An Orange County jury ordered the Los Angeles Police Department on Monday to pay the head wrestling coach at Cal State Fullerton $3.3 million for his wrongful arrest 11 years ago on suspicion of selling a pound of heroin in front of undercover police.
Ardeshir Asgair, 34, a former world-class wrestler who testified that his Olympic hopes were derailed by the arrest, called the award against the LAPD vindication. The judgment ranks among the highest ever ordered in a Los Angeles police case.
"I feel good, and I feel like a multimillionaire," Asgair said. "What happened destroyed my life. My life has never been the same since what happened."
The Superior Court jury awarded Asgair $800,000 for false arrest and $2.5 million for emotional distress suffered when he was arrested in 1987 and jailed for seven months while on trial for drug charges.
The native of Iran, whose 1982 defection made sports headlines around the world, said he believes that his ordeal was the product of an Iranian loyalist who provided bogus information to LAPD detectives.
"They wanted to make me look bad; they didn't want me to compete for the U.S.," he said.
Asgair was accused of selling $35,000 worth of heroin in 1987 to a police informant as LAPD undercover detectives watched. At the heart of the case was a briefcase containing the brick of heroin.
Detectives testified that they seized the briefcase containing Asgair's California driver's license and a pound of Persian brown heroin. The contents of the briefcase were checked into evidence, but the briefcase was not--an omission Asgair's attorney said denied his client the chance to prove he had never touched it.
"It was very convenient--and drug dealers always put their license in with the drugs so someone can return it if it gets lost," attorney Steven A. Silverstein said sarcastically. "So many things were unexplainable that we came to the conclusion that this was either the most inept Police Department in the world or there was something going on here."
Asgair testified in his criminal trial that he was set up by a fellow Iranian native whom he had befriended. Although prosecutors alleged that Asgair arranged several meetings with police informants and even provided a sample of drugs in a Fullerton parking lot, Asgair maintained that he was an unknowing bystander and never had contact with the heroin.
Asgair was found not guilty, and a civil suit followed. He won a $1.3-million verdict against the LAPD.
The department's attorneys appealed the size of the judgment. Asgair had argued that the LAPD should pay for the seven months that he spent in jail, and the jury had agreed. But on appeal, the department argued that it should only be responsible for his incarceration between the time of his arrest and his first court appearance, when he entered the court system.
The state Supreme Court agreed and, in 1992, ordered a new trial, but only on the amount of the judgment.
That appeal appears to have backfired, with the second civil jury on Monday delivering a far larger judgment after finding that the arrest had far-reaching repercussions in Asgair's personal and professional life.
Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Jeff Gallagher, who represented the city in the case, could not be reached for comment after the verdict Monday.
Michael P. Stone, the attorney for the arresting officer, said he was surprised by the amount of the judgment.
"They embraced the plaintiff," said Stone, who represented LAPD Det. Ruperto Sanchez. "They embraced his claim, and that tells the tale. . . . The amount was at the top of the range of our expectations. We thought it could be a couple hundred thousand up to a couple of million."
Sanchez remains an LAPD narcotics investigator and was not disciplined in connection with Asgair's arrest. Stone said the 30-year veteran of the force "had every legitimate reason" to believe Asgair was dealing heroin, and the officer "never conspired or intentionally engaged in any misconduct" in the case.
Asgair said he remains bitter toward the detectives who arrested him. His ordeal was especially difficult, he said, because he had come to a new country seeking a fresh start.
He recounted his time in the Iranian army, his stint at the front line of the Iran-Iraq war and his decision to defect three years later while competing at an international military meet in Venezuela.
Several years later, as a refugee in the United States, Asgair became an All-American wrestler at Cal State Fullerton and was ranked second in the nation by Amateur Wrestling News. His success earned him an invitation to U.S. Olympic trials in 1987, an opportunity he was denied because he was behind bars. "It was the worst thing that ever happened to me," he said.
On Monday, though, Asgair said his thoughts were on the future. He plans to use some of his money to fund the 24-man wrestling team he has coached since 1992, and he hopes to someday guide them to a national championship.