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A Beating Victim’s 7-Year Pursuit of Justice

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A soft-spoken, working-class man, Otha Rhodes is not a firebrand or a political sophisticate.

After he was arrested by El Monte police on June 6, 1986, and told of being jumped and beaten by two officers, his wife had to insist on taking photographs of his injuries and complaining at City Hall.

His two stepdaughters, outraged by the incident, had to persuade him to file a lawsuit.

His attorney had to practically stop him in midair in 1989 during a celebratory jump over a court victory to tell him about the legal appeals process.

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But once committed, the 51-year-old former farm boy from Whiteville, Tenn., was not one to step down, though it took seven years. He had to stand up for himself, or know that he would carry a reputation as a man who did nothing.

On Jan. 19, the final decision came in Rhodes’ favor when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the jury decision awarding Rhodes $85,000 for his injuries. Rhodes will now receive that money, plus $25,000 in interest, earned while the city appealed the case. Rhodes’ attorney fees, still to be negotiated, will also be paid by the city.

“It shows to the average citizen--the average low-income citizen, because that’s what we are--that there is justice out there for them,” Rhodes, a resident of Baldwin Park, said last week of his victory. “All they’ve got to do is pursue it.”

The victory, however, came at a price.

Rhodes and his wife, Marie, 53, former West Covina homeowners, now rent in Baldwin Park.

To pursue the lawsuit, the couple abandoned their dream of moving to a new home in Apple Valley. Instead of putting a down payment on a new house, they used money from the sale of their West Covina home to pay attorney and private investigator fees, Rhodes said. The award won’t revive that dream, he said.

“I’m going to try to invest it, get ready for my retirement at 60 or 61,” Rhodes said.

For the past 19 years, Rhodes has been employed at an El Monte mattress factory, but the couple is uncertain how much longer Rhodes can work. His right shoulder, injured during his arrest, now troubles him, causing him to stiffen. He uses a heating pad nightly to ease the pain.

The couple also have outstanding bills from a bankruptcy they filed after Marie Rhodes, a Foothill Transit driver, suffered a burst appendix and subsequent medical complications. The struggle to pay doctor bills, live on one income and support their teen-age son, Thomas, finally put them under financially.

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The descent into a long legal battle began with an act of charity on the part of Rhodes. A former co-worker, down on his luck and without a car, had moved to an apartment complex in a crime-filled El Monte neighborhood. Rhodes tried to help the man out with occasional trips to the supermarket.

On one of those visits, Rhodes said he walked into a brawl between neighbors at the apartment complex. Police, called to the scene, ordered everyone inside their apartments. Rhodes complied by going into his friend’s apartment and was later given permission by officers to leave.

“No sooner had I opened the door and they slammed me against the wall,” Rhodes said of police. Officers pushed his face against the wall and delivered blows to his back and shoulders. Rhodes said officers responded with racist comments when he cried out in pain.

“I had never been treated like that,” said Rhodes, who added that his most serious encounters with police in the past were traffic stops for speeding.

Rhodes was taken to the El Monte jail for resisting arrest. Marie Rhodes said she was astounded when she heard her husband was in jail. She was even more astounded when she saw his swollen, bruised face.

“They were poor people, Mexican and blacks, (in the apartment complex),” Marie Rhodes said. “The police didn’t know my husband didn’t live there and he wasn’t going to take that (abuse).”

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But El Monte police insist that Rhodes was not injured at the apartment complex. They said Rhodes tried to intervene when police arrived and that officers used reasonable force.

“This guy was not beaten. It just didn’t happen,” Police Chief Wayne Clayton said this month.

Clayton said the jury’s award did not even hold liable the two officers named in Rhodes’ complaint. That’s why the city appealed the case all the way to the highest court in the nation.

“We can’t just roll over and send a message that every time you file a lawsuit cities are going to give away this money,” Clayton said.

City Atty. David F. Gondek said El Monte has had to pay judgments arising from traffic collisions, but that Rhodes’ case is the first in nearly a decade involving police misconduct.

But Rhodes believes the jury exonerated the officers because they succeeded in keeping his face against the wall so he could not identify them in court. Still, he thinks his court victory will bring some changes.

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“I believe the police will deal with it differently when they go into El Monte and there’s another scuffle,” he said.

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