Long before the Rodney G. King beating case and its graphic videotape focused national attention on alleged police brutality, Douglas and Jeanne Botts and a group of residents in a quiet Cerritos neighborhood challenged what they said was an example of police injustice and brutality against a minority family.
Doug Botts, a 57-year-old Douglas Aircraft Co. worker, videotaped the events that occurred as dozens of sheriff's deputies, clad in riot gear, stormed the home of a Samoan family the night of Feb. 11, 1989, to break up a bridal shower.
In scenes that Botts' wife compared to something one might see in a South American police state, the tape shows a sheriff's helicopter circling overhead, records loud radios crackling from inside the sheriff's cars that filled the streets, and shows deputies clubbing people made to lie face down on the ground.
Thirty-four people, all Samoan, were arrested that night. Seven were ultimately charged with various felony and misdemeanor counts of rioting, assaulting deputies and refusing to disperse.
The sheriff, and later the prosecution, contended that the deputies stormed the house because the guests refused to disperse and that deputies were met with a barrage of rocks and bottles. Sheriff Sherman Block insisted that his deputies suffered injuries in the incident.
The FBI is investigating accusations from the Southland's Samoan community that the incident is a civil rights violation against the Arthur Dole family and their guests.
Three of those accused of felony assaults on deputies were acquitted by a jury last week. The jury spent six weeks viewing the videotape and listening to neighbors who testified that the Dole family and their guests had been subjected to an unwarranted and unnecessarily brutal raid by sheriff's deputies. There are four remaining defendants, but defense attorneys believe that the charges against them will be dropped.
Doug Botts was not there when the Norwalk Superior Court jury acquitted the three. He died of cancer six months ago but, like other neighbors, his widow testified in court for the defense, countering testimony by deputies who claimed that they stormed the house because party-goers hurled rocks and bottles at them.
"I don't see how you can't get involved if you're good citizens," Jeanne Botts said this week, explaining why she and other neighbors rose to the defense of the Doles and their guests.
After the acquittals, several jurors who were interviewed said that it was not the images of deputies clubbing people lying face down on the ground that made them render the not-guilty verdict. They said they voted for acquittal because they were convinced--after viewing the tape and listening to the neighbors--that the deputies' version of events that night was not true and that deputies had no justification for breaking up the party.
The tape provided a permanent picture of the scene that night, and defense attorneys relied heavily on it to contradict the testimony of the deputies who said the guests rioted and attacked them. Defense attorneys showed that there were no rocks and bottles in the front yard or the street and that deputies repeatedly failed to correctly identify the defendants.
James Boone, another neighbor who testified, said later that he believed that "the officers were wrong and they got a little out of hand."
It was Boone who called the Lakewood sheriff's station earlier that evening to ask if a deputy would ask the Dole family to turn down the music. His request, Boone testified, was met and he was shocked some two hours later when deputies returned and raided the home.
Although the adults who testified in the trial did not know members of the Dole family well, many of their children knew them. Emily Dole, another of Arthur Dole's daughters, is a professional wrestler, a member of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW). Her stage name is Mt. Fuji, and she is active in Athletes and Entertainers for Kids, which tours schools telling youngsters to reject drugs and other kinds of antisocial behavior.
When Emily Dole was home, several neighbors said, neighborhood youngsters were welcome to stop by to meet her and ask for her autograph. Defense attorney Garo Mardirossian said he believes that the neighborhood came to see the large members of the Samoan family as gentle giants and knew they were not violent people. Mardirossian has filed a multimillion-dollar damage suit against the county on behalf of the Doles and most of the 40 party guests.
Jeanne Botts said the scene the night of the party--with police in riot gear, dozens of police cars at the scene, and a police helicopter circling overhead--was so shocking to her normally placid husband that he cried out in his sleep for several nights afterward.
"I personally choose to believe in our police," Jeanne Botts said. "I really do. I'm proud to be an American and I believe in our system. And I believe things like this aren't the norm, but they are very frightening when they do happen."
Another neighbor, a woman who stood with her husband on their front lawn and watched the raid, said she was shocked at the level of police violence. "If you would have seen what they did you couldn't believe it. You saw them beating (the party-goers) and no resistance from them at all, just taking them out and beating them.
"We just figured if it could happen to them, it could happen to us. I just cried. . . . You can't let anybody go to jail if you know they didn't do anything."