Trial Set in Police Dog Attack : Law enforcement: A suit seeks damages for injuries and emotional trauma suffered by 11 field laborers in a house where a burglary was suspected.


Two teen-agers were trying to fulfill their duties as police Explorer Scouts for the city of Oxnard when they called police to report a burglary on Carnegie Street.

However, the call they made on Nov. 11, 1987, did not lead to the arrest of any burglars. Instead, it led police to raid a home where, according to a lawsuit, a police dog attacked two innocent men sleeping in the living room.

The suit was scheduled to go to trial in Ventura County Superior Court on Monday but was postponed until Oct. 1, 1990, because of a tight court calendar.

The suit, filed on Feb. 10, 1988, originally named scouts Sean Russell and Ken Ramos--who were then 16--as defendants, as well as the city of Oxnard and five individual police officers.

However, Joseph D. O'Neill Jr, an attorney representing the occupants of the house, said he has removed Russell and Ramos from the suit, saying they had good intentions and did not mean to lead police to raid the wrong house.

The suit seeks more than $100,000 for medical bills and emotional trauma suffered by 11 Mexican field laborers who lived in the house at the time.

Among the occupants were Epifiano Cervantes and his brother, Artemio Cervantes, who were hospitalized for dog bites to the arm, stomach and legs, O'Neill said. Hugo Garcia was treated for a bruise he allegedly got at the hands of police, the suit contends.

O'Neill alleges that the officers who responded to the call were negligent because they failed to thoroughly investigate the burglary report before sending a dog into a house full of sleeping occupants.

"If I had to grade this as an exam question, I'd say not only did the officers flunk but the police dog flunked," O'Neill said.

Korman D. Ellis, an attorney representing the city of Oxnard in the matter, declined to comment, saying he did not want to "try the case in the newspapers."

"We'll hopefully decide the case by the evidence in the trial," he said.

In June, 1989, an independent arbitrator ruled against the city on the incident, saying the police made a mistake. Alfred R. Keep, an arbitrator from Simi Valley, ordered the city to pay $25,000 in damages to the occupants of the house.

"I could not get a good night's sleep after that because I was so traumatized by what happened," said Severiano Ambriz, 23, one of the residents of the house at the time.

In an interview Monday, Ambriz said that even after police realized they had entered the wrong house, they never apologized to him or the other residents.

According to a police report, Russell and Ramos called the Oxnard Police Department about 11 p.m. to report having seen a man climb into the window of a house on the 2000 block of Carnegie Street. They said they saw a young couple keeping watch from a car outside, the report said.

Russell and Ramos, who are no longer Explorer Scouts, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Officers Fred Sedillos, Richard Anderson, Aaron Sockwell, Roger Whitney and Kevin Andrews, the dog handler, responded to the call, according to the report by Sedillos. After surrounding a house that fit the description given by Russell, Andrews opened the front door and yelled: "This is the police. If you don't come out with your hands up, I'll send the dog in," the report said.

Andrews waited 30 seconds and after hearing no response, he sent a German shepherd named "Kai" into the house, the report said. "A loud scream was heard as the dog attacked one subject inside," according to the report.

The police officers followed the dog into the house, where 11 Mexican field workers were living. O'Neill said Kai had already bitten Epifiano and Artemio Cervantes when police entered and restrained the dog.

"To add to the confusion, all the residents spoke only Spanish and could not understand our commands, which I myself took for noncompliance," said Sedillos in the police report.

"After we had stabilized the situation and calmed down the people inside we learned that they were in fact not burglars and that the people inside were actually residents there," the report says.

The report concludes that there was no burglary taking place on that street at all. In fact, the alleged burglary was at a home across the street and was "a boyfriend-girlfriend situation, where the boyfriend had been leaning into his girlfriend's window, nothing more," the police report said.

According to a Nov. 19, 1987, memo from Andrews to Assistant Police Chief William Cady, the police dog was trained to bite only if a suspect fled or tried to attack the dog or its handler.

In his arbitration ruling against the city of Oxnard, Keep concluded by saying: "The evidence conclusively established that Oxnard police officers involved in the incident . . . made a mistake."

He said the officers should have taken more time to ensure that the information Russell had given was correct and should have realized that the people inside were the residents of the home.

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