A lawsuit being settled alleges McFarland Police Department officials quashed a search warrant at the request of city leaders to protect the son of a city councilman suspected of being in possession of a stolen firearm.
And when the two police officers who arrested the son took their concerns to the FBI and the Kern County District Attorney's office, the suit goes on to say, the city retaliated by firing one and demoting the other.
McFarland police officers Ruben Ortiz and Art Garcia filed the suit against the city in Kern County Superior Court in October 2016. I'm told the two sides came to settlement terms last week, but the deal hasn't been officially approved by the McFarland City Council and so isn't public yet.
McFarland city and police officials either would not comment or didn't return calls seeking comment for this column. One couldn't be reached.
Among other things, the suit alleges whistleblower retaliation, violation of the Peace Officers Bill of Rights and the existence of a hostile work environment.
It stems from an incident in which Ortiz attempted to make a traffic stop Feb. 9, 2014, on 28-year-old Charles Coker Jr., the son of McFarland City Councilman Charles Coker Sr., for allegedly running a stop sign, failing to signal and speeding, according to the lawsuit. After Ortiz pulled the vehicle over, the suit says, Coker and his wife, Odelia Garza, quickly switched seats. Garza admitted to police she switched seats because she did not want her husband arrested for a fourth DUI in the last 10 years, it says.
When the cops spotted bullets in the car, she said her husband owned a gun, the suit says.
Garcia's search of the car turned up three guns in the trunk, including a black .45 Colt Commander pistol reported stolen from a Bakersfield businessman, according to the lawsuit. Also found was a black .223 SKS assault rifle and another black .22 rifle, along with an ammunition box containing 500 rounds, several magazines and two grams of marijuana, it says. The suit does not say to whom the other two weapons were registered.
Coker refused to submit to a sobriety test and was arrested, the suit says. Ortiz then obtained a telephonic search warrant to have Coker's blood sample drawn at Delano Regional Medical Center.
Arriving at the hospital, the suit says, Coker bolted from the cops as he came out of the patrol car. A chase and scuffle ensued, with Coker being taken down by force, landing on and injuring Garcia's ankle. Coker also kicked Garcia in the groin area, it says.
The suit goes on to say Coker was stunned three times with a Taser, once by Ortiz and twice by another officer, Sgt. Mike Weber. Coker's blood sample was finally taken and booked into evidence. This blood sample would later mysteriously disappear, the suit says. While being driven to the downtown jail in Bakersfield, Coker complained of a broken hand and was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a broken finger, treated and cleared to go to jail.
The suit says then-McFarland Police Chief Greg Herrington reviewed the incident and found everything his cops did was in order and reported his findings to City Manager John Wooner.
Three days after the incident, a Superior Court judge approved a warrant to search Coker Jr.'s house on Lockwood Avenue, the suit says. Turns out the owner of the stolen Colt Commander also reported a second weapon stolen and the cops had reason to believe it might be at Junior's house, according to the lawsuit.
But the warrant was never executed. The suit claims then-Sgt. Scot Kimble tipped off Coker Sr. about the warrant. Coker Sr. then met with Wooner and Herrington.
"Following the meeting, it was decided not to pursue the warrant to check for a stolen gun in the home that Coker Sr. owned," the lawsuit states. (Coker Sr. owns the home where his son lives.)
This time in 2014 was turbulent at the McFarland Police Department. Other officers with questionable pasts were leaving or being let go. Herrington himself suddenly left. Herrington told me at the time he had left voluntarily. McFarland city officials would only say Herrington was no longer an employee at the department.
Kimble was campaigning for the job as the new chief. With the support of Councilman Coker, Kimble was named interim police chief and later made permanent chief. He's still chief.
In October, Coker Jr. pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon in a vehicle. Four other felony charges including possession of an assault rifle were dismissed, "in the furtherance of justice." But wait, something doesn't add up here. If the cops found a stolen gun in the car, why wasn't Coker charged with being in possession of a stolen firearm?
"But for the interference by Kimble with a lawful search warrant, it is likely the charges would have been more serious against Junior," states the lawsuit. No DUI charge was ever filed because the blood sample vial went missing.
The suit states Garcia and Ortiz reported what had transpired to the FBI, which referred the case to the Kern County District Attorney's office. Kern County Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman said his office declined to pursue the matter because it would have run into a statute of limitations issue.
The suit claims after the two officers went to an outside agency, Kimble then initiated a second investigation into the Coker case in January of 2015 by hiring an independent investigator. This resulted in Ortiz being fired while Garcia was demoted from corporal to a line-level officer, according to the lawsuit.
The suit does not state the reason given for the disciplinary action against the officers. But it claims the city's actions violated the Peace Officers Bill of Rights because, they believe, it requires any punishment be issued within one year of when the city knew or should have known of actions to pursue punishment.
In this case, the incident with Coker occurred in February of 2014, yet punishment was not handed down until January 2016. The suit claims Kimble violated whistleblower protections after the officers took their concerns to other law enforcement agencies.
City Manager Wooner said the city can't comment on pending litigation. Calls made to Chief Kimble and Coker Sr. were not returned. Ex-chief Herrington could not be located for comment.
I've been told the parties agreed to settle the lawsuit last week, but none of the parties involved is talking about the details. The McFarland City Council is expected to approve the agreement at its meeting April 6.
Honestly, though, I was disappointed to hear a settlement was reached because I was looking forward to a trial where all of the details in this case would be publicly divulged. Once the agreement is signed by both sides, we the public should be able to at least get a copy of it.