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California

Fired sheriff’s deputy who watched sickly man crawl home gets job back — but county doesn’t want him

Mark Franks
Former Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Franks about to go on patrol in Palm Desert in July of 2013.
(Richard Lui / The Desert Sun)

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is fighting to keep a former deputy from returning to the force after he successfully appealed his firing, according to court filings.

Mark Franks was fired last year after an administrative hearing concluded he was negligent in his duties when he watched an ailing man crawl to his apartment in Palm Desert and allegedly threatened to arrest him. The man was found dead in his living room five days later.

The legal battle, first reported by the Desert Sun, is centered on an arbiter’s decision in April to reinstate Franks and to give him back pay and benefits dating to his July 20, 2015 firing, according to court documents.

Attorneys for the Sheriff’s Department argue that the arbiter’s decision was premature and that he exceeded his authority.

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According to court filings, which include Franks’ own report on the incident, the deputy found Curtis Nelson disoriented next to a shopping cart behind a Dollar Tree store in September 2014.

Per a store employee’s request, Franks asked Nelson to leave the property. Though Nelson indicated he would comply, he repeatedly stopped and sat down, documents say.

Franks’ report states that Nelson said he was “out of shape” and just needed a few minutes before moving on. He declined medical attention, Franks reported.

Eventually the deputy put Nelson in the back of his car and drove him to an apartment complex across the street where Nelson lived, the report states.

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“Nelson got out and crawled to the gate of his apartment. I told Nelson to get up and walk but he said his legs hurt and he was out of shape. I stood by while Nelson crawled very slowly towards his apartment,” Franks wrote. “After about 30-40 minutes of Nelson continuing to lie on the ground and then crawl to his apartment, he finally made it to the door.”

But a witness gave an account that put the deputy’s actions in a much harsher light, court filings show.

A woman who lived in the same complex said Nelson took about an hour to drag himself the 50 feet to his front door on his hands and arms. All the while, the report says, Franks “repeatedly stated that if [Nelson] did not get into his apartment he would arrest him.”

Five days later, neighbors saw Nelson through a window lying still in his apartment and called 911. An autopsy determined that he died of natural causes, including hypertensive cardiovascular disease, kidney failure and chronic alcoholism.

Nelson’s death prompted the investigation into Franks’ contact with him, according to court documents. In justifying Franks’ firing, the department noted that he had been disciplined for failing to perform his duties once before, when he failed to investigate and document a reported assault with a deadly weapon.

Another agency ultimately investigated that case and identified a suspect, court documents say.

A judge has yet to decide whether to overturn the arbiter’s decision to reinstate Franks. A court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 12. The Sheriff’s Department, its attorney and Franks’ attorney did not return requests for comment.

Joseph.serna@latimes.com

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