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Deputy Felt Threatened, Suit Says

Stephen Sorensen, who was killed last weekend, had filed a complaint against Lake Los Angeles council members.

August 08, 2003|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

Stephen Sorensen, the sheriff's deputy who was shot and killed while answering a trespassing call, was entangled in a feud with the Lake Los Angeles Rural Town Council that was so acrimonious, the lawman feared for his safety, according to a recently filed lawsuit.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Carl H. Deeley said the dispute -- Sorensen alleged council members spread rumors that he belonged to a hate group and that he extorted money from merchants -- was one of the first things detectives investigated after his slaying on Saturday.

Investigators said the hostility between Sorensen and three Town Council members was probably unrelated to the killing of the 46-year-old deputy in a remote area east of Palmdale, Deeley said. The suspect "seems to be one crazed person," he said, referring to fugitive Donald Charles Kueck, 52, who lived on the rundown property where Sorensen was shot.

Among the allegations in Sorensen's lawsuit is that a town councilwoman openly bragged of intimidating an annoying neighbor by having another sheriff's deputy threaten to kill the man and bury his dismembered body "all over the desert."

The suit says the lawman lived in fear of stepping on the wrong toes and believed some council members were intent on running him out of town.

"Steve was really afraid for his life," said his attorney, Lawrence M. Glasner, who filed Sorensen's defamation lawsuit against four of the five Town Council members in February. Days after the suit was filed, Councilman Robert Keyes and Councilwoman Shirley Harriman resigned from the panel, which is an advisory body to Los Angeles County supervisors.

"It's just a coincidence that there happened to be a lawsuit pending that corresponded with an unfortunate [homicide] investigation," said Mitch Fenton, who is defending Harriman in the civil action. "I'm sure she didn't have any involvement in this."

Sorensen said in a sworn declaration that he came to fear Harriman after he was appointed resident deputy in the unincorporated community three years ago.

She told Sorensen and his wife, Christine, that she had been having problems with a neighbor who was a "wannabe bodybuilder and dope dealer," according to the suit. To solve the problem, Harriman said she went to a longtime friend and deputy who rented a room in her home, according to Sorensen's written statement.

Harriman allegedly told the Sorensens that she had the deputy threaten to kill the neighbor and "bury his body parts in the desert."

In his lawsuit, Sorensen said: "I feel that this statement was intended as a subtle warning to my wife and I that she could exert this type of control over deputy personnel if the situation again warranted this type of action."

According to the suit, Harriman told the same story at a Neighborhood Watch meeting and openly bragged of having connections to powerful people in the Sheriff's Department.

Fenton said he had never heard this story and that his client would have no comment on that or any other allegations. The Sheriff's Department had no comment on Harriman's alleged connections with the department.

Deeley, who was familiar with the lawsuit, said Sorensen accepted the fact that his jurisdiction included not just suburban tracts, but remote areas with a reputation for white supremacists, methamphetamine labs and narcotics dealers living among the sagebrush and cactus.

Sorensen became upset, Deeley said, on learning that Keyes and Councilman Jeff Loewe were asking shopkeepers whether the deputy had extorted money from them in exchange for protection from criminals.

Keyes and Loewe told people they were trying to determine whether blackmail rumors were true, but Sorensen believed their inquiries were fueling unfounded gossip.

Others say the deputy had good cause to fight back. "I feel that the council members were annoyed that Deputy Sorensen was helping members of the Hispanic community," said feed store owner Jose Luis Gomez in a sworn statement. Sorensen helped shop owners who spoke limited English draft a flier protesting actions of the Town Council, Gomez said.

The merchants felt that overzealous zoning enforcement by the county would put them out of business, and at the same time, the council members "were not taking care of or doing anything for the community," market owner Oscar Espitia said in court papers. "They did not clean the streets and did not pull junk cars off the road."

The Town Council members visited shops and repeatedly wanted to know if the owners paid Sorensen for his help, according to Gomez and Espitia. They denied they paid the deputy.

Keyes and Loewe could not be reached for comment on the suit. Loewe's attorney, David Clinton, refused to talk about the case. Glasner, Sorensen's attorney, said he was unsure whether the suit, which seeks unspecified damages, would proceed in light of the deputy's death.

Deeley said "the last straw" for Sorensen came in January, when Harriman sent a series of e-mails to local residents, including John Wodetzki, a pastor and friend of Sorensen.

The e-mails accused Sorensen of belonging to an unnamed hate group, according to the suit. "I don't want to even drive around this community when I know Sorensen is out in a black and white," Harriman allegedly wrote. "In the morning, I change my route so it won't be a recognizable pattern for him or anybody else."

Deeley said that description did not reflect the Stephen Sorensen he knew.

Sorensen told his bosses he was concerned that the Town Council was blackening his image and that it would adversely affect his career. Because it did not appear the council members had broken any laws, sheriff's officials backed Sorensen's decision to file the civil suit, Deeley said.

The complaint initially named Sally Collis, a fourth Town Council member, as a defendant, but she was later dropped from the suit.

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