The state Attorney General’s Office announced Tuesday it has turned down Mendocino County District Attorney Dave Eyster’s bid to be recused from deciding whether ousted Ukiah Police Chief Noble Waidelich should be prosecuted on a woman’s sexual assault complaint.
Eyster in late September attempted to hand off a decision to state prosecutors about the outcome of the high-profile case, which was investigated by Sonoma County for weeks this past summer after the alleged victim complained the former police chief sexually assaulted her on June 13, 2022, while he was on duty.
The investigation’s conclusions have been kept under wraps by the DA since. Eyster is refusing to publicly comment on any aspect of the case, including the fact that investigators are looking into a police sexual assault allegation, the second such law enforcement misconduct case this year.
Until now the investigation has been labeled ‘a criminal complaint,’ but the Attorney General’s letter specifically identifies sexual assault. “The investigation arose from a complaining witness’s June 13, 2022 complaint to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office that Mr. Waidelich sexually assaulted her while he was on duty,” according to the AG’s letter.
Eyster’s secretive handling of the Waidelich case was eventually questioned publicly because three weeks after the sexual assault complaint was made against the police chief the DA approved a controversial plea deal dropping sexual assault charges against a former Ukiah police sergeant once under Waidelich’s command.
Disgraced Sgt. Kevin Murray, under the terms of that deal, was placed on probation rather than serving jail time as advocated by probation officers. In addition, Eyster in 2017 was named a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed by a former county probation officer and live-in partner of the fired police chief. She complained the DA personally orchestrated a campaign to force her out as a local law enforcement representative after she accused Waidelich of abusing her. Eyster eventually succeeded in getting dismissed from the still pending lawsuit, citing state provisions of the District Attorney’s immunity from decisions they make on the job.
Since then, a possible outcome of the high-profile Waidelich case has dogged the former police chief, city officials, and Eyster. The lack of any public statement by prosecutors, and the fact that details of the case are still under wraps months after the complaint was filed, has only exacerbated public concerns about the second local police misconduct case to be aired this year.
The state Attorney General’s Office, after reviewing Eyster’s bid, wrote in a letter to the DA dated Nov. 3 that “the perception of a conflict does not require recusal or disqualification of the local elected prosecutor.”
Jeffrey Laurence, Senior Assistant Attorney General in San Francisco, said a ‘recusal inquiry must focus on whether there is evidence demonstrating likelihood that the Waidelich investigation will not be handled in a fair manner by the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office, and not on how proceeding with the local prosecutor may appear to the public.”
“The request for the Attorney General to assume this investigation is based solely on the concern that the public might perceive an appearance of a conflict of appearance in this matter,” said Laurence.
Laurence, in tossing any decision about Waidelich back to Eyster, said, “We appreciate the concerns about appearances you have raised but we do not find a recusable conflict that would disqualify your office from handling this investigation.”
Laurence said the AG’s office understood that the DA seemed to be worried about public perception that “your office might provide a high-ranking law enforcement suspect more favorable treatment, as opposed to pursuing an impartial assessment of the facts of the case.”
“And you have raised the concern that various competing interests could be perceived by the general public as affecting any charging decision with respect to Mr. Waidelich,” said Laurence.
Laurence, said, “However, those appearances do not constitute a recusable conflict, and we are confident you and your office will exercise your prosecutorial discretion in evaluating this case in the same fair, impartial, professional, and even-handed manner with which you assess all investigations presented to your office.”
What Eyster will do now is unclear.
The woman involved is well-known by local law enforcement officials, and is a friend of many. She has declined to speak publicly about her experience with Waidelich.
Waidelich, his team of attorneys who include former Judge James King and Ukiah lawyer Steve Johnson, all have declined comment about the case.
DA Eyster did not respond Tuesday for comments about the state AG’s determination.