Ex-Atwater police officer sentenced to jail after assaulting best friend, girlfriend

A former Atwater police officer charged with assault and domestic violence after punching his a friend and pushing his girlfriend in an off-duty incident was sentenced Thursday to serve 30 days in jail.

Dennis James Frank Jr., 44, was sentenced Thursday after he conditionally pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery in connection with the assault on his former friend, and after a jury on Sept. 19 found him guilty of misdemeanor domestic violence assault.

The post-trial plea on the battery charge came after conflicting evidence on the victim’s injuries was presented and a jury was deadlocked on a felony battery charge, said Katie Gates, the Merced County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case.

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Former Atwater police officer Dennis Frank, 44, looks at Merced County Deputy District Attorney Katie Gates as she talks about his domestic violence battery charge during his sentencing hearing Thursday, June 20, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. Vikaas Shanker

Prosecutors said the misdemeanor battery charge would be dismissed in a year if Frank follows informal probation, abstains from excessive alcohol use and stays away from the victim.

Frank was sentenced to a month in jail on the domestic violence charge. But Frank continued to fight the allegations in court.

“I feel that this system has been flawed, and it’s a shame,” Frank said at the hearing, claiming the only reason prosecutors pursued the domestic violence charge was because he was a police officer. “I lost a friend over it, I lost a career over it.”

Frank’s last day with the Atwater Police Department was Nov. 18, 2016, after more than 17 years of service, according to the Atwater Human Resources Department.

“Mr. Frank’s status as an officer was not considered,” Gates states in an email. “We did evaluate and discuss with the victim the strength of the evidence and the jury’s inability to reach a verdict.”

Atwater Police Chief Michael Salvador declined to comment on Frank, saying it would be inappropriate to comment on the incident that happened two years before he was hired.

Frank and his attorney also declined to comment.

Frank was off duty on July 24, 2016, when he burst into his friend’s backyard in the 900 block of Antler Court and found the victim and Frank’s girlfriend seated at a table in the backyard, according to police reports.

Frank told investigators he believed his girlfriend was trying to get back at him because she had discovered he was sleeping with another woman, police reports say. And, his friend would have reason to be involved because Frank himself had slept with the man’s ex-girlfriend during a trip they took together, reports say.

Investigators believed Frank gave police two different versions of the events in separate interviews. Shortly after the fight, he told police he struck the victim 14 to 15 times, reports show. In a follow-up interview, he said he threw no more than three punches out of fear.

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Former Atwater police officer Dennis Frank, 44, speaks to Merced County Judge Carol Ash during his sentencing hearing on assault and battery chargesThursday, June 20, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. Vikaas Shanker

Frank said it was the victim who first lunged at him, and that the punches were in self-defense. But the victim claimed he was sitting in a chair the whole time and extended his arm for a handshake just before Frank started “a barrage of punches,” estimating Frank struck him 40 to 50 times.

Police noted a large gash above his left eye and multiple other injuries on his face. His medical records from the night show he suffered a concussion, police reports show, and the man said he couldn’t work for several days following the beating.

The victim, who initially told police he didn’t want any charges for Frank, later sought felony charges, according to reports.

After the fight, surveillance footage shows the victim stumbling to a neighbor’s yard, according to the reports. Frank and his girlfriend can be seen following, reportedly looking for him. The footage shows, as they were walking, Frank and his girlfriend got into some kind of argument and he pushes her to the ground, according to the reports.

However, Frank’s girlfriend in court Thursday supported Frank’s claim he was innocent of hurting her.

She called the video evidence “grainy” and that she tried to push him away and fell to the ground.

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The girlfriend of former Atwater police officer Dennis Frank, 44, defends Frank to Merced County Judge Carol Ash after he was convicted of domestic violence battery against her during his sentencing hearing Thursday, June 20, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. Vikaas Shanker

But prosecutors said there was a violent history between the two, noting both were involved in a domestic violence incident in Mariposa County last year.

Frank was arrested by deputies on Nov. 27, 2018, for battery upon a spouse, according to Mariposa County jail records. But he was never charged with the crime.

“I can’t speak for the Mariposa County District Attorney’s Office, but there appeared to be some kind of mutual combat,” Gates said. “I do think that is a factor that the court should consider that there is somewhat of a pattern of violence, that it’s not a peaceful relationship.”

Frank said it wasn’t the prosecutor’s place to bring up an incident from another county.

But Merced County Judge Carol Ash disagreed with Frank.

“My interpretation of the video was that (your girlfriend) did approach you but then you kind of violently pushed her down the sidewalk,” Ash said, adding she felt a 30-day jail sentence and three years of probation was appropriate for the two misdemeanor convictions.

As a part of the sentence, Frank was prohibited from owning firearms for 10 years, he must enter a batterers treatment program and he was ordered to pay $820 in fines and fees.

Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.