September 30, 2011

Attorney: Antelope Valley corruption prompted firing of deputy, who should get $8.5 million

LOS ANGELES -- A former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy is entitled to up to $8.5 million for exposing alleged corruption within his department and getting fired as a result, his attorney told a jury today.

Lawyer Richard Love said his client -- honored for his work in fighting drug dealers in the Antelope Valley -- lost his job because he told his boss that another deputy, Richard Engels, was possibly linked to both narcotics activity and to the disappearance of one of their colleagues, Jonathan Aujay.

"The department destroyed him so they could bury the Richard Engels and Jonathan Aujay issue once and for all," Love told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury hearing closing arguments in Darren Hager's retaliation lawsuit against the county.

But lawyer Thomas Hurrell, on behalf of the county, said Aujay's death had nothing to do with the case.

"That is not why we are here," Hurrell said. "We're here to discuss whether or not Mr. Hager was terminated for legitimate reasons by my client."

Hager, while working on a joint task force with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, disobeyed orders to simply report his findings and instead conducted his own probes into Engels and into Aujay's disappearance, Hurrell said.

"He had a directive not to investigate and clearly he did," Hurrell said.

Love said Hager acquired information that Aujay was killed after stumbling onto a methamphetamine lab in June 1998. The avid runner was last seen jogging in the
Devil's Punchbowl, a county park in the Angeles National Forest known for sandstone formations.

Hager ultimately was not only stripped of his job but also the right to bear a firearm to protect himself against criminals he once helped take off the streets, Love said.

"You saw what it means to a cop when his gun and badge are taken," he said.

According to Love, Hager received excellent reviews during his departmental performance evaluations. The lawyer said the deputy was given the DEA's highest award in 2002 while investigating narcotics activity in the Antelope Valley as part of Operation Silent Thunder, which resulted in nearly 300 arrests and the closing of 16 meth labs.

Although Aujay's death was said to be a possible suicide, Hager first suspected foul play when he arrested Perry Williams, a domestic violence suspect, after a long standoff, Love said. Williams contacted Hager and offered him information about Aujay's death in exchange for a lighter sentence, according to Love.

Sheriff's homicide Lt. Larry Brandenburg testified that he believed Engels warned meth-makers about pending drug raids. Brandenburg said he prepared an affidavit for a search warrant of the Engel's financial and phone records.

But Brandenburg testified he received little support from his boss, Capt. Frank Merriman, who believed Aujay had killed himself and warned him not to take his conclusions concerning Engels to a judge.

Love said another homicide bureau member, Joseph Holmes, then took over the case and found no wrongdoing by Engels and concluded Aujay likely committed suicide.

Love criticized Holmes' conclusions and said any possible criminal prosecution concerning how Aujay vanished would be difficult because the case has been "tainted" by the detective's findings.

Hager is entitled to $2.6 million to $3.5 million in lost past and future wages and $2 million to $5 million for his emotional distress, Love argued.

"Darren Hager's reputation has been destroyed," Love said. "He can't get a job. He was fired for something he never did."

But according to Hurrell, Hager's findings that Engels was protecting drug dealers were based on information he knew came from discredited informants. He said Hager -- who shared his findings about Engels with his boss, Lt. Ronald Shreves -- also left out of his reports information that was favorable to Engels.

Hager, now 44, worked for the Sheriff's Department from February 1988 until his termination in July 2003.

Daily News Wire Services
Posted: 09/28/2011 02:01:10 PM PDT
Updated: 09/28/2011 02:02:13 PM PDT

http://www.dailynews.com/

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