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Ventura County

County Bills Slain Man's Parents

After unsuccessfully suing sheriff's deputies over their son's death, the Doweys learn a $16,000 lien has been placed on their home.

November 11, 2002|Massie Ritsch | Times Staff Writer

Even though a federal jury disagreed, Jim and Ann Dowey still think Ventura County sheriff's deputies battered their son, Nick.

Now the Doweys feel Ventura County is beating up on them.

The county has put a $16,000 lien on the couple's Ventura house to recoup a portion of its costs in fighting their lawsuit against five sheriff's deputies. In trying to subdue the 21-year-old student after someone crushed his skull with a bat outside a party in 1997, the deputies contributed to his death, the parents say.

The Doweys lost their case in 1999 and, on appeal, in 2001, in which they alleged that the deputies used excessive force on their mortally wounded son. They say the county is being vindictive.

"Usually you have the politicians on your side when your child has been murdered. It's never been like that with us," Jim Dowey said.

At trial, more than a dozen witnesses from the rowdy party in the Ojai Valley community of Meiners Oaks testified they saw deputies put Nick Dowey--bleeding and disoriented--in a choke hold, douse him with pepper spray and strike him with the spray can or a flashlight.

The jury sided with the county, which maintained that only one deputy hit Dowey--with the small canister--because the young man was combative and had to be restrained until medical aid arrived.

The county rightfully and routinely seeks to recoup its costs when it is successful at trial, County Counsel Frank Sieh said.

"It's the taxpayers' money," he said. "It's an entitlement that the county has."

The bill to the Doweys--for just under $16,000--was approved by a judge and the Board of Supervisors. It covers costs of filing fees and depositions and is just a fraction of the $412,000 the county spent on its defense, Sieh said.

"The family elected to go to trial in the face of a substantial settlement offer from the county," and having to pay the victors' costs is a risk that litigants take, Sieh said.

Ventura County offered to settle the Doweys' lawsuit for as much as $250,000, its attorneys said, though the parents' lawyer said $50,000 was the best offer. The Doweys said they took the case to trial to answer questions about how their son died.

"This was never about money; it was about justice," Ann Dowey said. "We knew that the Sheriff's Department was not going to put their deputies on trial, so we knew we had to do it."

Jim Dowey said the trial gave his family no comfort, but in refusing to settle, "one thing we didn't do is sell our son out."

The Doweys did settle a lawsuit against the hosts of the party where Nick was attacked. They used the $250,000 to pay their lawyer and pursue their lawsuit against the deputies, they said.

Five years since Nick's death, the case remains unsolved. There have been no arrests and witnesses aren't talking, said Ventura County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Dante Honorico, who supervises the department's investigations.

"Some of them are reluctant; some of them are outright hostile to us," Honorico said. "That's one of the things that we are fighting on this case."

The Sheriff's Department fired Deputy Donald Rodarte, who was sued by the Doweys, after an internal investigation found that he had lied about striking Nick. In 2000, the county Civil Service Commission disagreed and ordered that Rodarte be rehired.

Alan Wisotsky, the lawyer who defended Ventura County against the Doweys, said they are making an issue of the court costs and portraying the county as cold-hearted because their son's case is still open.

If there was "a suspect in custody or someone convicted, they might feel differently," Wisotsky said. "I think they're just looking for somebody to place the blame on."

The county filed to collect its costs three years ago. The Doweys said they did not receive notice of the lien until Wisotsky wrote to them in August.

The parents have asked the Board of Supervisors to reconsider the charges, but say they have heard nothing official from them. Meanwhile, the Doweys have hired a civil lawyer to negotiate the costs.

The Doweys argue they saved Ventura County money by paying their adult son's $30,000 public hospital bill. Because Nick was of age, they could have left the county on the hook. The family also donated Nick's organs and say his heart, liver and kidneys were transplanted into four people.

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