California Court Destroys Files In Historic Police Corruption Case
Criminal case files from Oakland’s seminal Riders scandal were among documents shredded by the Alameda County Superior Court in 2015.
In 2015, the Superior Court in Alameda County, California, quietly destroyed the criminal case files for three former Oakland police officers, known as “the Riders,” who stood trial for beating, falsely arresting, and framing dozens of African American men in the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Appeal has learned.
The files—which consisted of thousands of pages of hearing transcripts, motions, and evidence—were the best public record of the longest criminal trial in Alameda County history. The destruction of the Riders files is also an erasure of an extraordinary case of corruption that ended with the Oakland Police Department placed under a federal judge’s oversight.
“Destroying files relating to police misconduct may damage the public’s knowledge of police corruption,” LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County judge and former independent police auditor for San Jose, told The Appeal.
In 2000, rookie officer Keith Batt and his training officer Clarence Mabanag rampaged through West Oakland’s Black neighborhoods. The pair and other officers brutalized and planted drugs on suspects and filed false police reports resulting in wrongful convictions. On July 3, 2000, Batt resigned and blew the whistle on the misconduct he witnessed.
Mabanag and officers Jude Siapno and Matthew Hornung were tried in the case twice. In 2003, the first trial ended in a hung jury. The second trials of Mabanag and Siapno also ended in hung juries. In 2005, Hornung was acquitted after his second trial in which some of the charges against him were dropped.
The case led to a parallel civil rights lawsuit brought by 119 victims of police misconduct that ended in 2003 with the Oakland police being placed under a federal consent decree. The department remains under a federal judge’s authority and bound by a settlement agreement that details numerous reforms. Since the inception of the consent decree, the agency has cycled through 10 police chiefs, all of whom have failed to fulfill the reform program’s mandates.
The decision to purge the files was legal, according to Tom Kinzinger, an attorney with Bryan Cave law firm who reviewed the Alameda County Superior Court’s destruction of records for The Appeal. However, some legal experts, including Cordell and Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg, believe that records of police prosecutions should be maintained longer because they also constitute official histories of institutional corruption.
The Riders case is significant for police accountability in Oakland. Numerous other officers were named during the investigation and trial as having participated in similar abuses. However, they never faced criminal charges. Throughout the trials, the Oakland Police Department’s internal culture was examined in detail, as were political decisions by city leaders to undertake a “zero tolerance” crackdown on drug dealers, which community activists—and even the Oakland police union—blamed for stoking violence by street cops.
In response to emailed questions from the Appeal about the destruction of the Riders files, a representative for the Superior Court in Alameda County wrote that “the files were eligible for destruction” and provided a link to the state government code permitting their disposal.
But the Riders wasn’t the only criminal case file involving Oakland police corruption destroyed by the Alameda County Superior Court. At least two other cases identified by The Appeal—one involving officers Eric Richholt and Mark Neely Jr., the other involving Richard Valerga—have also been destroyed.
On Sept. 26, 2002, narcotics unit officers Richholt and Neely were arrested at a beauty salon after offering $160 to several women in exchange for oral sex. The women turned out to be undercover Alameda County sheriff’s deputies running a sting operation. When police searched Richholt and Neely’s rental car, they found potential evidence of other crimes, including cash, zip-top plastic bags of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, and firearms.
One of the firearms found in the car was a shotgun that Neely and Richholt allegedly seized from an East Oakland man’s house earlier in the day in a warrantless search. Both officers falsely represented themselves as FBI agents during the incident.
In February 2003, Neely and Richholt pleaded guilty to one count of agreeing to engage in prostitution and received one day in jail and three years of probation, a misdemeanor.
In 2015, the Alameda County Superior Court destroyed the case files for Neely and Richholt, erasing the only public record of the incident aside from media reports.
Richholt did not respond to a request for comment. The Appeal was unable to contact Neely.
In the early 2000s, several women accused Oakland patrol officer Richard Valerga of holding them against their will in his squad car while he harassed and molested them. In January 2005, Valerga was charged with two counts of violating the civil rights of his victims, and two counts of false imprisonment. In November 2005, Valerga pleaded guilty to the charges, all misdemeanors. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail and three years of probation. The Alameda County Superior Court destroyed Valerga’s entire case file sometime after his probation ended.
In 2008, Oakland paid $2 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit brought by 16 women—all of whom were Asian American—who said they were victims of Valerga.
The Oakland police fired Valerga after he was criminally charged. However, he was never formally investigated by its internal affairs division, nor did the department track down and interview all of his victims, according to depositions taken during the civil rights suit. As a result, the full extent of Valerga’s conduct remains unknown. The destruction of his court records means that there is no longer any public documentation of the criminal investigation against him, excluding media reports and a brief summary in the court’s online database.
Valerga’s conduct was so egregious that investigators in his own department thought he should be punished to the full extent of the law. Sgt. James Rullamas, who helped investigate Valerga’s sexual misconduct, said in a 2007 court deposition that the former officer received “lenient” treatment from the legal system.
“My opinion was, and still is, is that Valerga should have gone to prison,” Rullamas said during the deposition.
The Appeal was unable to locate Valerga for comment.
Teresa James, assistant division director for the Alameda County Superior Court’s traffic and criminal division, confirmed that the Valerga, Richholt, and Neely files were destroyed in accordance with state law that allows the court to dispose of misdemeanor criminal files after five years.
California law also includes a provision that allowed the Riders case files to be destroyed after just three years.
Kinzinger, the attorney, told The Appeal that because the Riders trials ended with hung juries and the court dismissed the cases after 60 days, the retention requirement for the case files dropped to three years from 50.
“We have concerns that the First Amendment right of access to court records may be violated by a statute providing for so short a period before records are destroyed,” Kinzinger, whose firm serves as general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition, wrote in an email.
And legal experts say that destroying records of police misconduct, even if authorized by state statute, may conflict with the constitutional rights of defendants. Under the Brady rule, prosecutors must disclose material that might help the defense, including information that undermines the credibility of state witnesses. The U.S. Supreme Court has explained that the rule extends to “any favorable evidence known to others acting on the government’s behalf in the case, including the police.”
“This statute is written as a set of instructions and authorizations to a branch of government and doesn’t necessarily take into account the rights of defendants or victims,” Weisberg, the Stanford law professor, told The Appeal.
The sole remaining court record of the Riders case is related to officer Frank Vazquez, known to his fellow officers as “Choker” because he frequently grabbed people by their necks. In 2000, Vazquez fled the country before he was arraigned on 18 felony counts including kidnapping, assault, and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Charges against Vazquez are still active because he is considered a fugitive. However, Vazquez’s case documents were inaccessible to the public until Sept. 27, when the Alameda County clerk uploaded them to its electronic records database in response to questions from The Appeal.
Not all branches of California’s courts are as aggressive as Alameda County in destroying police corruption files. In Los Angeles County, the superior court’s criminal division retained files for several former officers who were charged in the Rampart scandal, where anti-gang officers in a downtown precinct were accused of unprovoked shootings and beatings of suspects, as well as planting evidence and stealing drugs then turning around and selling them on the street.
Former LAPD officer Rafael Perez was convicted in 2000 on state felony charges for stealing eight pounds of cocaine from an evidence locker. As part of his plea deal, Perez turned state’s evidence and accused dozens of other LAPD officers of misconduct. Charges were filed by the Los Angeles District Attorney against Sgt. Edward Ortiz, Officer Paul Harper, Sgt. Michael Buchanan, and Officer Brian Liddy. In 2000, Ortiz, Liddy, and Buchanan were convicted by a Los Angeles County jury of framing gang members and planting evidence. However, on Dec. 22, 2000, Judge Jaqueline Connor overturned the jury verdict. On Nov. 16, 2000, Officer Harper was acquitted of all charges after a month-long trial. His case file remains in the archives of Los Angeles’s court system.