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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Deputy Fired for Lying in Man's Death Gets Job Back

Law enforcement: County panel rules Donald Rodarte told truth about his part in breaking up party that ended with fatality.

March 07, 2000|TRACY WILSON and TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Former Sheriff's Deputy Donald Rodarte was given his job back Monday after a commission determined he told the truth about his role 2 1/2 years ago in breaking up a rowdy Ojai party that ended with an injured man's death.

The decision by the Ventura County Civil Service Commission comes 18 months after Rodarte was fired following an internal investigation that concluded he lied about the incident.

While defending his department's decision to fire Rodarte, Sheriff Bob Brooks said he would not appeal the commission's ruling.

"We wouldn't have taken the original action if we did not feel that it was warranted," said Brooks, who did not know when Rodarte would return to work or in what capacity.

Rodarte was fired in September 1998 following a department investigation into the actions of deputies who responded to the Sept. 12, 1997, party.

A fellow deputy told authorities that Rodarte had admitted hitting 21-year-old Nick Dowey with a pepper spray can during a struggle after Dowey had been beaten by party-goers.

Rodarte, however, denied ever striking Dowey or admitting that he did. While cleared of any wrongdoing in hitting the Cal State Northridge student, the internal investigation concluded Rodarte lied to his bosses about delivering the blows and he was fired.

Rodarte appealed to the five-member Civil Service Commission.

After months of hearings, the commission ruled Monday that Rodarte was telling the truth about his actions during his attempt to subdue a combative Dowey and should get his job back.

Standing outside the commission hearing room at the county Hall of Administration, Rodarte embraced his wife, Susan, and breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

"I am overwhelmed with joy," Rodarte said. "I am just looking forward to going back to doing the thing I've wanted to do since I was a kid."

Rodarte, 29, also expressed sympathy for Dowey's family, which has blamed the ex-deputy and the Sheriff's Department for contributing to Dowey's death.

"I did nothing but try to help their son," said Rodarte, referring to Dowey's parents, who sued him and other officers for negligence.

During a federal civil court trial last year, more than a dozen witnesses testified that they saw deputies wrestling with Dowey before putting him in a headlock and hitting him as many as three times with a flashlight.

Defense attorneys, however, told jurors that Dowey, a former high school wrestler, was disoriented and combative. After two days of deliberations, the federal jury returned not-guilty verdicts.

After the trial, Rodarte fought for his job during hearings before the Civil Service Commission.

During 10 days of hearings last fall, witnesses were called to testify before Commissioner William Mehrens, who issued an eight-page written decision in January.

Mehrens concluded that Rodarte tried to subdue an incoherent Dowey and at one point used pepper spray. But based on witness statements, there was no proof that Rodarte had hit Dowey with the can of spray, Mehrens wrote.

"These witnesses offered no credible evidence that Deputy Rodarte struck Mr. Dowey with a [pepper] spray canister," Mehrens said.

The commissioner said in his ruling that party-goers offered conflicting statements about what happened that night.

Witnesses testified that they saw a deputy strike Dowey with some object, but they were unable to clearly identify which deputy, where he was standing or what was the object he was holding.

The full commission upheld Mehrens' conclusions at a closed-door hearing late Monday morning. Mehrens further ordered that Rodarte be hired back without loss of pay, benefits or seniority.

Later in the day, Sheriff Brooks reasoned that a change in the evidence since the time his department reviewed the case helped the commission reach a different conclusion.

"There were weaker statements from some witnesses that put the whole issue more in doubt than when we were making our decision," he said. "I know the investigators involved still feel they made the proper recommendation."

Winning the appeal also means Rodarte is entitled to back pay since his termination date, Brooks said. The sheriff, however, didn't know how much money the department would owe.

Brooks said he doesn't expect anyone in the department to hold a grudge against Rodarte when he returns to work.

"He has a right to his job back," the sheriff said, "and to be treated like any other person in the department."

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