Jury sides with park ranger in dispute over couple’s serving meals to homeless residents at O.C. beach
As Kathy Lemly tells it, the beachside confrontation that led her and her husband, Don Lemly, to the federal courthouse in Santa Ana this month began with an ominous comment from a state park ranger.
“I heard someone say, ‘You’re not going to feed these people, are you?’” she recalled on the witness stand. “I turned to my husband and said, ‘I think we can expect trouble today.’”
The San Clemente couple’s visit to Doheny State Beach in Dana Point to feed homeless people ended with Don Lemly in handcuffs and Kathy Lemly calling 911 on the ranger who arrested him, part of an ongoing controversy in south Orange County about daily food handouts at the beach, the people who attend them and the law enforcement officials tasked with patrolling the area.
The couple sued in U.S. District Court, alleging constitutional violations including false arrest and excessive force, but a jury rejected each claim last week after a four-day trial.
Their lawyer, Jorge Gonzalez, suggested jurors award Don Lemly $50,000 to $100,000 for the August 2018 ordeal, but the jury awarded nothing, just as lawyers for the park ranger, Nicholas Milward, requested they do.
“There’s some dangers going on that Mr. Lemly, he’s just not aware of. Sure, people are nice when he’s handing them the food,” Milward’s lawyer, Deputy Atty. Gen. Ezra Siegel, told jurors.
Milward acknowledged in testimony that he’d made the comment about not serving when the Lemlys arrived, but he said he didn’t decide to stop the meals until later, after he’d dealt with an unruly man who was there for the food. Milward said he was concerned the man would return and cause more trouble.
“I felt it was best to take away what was attracting him,” which was the food, said Milward, a state park ranger for 13 years and a lifeguard for seven. “I didn’t want him to come back and start another confrontation.”
When the Lemlys told Milward they had a right to feed the homeless people there because of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union, Milward replied, “The ACLU’s a freaking joke.”
He then knocked a soda away from Don Lemly that he told jurors he feared could be used as a weapon, grabbed him and walked him over to a curb, cursed at him to sit down, handcuffed him and cited him for failing to comply with a police officer’s orders.
A bystander captured the encounter on his cellphone, and photographs show bruises and bloody cuts on Lemly’s wrists from the handcuffs. Jurors saw everything several times during trial, then deliberated about three hours before siding with Milward.
The verdict ends a legal crusade that Don Lemly described in testimony as a righteous cause. The 72-year-old retiree told jurors: “If people who are in comfortable circumstances like I am don’t stand up for what’s right and call out somebody who’s a bully in law enforcement, then our society is in big trouble.
“I’m fortunate enough that I have the time and availability to be able to pursue this.”
The jury’s decision also follows key defense testimony from Milward and other law enforcement officers about ongoing problems with the meals and the people they bring to the beach. A sheriff’s investigator who spent a month watching those who arrived for the meals compiled a report for the city of Dana Point that concluded 70% of the roughly 600 people served had criminal records.
“The majority of the people that attend … are criminals. Drugs. Domestic violence. Stabbings. Fights,” Milward testified. “I knew a lot of them by name and date of birth.”
He added: “I feel that it didn’t do the state beach well to have that event daily.”
The verdict won’t deter the Lemlys and other volunteers, who are organized through the religious coalition Welcome Interfaith Needs Network. The Lemlys — Don Lemly is Welcome INN’s president — volunteer through their church in San Clemente, St. Andrew’s by the Sea United Methodist Church. Don Lemly cited the Bible when explaining why to jurors: “We believe that people, no matter what their circumstances, deserve to have decent food.”
The Lemlys have served food at Doheny for about 12 years, but the meals have been around longer. They tried moving to serving meals at a church in Dana Point several years ago, but the church’s priest asked them to leave after a late-night stabbing, so the group returned to Doheny.
The ACLU settlement referenced during the confrontation and at trial occurred in 2008, after the ACLU of Southern California sued the state for threatening the group with ticketing and arrest for serving the meals. State park rangers argued the group needed to get a gathering permit, but the ACLU argued the requirement interfered with the group’s 1st Amendment rights. Under the settlement, the state agreed to stop enforcing the permit requirement.
In defending Milward, Siegel emphasized to the jury that the ACLU settlement still meant the event had to comply with park rules and obey police orders.
“It didn’t give them unlimited rights,” he said.
Cuniff is a contributor to Times Community News.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.