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Couple Win Suit Against Police in National City

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Navy couple have been awarded $135,800 in a brutality lawsuit against a National City police officer they say beat them during a routine traffic stop.

A San Diego County Superior Court jury awarded the money Tuesday to Troy Spells, 22, and his wife, Lisa, 21, after a four-day trial. The jury deliberated for only 3 1/2 hours before reaching a verdict.

The Spellses, who now live in the Bay Area, were dental technicians in the Navy at the time of the Aug. 3, 1989, incident. Troy Spells is still in the Navy, but Lisa Spells is no longer on active duty, said the couple’s attorney, Michael R. Marrinan.

According to court records, the Spellses were en route to their jobs at the 32nd Street Naval Station when they were stopped by Officer Robert Scott Ketcham about 6:30 a.m. In his police report, Ketcham said Troy Spells ran a red light at East 8th Street and D Avenue in National City.

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The Spellses denied running the light and alleged that they were stopped because their car had Illinois license plates.

The Spellses could not be reached for comment, but Marrinan said Ketcham beat the couple without provocation.

A National City Police Department employee said Ketcham was off Friday and could not be reached for comment. Chief Stan Knee and other city officials did not return phone calls.

Police reports filed in the incident said that Troy Spells, who Marrinan said is 5-foot-3 and weighs 130 pounds, initiated a fight by slugging Ketcham, who reportedly is 6-foot-3 and weighs about 240 pounds.

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In his report, Ketcham described Troy Spells as “uncooperative” and said Spells made him “very concerned for my personal safety.”

Ketcham’s report said the Spellses left their vehicle while he was writing a citation, and that a second officer arrived as a backup. At one point, Troy Spells pushed him, Ketcham said in his report.

“Suddenly, Spells punched me in the face. My knees buckled, and I fell to the ground,” Ketcham wrote in his report.

According to Ketcham and Dennis Leach, the backup officer, Spells grabbed Ketcham’s baton and began swinging the weapon. The police reports said that Spells swung the baton while Leach had him in a carotid hold.

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Ketcham admitted that he “punched Spells in the face” while the sailor was being restrained by Leach, but said he acted out of self-defense.

The Spellses had a different version of the incident, and the jury believed their story, Marrinan said. After the trial, several jurors said they did not believe any of Ketcham’s testimony, Marrinan said.

In the lawsuit, the Spellses said Ketcham “was rude and intimidating from the outset.” Marrinan said the officer asked the couple “several strange questions” and insisted that he had arrested Troy Spells the previous week.

Lisa Spells “asked him to hurry and write the ticket as they would be late for work,” and Ketcham told her to shut up, the lawsuit said. Leach, who was dropped as a defendant in the lawsuit, arrived at the scene and gave Lisa Spells permission to walk across the street and call their commanding officers to tell them they would be late for work.

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Troy Spells, who had also left the vehicle, was ordered by Ketcham to get back in the car, said the lawsuit.

” . . . But Ketcham was standing by the door, blocking Spells’ entrance,” the lawsuit said. “Spells asked how he was supposed to get in the car if Ketcham was blocking the door. Ketcham responded by jabbing Spells in the stomach with his billy club and holding it against Spells’ stomach.”

According to the lawsuit, Spells brushed the baton away and Ketcham responded by punching Spells in the mouth. Spells reflexively counter-punched and hit Ketcham in the face, the lawsuit said.

However, Marrinan denied that the punch knocked Ketcham to the ground. Instead, the attorney said that Leach grabbed Spells from behind, knocked him to the ground and held him while Ketcham beat Spells with his fists, baton and a sap.

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National City police are the only officers in the county who use saps--short, lead clubs with leather covers. Critics say that, unlike wood or metal batons, saps do not leave any marks on the body.

Marrinan said the beating continued while Spells was under restraint on the ground and after he was handcuffed. When Lisa Spells yelled at the officers to stop beating her husband, Ketcham kicked her on the shin, swore at her and threatened to beat her next, Marrinan said.

Spells suffered an injured knee and numerous cuts and bruises. He was charged with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, both felony counts. However, the charges were dropped and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of delaying an officer.

The citation for running a red light was never issued.

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