W■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
hen public officials screw up, they hope time will erase their mistakes and the public will forget about it. The case of Norman v Webb is not one of those cases. To recap events that began on Dec. 24, 2012:
At approximately 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2012, then Capt. Rob Webb of the Hemet Police Department responded to a neighbor’s wife knocking on his door to tell him her husband needed help with a man he was struggling with in the street.
Captain Webb (now deputy chief of police in the city of Hemet), barefoot and clad only in his pajama bottoms, responded to assist his neighbor. Per police records and other witnesses, Webb did not at any time identify himself as an officer of the law. The neighbor and his wife, however, were aware that Webb was a police officer, as were the responding officers from the Murrieta Police Department. Others were not.
When Webb arrived at the scene, neighbor (and eventually Webb’s co-defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit) Michael Darragh had a young man, identified as 21-year-old Anthony Norman (whose IQ was that of an 11-year-old) face down on the ground in a chokehold. Webb joined in on top of Anthony. The young man shortly thereafter stopped breathing and died on a Murrieta street.
When the family of Anthony Norman filed a wrongful death suit against Darragh and Webb, the city of Hemet was NOT cited as a defendant. However, in 2016, in a closed session (secret) meeting of the Hemet City Council, City Attorney Eric Vail convinced the council that in order to protect Officer Webb, the city should enter the lawsuit and pay his defense costs. The usual procedure in such cases is to hire a neutral firm to handle such matters. However, in this case, Mr. Vail’s home firm, Burke, Williams & Sorenson, of which he is a partner, cost the city almost $400,000 to defend a Hemet officer even though there was no connection between the Plaintiff’s action and the city of Hemet.
The statute of limitations to sue the city of Hemet had already passed and there was no need whatsoever for the city to become involved in the action. Why they did is anybody’s guess.
At one point the criminal case was reopened by the Riverside County District Attorney’s office, but after consideration, the D.A. determined that there was no cause to file a criminal action and closed the case without filing any criminal charges.
We have it from reliable sources that the city of Hemet settled with the family of Anthony Norman for a sum of approximately $150,000. The trial against Darragh is now set for late July and the city of Hemet is no longer a participant.
This newspaper has formally requested information numerous times, hoping they would disclose their involvement in this case, and have repeatedly been denied any information. Every time, the city responds with “attorney work product” as the reason for the secrecy. This is a public matter and taxpayers dollars in the amount of more than $550,000 have been needlessly expended, without explanation.
But in this case, executed settlement agreements are clearly disclosable public records. The courts and legislature have said that California agencies cannot contract in secret. To withhold those records as exempt attorney work product is contrary to law, and to the constitutional mandate to broadly interpret laws that support public access.
An interesting question was raised in our mail recently. If an officer is involved in a homicide or questionable death, he is usually placed on administrative leave until he is cleared. Was Deputy Chief Webb placed on administrative leave in this matter? Did the Hemet Chief of Police deem it unnecessary in this case? We don’t know and they ain’t talkin’.
The suffering taxpayers who are always asked to cough up more money need to know what’s going on.
Somebody owes the taxpayers of Hemet, California, an explanation of how and why so much money was spent on this unnecessary situation.