A reserve police officer accused of sexually assaulting three women while on duty has been fired after an investigation concluded that he had violated department policy, authorities said Thursday.
Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. dismissed Chris Matano, 20, of Laguna Beach, a grocery store employee who was suspected of fondling the women while they were handcuffed inside his patrol car on the way to Orange County Jail.
"In my opinion there was enough smoke in all these allegations to warrant termination," Purcell said. "Something's happened. To what degree I do not know, and we may never know. I think there is a preponderance of evidence that clearly indicates he violated our standards of professional conduct, veracity and judgment."
Matano, who had been a reserve officer for about a year, was suspended from duty in October after one of the alleged victims complained to police that she had been molested during the ride to jail. A short while later, two more women made similar accusations.
The department specifically accused Matano of sexual battery, which involves touching in a suggestive or sexual manner without consent. His accusers, who had been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, said he had stopped his patrol car in dark areas of Laguna Canyon and rubbed their breasts and thighs under the pretense of searching for weapons.
The district attorney's office is continuing to investigate the incidents, and Matano has not been charged with a crime.
Matano could not be reached for comment, but his lawyer said the three women are lying and are motivated by a misguided attempt to win compensation from the city. None of the charges were ever proven, attorney Tom Perez said.
After a two-month internal affairs investigation, Purcell concluded that Matano had violated the department's professional code of conduct, but he stopped short of saying that the officer had molested the women.
"We were not able to prove or disprove these allegations," Purcell said. "In my opinion, there seems to be some embellishments, fabrications and collusion on (the women's) part. Clearly the inconsistencies did not help the credibility of their statements."
But Purcell said that during the investigation he became concerned about Matano's behavior after learning about advances he allegedly made toward a female officer from another department. Purcell declined to elaborate.
As a reserve officer, Matano worked part time, usually assigned to transporting prisoners to the jail. He had the same powers as a full-time police officer and was authorized to wear a uniform and carry a gun.
Because Matano was a reservist, however, he did not have the same employee rights as full-time police officers, such as the ability to appeal his firing, Perez said.
"In my opinion, Mr. Matano should not be terminated because the charges cannot be proven," Perez said. "But I am not in the same shoes as Purcell. Purcell apparently was uncomfortable with the circumstances. He has an extreme amount of power to fire under these circumstances and does not have to say why."
Perez said it would be extremely difficult for Matano to contest his termination in court because he would have to show a violation of his constitutional rights or gross negligence by the Police Department.
Times staff writer Leslie Berkman contributed to this report.