Officer’s Testimony Puts Him on Trial With Peers : Law enforcement: Sgt. Don Berstler of National City testified that two drug agents assaulted a suspect. They were convicted, and now he finds himself ostracized.
National City Police Sgt. Don Berstler has heard the talk, some of it loud and confrontational, some in whispers.
Questions about his character. Speculation about his motives. Assertions about his credibility. Assessments of his judgment. Rumors about his past.
“I’ve been told that my name is mud,” said the 49-year-old officer with longish gray hair, Fu Manchu mustache and dark-tinted glasses that are part of his undercover disguise.
Ever since he testified last July that two narcotics agents assaulted a suspect during a drug raid--testimony that jurors said directly influenced their decision to convict both men--Berstler has been vilified by fellow law enforcement officers, many who don’t even know him.
In a deadly era of drug-dealing and high-powered weapons where undercover officers depend on one another to survive, Berstler’s loyalties and deeds are being debated by local law enforcers like no other topic in recent memory.
“Here I am the bad guy for doing my job,” he said last week from the police annex where he supervises eight officers. “I didn’t want to be in court testifying against these officers. I’m a police officer. We’re supposed to be family. But I wasn’t about to lie. They lied and should be fired for lying.”
The January undercover buy, in all respects, was minor league. Undercover officers from the multi-agency Narcotics Task Force sought 3 pounds of methamphetamine at a National City apartment. While agents were making the buy from one man, another named Alphonso Reyes, 20, snatched a bag of the drug, and took off running.
Right behind him were Harvey Love, 35, a muscular and self-assured eight-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department and William Jacob (Rudy) Rudershausen, also 35, a wiry and popular nine-year officer with the National City police.
Rudershausen drew his gun on Reyes but never fired. Reyes dropped his pager, picked it up and began running again. Love said he tackled Reyes twice before the suspect began running again. Love finally handcuffed Reyes and handed him off to Berstler, the supervising officer at the scene.
During trial two months ago in Municipal Court, Berstler testified that he had locked his arms into one of Reyes’, who had his hands cuffed behind him. Someone came running behind him, uttered an obscenity and slapped Reyes twice in the back of the head, Berstler said. Reyes’ knees buckled and Berstler helped him back to his feet.
Berstler testified that he looked to his right and saw Rudershausen walk by. Nobody else was nearby, he said. Seconds later, Love stood in front of Reyes, kneed him in the groin and punched him twice in the stomach, Berstler said.
Love tells a different story. Reyes was walking unescorted, he said, and had bent over in an area littered with methamphetamine. He figured Reyes might try and eat some of the narcotics. Love said he used his thigh and leg to help Reyes regain his balance.
Although Rudershausen did not testify, his attorney argued that his client admitted grabbing and shaking Reyes in frustration but did not hit him.
Throughout the incident, Reyes never complained about his treatment. He testified that someone hit him but that he didn’t know who. He also remembered Love being in back of him when he was hit. Reyes is serving a year in jail for his role in the drug deal.
It was Berstler’s account of events that swayed jurors to convict both men of misdemeanor assault.
“His testimony convinced all the others,” said juror Sam Tedesco, 72, a retired painting contractor. “I tried every which way to release those guys because they stopped one more shipment of dope that didn’t get to our kids.” Berstler, he said, is “the one that set them the way they voted. I was the last holdout, but I had to go along, too.”
The instructions to the jury led that way, too, Tedesco said. Any “rude, unconsented touching,” meant a conviction, according to the statute under which the pair were charged.
During sentencing last week, at which both officers received three years’ probation, 100 hours of volunteer work and $500 fines, a gallery of officers supportive of Love and Rudershausen openly jeered when prosecutor Jeff Dusek described Berstler as a “hero.”
In the past few days, the case has been the subject of continued discussion, especially in the San Diego and National City police departments.
Why would Berstler, who describes himself as “one of the best street officers around,” make such an issue out of an alleged assault that consisted of two slaps to the head, two punches to the stomach and a knee to the groin?
At a time when criminal suspects suffer far greater injury for which officers are never disciplined, much less prosecuted, why did the San Diego County district attorney’s office pursue the Rudershausen-Love case?
And, in the end, did the convictions, suspensions and expected demotions of Rudershausen and Love, widely considered superior and dedicated officers, set a bad precedent for officers who might end up more fearful of being aggressive in fighting crime?
“The community lost on this one,” said Ernie Howard, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s assistant special agent in charge for San Diego. “We have lost two officers who literally have put hundreds of people in jail.”
In an emotional case that has satisfied nobody, Berstler has become an easy target. Officers who might be angry with the court system, the drug trade or the district attorney’s office have the image of Berstler--whom many of them know--to disparage.
After all, if Berstler had managed to cut off the controversy from the beginning, it would have gone no further, they say.
“If I had been on the scene, and if what was alleged happened really did happen, I would have called both men in and given them appropriate discipline--probably days off,” Howard said. “That would have been the end of it.”
But Berstler notified his lieutenant. Internal affairs started an investigation and presented their findings to the police misconduct section of the district attorney’s office.
“The case was presented to me, I reviewed it, and I determined that a crime had been committed,” said prosecutor Dusek. “There was no reasonable, legitimate or legal reason for me to reject the case. I thought the defendants were guilty, and I had a reasonable chance of winning.”
The convictions of Rudershausen and Love were the first of police officers in 17 years.
“The D.A. felt they had to charge. That way, they could never be criticized for not charging cops,” said attorney Everett Bobbitt, who represented Rudershausen. “I think they were surprised they got convictions.”
When the sentences were read, Berstler was on another floor in the County Courthouse testifying in another case. A few members of the Narcotics Task Force walked by, stared at him and shook their heads.
“I’m upset about the feelings of NTF and the San Diego PD against me and our department,” he said later. “And I think all of this is going to snowball and get worse.”
Relations between the San Diego and National City police departments have been ruptured, perhaps permanently, some officers say.
National City police administrators have not determined when and if they are going to provide a replacement to the 73-member agency that includes representatives from almost every police agency in the county.
“I wouldn’t put another officer down there at NTF right now,” Berstler said. “It would be like throwing someone to the wolves.”
On a personal level, Berstler has received 15 to 20 phone calls in the middle of the night. Each time he picks up, the line is dead. The past few months have been stressful for him and his wife of 10 years, who have an 11-month old baby.
With 21 years on the National City Police and five more with San Diego police, the cop who has made a career of staying undercover and out of the limelight couldn’t be more visible.
And he openly wonders what will happen the next time he has to depend on his colleagues from the Narcotics Task Force.
“I don’t know if they’re going to set me up or leave me without cover. They might try and plant dope in my car, but I would hope they wouldn’t hang me out to dry,” he said. “But what I did was right. Those officers lied and violated the rules. They beat a handcuffed prisoner, and that is wrong.”
Since the sentencing, Berstler said he has tried forget about what has become “water over the dam.”
What helps, he said, is the support he has from many in his department, particularly National City Police Chief Stan Knee.
“Sgt. Berstler is a great sergeant,” Knee said. “As far as looking at crime patterns and identifying career criminals and making cases and putting people in prison, he’s about the best I’ve seen in my 22 years of police work.”
Lt. Anthony DiCerchio, a ranking supervisor with the Narcotics Task Force, said he does not fault Berstler for doing what he had to do. At the same time, he said, it’s a shame that Rudershausen and Love have been demoted and will no longer do some of the work they are best trained to perform.
“If you work with someone for a long time who is truly a professional, and brutality of any sort is not in their makeup and this happens, it’s unfortunate,” he said. “But we’ve been through worse things. We’ll get over this.”
For DEA supervisor Howard, every aspect of the January drug bust had to be considered by everyone connected to the case. Rudershausen could have shot at Reyes but did not. Love struggled twice with Reyes before subduing him and even cleaned the cut on his head.
“The jury did not understand what was going through the agents’ minds or the process of narcotics transactions,” he said. “They were told that, if an agent touches a handcuffed defendant unnecessarily, he’s guilty.”
In an interview last week, a bitter Love rattled off a long list of rumors he was told about Berstler, mostly to do with allegations of excessive force, retaliation and racism. Love is black. Berstler and Rudershausen are white.
Berstler has denied the rumors.
“Mr. Berstler is a piece of work,” Love said. “He will definitely hurt himself along the line. I don’t even know him. Why would he do this to me?”
Last week, Love was on administrative duty pending a 20-day suspension. Rudershausen was serving a 30-day suspension. Berstler was out on surveillance, chasing down drug dealers and wondering when he will have to work with the Narcotics Task Force again.
“I’ve divorced myself from the task force because of this,” he said. “I want nothing to do with them, but I have to deal with them sooner or later. There are many wounds that will have to heal.”