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Bizarre Alligator Incident Lands in Fed Court

McALLEN, Texas (CN) - The beheading of a dead alligator, combined with alleged fear of animal rights groups, turned into a nightmare for an animal control officer, who claims his boss reported him for animal cruelty, and police arrested him for videotaping the incident, as he was trained to do.

Daniel Lerma sued the City of Brownsville, its City Manager Charlie Cabler, the Brownsville Police Department and its Interim Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez, and Brownsville police Officers Alex Garcia and Adrian Moscorro, in Federal Court.

Brownsville, on the Mexican border, is the last sizable U.S. city on the Rio Grande before the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. There is an alligator sanctuary about 30 miles to the north.

The complaint states: "This matter began in the morning hours of April 20, 2011, when plaintiff, an animal control officer and an employee of defendant was called to investigate a dead alligator that had been reportedly found by a resaca within the city limits of Brownsville."

Resacas are horseshoe-shaped lakes, formed by ancient beds of the Rio Grande before it cut itself a new channel. They dot Brownsville.

The complaint continues: "Plaintiff was trained to document with video incidents of finding a dead animal such as an alligator with an arrowhead protruding from its neck. Plaintiff at all times followed the training and instructions provided by defendant and contacted a representative of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Game Warden David Lewis.

"Warden Lewis appeared at the scene and advised that the alligator's head should be removed for educational purposes and agreed to issue a permit number 1100855 for the removal of the head of the alligator.

"In the criminal investigation conducted by defendant, Game Warden Lewis stated that plaintiff had done 'everything right.'

"Plaintiff's supervisor Robert Dippong was informed by plaintiff of the deceased alligator and gave approval for removal of its head. Defendants' public works department was dispatched to the scene to assist in the detachment of the head and skull of the alligator that had died approximately 4 days before.

"Plaintiff videotaped the removal of the head of the deceased alligator and proceeded to return to defendant's animal shelter's headquarters."

Lerma says things got weird when Dippong found that he had videotaped the decapitation.

"Supervisor Dippong stated to plaintiff and plaintiff's co-worker Robert Vasquez, 'The video needed to be erased to prevent animal rights groups from gaining possession of it,'" according to the complaint. "Subsequently, Department Director Arturo Rodriguez and Executive Supervisor Chris Haggstrom learned that a video had been taken showing the removal of the alligator's head.

"In the late afternoon on April 20, 2011, Haggstrom searched the city vehicle assigned to plaintiff to locate the 'video.' Department director Rodriguez ordered Haggstrom to contact the Brownsville Police Department to have plaintiff detained after plaintiff was followed by defendant's administration into the men's room where plaintiff was urinating and decided to leave the restroom.

"Plaintiff drove to a local Stripes convenience store and relieved himself. Upon exiting the men's facilities at Stripes he was detained by Defendant Moscorro. In fact, plaintiff was met by four police units surrounding his vehicle. Defendant Adrian Moscorro instructed plaintiff that he was to return to the Animal Control shelter and was to be escorted to said location by defendant's police force.

"For approximately two hours plaintiff was in the custody of the Brownsville Police Department under guard by one of its officers at plaintiff's place of employment. At all times, plaintiff reasonably believed that he was detained and illegally seized by Defendant's police force. Plaintiff was under arrest and his freedom of movement had ceased by the actions of defendant's police department."

Lerma claims he was arrested because Haggstrom, "under instruction from Arturo Rodriguez," reported to the police that he had violated a city law "relating to humane treatment and mutilation of animals."

Lerma claims Brownsville police seized him without probable cause and detained him illegally at his workplace for 2 hours.

"On April 25, 2011, plaintiff filed a complaint with defendant's police department. No response, in written or oral form, has ever been prepared by defendant's police department at the time of filing this suit," the complaint states.

"Defendant's assistant city manager, Jeff Johnston, was quoted in 'The Brownsville Herald' as the person conducting an internal investigation. Mr. Johnston has not, at the date of filing this lawsuit, provided his written findings of the internal investigation conducted by him."

Lerma claims the Brownsville Police Department did not properly train its officers, defendants Moscorro and Garcia, and they violated his rights by detaining him.

He seeks punitive damages for violations of his civil rights and due process.

He is represented by John "Roca" Shergold, with Hodge & Shergold.

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