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Ex-Fullerton officer charged with destroying evidence in jail death?

A former Fullerton police officer was charged Tuesday with destroying evidence by smashing a digital audio recorder that is believed to have captured his conversations with a 52-year-old man who later committed suicide in the city jail.

Vincent Thomas Mater, 41, is charged with one misdemeanor count of destruction of evidence in a death investigation and one misdemeanor count of vandalism. If convicted, he faces up to 18 months in jail.

A few hours after Mater arrested Dean Francis Gochenour last April, the drunk-driving suspect hanged himself in a Fullerton jail cell. Prosecutors allege that Mater destroyed his recorder by crushing it and then removing the motherboard and circuit board after learning of Gochenour’s death.

Prosecutors say the former officer made it impossible to recover audio relevant to the Orange County district attorney’s investigation into the man’s death. Fullerton police officers are required to record all public contacts. Mater told investigators that his audio recorder had been activated.

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The audio recorder is the same type that later in the year captured key evidence used in the investigation of Fullerton officers in the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who was beaten by police. That investigation resulted in second-degree murder charges being filed against Officer Manuel Ramos and involuntary manslaughter charges against Cpl. Jay Cicinelli. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Mater stopped Gouchenour’s car about 9:45 p.m after noticing he was driving without his lights on. He arrested Gochenour on suspicion of drunk driving, drove him to the Fullerton City Jail and turned him over to jailers.

According to the district attorney’s investigation, Mater told investigators that in the police car, Gochenour said he had a prior drunk-driving conviction and his sister was going to be upset with him. Mater said Gochenour also told him that he had recently lost a woman who was important to him.

Later, while Mater was taking inventory of the man’s money, Mater said Gochenour told him, “You can have it, I won’t need it anymore.” While alone in his cell, Gochenour was caught on camera praying and then saying “I can hang this right here” and “It’s where I’m going to die.”

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A jailer found Gochenour hanging by his shirt from a bar in his cell during an hourly safety check early the next morning.

Mater told investigators that he became frustrated after trying unsuccessfully to download his audio recording of the arrest to the department’s computer system and flung his recording device at a metal door, damaging it. He maintained that he did not hear Gochenour express any desire to hurt himself.

Based on the evidence available, including audio from another officer who arrived at the scene of the arrest after Mater, investigators found there was “no affirmative evidence” to show Mater knew that Gochenour might harm himself, but added that the officer’s conduct in damaging the recording device “remains of grave concern.”

Neither Mater nor his attorney could be reached for comment.

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Acting Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes said Mater was placed on administrative leave two weeks after the incident and resigned Aug. 2 after the department initiated disciplinary proceedings.

“This was something that was initiated by the Fullerton Police Department,” he said. “We initiated the investigation, we conducted the investigation, and we submitted it to the district attorney’s office almost a year ago seeking charges.”

Hughes said the department did not believe the audio recorder had been damaged as Mater said it was, and, based on that, submitted the case to the district attorney’s office.

When The Times first inquired about the case last fall, city and police officials refused to give details of Mater’s departure.

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Gochenour’s family said the city’s officers failed that night in their duty to care for the Fullerton man.

“They failed on the most permanent of levels and the officers who were there that night should know that they have forever damaged this family unnecessarily because they weren’t motivated enough to do their jobs correctly,” said his 20-year-old daughter, Bridget Wiseman.

richard.winton@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com


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