A former Fullerton police officer has been sentenced to probation for destroying an audio recorder that captured his interactions with a drunk-driving suspect who later killed himself in the city jail.
Vincent Thomas Mater, 42, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of destruction of property and vandalism and was sentenced Thursday to three years of informal probation and 60 days of community service under a plea bargain offered by Orange County Superior Court Judge Frances Munoz. Mater could have faced a year in jail had he gone to trial on the charges.
Mater arrested Dean Francis Gochenour in April 2011 on suspicion of drunk driving and transported him to the city jail, where Gochenour hanged himself later that night.
Prosecutors said that after learning of Gochenour's death, Mater destroyed his digital audio recorder — which all Fullerton officers are required to activate during all public contacts — by crushing it and then removing the motherboard and circuit board.
The destruction of the recorder prevented investigators from the district attorney's office from recovering audio that could have given an insight into Gochenour's interactions with Mater.
Audio from recorders played a key role in the case against three former Fullerton officers who have been charged in the death of a mentally ill homeless man, Kelly Thomas.
District attorney's investigators wrote in a report on Gochenour's death in custody that there was "no affirmative evidence" Mater knew that Gochenour might harm himself, but added that the officer's conduct in damaging the recording device "remains of grave concern."
Mater told investigators that after trying unsuccessfully to download his audio recording of the arrest to the department's computer system, he became frustrated and flung the device at a metal door.
He was placed on administrative leave shortly after the incident and resigned in August 2011 after the department initiated disciplinary proceedings. The district attorney's office filed charges against him in March.
Prosecutors objected to the probation sentence and argued that Mater should face jail time, saying that the destruction of evidence potentially relating to an inmate's death was a violation of public trust.
"It's a case involving a death, and in cases like that, police officers have an obligation to preserve evidence," Deputy Dist. Atty. Brock Zimmon said.
Attorneys representing Mater could not be reached for comment.