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‘Locked up for a long time’: Here’s what legal experts say about criminal case against Antioch police

‘Locked up for a long time’: Here’s what legal experts say about criminal case against Antioch police

The allegations of brutality and bravado among Antioch police officers who shared “gory pics” and vowed “blood for blood” are spelled out over 29 pages in one of four federal indictments returned this past week, adding even more outrage to a growing police scandal that has rocked two east Contra Costa County communities for months.

But how would the evidence hold up in a criminal court?

The Bay Area News Group shared copies of the federal indictments — stuffed with allegations of criminal activity ranging from wire fraud to conspiracy to distribute steroids to barbaric civil rights violations — with three local legal experts to see what they think.

Their unanimous opinion: Compelling evidence of horrific crimes and betrayals of public trust suggests several Antioch police officers are headed for prison.

“The indictments are very well detailed. They’re thorough and show a very meticulous investigation,” said criminal defense attorney and former Santa Clara County prosecutor Steven Clark. “It appears to be a very strong case.”

The most serious charges focus on Antioch officers Morteza Amiri, Devon Wenger and Eric Rombough. The three are accused of plotting and carrying out acts of extreme violence against citizens, and bragging about their behavior in text messages — featuring graphic photos, racial slurs and emojis — now in the hands of prosecutors and revealed in federal indictments. If convicted, the three could face life in prison.

Some of the most disturbing claims accuse the officers of siccing Amiri’s K-9 dog on more than two dozen people — most of them Black — between March 2019 and November 2021. Rombough shot a “less lethal” projectile weapon at 11 people from November 2020 to August 2021. The indictment against the three men includes text messages they exchanged, sharing photos of victims’ wounds and laughing about them. Wenger is accused of shooting a car-theft suspect, who had his hands up, with the projectile gun, after saying, “I want to plug him.”

“These guys are going to do hard time if this turns out to be true,” said Michael Cardoza, a Walnut Creek criminal defense lawyer and former Alameda County prosecutor.

A separate, related indictment that resulted from an 18-month FBI probe into alleged police crimes in Antioch and Pittsburg accused Timothy Manly Williams, a former cop in both cities, of obstructing or interfering with an FBI and Antioch Police wiretap investigation of gang members suspected of murder. While working in the wiretap room and monitoring calls, authorities allege, Williams used his personal cell phone to call a target of the case.

If that claim is true, Williams would have betrayed his colleagues and may well end up behind bars, Clark said. “You endanger other officers by tipping people off,” Clark said.

Williams is also charged with taking and destroying a cell phone from a citizen trying to video the aftermath of an Antioch police officer deploying a dog during a 2021 arrest, according to the indictment.

Dozens of criminal cases, including several serious felony cases, have been dismissed over the alleged behavior of Antioch and Pittsburg police, including Amiri and Rombough.

The written messages among those two officers and Wenger will be difficult for a jury to ignore and provide huge leverage for prosecutors in expected negotiations over possible plea deals, legal experts said.

“I don’t know how you explain it away if you’re their lawyer,” Clark said. “The defense will say this was just guys who were bragging. It’s going to be a tough sell. They put it in writing.”

Whether the case against the three officers will go before a jury is unclear, but former Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell believes the men will seek a plea deal.

“If I were these guys I would not want to go to trial because it appears to be such a strong case out of their own mouths and out of their own phones,” Cordell said. “It seems like these three have come together and decided to be a gang, a gang of thugs, with badges and guns and launchers and a dog, and they just decided to use all these things to have fun by terrorizing people and hurting people.

“They’re going to be clamoring to do a plea deal. If they do a plea deal, it’s going to be for a long time (in prison).”

While the prosecution’s case is powerful, some witnesses against the officers — alleged criminals targeted by police — may present credibility issues, Clark said. Defense lawyers often argue that witnesses allegedly involved in crimes cannot be believed and have axes to grind against police, Clark said. The men’s lawyers will probably also argue that their clients were justified in using force, even if they acted improperly in communicating their actions, Clark said. If the case goes to trial, Clark said, “They will get an expert to say, ‘This is why they deployed the dog.’”

Cardoza believes one or more of the accused will seek to sweeten a plea deal by offering to testify against the others, deciding, “I could get 20 years? Oh, no! You’ll give me five if I snitch them out? Deal.”

Prosecutors also will likely uncover more evidence, including witness statements and possibly additional written, photographic and video materials, as they continue following leads, Cardoza said. Other officers, including those at the scenes of key incidents, could provide information helpful to either side and could be compelled to testify if the cases get to court, Cardoza said.

The indictments grew out of an investigation that started in early 2022 when a tipster informed the FBI and Contra Costa District Attorney that a group of East Contra Costa County cops were cheating on college tests to get education-incentive pay increases. The scope of the investigation later widened to include alleged violent crimes and drug trafficking.

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After seizing several officers’ cell phones, investigators found thousands of racist and homophobic text messages involving dozens of Antioch cops, shining a spotlight on racism within the department that many residents had been attempting to raise alarm bells over for years.

A related indictment to those against Amiri, Rombough, Wenger and Williams claims Wenger and Antioch officer Daniel James Harris sought to sell steroids, and another indictment accuses Amiri and six other officers from the Antioch and Pittsburg departments of cheating on the college tests. Legal experts believe those cases would probably not result in prison sentences, but likely would bring dismissal or discipline.

The alleged brutal civil-rights violations by Amiri, Rombough and Wenger, however, drew incredulous outrage from all three legal experts, despite their lengthy experience with cases involving egregious allegations.

“It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words,” Cordell said, right after reading the indictment. “If they are convicted, absolutely they need to be taken off the streets and locked up for a long time.”