LAGUNA BEACH — Three women arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in separate incidents claimed Tuesday that they were sexually assaulted by the same reserve police officer who was transporting them to Orange County Jail.
The officer, 20-year-old Chris Matano of Laguna Beach, was relieved of all duties from the Laguna Beach Police Department two weeks ago. The Orange County district attorney's office has since opened an investigation into the allegations against him, Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. said.
Matano would not respond to the allegations Tuesday, referring all questions to his attorney, Gregory G. Petersen of Orange, who did not return calls for comment.
Peter A. Seidenberg, a Newport Beach attorney representing the three women, said his clients were pleased with the Police Department's decision but would nevertheless seek unspecified damages from the city.
"If this is true, and we believe it is, it's the most outrageous thing I've ever heard," Seidenberg said. "We have a 20-year-old driving around in a police car with a gun and a badge, stopping women and molesting them. It's frightening."
The alleged attacks occurred this month and in March and September, according to claims filed with the city clerk's office Tuesday.
After receiving a complaint from the first woman, Purcell said, an internal investigation was launched, and two other women were located who claimed similar misconduct by Matano. After hearing their complaints, Purcell said he relieved Matano of his duties pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation, and reported the matter to the district attorney.
According to Purcell, Matano, a 1989 graduate of Laguna Beach High School, was a police Explorer before joining the department as a reserve officer a year ago. Reserve police officers generally undergo similar, but not as comprehensive or as long, training as sworn officers.
Purcell said Matano was paid by the hour and was not considered a full-time employee, but nevertheless was qualified to wear a uniform and badge and carry a weapon.
According to the three complaints, the first incident took place March 28 when Matano was asked to take an unidentified woman from the Police Department to County Jail in Santa Ana.
On the way there, the claim alleges that Matano stopped his patrol car "in complete darkness" on the deserted Laguna Canyon Road, approached the handcuffed woman in the back seat and "began sadistically terrorizing (her) by telling her he was going to strip-search her." The woman "repeatedly protested this but Matano persisted . . . that he was going to strip-search her."
Matano abandoned his advances and continued on his trip to the jail, the claim said.
At a later undetermined date, the woman filed a complaint with both the district attorney's office and Laguna Beach police.
According to the second claim, another woman said she too was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and was being taken to jail by Matano when the officer unzipped her shorts and kept telling her "girls enjoy being talked to in a lewd and lascivious manner." The incident allegedly occurred Sept. 7. She too was handcuffed during the incident, the claim said.
In the third incident, yet another woman said she was being taken to jail by Matano on Oct. 12 when the officer allegedly stopped his patrol car twice on Laguna Canyon Road and "terrorized and sexually molested" her, according to the complaint.
Matano, the claim said, fondled her on the guise that he was searching her. When she told him that she had already been searched, Matano replied that he "would search (her) as many times as he desired," the claim said.
Seidenberg said the woman involved in the March incident was harassed again Sept. 11 when one of Matano's department colleagues, identified in the claim as Thaddeus Falenki, stopped her in Laguna Beach on an alleged traffic violation. The woman was never arrested, but she claimed Falenki, a sworn officer, told her that "we don't believe what you're saying about Chris Matano. He's a friend of mine."
The claim said that Falenki, who could not be reached for comment, subjected her to a "horribly offensive" search. When she protested, the officer laughed and told her: "I'm making sure you don't have any explosives on you," the claim stated. Seidenberg, the woman's attorney, claimed Matano then pulled up in his own patrol car.
"Chris Matano then pulled (her) by her arm and pushed her into the back of his patrol vehicle," the claim said. He allegedly fondled her and then "incredibly . . . asked her out for a date, telling her he was a really nice guy," the claim said.
The police chief said no action is being contemplated against Falenki, who has been with the department since 1985.
"According to the woman's description, his search was standard police practice," Purcell said. "There's is nothing to substantiate that he did anything improper."