City of Commerce officials’ bad blood led to brawl at desert resort
A conference of local government officials from across California erupted into violence over the weekend, with several attendees throwing punches and at least one person apparently knocked unconscious, according to five witnesses to the incident.
A spokesman for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that a brawl at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa had been reported to police about 12:30 a.m. Saturday. Seven people were involved in “an altercation and physical battery,” Deputy Mike Vasquez said.
Police tried to identify the people involved but “none of them were cooperative,” Vasquez said. One man was hospitalized for minor injuries, he said.
There were no arrests, and Vasquez said he could not provide any more details Sunday because the department did not consider the incident “breaking news.”
It was not clear who started the fight, but it involved members of the Commerce City Council and other public officials, according to a statement from Mayor John Soria and several witnesses who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the incident.
Some witnesses said the melee involved more than seven people — including some who were trying to break up the combatants — and included political consultants, government vendors and elected officials from the Los Angeles area. One or more women were screaming, the sources said.
“It was a hectic scene,” one witness said.
A photo circulating among local politicians appeared to show Commerce Councilman Leonard Mendoza lying on the floor with drops of blood at his feet. A man is seen in the photo checking his pulse.
Soria said in his statement that he was told that Mendoza and a council colleague, Ivan Altamirano, were having a conversation that had “become elevated” so he “went to the area to defuse any potential conflict.” He said that when he approached, he saw Mendoza on the floor “apparently unconscious,” and Altamirano “standing nearby with a facial injury.”
Soria, a civilian law enforcement technician for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said he and Altamirano were then attacked “from behind by two individuals.” He did not identify the assailants, saying he wanted to let law enforcement conduct a thorough investigation. He said he would file a police report and press charges.
“I want to be clear in condemning the violent behavior from the individuals who initiated these assaults,” Soria said. “Once additional information is available, I intend to call on my council colleagues to take appropriate action regarding any individuals that represent the City of Commerce who were involved in the incident.”
In an interview with The Times, Mendoza said he recalled having a heated exchange with Altamirano, who he said interrupted a conversation he was having.
“I asked him if he could step away, and he wouldn’t step back,” Mendoza said. “I guess he didn’t like that and it got heated and it got loud.”
Shortly after the exchange, Mendoza said, he felt a blow from behind and woke up in a hospital. In the room were his wife and a law enforcement officer.
“It must’ve been one of those things where I got knocked out with one punch,” he said. He said he didn’t know who struck him.
Mendoza suffered a large cut to the back of his head and cuts to his face.
In a statement Monday, a lawyer for Altamirano said the vice mayor had received an “outpouring of support” and called Mendoza the “physical aggressor” in the confrontation.
“Vice Mayor Altamirano has been threatened by Councilman Mendoza before and this incident fits an unfortunate and documented pattern of misconduct,” the statement read.
The city released a statement on Twitter saying that city officials had been involved in a confrontation outside the city’s jurisdiction.
“Given that, and the fact that the city is unclear on the specifics, the city has no further comment at this time,” the statement said.
The melee occurred at an annual seminar of the California Contract Cities Assn., an advocacy group for cities that contract for public services, such as firefighting and law enforcement. City officials at the event network over rounds of golf and attend sessions on topics such as managing crises, dealing with active shooters and tackling homelessness, according to the event’s tentative agenda.
Marcel Rodarte, the association’s executive director, said the group was investigating the altercation and that its executive board would evaluate potential disciplinary action.
“It appears the altercation was related to personal matters between two council members from the same city,” Rodarte wrote in an email to The Times, adding that discipline “could include suspension or a ban of the individual from participating in future Contract Cities events.”
Later, the group released a statement saying it had suspended the city of Commerce’s membership “until further notice.”
Times staff writer Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.
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