Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Termination of a Fort Bragg Cop Sheds Light on the Erratic Implementation of Key Police Misconduct Law

Lady Justice mural in the Mendocino County courthouse [Picture by Matt LaFever]

Chris Awad’s career as a Mendocino Coast police officer was stellar before his errors in judgment crashed in on him.

By the time he turned 30, Awad was twice honored as ‘Officer of the Year’ by the Fort Bragg Police Department. He quickly rose through the ranks, promoted to sergeant, and assigned to the elite Mendocino County Major Crimes Task Force, the top law enforcement unit in the county.

They were remarkable achievements for a rookie cop who served under four police chiefs in eight years in a rural police department struggling to right itself. At one point during a police chief vacancy, administrative oversight was so lax the sergeants were running the department.

Then, all hell broke loose.

Awad, in April 2019, on patrol near the Harbor Lite Lodge overlooking Noyo Harbor, stopped a vehicle driven by a young local woman. He arrested her for driving under the influence. Awad a year later stood accused by District Attorney David Eyster’s office of interfering in the prosecution effort, and not being truthful during an internal affairs investigation into a consensual tryst that he had with the young woman in a SF hotel room months after he arrested her.

Awad was fired by the Fort Bragg department in April 2020 based on conclusions of its internal police investigation and influenced by the DA’s damaging decision to place the officer on a ‘Brady List,’ a ranking almost certain to end a cop’s career.  The Brady list, determined by a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, requires prosecutors to divulge to defense attorneys any information about law enforcement officers with histories of misconduct that could impact their credibility testifying under oath.

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Awad’s firing was a crushing blow for a small-town Sacramento Valley guy. Awad was a top athlete at Durham High School and became a police officer at age 24 after graduating at the top of the class in the criminal justice program at Butte College. 

“I am not excusing my actions. I admit I made mistakes. But the DA and the city came after me hard. I don’t think I deserved that,” said Awad.

Former Fort Bragg Police Officer Christopher Awad conducting the DUI stop on April 14, 2019 that would eventually lead to his termination from the department [Screenshot of a video provided by the City of Fort Bragg]

Awad ran afoul of the DA’s office and his police superiors after a junior prosecutor three years ago accused him of attempting to ‘tank’ the prosecution on the arrested woman’s behalf by being vague in court testimony about specific details of her arrest for drunk driving. Awad later admitted he had struck up a friendship with the woman, owner of a small café in town, via a social media site.

Awad said because he believed the woman’s case was being resolved with a plea deal, he wrongly agreed to meet her months after the arrest while he was in the Bay Area on training. He described it as a one-time hook-up in a Bay Area hotel fueled by alcohol. 

“I never thought I would have to testify against her, so I allowed things to happen that clearly should not have,” said Awad.

Awad was fired after an internal affairs investigation concluded he willfully failed to inform his superiors or a substitute prosecutor that he had become friends with the defendant. When the District Attorney’s Office withdrew a ‘wet and reckless’ plea deal and forced the DUI case to trial, Awad found himself in a bind. Earlier he had asked the original prosecutor Kevin Cisney assigned to the case to consider reducing the charges because the woman, a local resident with DACA status, fearing she might be deported.

Prosecutor Melissa Weems Roth, who has since left DA David Eyster’s office to become a prosecutor in Georgia, stepped in after Cisney’s departure from the DA’s Fort Bragg office and took the DUI case to trial. She clashed with Awad over his seemingly ‘soft’ recollections as a witness and complained to Eyster she believed the officer’s testimony was “swayed towards aiding the defense.”

Awad’s demeanor on the witness stand was indeed ‘odd,’ agreed Public Defender Francis McGowan. He said he later came to understand why, however.

 “I had negotiated a plea agreement with Cisney on the defendant’s behalf, and he (Awad) thought he was not going to have to testify against her,” recalled McGowan.

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But Cisney, the original prosecutor, and Eyster had a sudden blow-up and Cisney abruptly left for a new job in Tennessee. McGowan said he and Cisney in fact a short time before had reached a plea deal to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor ‘wet and reckless.’ 

“When Cisney left Eyster pulled the deal off the table and insisted the case go to trial,” said McGowan.

Awad’s demeanor on the witness stand may have been questionable but it clearly did not sway the jury, said McGowan. It found the defendant guilty on the more serious DUI charge.

Eyster, angered by his junior prosecutor’s account of Awad’s courtroom behavior, ordered his then-chief investigator Kevin Bailey to probe the matter, and he encouraged the Fort Bragg police to conduct an internal affairs investigation. Bailey’s report concluded that Awad had fudged details, including his accounts of the hotel room encounter with the woman when first questioned by investigators. 

However, no evidence of possible perjury by Awad while testifying under oath in court was found in either the DA review or the city’s investigation.

Awad challenged his termination but an arbitrator after a hearing ruled that his failure to tell the DA’s office and his superiors about his subsequent personal connection to the defendant was a ‘willful omission’ and justified his dismissal.

“I feel that I deserved punishment for my actions. But I have never lied about what went on. To label me a dishonest cop on the Brady list is unfair, especially when seen in comparison to other things that have gone on around here,” said Awad.

Awad’s misconduct issues are the latest to surface in Mendocino County law enforcement during the past year, a respected community of professionals who serve a sprawling rural region. The disclosures have stirred scrutiny and raised questions about what goes on behind a ‘blue wall of silence.’

DA Eyster, who is the county’s chief law enforcement officer, refuses to discuss the individual misconduct cases involving Awad and three other high-ranking former cops. Eyster avoids answering questions about his policies surrounding local police misconduct, or why he acts in some cases and not others.

Awad is the only local police officer to speak publicly about the specific misconduct allegations against him. 

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He has engaged in a series of online video commentaries with Trent James, another former Mendocino County law enforcement officer. James too was an ‘officer of the year’ while he was a sheriff’s deputy before his career went off the rails in an internal flap with his superiors. James ran as a write-in candidate in the last election and won 15 percent of the vote, a surprising number given the typical 5 percent or less usually associated with such campaigns.

Awad in a bid to move on with his life in January voluntarily surrendered his state certification as a cop. He was the first `in California to do so since a new state law went into effect allowing public disclosure of such cases.

“I have to put this behind me. I realize I don’t belong in law enforcement anymore if this is how justice is handed out,” said Awad.

Awad fought his termination at arbitration. He said he did so because he wanted to be free of allegations that he lied about his actions as a police officer.

 “I did not lie through any of this. I am not a dirty cop,” averred Awad. “I fought to protect my credibility.”

In a high-profile follow-up, Awad a few months after his firing found himself the focus of a federal Department of Homeland Security and FBI raid, aided by local sheriff’s deputies and DA investigators. The early morning raid at his Fort Bragg home -he was away working at a logging site – apparently was provoked by rumors that he was dealing in weapons. No illegal weapons were found by federal agents, and no charges resulting from the raid were ever filed. A probable cause for the raid is under seal, and unavailable for public review.

“For a while, I thought this nightmare would never end,” recalled Awad.

Now, three years later Awad is living out of state, piecing his life back together after surrendering his certification as a cop. 

It is a dubious distinction to be the first, but one Awad said during a series of interviews was a decision he needed to make. 

“I am in my 30s. I can rebuild my life and get on with the good things that I showed I can do,” said Awad. “Who knows where I would be if I was not pulled from that career, and with corrupt superiors who have done way worse but continue on the job. I am happy to be away from it.”

What happened in Awad’s case is detailed in hundreds of pages of documents released under California’s new SB 1421 legislation. The request was made by the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of 40 news organizations including KQED, Bay Area News Group, the Investigative Reporting Project at UC Berkeley, Capital Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times. KTVU and Lisa Fernandez shared the retrieved documents.

The internal documents reveal how Eyster effectively doomed Awad’s career by placing the young cop on the ‘Brady List,’ the confidential internal declaration that prosecutors sometimes use to deem errant officers less than credible to testify as witnesses in future criminal cases. Awad was terminated by the city after its own internal affairs probe and a DA review contended he deliberately failed to inform prosecutors of his subsequent relationship with the woman he had arrested months earlier.

Eyster’s selective use of the Brady procedure has emerged as a flash point in a growing number of local police misconduct cases that have rocked Mendocino County. They include a former Ukiah police sergeant, a former Ukiah police chief, and a Willits police lieutenant. All three cases involve sex-related allegations among other issues. Awad’s case differs significantly in that he and the woman involved agree their one-time encounter in a hotel room was consensual and occurred months after her arrest. 

Why some cops get branded as untruthful or worse and land on the Brady List, and others do not is unclear and outside of public purview. There are no uniform protocols, and any listing is at the sole discretion of individual prosecutors.

About 95 percent of California law enforcement agencies rely on policy guidance from Lexipol, a for-profit national police research and policy organization. The organization’s own research arm found that there are no uniform policies or practices regarding Brady Lists among prosecutors at the state and federal levels. Simply put, some prosecutor’s offices maintain lists, while others do not. 

“The lack of uniformity creates problems,” said Val Van Brocklin, a former state and federal prosecutor who writes about law enforcement issues for Lexipol’s news publication. She is recognized nationally for her police training programs.

“I understand the importance, and I fully support Brady requirements. But there needs to be due process with its use. Just as we give murderers due process, we need to give people placed on a Brady list the same,” said Van Brocklin.

Eyster in fact used the legal immunity as a DA to free himself at taxpayers’ expense in excess of $50,000 from a 2017 civil lawsuit filed by Amanda Carley, when the role of a Brady listing first surfaced locally. Carley is a former Mendocino County probation officer who accused Eyster of being the ‘architect’ of a plan to end her law enforcement career by placing her on his Brady list. 

Former Ukiah Police Chief Noble Waidelich [Photograph from UPD]

Eyster did so following a contentious law enforcement investigation into Carley’s claims that she was physically and financially abused by her former live-in partner Noble Waidelich, then a high-ranking Ukiah police officer. Carley eventually left her job under duress, while Waidelich was promoted to Police Chief.  

But in June 2022, Waidelich was fired by city officials after allegations that he sexually assaulted another Ukiah woman surfaced. 

For seven months Eyster has sat on the results of a Sonoma County investigation into Waidelich’s possible criminal case.  The DA refuses to publicly discuss the status of the Waidelich case or any of the other pending police misconduct cases. In the meantime, Waidelich’s alleged victim has filed a sexual battery and violation of civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the former police chief and the city of Ukiah.

Eyster also remains mum about the results of an outside investigation completed last Fall on former Willits Police Lt. Derek Hendry’s alleged sexual assaults on a Willits woman.

Carley, the police chief’s former live-in partner, now lives and works in Southern California. She proudly points to the fact that she has since obtained a state criminal investigator license after an exhaustive state review of her past including DA Eyster’s Brady listing of her.

“There is no doubt I was a victim of Eyster’s weaponization of Brady,” said Carley. 

Carley agrees with Awad that Eyster seems to use the “Brady bat” against cops who personally fall into his disfavor while ignoring more serious credibility issues involving others. 

“We all know cops who have had longstanding credibility issues but who remain on the job because their honesty isn’t publicly questioned by Eyster,” said Carley. “It isn’t fair that he can arbitrarily use Brady as a weapon, and no one can challenge his findings.”

Awad concurs. 

“There are officers still working who have done far worse but were given second chances and are still officers today,” he said.

Awad said he still feels resentment because he voluntarily agreed to a follow-up interview with Eyster’s former chief investigator Kevin Bailey. Eyster used Bailey’s findings to justify placing Awad on his Brady list, internal documents show.

“I never anticipated that they would twist my words and use them to complete their narrative,” said Awad.

Awad, Carley, and others wonder how the credibility of other law enforcement officers including Waidelich, disgraced former Ukiah Police Sgt. Kevin Murray and fired Willits Police Lt. Hendry seem to have escaped the same level of DA scrutiny.

Sergeant Kevin Murray [Picture from UPD’s 2019 Annual Report]

For example, court records show that Murray lied about his role in the severe beating of a disabled Ukiah veteran, yet he was never slapped with a Brady listing by Eyster, according to the sworn testimony of one of his own deputy prosecutors who handled the criminal prosecution of the victim. When all the facts emerged, the criminal assault charge against Murray’s victim was dropped ‘in the interest of justice.’

In a later criminal case against Murray, Eyster agreed to drop three serious sex-related charges and possession of methamphetamine allegation in exchange for guilty pleas to lesser charges. The plea bargain was blasted as a ‘sweetheart deal’ by one of Murray’s alleged victims, and it provoked a public demonstration outside of Eyster’s courthouse office.  Instead of serving a jail term as recommended by probation officers, Murray walked out of the courtroom after being placed on probation for one year. A third alleged victim of Murray, a former police trainee, has a pending civil lawsuit against him and the city of Ukiah.

A photograph of Derek Hendry obtained via public records request from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office

Hendry was fired from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in 2018 for timecard fraud after an internal affairs investigation, yet law enforcement sources say Hendry also escaped being placed on Eyster’s Brady list, allowing him to be later hired by Willits Police. 

In the Awad case, the fired cop acknowledges he attempted to intervene with prosecutors on the woman’s behalf when he learned she was undocumented and that she feared she could be deported if convicted of drunk driving as charged. Police and prosecutors commonly review pre-trial charging issues.

“I honestly didn’t feel the possibility of deportation fit the crime in her case, and I had no problem asking the original prosecutor to turn her case into a ‘wet and reckless’ which carries a lesser penalty,” said Awad. 

Initially, Awad relished being a cop in Fort Bragg, a small town like the rural communities of the Sacramento Valley where he grew up. Public Defender McGowan and others say he fit in. “He was personable, and calm and cool with people he encountered on duty. I seldom heard any complaints about his conduct,” said McGowan.

Awad said he made mistakes, and sometimes lapses in judgment because of chronic fatigue from working too many shifts because of staff shortages. “I was only 24 years old when I started in law enforcement and was very immature to be honest,” said Awad.

 “I started cutting corners,” he admitted. “Yes, some of them were probably worthy of disciplinary action and possibly even suspension.”

But Awad never expected to be fired. He was stunned when DA Eyster pushed for the city to conduct an internal affairs investigation and went after him with the Brady listing. A Brady listing cannot be the sole reason for termination, but it effectively bars a cop from testifying, a necessary requirement of any law enforcement job.

“I wish he used Brady across the board, instead of selectively using the bat on just some of us,” said Awad.

In April 2020 Eyster spelled out at length in an official letter to Awad how he would be placed on the Brady list, describing it as part of a “secure system available to all prosecutors in the DA’s Office.” He used the same wording in his 2016 notice to probation officer Carley that he was placing her on his Brady List.

Eyster declared in both notices that “This Brady information will be stored in my office’s Brady Listing and Documents System (BLDS), a system maintained and secured by the District Attorney Bureau of Investigations. Again, the BLDS is a secure filing system maintained exclusively for local prosecutors, to confirm and satisfy their Brady obligations, and is accessible — through specific inquiry to the investigators — only by deputy district attorneys who are prosecuting a specific case in which you are deemed a material witness on matters of guilt or punishment.”

Yet it is unclear whether such a formal system actually exists in the DA’s office.

In 2021, a year after Eyster’s Brady declaration to Awad and five years after notice of Carley, senior Deputy DA Luke Oakley testified under oath that he didn’t know whether a formal Brady system existed within the DA’s office. His testimony was taken in a civil lawsuit filed against former Ukiah Sgt. Murray.

On May 18, 2021, Oakley was specifically asked if he knew a Brady list existed for prosecutors to review. 

“I don’t know if there is a list,” Oakley responded.

The question and answer sequence continued, according to an official transcript:

“I mean generally based on my past experience; I have received e-mail notifications that certain officers have Brady material.

Who do those e-mails come from?

Based on my experience, Mr. Eyster.”

Sonoma County attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who questioned Oakley under oath during that deposition, said he believes it is a ‘fair assumption’ that no formal Brady procedures exist as Eyster claims.

Oakley also testified that to his knowledge Murray was never placed on a Brady list even though it eventually was disclosed that the officer had lied and filed a false arrest report during a 2018 investigation into his vicious beating of a disabled Navy veteran. Victim Chris Rasku was originally sentenced for criminal assault against a police officer, but the DA office later dropped the case ‘in the interest of justice.’  Police video clips revealed Murray’s use of excessive force, and largely confirmed the victim’s account. Rasku was eventually awarded $1.1 million in damages by the city to settle a civil lawsuit that later followed.

Murray continued as an officer until he was fired for sexually assaulting a woman in a Ukiah motel room in November 2020. The victim later settled a civil claim against the city of Ukiah for $250,000.

For Awad and others hammered by Eyster for Brady-type violations, the Murray case underscores the selective use of career-ending measures.

“Brady was the kiss of death for me professionally,” said Awad.

(Mike Geniella was public information officer for the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office for 10 years ending in 2021. Before that Geniella for 23 years was chief of Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s Ukiah News Bureau.)

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  1. I appreciate you keeping these stories in the public eye, but, man, doesn’t it feel fruitless? This Eyster guy has a God complex where he obviously feels he has nobody to answer to. And it feels like he doesn’t. Police are emboldened by these same powers & lack of accountability. Serious in house crimes are kept in the dark & if they do see the light of day they get a slap on the wrist & we get a slap in the face.
    What can the public do, or who can we contact, to demand accountability & transparency? Where or whom do we turn to, when those who are charged to protect us, are protecting themselves from us?

  2. The questions still remains. Why are some police officers charged while others walk free, make sweet deals and suffer little to no consequences for crimes others would be in prison for? Also, what gives DA Eyster the right to sit on cases, specifically ex Chief of Ukiah Police Nobel Waidelich? Why did the victims of this fired police chief have to seek their own justice? When is it time to question the ability of DA Eyster to do his job? Sitting on a 7 month old investigation seems to show a lack of ability in my mind. Don’t the citizens of Mendocino County deserve some answers?

  3. So remember that cop in fort bragg not too long ago that overdosed on drugs in his own living room? While living with his girlfriend? He got paid leave for that.. so many bad apples!! They also swept that under the rug

  4. I do not know this officer and do not codone his actions with this women or how he handled the court case… but being a former law enforcement officer, a female, I have to say male officers are notorious for dating women they stop. It’s easy for them because majority of women have a warped fascination with being involved with a cop. Other than car stop pick ups…dispatchers, call takers, and nurses are frequently involved with officers. H
    It appears he did not lie in court, he should not have asked f or charged reduced or dropped but punishing him for being involved with a car stop person is ridiculous…would have to punish 3/4 of officers.

    • I think it’s cuz he tried get her an easier sentence, not the fact so much that they had a thing.
      And thank you for pointing out the commonality of cops (mostly male) dating their ‘patrons(?)’ and coworkers. If the roles were switched, and a female cop was using her prowess to hook up with guys she pulls over, I’m talking loser drunks, addicts, criminals, gang members. What would we think of her? If she downplayed on the stand cause she was protecting a gang member’s brother? We’d think she was gross and guilty af
      And we think the same of him. And I think the cops are making a martyr out of him as well as attempting to virtue signal. We as citizens must look out for ourselves and our neighbors.

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