Reaching a settlement that focuses renewed attention on the management of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the county agreed Wednesday to pay $82,500 to settle a convicted drug smuggler’s claims that he was badly beaten by jail deputies.
In making the settlement, county officials admitted no guilt in the alleged beating. But attorneys for the plaintiff pointed to the payment as yet another sign of trouble in a Sheriff’s Department hit by a string of embarrassing setbacks in recent months.
The settlement came as a jury was to have begun hearing evidence Wednesday on abuse claims by Dennis Bierilo, 39, a former Anaheim weightlifter and now a federal inmate. He maintained that he suffered broken bones, bruises and substantial hearing loss from a June 4, 1983, beating at the hands of sheriff’s deputies in Orange County Jail.
Bierilo accused the deputies of beating him in retaliation for his having assaulted and seriously injured a Garden Grove police officer earlier that night, landing the officer in a hospital and Bierilo in jail.
But just before a trial on those claims was to have begun, attorneys for Bierilo and the county, working in closed chambers in Santa Ana with Superior Court Judge Thomas N. Thrasher, hammered out an agreement that will pay Bierilo the lump sum of $82,500.
Lt. Richard J. Olson, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, said he had not been told of the settlement and could make no comment. Private attorneys Timothy J. Stafford and Albert P. Ballog, who handled the settlement for the county, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
But Dennis L. Bunker, the county’s claim manager and a participant in the settlement talks, denied Bierilo’s claims that he was beaten in his cell by Deputies Mark Daigle and Greg Upham.
“We never admitted any guilt in making this settlement,” Bunker said. “We’re not admitting any liability. It’s just that you never know when you try a case whether there’ll be an award against you.”
Bunker declined to discuss details of the case, saying: “We’ve resolved this, so I’m not going to air the evidence in public.”
One condition of the settlement, according to Bierilo’s attorneys, was that the judge drop an order he had previously imposed barring lawyers from discussing the case publicly.
“It was really important to us to make sure there was no gag order,” said Bierilo’s attorney, Kevin Barry McDermott.
As critical as the financial award, he contended, was the message that the settlement sends about the Sheriff’s Department’s management.
The case comes as the department has been the focus of criticism over embarrassing incidents centering on Orange County Jail.
These have included the escape of four inmates and criticism over the department’s handling of that escape; the acquittal of a convicted murderer who said he escaped the jail in fear for his life; a $190,000 award to a political rival of Sheriff Brad Gates as a settlement of a lawsuit accusing the sheriff of harassment, and concern among county supervisors about the early release of some prisoners.
Riley’s View of Problems
Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley, while cautioning that he had not been told of the Bierilo settlement, said the case poses another potential problem for the department at a time of increasing public concern.
McDermott maintained that in the context of recent events, the settlement shows “a real lack of supervision at the Sheriff’s Department.”
Even though the county denies that the settlement is an admission of any of the claims, McDermott maintained: “You can’t justify that entire settlement as attorney’s fees. This agreement makes it pretty clear that (sheriff’s deputies at the jail) administered their own form of street justice.”
Bierilo had sought $1.5 million in punitive damages and medical expenses against the county. But McDermott said he was willing to settle for far less than that figure because of fear that a jury might examine Bierilo’s past record, which includes a federal drug conviction and be biased against him.
No Injuries as Entered Jail
If the case went to trial, McDermott said, he was prepared to offer testimony from a nurse who examined Bierilo as he entered the jail and found none of the injuries he later suffered, as well as a Sheriff’s Department surveillance videotape that showed Bierilo’s condition.
Bierilo, now in Lompoc Federal Penitentiary awaiting a hearing on a parole violation, was not allowed to be present at Wednesday’s court proceedings. His wife, Ann Bierilo of Anaheim, said she is not satisfied with the settlement amount but agreed to it because she was afraid a jury would not give a convicted felon a fair hearing.
“I’m still very bitter,” she said. “I wanted to go to trial all the way with this . . . to show that (sheriff’s deputies) had no right to take justice into their own hands and beat my husband the way they did.”