San Diego Union Tribune

Inquiry launched into CHP officers' claims

Pair said they felt pressure to lie on the witness stand

UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

May 2, 2004

The California Highway Patrol is investigating claims that two of its officers were pressured to lie on the witness stand in a lawsuit by a Ramona man awarded $4.5 million by a jury last week.

The allegations arose after a verdict Monday in the case of Steve Grassilli, who said he was harassed by CHP officers for five years after he filed a complaint against one officer.

Tom Marshall, a CHP spokesman in Sacramento, said his agency launched the review after Grassilli's attorney, Greg Garrison, made the allegations.

"If these allegations were substantiated, that would be of extreme concern to us," Marshall said. "We take allegations like that very seriously."

The two officers who said they were pressured to lie, Craig Thetford and Michael Clauser, substantiated Grassilli's claims he was being targeted for harassment, which other officers denied.

Thetford believes he has already felt repercussions from his testimony. He was the subject of an internal affairs investigation in January 2003, accusing him of committing perjury in his pretrial deposition. Seven months later, Thetford was transferred to the CHP office in El Cajon, after about eight years working near his home in Ramona.

Clauser said he wasn't sure what might happen to him.

"Do you believe your truthful testimony in this case may affect the way you're treated by your employer?" he was asked during the trial.

"It's possible," he said. "I don't know what they're going to do."

The testimony of Clauser and Thetford played a pivotal role in persuading jurors to award Grassilli more than $4 million in punitive damages and $510,000 in compensatory damages.

Grassilli claimed he was repeatedly ticketed by Officer Richard Eric Barr after he complained in March 1997 that Barr had illegally removed the catalytic converter from a pickup truck the officer owned.

The lawsuit also named Michael Toth and Stephan Neumann, Barr's sergeants in the Ramona CHP branch. The CHP was not named as a defendant in the case, but the agency typically pays monetary damage awards when its officers are sued.

Grassilli's allegation about Barr's catalytic converter resulted in Grassilli being charged with two misdemeanor counts of making a false complaint, which were dismissed by a judge. But his run-ins with CHP officers didn't end there.

His car was cited three times for obstructed view and smog violations, and his truck was impounded. A supplier for Grassilli, who wasa water tank installer, was stopped so often as he drove to job sites for Grassilli that he refused to work with him, ruining Grassilli's business.

Under pressure

Clauser and Thetford are still employed by the CHP, and neither has been available for interviews since the verdict Monday. But both indicated before and during Grassilli's trial that they were under pressure to change their testimony to bolster their fellow officers' version of events.

Clauser, a CHP officer for 16 years, said on the witness stand that he had been pressured by his superiors, including the head of the CHP, about his testimony.

"I don't like this, but I'm going to tell the truth," Clauser said.

As a CHP commercial enforcement officer, Clauser was called one time in July 1999 when officers stopped Grassilli's supplier. Barr told the supplier he needed extended mirrors on his truck to see behind the 10,000-gallon tank he was carrying. Clauser, who specializes in rules governing trucks and commercial vehicles, said the mirrors weren't necessary and would be dangerous on the narrow roads through Ramona.

Clauser testified he told Barr "that was a bad call to write that (ticket)."

Barr said he would continue to write the tickets, Clauser said. In a February 2003 meeting, Sgt. Mark Crofton agreed the mirrors were unnecessary and ordered Barr to stop.

But when Grassilli's case came to trial, Crofton claimed the extended mirrors were required, Clauser said.

"Now that we are being sued, that's his opinion," Clauser said of Crofton. "During this meeting, his opinion was you couldn't stick your mirrors out. Now, apparently, you can stick your mirrors out."

Feeling pressured by his bosses about his testimony, Clauser testified that Crofton told him he was considered an expert witness for Grassilli's legal team.

"Are you aware that the commissioner has personally called me eight or nine times? And you're considered a hostile witness," Clauser said Crofton told him.

The comment frightened him, Clauser said, because he didn't like coming to the attention of CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick.

Morning coffee

Meanwhile, Thetford was feeling vulnerable because he had a friendly relationship with Grassilli. The two and others frequently met for morning coffee at a convenience store in Ramona. Thetford also hired Grassilli to install a water tank at his home.

Thetford said his supervisor repeatedly remarked he should not be around Grassilli because of Grassilli's felony record. But Grassilli's only criminal conviction was a misdemeanor charge stemming from a fight when he was a young man, said Grassilli lawyer Garrison.

Thetford once complained to Neumann, his supervisor, that other officers weren't backing him up on calls.

"I said these officers feel like there is no allegiance here," Neumann testified in a deposition. "You are palling around with somebody that's filed false complaints against your beat partner, filed false complaints against your previous sergeant, yet you are befriending this guy. So . . . they have some hard feelings about it."

Thetford said Neumann instructed him to ticket Grassilli and Grassilli's supplier.

"Has any pressure been put on you from within the CHP in regards to Mr. Grassilli's case?" Thetford was asked in a deposition.

"My supervisors told me on several occasions that it could affect my career should I continue my conversations with Mr. Grassilli for coffee," Thetford said.

After his second deposition in December 2002, Thetford was investigated by the CHP for allegedly committing perjury in his testimony.

Thetford's attorney, Rodney Donohoo, said the internal investigation was "highly irregular" because Thetford was not given time to hire an attorney before he was questioned or fully told of the allegations against him.

At trial, a CHP superior officer testified that Thetford was suspended for 10 days for committing perjury. Donohoo denied that.

"He told the truth despite the pressure put on him. He never received any suspension whatsoever," Donohoo said.

Donohoo said the only action taken against Thetford was he had a record of the discussion placed in his personnel file. Thetford also was transferred from Ramoma to the CHP's El Cajon office in August 2003, but was told that his transfer was for medical reasons because he had suffered a shoulder injury and a heart attack.

Thetford handed over a copy of his internal affairs interview during Grassilli's trial.

During the two-hour interview, Crofton and Sgt. Tim Santillan repeatedly reminded Thetford he had undergone a disciplinary counseling session because of his problems working with Neumann. He wasn't being pressured to change his testimony, they said.

Under questioning during the interview, Thetford agreed he had not been ordered to end his relationship with Grassilli, although it had been suggested. His attorney Donohoo said Thetford was badgered into giving the officers the answer they wanted.

"I felt that I had had pressure put on me about my association with Mr. Grassilli," Thetford said in the interview. "I felt that my job was in jeopardy at that point."

"In light of what we've discussed here for the last couple hours, would you say some of the answers during the deposition can be taken out of context or might be inaccurate?" Santillan asked.

"Uh, after discussing it with you, yes," Thetford said. "Very much so."

Crofton told Thetford about his philosophy toward testifying in court.

"You're a member of the department and the department has an opinion. We do not," he said. "When in deposition, we go out of our way to never be construed in any other way than we want to be construed. We are experts in testimony."

The CHP's Marshall said Friday he did not know how long it would take to complete the review of allegations that Thetford and Clauser were pressured to lie. He also said the CHP plans to pursue an appeal of the $4.5 million verdict.


Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice