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An L.A. firefighter choked and seriously injured a man giving out Halloween candy. His sentence? No jail

Video shot on Samuel Chang's cell phone on the Halloween night he was physically confronted by three men including two off-duty Los Angeles firefighters. (Courtesy Taylor Ring Law Firm)

For nearly six minutes, Samuel Chang gasped in desperate, ragged breaths as four men held him down on a Chatsworth street on Halloween night.

"Stop fighting us and I will loosen up," says a man in a He-Man costume, who can be seen restraining Chang in a chokehold, in a video that captured the encounter two years ago.

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Minutes later, Chang went limp. The men who had been holding him down quickly performed CPR, and paramedics were called.

Chang would remain hospitalized for weeks — suffering a hemorrhage, kidney failure, severe head trauma and other injuries that he says still affect him to this day — and Los Angeles police detectives later concluded he was the victim of a felony assault at the hands of an off-duty city firefighter, court records show.

After criminal charges were filed against Eric Carpenter in December 2015, a probation report concluded Carpenter deserved at least a year in jail, noting Chang could have died.

But prosecutors recently gave Carpenter a plea deal that spared him any time behind bars, and he remains on duty as a city firefighter. The outcome has infuriated Chang's family and his attorney, who alleges Carpenter received preferential treatment from the Los Angeles County district attorney's office — a charge Carpenter's attorney strongly denies.

Carpenter's lawyer, Michael Goldstein, served as Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey's campaign finance director when she was elected in 2012, according to his website. He has donated thousands of dollars to her political accounts over the years, according to campaign finance records. And Lacey's statements of economic interest show Goldstein has given her $200 worth of sporting tickets and pastries worth $100.

"I think it raises the appearance of impropriety," said attorney David Ring, who plans to represent Chang in a civil lawsuit against the assailants.

Ring said Chang's family was repeatedly assured by prosecutors that Carpenter would serve time behind bars.

Goldstein and the district attorney's office denied the lawyer's connections to Lacey had anything to do with the plea deal.

In a statement, the office said prosecutors did not believe they could win a conviction against the defendants on the original felony assault charges.

Chang approached children on Carpenter's property multiple times with his "pants zipper partway down" and did not comply with requests to leave, according to the statement. Chang then "ran toward the children a third time where he was then assaulted by the defendants when they took him to the ground and held him there as they waited for the police to arrive."

The statement said Goldstein "received the same treatment available to any other defense attorney. His relationship with the district attorney had absolutely nothing to do with the resolution of this case."

The district attorney's office said it "does not condone the actions of the defendants. The injuries sustained by the victim, although unintended, were nevertheless unlawful."

Prosecutors also downplayed the severity of the harm done to Chang, saying he "did not sustain permanent neurological injuries," according to the statement.

Ring called the statement "outrageous," saying it was an attempt by the district attorney's office "to try to justify its pathetic prosecution of this case." He denied that Chang harassed children and said there was no evidence that his client's zipper was down.

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Goldstein said he presented his side of the case to Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Chung, the prosecutor assigned to the case, and Chung's supervisor. Later, Chung offered to allow Carpenter to plead to a felony that could be reduced to a misdemeanor upon completion of Carpenter's prison sentence, Goldstein said. But Carpenter, 40, refused the deal because a felony conviction would cost him his job as a firefighter, Goldstein said.

The lawyer said he then appealed over Chung's supervisor's head, arranging a meeting with regional Director Victoria Adams. That meeting was also attended by one of the D.A.'s top officials, Assistant Dist. Atty. Joseph Esposito.

Goldstein said he told them he had found witnesses who saw Chang harassing young children on Carpenter's property and that Chang had his fly down. And he said he presented security video that contradicted statements by Chang that he was chased by Carpenter. Sometime after the meeting, Chung offered him the plea deal that spared Carpenter jail time, Goldstein said. Carpenter, Goldstein said, was adamant his actions were justified and was prepared to go to trial but eventually accepted the plea deal to put the episode behind him.

Esposito and Chung did not respond to requests for comment.

The plea deal left LAPD investigators crestfallen, according to multiple law enforcement sources with knowledge of the case who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Goldstein insisted the LAPD failed to interview his witnesses.

"Our team worked longer and harder than everyone else on this," he said.

Chang, a 24-year-old graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, said he still can't understand why the men attacked him. He can barely remember anything between the Halloween assault and waking up in a hospital Nov. 4, 2015.

"I felt helpless. They wouldn't stop even as I told them I could not breathe," Chang said.

On Halloween night, Chang said he wanted to give out candy to trick-or-treaters. But with few children going door-to-door in the gated community where his parents live, he and his mother drove to his grandmother's Chatsworth residence.

Dressed in a mish-mash of a Halloween costume, including a Dracula mask and a white Mickey Mouse glove, Chang walked down Celtic Street and ended up in front of Carpenter's home, according to an affidavit submitted by detectives with the LAPD's elite Robbery-Homicide Division, which investigated the case.

Carpenter and three other men approached Chang and demanded to know why he was there. Police identified two of the men as Michael Anthony Vitar — an off-duty firefighter who gained fame as a child actor in the Disney film "The Sandlot" — and Thomas Molnar, one of Carpenter's neighbors. The fourth man was never charged.

Chang explained that he was giving out candy, and one of the men asked if the sweets were laced with drugs, according to the affidavit.

Unnerved, Chang said no, pulled out his phone and began recording. Videos taken by Chang and others were taken as evidence by the LAPD and were extensively relied on in the affidavit.

In several video clips, Chang can be seen backing away as the men, led by Carpenter in the He-Man costume bristling with fake muscles, repeatedly asked Chang why he was on "their block." Chang told police he smelled alcohol on the men's breath.

Over and over, Chang asks the men why they are following him. After several minutes, Chang ran away and begged onlookers to call the police, but no one came to his aid, according to the affidavit.

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Moments later, the video goes black. Chang can be heard pleading as he is taken to the ground.

"Please … just stop … I wanna go home," he says in gasps.

Other men can be heard yelling at Carpenter to release Chang.

"Eric, off! Off!" says one male voice.

Two additional video clips show Chang trapped against the asphalt as a man identified in the LAPD affidavit as Carpenter sits in the street with his forearm wrapped around Chang's throat. The other men can be seen pinning Chang's legs to the ground. The additional clips were filmed by a bystander, according to Ring.

As the firefighters called police to the scene, they said Chang was under the effects of a powerful drug and insisted he was trying to give "drug-laced" candy to children. The court records don't say why they thought the candy was laced with drugs.

The LAPD tested the candy and found no drugs, according to a source familiar with the investigation. A test showed Chang was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to the affidavit.

One of the videos shows Chang in some variation of a choke for roughly six and a half minutes. Carpenter repeatedly orders Chang to "stop resisting."

At one point, the men roll Chang over onto his back. One suddenly shouts, "He ain't breathing." The video shows Carpenter and another man rush to take life-saving measures.

According to the affidavit, LAPD investigators determined Carpenter was the "primary aggressor." Based on the video, they concluded that Carpenter, Vitar and another man could be seen "following, chasing and harassing Chang and preventing him from leaving."

A probation report filed in the case went a step further, saying Carpenter's decision to apply a chokehold nearly proved fatal.

"The victim was unconscious and stopped breathing," the report read. "Had defendants Carpenter and Vitar not been firefighters, the victim would have died."

Carpenter, Vitar and Molnar were charged with felony assault. Carpenter, who faced up to seven years in prison, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge in May, and was sentenced to three years' probation and 135 days of community service, records show. Vitar and Molnar both pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery in December, also receiving three years' probation and 90 days of community service, according to court records.

Vitar and Carpenter, longtime firefighters, were each suspended for six months without pay but have returned to full duty, said Peter Sanders, an LAFD spokesman.

Chang says he feels like he was victimized twice — first by Carpenter, then by the district attorney's office. A physical therapy student, he said he had to delay his graduate studies for nearly a year after the attack, and still suffers from chronic headaches and trouble reading and processing information as a result of his injuries.

"When you think of firefighters you think of heroes," he said. "You don't think of people who violently attack someone."

Follow @lacrimes & @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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UPDATES:

2:50 p.m.: This article was updated on July 27 with additional details about the case.

This article was originally published at 10:55 p.m. on July 26, 2017.

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