By Olga R. Rodriguez
Nine current or former Northern California police officers were charged Thursday in a federal corruption investigation that found evidence they committed civil rights violations and fraud in an effort to get a pay raise and lied on reports to cover up the use of excessive force, U.S. authorities said.
Ismail J. Ramsey, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, filed four indictments that outlined charges including wire fraud, deprivation of rights under color of law, conspiracy against rights, and conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids. Nine police officers and one community service officer are named in the charges, though only two are charged in multiple indictments.
The investigation centered on the departments in Antioch and Pittsburg, two cities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Only three of the officers remain employed by the departments and were not on active duty, officials said.
Arrest warrants were served Thursday in California, Texas and Hawaii, said Robert Tripp, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco Field Office. One has not yet been arrested, officials said.
Morteza Amiri, Eric Allen Rombough, Patrick Berhan, Samantha Peterson, Brauli Rodriguez Jalapa and Ernesto Juan Mejia-Orozco pleaded not guilty to various charges, and most were released on condition that they posted property bonds, the Bay Area News Group reported.
Rombough appeared in Oakland federal court dressed in ripped clothes, with bloody hands and knees and wearing a shirt that read: “don’t weaken,” the Bay Area News Group reported.
His attorney, Will Edelman, told the judge that there was “absolutely no reason” that his client had to be taken into custody and handcuffed because he would have willingly appeared if ordered.
The defendants could face decades in federal prison if convicted of the charges.
Tripp said the arrests were the result of a two-year investigation.
"Any breach of the public’s trust is absolutely unacceptable,” Tripp said while discussing charges against Antioch officers that include using their official positions as officers to deprive people of their rights.
Charges against Amiri, Rombough and Devon Christopher Wenger say the three Antioch police officers conspired between February 2019 and March 2022 “to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate residents of Antioch, California” and later falsified reports about the encounters.
In obscenity-laden text messages, the three men referred to some suspects as “gorillas.” They laughed and joked about harming people who apparently had surrendered or appeared to be asleep by setting Amiri's police dog on them or Rombough shooting them with a 40mm "less-lethal" projectile launcher, the indictment said.
Prosecutors say from 2019 to 2021, the dog bit 28 people while Rombough used the launcher 11 times in 2020 and 2021.
Amiri posted graphic photos of the dog wounds, and Rombough said he was keeping the projectiles to make a trophy flag, according to the indictment.
In one case, a man suspected of five armed robberies had given up and was lying on the ground when Amiri’s K-9 bit him, the indictment alleged.
In one text, Amiri wrote: “let’s (f-obscenity) some people up next work week.”
Amiri says that he will find some action and write up the police report, adding: "Just come over and crush some skulls."
In one 2020 text sequence, Amiri says that he confronted a transient he believed had stolen his mail “and dragged him to the back of a car to ‘discuss’ the matter.”
“Lol. Putting a pistol in someone’s mouth and telling them to stop stealing isn’t illegal," he texted. "It’s an act of public service to prevent further victims of crimes”
“Defendants authored police reports containing false and misleading statements to suggest that the force they used was necessary and justifiable,” the indictment said. “In truth and in fact, and as the Defendants well knew, Defendants willfully used excessive force in numerous incidents, including those identified in this Indictment.”
Police unions did not immediately respond to requests for information on whether the defendants had lawyers who can speak on their behalf. Emails to the Pittsburg and Antioch police departments seeking comment were not immediately returned.
Thousands of incendiary text messages by more than a dozen officers in the Antioch Police Department had previously come to light and led to a federal lawsuit. The texts contained derogatory, racist, homophobic and sexually explicit language. In some of them, the officers bragged about making up evidence and beating up suspects. They freely used racial slurs and made light of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.
The city of Antioch, with about 115,000 residents 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of San Francisco, was once predominantly white but has diversified in the last 30 years. Federal and state prosecutors have dropped or dismissed dozens of cases that relied on the impugned officers, and the city now faces a federal civil rights lawsuit over the text messages.
Jalapa, Mejia-Orozco and Amanda Carmella Theodosy/Nash, as well as Antioch community service officer Peterson, were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud surrounding allegations they had other people take and complete online university courses toward a criminal justice degree. The police departments offered reimbursement for college tuition and pay raises for those who graduate college, prosecutors said.
Two Antioch officers, Daniel Harris and Wenger, were charged with several counts related to distributing anabolic steroids.
Another Antioch officer, Timothy Manly Williams, faces charges related to the obstruction of a federal investigation for allegedly using a personal cellphone in 2021 to talk to the target of an FBI wiretap investigation and then made sure the call wasn't recorded or accurately logged.
“Today is a dark day in our city’s history, as people trusted to uphold the law, allegedly breached that trust and were arrested by the FBI,” Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe said in a statement. “As our city absorbs this tragic news, we must come together as one. Today’s actions are the beginning of the end of a long and arduous process.”
Thorpe is among three Black, progressive members of the five-person council who have said they are committed to holding police accountable.
“To those that have accused me and others of being anti-police for seeking to reform the Antioch Police Department, today’s arrests are demonstrative of the issues that have plagued the Antioch Police Department for decades,” he added.