Merced County’s DA declares a conflict in sheriff’s brawl investigation. Here’s why

Councilmember Kevin Blake, a Merced County Sheriff’s sergeant, looks at the election results one a big screen TV in Merced on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. He’s running for District 4.
Councilmember Kevin Blake, a Merced County Sheriff’s sergeant, looks at the election results one a big screen TV in Merced on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. He’s running for District 4.

Citing an unusual set of circumstances from Merced Councilmember Kevin Blake’s 2013 run for office, Merced County District Attorney Kimberly Lewis said Friday she had to declare a conflict of interest, in terms of her handling of a recent brawl that may have involved sheriff’s deputies.

As a result, Lewis’ office sent the case to the Mariposa County District Attorney’s Office for review.

The fight happened outside Cue Spot Billiards in downtown Merced on Dec. 15. Blake, who is a sergeant, may have been involved in the incident.

Two deputies have been on paid administrative leave since the night of the fight, Sheriff Vern Warnke confirmed on Friday.

An attorney for one of the parties involved only recently made the Merced County District Attorney’s Office aware of a potential conflict of interest, stemming from 2013, Lewis said.

“I have to declare a conflict. That’s what’s slowing everything down,” she said. “If the conflict had been brought to my attention at the beginning, I would have immediately conveyed it to Mariposa.”

Lewis said she woke up in a home owned by her now-husband, Tom Lewis, in 2013 to find 15 to 20 of Blake’s campaign signs in the yard. She posted a photo of it on Facebook on Oct. 20, 2013, her social media timeline shows, saying she believed it to be a prank by teenagers.

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A screengrab from Facebook of the Oct. 20, 2013, incident that led to Merced County District Attorney Kimberly Lewis declaring a conflict in a case that includes Merced City Councilmember and Merced County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Blake. The photo depicts several of Blake’s campaign signs in a yard. Screengrab from Facebook

The photo made its way to Blake’s campaign team, and law enforcement conducted an investigation into Lewis’ husband, she said. Lewis noted it is a misdemeanor to take a campaign sign, adding they never determined who took the signs.

She denies her husband was involved, and no charges were filed against him.

“It was expressed to me that they thought I had bias in reviewing the charges because of that experience,” she said. “So I declared a conflict and removed myself.”

The fight in downtown Merced happened about 11:45 p.m. Dec. 15, during an incident police have called a “peace disturbance.” The pool hall turned over surveillance footage to police, but the footage is from inside while the incident was outside. So it didn’t provide much information, investigators have said.

Mariposa County District Attorney Walter Wall said he’s received the case and assigned it to Deputy District Attorney Jane Mackie. “Charges will be filed,” he said. “I don’t know at this time what her decision is with respect to who will be charged with what.”

Wall said he expects charges to be filed in Merced County Superior Court next week. If the case were to go to trial, it would be heard in Merced County court.

Blake’s defense attorney Chris Loethen said he applauded the decision of the Merced County District Attorney’s Office. “I believe the Merced County District Attorney made the correct ethical decision to recuse itself,” he said.

Loethen said he reached a tentative deal Friday with Mariposa prosecutors. “Kevin looks forward to finalizing it next week and putting an end to this,” he said.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office completed an independent administrative review of the incident at the request of the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, but Warnke said he has yet to receive it. The longer the investigation continues, the longer the deputies remain on leave.

“Right now I got two deputies being paid to not be on the street. That’s not how we like to do business,” he said.

Blake has been on the City Council for five years and in November won a second term. He’s been with the sheriff’s office for about 17 years.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.