An attorney for Chris Matano, a Laguna Beach reserve officer who allegedly sexually assaulted three women while on duty, proclaimed his client’s innocence Wednesday and accused the women of lying to obtain “huge financial settlements” from the city.
“He’s been damaged by this and he wants to vindicate himself,” Orange attorney Tom Perez said of his client. “These charges are completely unfounded. Everyone in the community loves him, and they say the allegations don’t fit his reputation.”
The statement by Perez followed the claims by three unidentified women that they were fondled by Matano as he was transporting them to Orange County Jail. All three women had been arrested by other Laguna Beach police officers on suspicion of drunk driving but were being transported to County Jail in Santa Ana by Matano when the alleged assaults occurred.
Matano, 20, has been suspended from the Laguna Beach Police Department pending an internal affairs investigation. The Orange County district attorney’s office is also investigating the allegations.
Issuing his first defense of Matano, Perez charged that the women were motivated by the prospects of “huge financial settlements” from the city and were taking advantage of “the hysteria involving officers’ misconduct” following the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.
Perez described Matano as an industrious and popular 20-year-old whose lifelong ambition was to become a full-time police officer.
According to Perez, Matano worked in the meat department of a neighborhood grocery store during the day. At night, the Laguna Beach High School graduate would serve as a transportation officer or help patrol the city’s parks and beaches in his role as a reserve officer, Perez said.
Peter Seidenberg, a Newport Beach attorney representing the three women in their claims against the city, scoffed at Perez’s statement that his clients had lied about what happened.
“These women are terribly embarrassed, humiliated and devastated,” Seidenberg said. “It took a lot of courage to come forward. There are better ways to make money than this.”
Seidenberg has questioned why reserve police officers, like Matano, are used for regular police work when they often receive less training than sworn officers.
“Is it that this city is in such dire financial straits that they have to hire 20-year-old kids and give them a gun and a badge?” Seidenberg said. “We’d hope that they would be more responsible than that.”
Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. said his department has about eight reserve officers, serving in various functions, and all are paid on an hourly basis.
In Laguna Beach, Matano was qualified to wear a uniform and badge and carry a weapon. Law enforcement officials said it is not unusual for police agencies to use reserves to shuttle prisoners back and forth to County Jail, as Matano was doing when the assaults allegedly occurred.
Perez said Matano was working as a reserve, “learning the ropes” in the hope of becoming a full-time officer.
Other county law enforcement agencies defended the use of reserve officers, saying it saves taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars while providing residents with the opportunity to serve their community.
San Clemente Police Chief Albert C. Ehlow said he supports the concept of incorporating reserves into his department, noting that he began his own career as a reserve officer 29 years ago.
“It’s a good way to bring people into your system,” Ehlow said.
But he said his department does not allow reserves to patrol the streets alone.
Lt. Chuck Magdalena, a spokesman for the Santa Ana Police Department, said some of his department’s 11 reserve officers are qualified to patrol in the field by themselves, while others are relegated to administrative tasks, depending on their level of training.
“These people spend their own money to do things for us,” Magdalena said, explaining that the Santa Ana reserves are not paid.
Lt. Richard J. Olson, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said that agency has about 200 volunteer reserve officers.
“They save taxpayers in Orange County a ton of money because they are not paid for” the 16 hours they work each month, he said.
Olson said reserve officers in the Sheriff’s Department receive formal training at various police academies, although not of the duration or intensity that full-time officers undergo. The women claimed that the assaults came in March, September and earlier this month. Purcell said Matano was suspended after investigators, looking into one woman’s complaint, found two other women who said they also had been assaulted by Matano.
The individual claims for unspecified damages against the city could come before the City Council as early as Nov. 19, according to City Clerk Verna L. Rollinger. When city councils deny such claims, lawsuits generally follow.
“I wouldn’t be surprised because of the exposure to the city, that we wouldn’t deny the claims,” Rollinger said. “If we deny the claims, it gets the ball rolling (for litigation to begin). If it looks like we’re in a bad light and the claimants were willing to settle for a reasonable amount of money, then that can happen, also.”
Reserve Officers In Orange County
Reserve officers attend an academy that offers courses similar to those of a police academy. Applicants are subjected to the same background checks and batteries of psychological, medical and polygraph exams that police officers undergo during the hiring process by a city.
However, police reservists are paid hourly or volunteer their time. The role of the reserve officer can range from patrolling the streets by themselves to fingerprinting suspects. Ideally, the reserve program puts more police officers onto city streets to fight crime.
Here’s a city-by-city breakdown of the police reserve programs in Orange County:
Number of Wage or City Reservists Unpaid? Anaheim 28 $10/hr. Brea/Yorba 12 $12/hr. Linda* Buena Park 25 unpaid Costa Mesa 21 $12/hr. Cypress 4 $10/hr. Fountain Valley 6 $10/hr. Fullerton 4 unpaid Garden Grove 43 $10/hr. Huntington 6 unpaid Beach Irvine 23 unpaid Laguna Beach 6 $11/hr. La Habra 13 unpaid La Palma 10 $8/hr. Los Alamitos 9 $8/hr. Newport Beach Orange 22 unpaid Placentia 10 unpaid San Clemente 8 $9/hr. Santa Ana 11 unpaid Seal Beach no reserve program Tustin 7 unpaid Westminster 12 $8/hr. O.C. Sheriff 230 unpaid Dept.**
City *** Training Level Required Anaheim Levels I-III; do not ride alone. Brea/Yorba Levels I & II Linda* Buena Park Level I only Costa Mesa Levels I-III Cypress Levels I & II Fountain Valley Levels I-III; do not ride alone. Fullerton Level I Garden Grove Levels I & II Huntington Level I only Beach Irvine Levels I-III Laguna Beach Levels I & II La Habra Levels I-III La Palma Levels I & II Los Alamitos Levels I-III Newport Beach information unavailable Orange Level I only; do not ride alone. Placentia Levels I-III San Clemente Levels I & II (IIs unpaid). Santa Ana Levels I-III Seal Beach Tustin Levels I-III Westminster Level I only O.C. Sheriff Levels I-III; Dept.** do not ride alone.
*** Level of Training:
(I) Considered the highest rank; unless indicated otherwise, rides alone on patrol; makes arrests; carries a weapon while on duty only; transports prisoners.
(II) Supervised by another sworn officer at all times; administers “drunk tests”; assists in arrests.
(III) No law enforcement powers; works security at special events; provides technical support at the police station.
* Yorba Linda is served by the Brea Police Department.
** The Orange County Sheriff’s Department contracts its services with unincorporated areas of the county and other jurisdictions.
Source: Individual police departments Researched by APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times