Sheriff’s Department probes backgrounds of citizens who spoke at Merced County board meetings

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 16, 2014 

The backgrounds of three private citizens were examined by the Sheriff’s Department after they spoke in a public forum at several Board of Supervisors meetings.

In a memo obtained by the Merced Sun-Star, Sheriff Tom Cavallero detailed information about the three individuals to county supervisors, County Executive Officer Jim Brown and County Counsel James Fincher.

Allan Spencer, Victoria Castillo and Karen Ann were the subjects of the probe, which was intended to “provide context for their comments,” according to the memo. All three citizens spoke up during at least three board meetings criticizing the county supervisors and the Sheriff’s Department.

Cavallero said neither the Board of Supervisors, Fincher nor Brown requested the information, but he prepared the memo to provide “perspective and context” about the three individuals. He rejected the characterization of it as an investigation, referring to it as a “briefing.”

“In writing this, this was my way of telling them what we know about these people,” Cavallero said, adding it was his first time writing a letter of this nature. “This was information we had based on our interactions with these folks for the board to have some context beyond the five minutes they are allowed to speak.”

Castillo first appeared before the Board of Supervisors in January to advocate for her incarcerated husband, Richard Castillo. She claimed her husband had a .45-caliber bullet lodged in his leg but was denied medical treatment in jail. Castillo spoke during at least three board meetings since March.

According to the memo, Richard Castillo has been noncompliant with medical staff and a recent X-ray showed no bullet. The sheriff concluded that the injury to his leg was likely obtained when Richard Castillo tried to evade police.

Ann publicly denounced county officials at multiple meetings, particularly Capt. B.J. Jones of the Sheriff’s Department. The memo claims the Sheriff’s Department has a file on Karen Ann “nearly three inches thick” and includes her essays, complaints and restraining orders from other counties.

“These writings are always rambling, usually describe persecution and/or victimization of some variety and have underpinning of paranoia,” Cavallero writes in the March 24 memo. “It is my opinion that no law enforcement agency will be able to provide the type of assistance needed by Karen Ann. ... I suspect she will continue to be far more fascinated by her plight than will be those whom she is addressing.”

Spencer, a music teacher at Merced College, first appeared at the Jan. 28 board meeting. He raised concerns about two Sheriff’s Department vehicles that parked in “no parking” zones.

“As you can imagine this is infuriating to see cars that are representing the office of the law breaking what appears to be the law,” Spencer said during the meeting. He appeared before the board four more times, asking for a resolution to the problem.

In the memo written by Cavallero, Spencer’s YouTube account was scrutinized and links of his personal videos were provided to county administrators. Many of those videos feature Spencer in “confrontational” situations with law enforcement officials, according to the memo.

“What is remarkable about Mr. Spencer is the level of interest he takes in himself and his misguided notion that the rest of society shares that interest,” Cavallero writes. “It appears that he finds amusement in wasting the people’s time through frivolous interaction with government officials.”

In an interview with the Sun-Star, Spencer said he is “furious” to hear that his background was researched by county officials, calling it an attempt to control and intimidate the public.

“I think it’s government intrusion without a doubt,” Spencer said. “It’s very peculiar that people in the county are checking up on me because I had the audacity to go to a public meeting and speak up about laws that were being broken.”

Spencer said he doesn’t have a criminal history and has never threatened county administrators or law enforcement officials. Cavallero confirmed that none of the three individuals were subjects of criminal investigations at his agency.

“I hold a black belt in karate, and I’ve never even pushed someone in my whole life,” Spencer said. “When you’re talking about violence, you’re looking at the wrong person. They spent two hours looking up a person that never did anything except show up and talk at a meeting.”

Merced County Counsel James Fincher said the investigation into the three individuals was warranted because they have each filed claims against the county or the Sheriff’s Department. He stressed the memo was intended to be a private communication with county supervisors.

“He (Cavallero) felt that his department was being assailed repeatedly and he had no chance to respond. He wanted to communicate with the board privately about these three people,” Fincher said. “The memo addressed their credibility and the context of their comments. If you were to view his (Spencer’s) YouTube, it gives a context to his understanding of the Constitution.”

“Do you think the board should be ignorant of someone who is blasting them?” Fincher added, when asked what warranted the probe.

Brown said the memo also addressed safety concerns about the individuals, though he acknowledged never receiving threats from any of the three people named in the memo.

“Half of it was a chance to respond and the other half was the sheriff becoming concerned from a safety standpoint,” Brown said. “The sheriff is going to look into past practices of the individuals from a safety standpoint. The sheriff needs to understand who they are dealing with.”

Brown said he doesn’t believe the memo will discourage the public from speaking up at future board meetings. “I think the public would understand the sheriff looking into these individuals if they understood the continued and repeated accusations that they have been making,” he said.

Cavallero said he’s urged county administrators to increase security inside the county administration building, including having a uniformed presence at board meetings.

“They just need to put some thought into the safety and security of the building,” he said. “I take it seriously because I think someone could get hurt.”

District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh recalls asking the sheriff for background information about the citizens’ complaints, but not details about their personal lives.

“I was mostly just wondering about the issues,” Walsh said. “I think the memo helped give me some clarity about what the issues were.”

District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said it’s helpful to have background information about some members of the public, but she’s never seen a memo like this before. Kelsey said she’s never had a “briefing” about people that she didn’t request.

“We do often have people that have needs that come in to see us and sometimes they have background issues that we’re not aware of,” Kelsey said. “But I don’t think the information should have been presented to me in that way, because it increases the paranoia of those that are already paranoid – and that’s not fair. We’re not there to increase their anxiety.”

District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo, District 3 Supervisor Linn Davis and District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion did not return calls for comment.

A political science expert said the move to “look into” the citizens’ background can be alienating for the public.

“It makes the situation worse and it’s polarizing,” said April Hejka-Ekins, professor emeritus in the political science and public administration department of California State University, Stanislaus. “If you want to help put the fire out, then the way to do it is there needs to be some conflict resolution by having a third party as a facilitator.”

As for Spencer, he said that hearing his background was scrutinized lights a fire under him and he plans to address the issue at Tuesday’s board meeting. “It’s going to be a very long time before I go away,” he said. “I’m going to be a nagging cavity in the back of their molar for the rest of their careers.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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