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Parade of lawsuits targets Sandy Police Department

City claims no wrongdoing on part of officers
by: contributed photos, Top row, the plaintiffs: Jerry E. Woodford, Juan Rubio, Britt Woodring, Samuel Contreras.
Bottom row, the defendants: Chief Harold Skelton, officers Ernie Roberts, Bill Bergin and Kalen "K.T." Taylor.

The Sandy Police Department and its officers are facing six lawsuits - including five filed in federal court - that accuse officers of excessive force, harassment and violating constitutional rights.

On Monday, March 12, Sandy resident Samuel Contreras joined Firwood's Juan Rubio, the family of Fouad Kaady, Jerry Woodford and Estacada's Britt Woodring in filing a lawsuit in federal court claiming wrongdoing by the department. Rubio also has filed a lawsuit in Clackamas County Circuit Court.

Police Chief Harold Skelton said that before the Woodford lawsuit - the first of the six filed - the department hadn't been sued for about 20 years.

Officer K.T. Taylor is a defendant in the two Rubio cases, the Woodring case and the Woodford case; Officer Bill Bergin is a defendant in the Kaady and Woodring cases; and Officer Ernie Roberts is identified in the Contreras suit. Clackamas County sheriff's deputies Brandon Claggett and Dave Willard are being sued in the Woodford and Kaady cases, respectively.

Attorney Edward Merrill of Bend, who represents Rubio, Woodring and Contreras, said his clients filed the lawsuits - which concern four different incidents with the Sandy Police Department - not for monetary gain but to protest the actions of the department and to advocate for change.

'All we can do is try to right the wrongs that we're alleging, and hopefully a by-product of that is that other (incidents) will be prevented,' Merrill said. 'At some point in time you can hope somebody is going to take notice and ask if there's a deeper, underlying problem here, and what can be done to remedy it.'

Added Rubio, 'It just goes on, the same old clique. I think the citizens of Sandy should be educated on how the city government is dealing with its problems.'

Salem attorney Bruce Mowery, who represents the city interests through City/County Insurance, says the sextuple-whammy of lawsuits - he's not involved in the Kaady case - is 'probably something orchestrated by the attorney, since he's the same one (for all of them, save Kaady and Woodford).'

'A lot of it is just contrived,' Skelton echoed. He said Rubio's attorneys are 'shopping for plaintiffs,' checking the county jail roster for Sandy arrests.

Mowery said in each case there's evidence that any action taken by city officials was 'justifiable,' although he said he couldn't discuss any evidence supporting that statement.

'There's absolutely no merit to the claims,' he said.

The city also maintains that the officers can't be sued for any actual or alleged actions under the doctrine of qualified immunity - a legal doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 (Harlow v. Fitzgerald) that insulates officers 'insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,' which Sandy says is the case.

Any time the department receives a use-of-force complaint, Skelton said, it reviews the scenario. 'Under the circumstances in these cases, I believe (the use of force) was justified. I believe in all these lawsuits we'll be exonerated.'

He added, 'I have total confidence in my officers. We're always watching, always paying attention to make sure we're doing things legally.'

Mowery wouldn't say whether the city wants to settle with the Rubio camp or how he plans to defend the city in court.

'This doesn't appear to be an unusual pattern,' City Manager Scott Lazenby said. 'The idea is that if you throw a bunch of stuff in the hopper you might have some leverage to get your way. There's no substance as far as we can tell to any of them.'

Lazenby said he was familiar with the episodes related to the lawsuits and has no concerns regarding the behavior of city police officers.

'I know what has gone on in these very incidents,' he said. 'Often they involve a situation where there were a number of law enforcement officers, and reports from them make us pretty confident that there's nothing of substance to these things.'

Lazenby isn't worried about a trial. 'Frankly,' he said, 'I don't think it would go that far.' That belief leads the city's charge to get the lawsuits thrown out in court. Mowery is working on it, he said.

Mowery wouldn't comment as to whether the city is looking for a settlement, and Merrill said the only appropriate out-of-court resolution - which would punish and/or terminate officers and institute new training - doesn't appear likely.

Skelton, fresh from giving a deposition for Rubio's trials last week, said the individual officers can turn around and sue Merrill's law firm for harassment and frivolous litigation. He didn't say whether the officers plan to do that, but said they will have that ability.

Rubio remains confident. 'Do you how much they're going to lose?' he asked. 'They don't want to cut their own throat. The blade is already up against their throat; they're just hesitating on when to do it.

'I am going to break this town.'


Lawsuit no. 1: Woodford's federal case

Jerry Eureal Woodford, 48, of Sandy filed a federal case against the city of Sandy last June, 2006, alleging that the police brutalized him while he was staying at a hotel in town.

Woodford, who is disabled, said that he wasn't able to move in bed on June 11, 2004, because he slept about 16 hours and wasn't able to take his daily dose of necessary medication.

So when people knocked on his door asking him to come out, he yelled that he was disabled and couldn't get to the door. At that point, he said he took his medication.

About an hour later, after his medication took effect, Woodford grabbed his crutches and before he could open the door, Taylor and Claggett broke through the door, shooting a Taser, which missed.

When asked to show his hands, Woodford complied. Taylor then tackled him, making him hit the edge of the bed and fall to the ground, where he was Tased three times - which made him involuntarily defecate.

Woodford then alleges that Deputy Claggett put his hand on his back and grabbed his hair before he was handcuffed and taken to the Clackamas County Jail, where he remained for three days.

He was charged with resisting arrest - a charge that was later dropped.

Woodford alleges that Taylor and Claggett violated his fourth and fourteenth amendment rights to be free of unreasonable search and seizures and unreasonable force from the government, since the 'use of unnecessary force was unreasonable, excessive and disproportionate based on the circumstances.'

A response filed on behalf of the officers maintains that Woodford 'refused to open the door and locked it form the inside.' They also said Woodford didn't answer the hotel room phone when they tried to call it, and eventually, officers had to break down the door.

The officers 'had probable cause' to arrest Woodford, the response continues, and that the officers used 'no more force than was necessary' to accomplish that.

Once in the hotel room, police say Woodford was found standing, and that he refused to comply with all fof the officers' commands and physically resisted arrest. The Taser was deployed to 'gain control' of the suspect.

Woodford asks for unspecified non-economic damages resulting from the alleged injuries levied by the officers, as well as unspecified punitive damages and attorney's fees. The officers are seeking reimbursement of legal fees.


Lawsuit no. 2: Kaady federal case

The family of Fouad Kaady filed a lawsuit against the city of Sandy and Clackamas County last September in federal court.

Kaady was shot and killed by Sandy police officer Bill Bergin and Clackamas County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Willard Sept. 8, 2005, after a string of seemingly bizarre events including several hit-and-run collisions, a car fire and a possible assault. He was naked, bleeding and severely burned before the fatal police encounter near Cottrell Grade School, northwest of Sandy.

The 31-page lawsuit claims that the county, the city and the officers violated Kaady's civil rights. The 10-claim complaint alleges excessive force, unconstitutional arrest and wrongful death, among other accusations. Furthermore, it claims that the police-involved shooting was 'oppressive, malicious … (and) motivated by evil motive or intent.'

Kaady family members seek monetary damages in an amount to be determined at trial. That amount would include memorial service expenses, the loss of Kaady's lifetime wages, compensation for pain and suffering, attorneys' fees and punitive judgments against the officers.

'We're hoping for a fair and just exploration of what happened, and maybe some result that will be a living testament to Fouad Kaady's life,' said Michelle Burrows one of the Kaady family's attorneys.

A Clackamas County Grand Jury cleared Bergin and Willard of all wrongdoing last year and an internal investigation by the sheriff's office and the Sandy Police Department determined that they had fully complied with department policies and procedures. Both officers returned to duty, although Bergin is currently on personal leave.

Sheriff Craig Roberts and Sandy Police Chief Harold Skelton defended the actions of the officers, saying that in unstable situations such as the Kaady case, sometimes split-second decisions must be made to protect law enforcement officers.

The family has hired Wyoming attorney Gerry Spence, who is known for handling high-profile cases such as the landmark 1984 Karen Silkwood case. He represented Brandon Mayfield - the Portland-area man whose fingerprints were erroneously linked to the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

A trial isn't expected for six months to a year.


Lawsuit no. 3: Rubio's federal case

The Rubio case stems from an incident during the 2005 Sandy Mountain Festival, in which Rubio had approached Chief Harold Skelton - who was riding in the parade as one of its grand marshals - and began yelling at the city's top cop about the disappearance of his son, and compared the local police to Nazis.

At the time, Rubio's son, 20-year-old Carlos, was had been missing for a month. The distraught father, upset by his son's recent encounters with Sandy Police, asserted that local law enforcement had something to do with his son's disappearance.

'His screaming in the public venue was creating public alarm,' Skelton noted in a previous interview. 'In the right circumstances, that kind of thing could have started a riot.'

Rubio said he never threatened the chief, and yelled because Skelton was ignoring him. Had he received any acknowledgement from the chief, Rubio said he would have accepted it and backed off.

Skelton said he called for backup after Rubio approached him three different times, reporting that he and his wife felt threatened. Police then arrested Rubio on charges of menacing (threatening harm) and disorderly conduct/criminal mischief.

When the case finally went to court on Jan. 25, 2006, Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Steven Maurer threw it out, noting that the facts proved the trial was illegitimate, because Rubio's encounter with Skelton was just an 'upsetting' and 'unfair' exercise of his free speech rights. He said the arrest should have never taken place.

'One of attributes of free speech is that it well may be disturbing,' said Maurer in his closing remarks, 'you take the good with the bad.'

Although a trial hasn't been scheduled for the federal case, it is widely expected the trial would begin sometime in 2008 if an out-of-court settlement isn't reached.


Lawsuit no. 4: Rubio's local case

Rubio also filed a lawsuit against Officer Kalen 'K.T.' Taylor in circuit court last summer, accusing Taylor of threatening Rubio during several incidents between 2004 and 2006. He seeks $100,000 for emotional distress.

Taylor declined to comment on the specific allegations made in the pending lawsuit, but speaking generally, he said in a previous interview, 'There's some stuff he's saying that concerns me. There's a lot of mistruths.'

Rubio's first cited encounter was on June 25, 2004, when he responded to a supermarket parking lot where his son, 19-year-old Carlos, was with several Sandy police officers, including Taylor, during a minor traffic stop.

When Rubio arrived to assist his son, the suit claims, Taylor 'screamed' at him and Carlos, 'referring to them as 'homies.' ' Carlos later claimed that Taylor threatened to kill him during that encounter, a claim refuted by Officer Ernie Roberts, who was on the scene.

The second stated encounter with Taylor was on May 27, 2005 - the date Carlos was found guilty of eluding police from an incident the July before.

He said that while at the Clackamas County Courthouse, Taylor 'screamed' at him, saying, 'I'm warning you, Mr. Rubio, you're not going to like what's going to happen to you.'

Rubio said that statement made him 'live in constant fear that (Taylor) would carry out his threats against him.' He also says that the experience made him 'especially susceptible to severe mental and emotional distress' due to that fear.

The third encounter the lawsuit references was on March 10, 2006, when Rubio encountered Taylor at a grocery store parking lot. He said that Taylor, off-duty at the time, blocked his walking path with his white pickup.

Sandy Police told The Post that Rubio had traveled to Taylor's house and frightened his wife.

Through the truck's window, Rubio alleges, Taylor screamed for Rubio to 'quit (expletive) with my wife or I'll (expletive) you up,' and, 'I'm gonna get you, you little sucker.'

Rubio says that as a direct result of his encounters with Taylor, Rubio 'suffered severe mental and emotional distress, fear, humiliation, embarrassment, anxiety, loss of reputation and inconvenience,' which totals non-economic damages of $100,000.

Taylor said he will be represented by a lawyer provided by the city, and plans to countersue Rubio for unwanted contact, harassment and libelous comments.

'I've had a long career as a police officer,' Taylor said. 'I think I need to look after my reputation.'

Merrill says he's trying to have the trial scheduled for June 19.


Lawsuit no. 5: Woodring's federal case

In January, Estacada resident Britt Woodring filed a $3.1 million lawsuit in U.S. District Court, alleging that officers Taylor and Bergin broke the law when they arrested him outside a restaurant in Sandy on Feb. 18, 2006.

After a fight with his wife, Woodring left his Estacada home for the restaurant at 38015 Highway 26.

In his official lawsuit papers, Woodring says he hadn't had any alcohol before arriving at the restaurant, where he ordered a rum and coke. He said was never engaged in unlawful activity nor was he under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs that evening at the restaurant, despite witness and police reports alleging otherwise.

According to the police report, bartender Scott Conerly called the police, later telling them that Woodring 'was acting strange as if he was on drugs and harassing several customers … just acting weird and being aggressive towards customers.' When police arrived, Bergin said Conerly told him he wanted Woodring removed.

Woodring's lawsuit states that Conerly was just concerned about Woodring's ability to drive and noted that he wasn't causing problems or was engaged in illegal activity.

According to Woodring's complaint, Taylor and Bergin approached him and directed him to stand by the door, 'where Bergin began circling him and then asked him if he was resisting arrest.'

The complaint then alleges that Bergin 'suddenly and forcibly' seized Woodring around his neck and upper chest with his police baton and his other arm, 'despite the fact that (Woodring) had not yet even been questioned or warned,' nor arrested.

Woodring said that when he grabbed the baton in an attempt to release the pressure on his neck and chest he was tased on the inside of his right arm, and Taylor punched him hard in the face, which made him bleed and gave him a black eye.

He said Taylor inflicted several knee strikes upon him, and Bergin struck him on his right eye with the police baton and tased him again on the back of his left arm. Woodring said he fell to the ground, where he was tased two more times, which left permanent scars upon his chest.

The police report disputes Woodring's account, noting that when Bergin told Woodring the bartender wanted him to leave the business, the Estacada man backed away from them.

Bergin said he and Taylor grabbed each of Woodring's arms in an attempt to escort the man out of the restaurant. Woodring then allegedly broke an arm free from Bergin and pushed Taylor with his open hand.

Witness Andres J. Ford, said in his statement to police that the officers 'started off nice' with Woodring until the man started pushing them with an open hand.

'It didn't look avoidable to go hands on,' reflected Jordan Enos, another witness.

Taylor said he then grabbed the back of Woodring's neck and told him to get on the ground, delivering two knee strikes to his abdomen area. When he didn't get on the ground, Taylor punched Woodring in the face. At that point, both officers told him to stop struggling, and that he was under arrest.

When Woodring wouldn't roll on his stomach or give up his arms, Bergin deployed the taser, striking the man four times total.

'We had given Woodring the opportunity to leave the bar and he would not,' Taylor reflected.

The officers took Woodring to the Clackamas County Jail, where he was incarcerated for about eight hours. He was charged with second-degree criminal trespass and resisting arrest, but the charges were dropped after the case was 'no-complainted' when Woodring appeared for his arraignment.

Not long after the charges were thrown out, Bergin re-issued the citation at the urging of the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office because not necessary information was included in the original citation, but about a week before the September 2006 trial, the D.A. dismissed the charges because they learned that the physical struggle occurred before Woodring was placed under arrest.

In all, Woodring alleges that he was 'subjected to excessive force, unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution by two Sandy police officers,' which violated his constitutional, civil and state rights.

Woodring seeks a total of $3.1 million against Taylor, Bergin and the city of Sandy, plus attorney's fees, for non-economic damages and punitive judgments. That amount is divided into four claims: Use of excessive force, unlawful arrest and two claims of malicious prosecution - one for the first charges levied against Woodring, another for Bergin's reissued citation.

The city's official response to the complaint - filed last month - states that police had probably cause to arrest or otherwise take Woodring into custody, noting that the officers' physical contact with him was 'legally justified' in order for the officers to perform their duties, enforce the law and preserve order.

Calling the Woodring lawsuit 'frivolous,' the city's response includes a counterclaim against the plaintiff, seeking dismissal of the claims and payment of attorneys' fees.


Lawsuit no. 6: Contreras' federal case

Electrician Samuel R. Contreras says his arrest for possession of a controlled substance, having a concealed weapon and tampering with a witness was a set up.

Kari Kelly called Sandy police after an argument on May 27, 2006, telling police that Contreras had drugs on his person and needed to be arrested. When police showed up, Roberts searched Contreras, only finding a knife that he used for his electrician work. Contreras walked away without incident.

In his police report, Roberts said that when he discovered the knife, Contreras told him he started carrying it after 9/11.

At first, Roberts said he wasn't sure the knife qualified as a concealed weapon. After speaking with Clackamas County sheriff's deputy Marcus Wold and researching concealed weapons law, 'I felt the knife Mr. Contreras was carrying did, in fact, qualify as a concealed weapon.'

Later that evening, when Contreras was at a local bar, Roberts showed up, searched him a second time and arrested Contreras.

Later, Roberts searched Contreras a third time - a brief examination, Contreras said - this time finding a matchbook in his trenchcoat pocket, which had a small baggie of methamphetamine inside. Contreras was then charged with possession of a controlled substance, in addition to the concealed weapon charge. He spent two days at the Clackamas County Jail.

A third search isn't unusual, Skelton said. 'Sometimes you have to do a fast pat-down when you're at a hot scene. You just make sure he doesn't have any weapons and then you put the guy in the car.' The third, more in-depth search takes place at the police station. And sometimes, Skelton said, officers receive information that prompts them to conduct another search.

The complaint questions the discovery of the third search, since no contraband had been found in the two previous searches.

'The only person in physical contact with Plaintiff at any time after he had been placed in handcuffs following the second search at (the bar) was Defendant Roberts himself…' So, Contreras alleges, the only way the matchbook of meth could have made it into his jacket was by Roberts placing it there during the third search.

'It's absolutely ridiculous,' Skelton said. 'It's the attorney talking. This is just stupid. We've arrested him on many occasions for the possession of drugs.' He noted that Contreras has several warrants for his arrest in California related to possession of narcotics, but said those warrants aren't executable in Oregon.

Kelly wrote several letters confessing that she framed Contreras after the incident. The compliant states that she said she planted the drugs as part of an informal agreement with Roberts to turn in three criminals to keep her out of trouble for her own illegal drug issues - a deal called 'give up three, go free.' When one of those letters - which was notarized - reached Roberts, he allegedly threatened Kelly with arrest for tampering with a witness.

On June 4, Contreras got in another argument with Kelly, after which Kelly went to the Sandy Police Department. She then gave Roberts a recorded statement that she wrote and notarized the letter, but did so under threat of physical harm from Contreras, which he denies.

Officers then arrested Contreras for tampering with a witness, and four days later Contreras was indicted for unlawful possession of methamphetamine, coercion and tampering with a witness. He spent another 88 days in jail.

Contreras alleges that his Constitutional rights were violated during the incidents in that he was detained and searched without reasonable suspicion and was arrested falsely. He also takes issue with the alleged informal 'give up three, go free' policy.

Taylor is included in the lawsuit because Contreras said the officer told him he was going to 'make a special project' out of him, either by forcing him to leave town or go to jail.

For non-economic and punitive damages, Contreras seeks a total of $21 million plus attorneys fees in three separate claims.

Contreras' record shows two convictions between 1985 and 2006, giving false information to police and a felon in possession of a firearm. He was charged with several other crimes, including criminal mischief, attempting to elude police and possession of methamphetamine, all of which were dismissed.

'He's been arrested a bunch of times,' Skelton said of Contreras. 'He just likes his drugs.'