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Smack attack trial begins

Woman faces charges she struck a Carson official at a meeting.

February 28, 2008|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

Around the world, the "Carson City Council Smack" has taken on a life of its own.

It happened last year when Vera Robles DeWitt, a former mayor and longtime community activist, bopped a city commissioner on the back of the head with a handful of papers as she passed her in the council chambers. The moment was caught on a 43-second video clip that spread, via YouTube, like wildfire.

So far the clip has been seen more than half a million times by viewers who left more than 600 comments, most questioning whether Public Works Commissioner Jan Schaefer was engaging in melodrama when she fell to the floor, writhing in apparent pain from the smack.

"She deserved an Oscar," wrote one viewer.

"It was a Michael Jackson stage-accident impersonation," said another.

A third viewer wrote: "Better than any soccer or sports flop I'd ever seen."

But for DeWitt, who owns Carson Bail Bonds, the incident is no laughing matter. She is scheduled to appear in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Compton today for her trial on a charge of misdemeanor battery, which carries a possible fine of up to $2,000 or six months in jail or both.

"This battle has been hanging over my head for more than a year," DeWitt said. "I regret what happened and I just want it to go away."

A conviction could jeopardize her livelihood.

"My license is subject to review," said DeWitt, who has been in the bail bond business for 37 years and is the treasurer of the California Bail Bond Agents Assn. "I have a clean record."

The incident occurred in February 2007. DeWitt, who had helped gather more than 12,000 signatures seeking the recall of Mayor Jim Dear, was addressing the council. When she finished speaking, she stepped from the lectern and began walking up the aisle of the council chambers.

DeWitt said she heard Schaefer, a Dear supporter, utter an obscenity and gave her a swat with her papers.

After a brief pause, Schaefer screamed and fell to the floor. The mayor stood from his council seat and called out, "She hit her right in the eye! Stop that woman from leaving the room! She struck the woman. She should be arrested. This is unbelievable. We're going to call a doctor."

Schaefer wasn't injured. She declined medical aid and rubbed the back of her head as a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy helped her back to her seat.

Later, she obtained a temporary restraining order against DeWitt. She refused to speak to The Times about the incident.

The smack is one of the episodes that Dear cites when he describes the city, which touts its diversity, as "dysfunctional."

Dear said that many of the city's recent problems can be traced to the previous mayor, Daryl Sweeney, who, Dear said, ran the City Council like he was holding a town hall meeting.

"People want to speak longer than their allotted time," he said. "There is an atmosphere that members of the audience are members of the City Council. I have people standing up and seconding motions from the audience. It makes no sense."

The City Council Smack is one of several events -- including a scandal involving millions of dollars in municipal contracts -- that have tarnished the city's reputation in recent years. Sweeney is serving a six-year prison term in the contracts case in which a second mayor was also found guilty.

DeWitt is a member of Carson Citizens for Reform, which is behind the Dear recall; the group has accused him of being demeaning to the public, and members say he has engaged in "backroom deals" with developers.

The group fell 86 signatures short of forcing a recall after Dear organized a campaign to get voters to withdraw their names from the petition. Citizens for Reform sued, and a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has scheduled a May trial date to rule on the disputed signatures.

Dear, who was subpoenaed to testify in today's misdemeanor trial, said he feels no sympathy for his chief critic, whom he routinely refers to as Vera "Evil" DeWitt.

"She hit somebody, and you are not allowed to hit people," he said.

Still, he said, he now believes that Schaefer, who is no longer a commissioner, was being overly dramatic.

"Oh yeah, she overreacted," he said. "When I saw her on the floor, I thought she must have been hit in the eye."

Dear said his new take on the incident is similar to some of the reactions he read from around the world.

"I love this lady," one wrote. "She actually had to stand up to fall down."

Another viewer wrote that she "looked like she was merely going to lay on the floor to take a nap or something."

Then, after viewing the video, another simply noted: "Yup, that's Carson."

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john.mitchell@latimes.com

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To view the Carson City Council Smack, go to http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=sO75NJcGCqA

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