Four officers from Fresno, California, are facing a nine-count indictment that could result in 10-year prison sentences and cost each of them a minimum of $100,000 to defend. Here are the details of the violent and fast-moving incident that led to the case, The United States of America, Plaintiff, vs. Christopher Coleman, Paul Van Dalen, Sean Plymale, Michael Manfredi, Defendants. It will be tried in the U.S. District Count for the Eastern District of California.
On October 10, 2005, the 911 emergency call center in Fresno, California, received a frantic call from Veronica Rivera. “My ex-boyfriend is trying to break into my apartment,” she screamed desperately, adding, “He says he is going to kill me.” She and her small children were cowering in a closet.
This same man, Rolando Celdon, had been stalking her for three months prior to the October episode. Only one day earlier, he had been arrested for beating Ms. Rivera and threatening to kill her. The dispatcher understood the urgency of the situation and sent out an all-points bulletin with the alert that there was a crime in progress with the potential of violence. Celdon had been high on drugs and alcohol when he assaulted Ms. Rivera the preceding day.
Four officers from different parts of Fresno responded to the dispatcher’s high priority call for help. Officers Sean Plymale, along with his canine, Tymo, chased the suspect; when he would not stop, Officer Plymale released Tymo to catch him. Tymo bit him on the leg. Undeterred, Celdon kept running and scaled a 6-foot barbed wire fence with the dog attached to his leg! Officer Plymale used a taser gun on Celdon, which had no effect.
Officer Christopher Coleman arrived and yelled at the suspect in both Spanish and English, “Show me your hands!” and “Raise your hands!” The suspect refused to surrender or comply, and appeared ready to draw a weapon. Officer Coleman used a non-lethal bean-bag gun to make Celdon comply with his command. Officer Paul Van Dalen arrived, climbed the fence, and kicked Celdon, which finally subdued him.
Sgt. Michael Manfredi appeared on the scene. He was the senior officer and ordered Officer Van Dalen to handcuff Celdon while he called for an ambulance for the suspect and for Officer Plymale, who was tending to his wounded hand and injured dog.
In his rush to complete the paperwork, Sgt. Manfredi made a few minor errors, later corrected, when gathering and writing down the details. Because of this revision, the Internal Affairs Division suspected collusion and charged him with lack of professionalism in supervising his subordinates when, in fact, he had not been present for most of the fast-paced episode. It was his judgment that the use of force was appropriate for the situation.
The Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division concluded after an investigation that while the use of non-lethal force was proper, Officer Coleman could have used the bean-bag gun two times instead of five or six. They also said that Officer Van Dalen should not have kicked the suspect, which they considered to be excessive force. The officer responded that the suspect was on the ground, disregarded commands, and attempted to get up. None of the officers had been able to get close enough to the suspect, who was strong and threatening, to frisk him for weapons.
While all four officers were terminated over the incident, three were reinstated with back pay and benefits. Celdon was convicted of one felony charge of stalking and a misdemeanor charge of battery. Three other charges against him, burglary, making a criminal threat, and domestic violence, were dropped. He was sentenced to 270 days, in addition to the more than three months he had already served.
Five years passed. In October 2010, as the statue of limitations was about to expire, a federal grand jury indicted the four officers on nine counts of violating Celdon’s civil rights and obstruction of justice. Celdon had been deported as an illegal immigrant.
It is clear that a politically motivated Civil Rights Division saw an opportunity to score a victory against the police. E. Marshall Hodgkins, the attorney for Sgt. Manfredi and Officer Plymale, said that his clients are innocent of the charges and that “there will be no plea bargain.” He called the indictment “one last-ditch effort to go after decorated police officers. Is this the kind of people we want to take off the streets?” Mr. Hodgkins asked. “Or do we want to take the likes of Mr. Celdon off the streets?”
LELDF, while lacking the resources of the Justice Department, will use all the means at its disposal to prove that these brave officers utilized non-lethal force in the proper way and were seeking only to subdue a violent criminal.