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An Unsettling Settlement in Laguna Harassment Case

Chris Matano turned 21 Friday. He had wanted to be a cop in his hometown of Laguna Beach since he was 14 years old. As a high school student, he signed up for the city’s Explorer program that let him ride around with police officers. He was a city parking control officer at 17 and a full-time reserve police officer at 18, with responsibilities for handling the booking and transporting of prisoners. Although only on reserve status, he regularly worked 40-hour weeks.

Matano was popular around the station and had received a number of kudos from citizens. With boy-next-door looks and easygoing outer demeanor, Matano was a good candidate for a regular police officer’s job.

It is now an open question whether Matano will ever be a cop. On Police Chief Neil Purcell’s recommendation, Laguna Beach last week settled four lawsuits filed against it by four women, all of whom charged that Matano had in separate incidents in 1991 either fondled them or made inappropriate sexual remarks to them while in his custody. To make the cases disappear, the city paid the women, all of whom had been arrested for drunk driving, a total of $87,500.

The city wiped its hands of the suits and, not incidentally, of Matano. He was fired last December.

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It’s a settlement that, frankly, is unsettling.

Matano’s career and reputation are on the line, and yet he had no say in the decision. How many of us would want our employer to make that decision about our reputation?

I don’t condemn Purcell for worrying about the appearance of his department, but Matano could have been given paper-pushing duties until this matter was resolved.

If Matano committed the offenses and has been lying about them ever since, he’s not fit for law enforcement. But as things now stand, he’s tainted as a sexual harasser without getting a chance to defend himself legally.

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At 21, his chosen career path may be forever closed.

Who are the women bringing the charges? How solid were their stories? Did it make any difference that the first three to publicly bring charges knew each other? How solid is Matano’s contention that another acquaintance of theirs has said the three got together and fabricated the story against him?

The department’s review of the three women’s charges, conducted by a sergeant, concluded, “The allegations by (the women) smack of embellishment and perhaps even collusion. However, they tend to reinforce one another and I am unable to determine to what degree their statements are true.” He went on to say, “Because of the many discrepancies in the statements of (the three women), I can’t give them the benefit of the doubt . . .”

The allegation of the fourth woman also couldn’t be verified, largely because of the one-on-one nature of the incident. But because it was of the same general sexual nature of the other three, the sergeant concluded, the woman’s “allegation tends to support the other three.”

The Orange County district attorney’s office reviewed the allegations and declined to press charges against Matano.

I spent 2 1/2 hours with Matano in his Laguna Beach home the other night, his first lengthy public comments about the incidents. He went case by case, denying even a hint of impropriety and suggesting the women played the city for fools in eliciting the settlement.

“I know you don’t know me, and the public doesn’t see me the way people who know me see me,” he said. “I’m not that kind of person, I wouldn’t do that. I understand that this is what is alleged against me, and I’m going to take some heat for it. Some people are going to think I did it, and a lot of people are going to think I didn’t.”

He stresses that the departmental review didn’t uphold any of the four charges. He contends the women made up the charges hoping the adverse publicity would win them a settlement.

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Peter Seidenberg, an attorney who represented the three women, said his clients were prepared to press their cases. He said the strength of the cases against Matano “is the number of women who came forward.”

As for Matano, Seidenberg said, “I have never met him. We have no particular malice against him. We think he committed these acts. We think he’s dangerous in the sense of giving him a gun and a badge, and obviously someone (in Laguna Beach city government) agreed with us.”

I asked Purcell if he’s certain of Matano’s involvement. “I think there was enough there that in my opinion, it was not worth the risk to take this all the way, because myself, I’d have to say under oath, I think there was enough smoke there for a fire. I had an uneasy feeling. Something occurred, but only those women and Officer Matano knows what it was.”

The chief said he had doubts about the first three women’s credibility, especially as versions of their stories changed. “I felt they were embellishing and fabricating for the purpose of attempting to make this look worse than it was and to up their award potential,” he said.

However, the allegation by the fourth woman helped sway him. That, coupled with Matano’s refusal to take a lie-detector test, persuaded Purcell that the city should settle the cases. “It’s a shame we find ourselves in these positions, but it really boils down to economics,” Purcell said. “I don’t think it’s worth the risk to take into state or federal court, under the circumstances, especially with the fourth person, who I think would have made a very credible witness, and take a chance before a jury.”

Purcell said he was “hoping Chris would take that polygraph, pass with flying colors, and I wanted to cram it (the results) down their throats and wanted to have a lot of publicity on it and challenge them to a polygraph on their own.” The chief said he will never understand why Matano didn’t agree to the polygraph, especially since he would be required to take one in the future should he ever want to become a regular police officer.

Matano told me he refused the polygraph on his lawyer’s advice. He said his initial impulse was strongly in favor of taking the test, but Purcell said police tapes of that interview with Matano show he was leery right from the start about taking a polygraph.

Is Matano lying? Is he the type who looks innocent but has a dark side that came out under the power his badge gave him?

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Matano recalled his early days in the department. “I loved the work, I loved who I worked with. It was my home away from home.”

Professing his innocence, Matano now says: “I still want to pursue my career in law enforcement, and I will do that. One day soon I will be a police officer again. I have no doubt.”

If only Laguna Beach had let a jury decide, we’d all know whether to applaud or tremble at that thought.


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