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Laguna police officer and others hope to settle lawsuit against Fullerton over their arrests in 2017

mcbride.jpg
James McBride, left, Wendy Wagner and Rock Wagner, right, appear at a news conference with then-attorney Michael Fell, center, in March 2018.
(File Photo)

A Laguna Beach police officer is moving toward settling a lawsuit against the city of Fullerton and the Fullerton Police Department claiming that he, his sister and her boyfriend were falsely arrested on suspicion of elder abuse against the officer’s ill parents.

The lawsuit claims the arrests in 2017 were made despite a lack of probable cause.

The suit is expected to go to mediation in the next month, according to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Gary Casselman.

Laguna Beach Officer Rock Wagner, his wife, Rocio, both of Lake Forest, and Wagner’s sister Wendy and her boyfriend, James McBride, both of Huntington Beach, filed suit Nov. 8, 2018, in Orange County Superior Court, alleging false arrest, defamation and wrongful death after the parents died.

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The lawsuit argues that people in the Fullerton Police Department knew probable cause was lacking before the arrests.

Fullerton officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Authorities alleged at the time of the arrests that Rock and Wendy Wagner and McBride had defrauded the Wagners’ parents, Bonnie and Roland, of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Wagners maintain that wasn’t the case.

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“They were doing what children do when they are caring for elderly parents,” Casselman said.

Fullerton police led the case because it reportedly involved a financial institution based there.

Before the arrests, Bonnie and Roland Wagner lived with their daughter and McBride, who lived together and cared for them full time, the family said.

Wendy and Rock Wagner took their parents out of a hospital in February 2017. Roland moved in with Wendy and McBride until November that year, when the arrests were made, they said.

Bonnie had alternated among a live-in care facility, Wendy and McBride’s home in Huntington Beach and another daughter in Hesperia. She had moved back into the Huntington Beach home shortly before the arrests, the family said.

Roland died Feb. 24, 2018, at age 84 in a residential care facility. Bonnie died April 5, 2018, at age 83.

“Bonnie and Roland suffered rapid decline in their health and worsening of their medical conditions after the arrests,” the lawsuit said.

Rock Wagner was arrested by Fullerton police on Nov. 28, 2017, in a parking lot in Foothill Ranch. Simultaneously, police went to his house while his wife and daughter were home.

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Wagner described in an interview how he was shocked when at least 10 officers descended on him outside a Walmart.

“I’ve been a part of these operations. I’ve planned these types of take-downs of felons who are armed. ... It was all unnecessary. It was all crafted; it was deliberate,” he said.

Arresting someone suspected of a nonviolent crime who has no criminal record wouldn’t require that show of force, he said. “I’ve done it with two officers,” he added.

At the same time, officers contacted Wendy Wagner and McBride at their home, removing them in handcuffs.

In February 2018, the Orange County district attorney’s office determined that Rock and Wendy Wagner and McBride would not face charges.

Despite that, they feel they’ve been harmed.

Rock Wagner was put on administrative leave after his arrest and was “branded somehow a bad guy,” Casselman said.

Wagner is a 12-year veteran of the Laguna Beach Police Department who works patrol. He previously spent 16 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He had planned to retire last year but chose to stay on the force as an active member of law enforcement during the lawsuit.

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Wendy Wagner, who operated a Newport Beach beauty business, said she lost clients.

“I’ve lost income ... and more than that, it’s been painful to my soul,” she said in an interview. “This has dropped me to my knees.”

McBride’s job search the past two years has been unfruitful and frustrating as his police booking photo remains available online. He has made a career as a machinery specialist.

“I love my work and I’m just devastated that I can’t get back in the industry,” he said in an interview.

“Our lives are ruined,” McBride said. “All three of us are suffering from PTSD from this; it’s been traumatic.”

Additionally, the family has had tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses. “We are financially devastated,” Wendy Wagner said.

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