Residents speak out against Merced Sheriff’s Dept. probe of private citizens

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 20, 2014 

A handful of Merced County residents voiced outrage Tuesday over a decision by Sheriff Tom Cavallero to examine the backgrounds of three private citizens after they spoke out repeatedly at recent Board of Supervisors meetings.

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

Two of the three people at the center of the background checks addressed the Board of Supervisors at its regular meeting Tuesday. The supervisors listened to public statements about the situation for about 30 minutes. They took no action and typically don’t respond to statements made during the public comment period. Cavallero didn’t attend the meeting.

“I do not appreciate my public servants inappropriately sniffing their nose around my personal life at the public cost,” said Allan Spencer, a music teacher at Merced College. “I am here to say that the quality of leadership in this county and all branches of government is pathetic.”

Spencer first appeared at the Jan. 28 board meeting to raise concerns about Sheriff’s Department vehicles that parked in “no parking” zones. In the memo written by Cavallero, Spencer’s YouTube account was scrutinized and links to his personal videos were provided to county administrators.

Cavallero said the videos featured Spencer in “confrontational” situations with law enforcement officials. In a previous interview with the Sun-Star, Cavallero rejected the characterization of the memo as an investigation, referring to it as a “briefing.”

Spencer and several others called for the resignation of Cavallero for what they referred to as a breach of their First Amendment rights.

“My personal life has absolutely nothing to do with the issues raised in this county,” Spencer said, “and a sheriff who legitimately feels that way certainly does not possess the professional and reasonable maturity to continue on in that position.”

Victoria Castillo, who was also scrutinized in the March 24 memo, said it was not easy for her to speak in front of the Board of Supervisors, but she appeared before the board at least three times to advocate for her incarcerated husband. She claimed her husband was denied medical care in jail.

“It was hard enough coming up here to address you, and then to be put out there in this manner – I did not appreciate it. I feel violated,” Castillo said Tuesday. “I’m not sure what the basis was for this investigation, but no one should feel intimidation because they speak about an issue.”

Jesse Ornelas, the minister of defense for the Merced chapter of the National Brown Berets, said Castillo was scared to speak in front of the board, but he encouraged her to exercise her rights. “And in doing so, she was targeted,” Ornelas said. “For her to be targeted like this is horrible.”

Karen Ann, the third individual named in the memo, was not present Tuesday.

Several other residents blasted county supervisors for allowing the sheriff to research residents’ backgrounds. A woman who said she worked at UC Merced declined to give her name because of feared “retribution” from county officials.

“I’m here to express my outrage over what I read in the Merced Sun-Star this weekend,” she said. “What is infuriating to me is that taxpayer dollars were used by Sheriff Cavallero to do his investigation. ... I have yet to understand how the backgrounds of these people or their political views have any bearing on the concerns they brought to this arena.”

The woman said she viewed Spencer’s YouTube videos after reading the story in the newspaper.

“None are violent and none are confrontational,” she said. “I’m very sad to call myself a Merced resident because it’s a joke to be in this town now. I urge him (Cavallero) to step down, and I want him to know that his actions have made a fool out of this entire city.”

Christina Arechiga, a member of the national Campaign to End Police Terror, said she drove from Sacramento to address the issue.

“I’m here to tell the board members that condone this behavior and the sheriff that I will be conducting background checks on all of you,” she said. “The fact that he (Cavallero) is not here is just disrespectful in and of itself. He should be here to answer to what he did.”

Cavallero could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

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

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