SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – After an argument with his wife ended nonviolently, Joseph Ledesma hopped into his truck to try and clear his mind. But before he could make it out of his driveway, a Vallejo Police officer appeared and started thumping on the truck window with a flashlight.
What started as a typical domestic violence call – the marital dispute ended quietly before officers even arrived – escalated into a police beating that left the 5-foot-5-inch, middle-aged husband with broken arms and without a job on Christmas.
While both responding officers had lapel cameras, they weren’t recording as officer Robert DeMarco shot the couple’s dog with a stun gun and beat Ledesma over and over until his baton stopped working.
“The officer broke his baton on Mr. Ledesma’s bones. I’ve never seen that before,” said the Ledesmas’ attorney Melissa Nold.
Officers arrested Ledesma in the aftermath of the December 2015 incident that left the carpenter permanently disabled and with a heap of medical bills. He later pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace by unlawfully fighting in public, but the original count of resisting arrest was dismissed.
The two officers and the city of Vallejo are now fighting Ledesma and his wife in court, with a federal judge in Sacramento on Tuesday denying the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. U.S. District Judge Morrison England says he can’t tell whether the level of force was warranted considering the wildly different versions of the beating given by the Ledesmas and officers.
Judge England and potentially a jury will have their hands full because of the “factual discrepancies” and lack of video footage.
What’s clear is that the incident was sparked when DeMarco hit the Ledesmas’ pit bull Bella with stun gun when it ran through an open gate. DeMarco claims he felt the dog was about to attack and that Ledesma got out of the truck and walked across the front yard and assumed a “fighting stance” after Bella was hit. Both DeMarco and fellow officer Amanda Blain say Ledesma resisted and fought back as he was being pummeled on the ground.
The Ledesmas testified Bella was wagging her tail as she approached the truck and that the husband only left the truck to care for his dog. Ledesma denies fighting back and estimates that he was hit 20-30 times by DeMarco before curling up in a fetal position.
In a phone interview, the plaintiffs’ attorney said it’s hard to believe DeMarco since his initial police report and case deposition don’t match up.
“The details from a couple years ago may be slightly different, but at least you would think DeMarco would review the police report. He went in there and told a story that had no basis to what was in the report,” said Nold, who works for John Burris’ prominent civil rights firm.
Judge England also found the officers’ accounts regarding what prompted the use of force were different.
“The court recognized that the officers present a starkly different account of what happened. Even they, however, do not agree on what precipitated the use of force,” the 14-page order states.
City attorneys argued the excessive force claims should be precluded by Ledesma’s plea, and that the officers are protected under immunity laws.
But England said it’s not clear that Ledesma’s no contest plea was specifically related to the officers as it could have been for the initial domestic spat. He found the benefit of the doubt goes to the plaintiffs at this stage in the case, setting up a potential trial.
The Vallejo City Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to an email or phone call Thursday regarding the case.
As for a potential settlement, Nold says the city seems to have “no interest” in mediation. She believes the facts show that Ledesma, who is now almost 60, wasn’t the instigator.
“He’s a small guy, he wasn’t trying to brawl with police,” Nold said. “He was at his own home in his front yard. It’s pretty disturbing.”