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CHP Official Delays Firing of Officer at Scene of Beating

Law: Patrolman drew praise for restraint when other deputies hit immigrants. He lied about taping, but admitted error.

August 29, 1996|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A senior California Highway Patrol official has decided at least temporarily to halt the firing of Officer Marco A. DeGennaro, whose actions at the scene of a police beating involving Riverside sheriff's deputies won praise but whose conduct afterward drew the wrath of CHP supervisors.

DeGennaro's case has attracted wide attention, both for the role he played at the scene and for its strange aftermath.

On April 1, DeGennaro joined a high-speed pursuit involving a pickup truck filled with illegal immigrants and two Riverside County sheriff's deputies. Moments later, the truck pulled over, and DeGennaro tried to help the deputies make arrests.

With television cameras broadcasting the incident live, the two deputies struck at least two of the immigrants. DeGennaro, meanwhile, could be seen taking a suspect into custody without using a police baton or other weapon. Use-of-force experts praised that action, as did CHP officials.

But unknown to others at the scene, DeGennaro had made an audiotape of the incident using a tape recorder in a pocket of his shirt. The tape contained evidence sought by investigators probing the beating and included a racist remark by another CHP officer.

After first telling his supervisors about the tape, DeGennaro lied about its existence when questioned by the FBI, a lie he attributed to stress and confusion over how to handle himself in the interview. He then admitted he was wrong to lie, and moved quickly to correct any harm, turning over his tape to local and federal officials.

The CHP notified DeGennaro last month that it was firing him, effective Sept. 7, a move that not only could end the young officer's career but also could complicate his viability as a witness in the event that the two deputies are charged in either federal or state court. But after a hearing Monday, Deputy Commissioner W.L. Kelley elected to put off DeGennaro's firing, at least for now.

"Imposition of the adverse action penalty will be delayed until further notice, pending review and analysis of the additional issues raised by Officer DeGennaro in his pre-disciplinary hearing on Aug. 27, 1996," Kelley said in a letter to Harland W. Braun, DeGennaro's lawyer.

Braun said he and his client were gratified by the ruling and hopeful that the CHP will reinstate DeGennaro once officials have reviewed his case.

"I was really impressed by the hearing," Braun said. "Kelley really listened to DeGennaro."

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