobody seemed to care about a 21-year-old kid with the IQ of an 11-year-old who suffocated at the hands of two strong men, one of whom happened to be a captain of the Hemet Police Department.
For those unfamiliar with the case, here’s a quick refresher: At approximately 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 24, 2012, Webb was asleep in his Murrieta home when a loud noise woke him. He got up and checked from his front door. In a deposition, he stated that he was “peering southwards toward the end of his street [and] he saw two figures underneath a streetlight with one of the individuals chasing the other.”
Two men fighting in the night
Unable to identify the individuals out on the street, he went back inside and called 911 at “around 11:41 a.m.” to make a report and request an officer come and investigate. While on the phone with the police dispatcher, there came a loud knock on his door from the wife of a neighbor, Michael Darragh. The highly agitated woman revealed to Webb that her husband was in physical combat with another man in front of their house and wanted Webb to come and help her husband.
Webb told the dispatcher on the phone that he needed to go help his neighbor and dropped the phone on his couch.
Webb had no idea who was right or who was wrong in the situation. Nevertheless, he rushed out of the house barefoot, clad only in his pajama bottoms, and raced to the scene. It was dark and it was difficult to see who was on top or bottom. He saw two men on the sidewalk – one on top, the other face down.
According to depositions, Darragh had an arm lock on young Norman, who was face down on the sidewalk. Webb immediately joined the fray, also on top of Norman, placed pressure around the young man’s hip area and crossed over his leg, which was straight, by bending Norman’s right leg such that Norman’s right foot was near Norman’s buttocks, a procedure commonly known as a “figure four.” According to paramedics, Anthony Norman stopped breathing at 12:55 a.m., Dec. 25, 2012 and was pronounced dead at the hospital at 1:31 a.m. A coroner’s report later indicated Norman died of a heart attack.
Webb fails to identify himself as a police officer
At no time did Webb declare to the investigating officers that he was in law enforcement. His only remark that might indicate he was a police officer was that he told the Murrieta police officers that he believed the young man was “11550” which, in police parlance, references the Health and Safety Code that involves someone under the influence of a controlled substance. That, in and of itself, doesn’t not necessarily indicate “I am a police officer.” Any drug addict or person working in mental health might have that knowledge.
The Norman family filed a wrongful death litigation suit against Darragh and Webb in Riverside Superior Court on Dec. 17, 2014. Attorneys with Webb’s homeowners’ insurance took on Webb’s defense. The City of Hemet was never mentioned in the litigation.
After a criminal investigation was conducted by the Riverside District Attorney’s office, the DA concluded that there was no criminal activity involved and the criminal case was closed.
City of Hemet uses city attorney’s home firm for Webb’s defense
In the interim, in executive session with City Attorney Eric Vail, the Hemet City Council voted unanimously to involve the city in the case and hired Vail’s firm, Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP, to represent Webb. This action was done during a secret City Council session and never made public. Also, Webb was never assigned to administrative duty, which is customary when an officer of the law is involved in a death.
We believe, and have sought advice of experts to back up that belief, that in such cases an outside law firm not associated with the city, should have been brought in to represent the officer. Vail, in this case, is a partner in the firm that was hired.
New investigation, same result
In December 2016, at the request of the Norman family, the Riverside County District Attorney’s office reopened the criminal investigation. Following further investigation, the District Attorney’s office again found no reason to bring criminal charges and again closed the investigation.
Based on earlier record requests, we believe the City of Hemet spent at least $400,000 on this case before it was settled, a questionable use of taxpayers’ money. The Valley Chronicle has cited the California’s Public Records Act in its frequent requests for documents detailing the full amount of tax money spent on this legal action. City Clerk Sarah McComas, however, has just as frequently turned down those requests. It is the position of the newspaper that there is no reason to withhold this information from the taxpayers who are footing the bill. Thus the need to file suit.
“The Public Records Act guarantees public access to government records, especially financial records,” said Chad Morgan, the attorney representing The Valley Chronicle. “It is unfortunate that the City seeks to conceal records that will help shed light on how much money the City has spent defending Webb in a private matter.
There are many other instances in which the City of Hemet has repeatedly refused to release information of public interest. On Feb. 4, 2016, a 67-year-old man was found dead in a local massage parlor near the corner of Florida Avenue and Carmalita Street that was a suspected brothel with ties to human trafficking, according to our sources.
To date, despite numerous requests, the Hemet Police Department has refused to release the police report and any information related to this case. Time and time again the newspaper has been refused information that is in the public domain to which the public has a right to know. Will the city now come forth with the facts?