Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Indicted Execs Fire Back at Ventura County

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Two executives of a wastewater plant facing criminal charges for a toxic chemical spill sued Ventura County for $27 million, claiming it used SWAT teams to intimidate their families and ransack their homes.

One year ago, Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten filed charges for a Nov. 18, 2014 explosion and chemical spill at Santa Clara Waste Water Company in Santa Paula. The spill allegedly caused serious injuries to employees and first responders.

After a nine-month investigation a grand jury indictment charged nine people, Santa Clara Waste Water Co., and its parent company Green Compass Environmental Solutions with conspiracy to dispose of hazardous waste, failure to warn of a serious concealed danger, handling a hazardous waste with a reckless disregard for human life, withholding information regarding a substantial danger to public safety, filing a false or forged instrument, and dissuading a witness.

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, Green Compass vice president Dean Poe and transportation manager David Wirsing say that county prosecutors retaliated against them for comments that Wirsing made about first responders shortly after the incident.

Wirsing says he told District Attorney Investigator Jeff Barry that firefighters were injured when they walked into the chemical spill because they failed to take precautions.

"Incensed by Wirsing's candor, defendants have maliciously retaliated through a full-scale, oppressive campaign of intimidation, including illegal searches and seizures of plaintiffs' homes and illegal strip searches of plaintiffs' persons," according to the 58-page complaint.

The District Attorney's Office deployed a SWAT team of 23 officers to raid Wirsing's home at 6 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2014 with officers wearing tactical gear and brandishing guns and riot shields, Wirsing says.

Wirsing's wife and 6-year-old daughter were the only people home, and officers made them stand outside in the cold for five hours in their pajamas while the SWAT ransacked the home, the lawsuit states.

A SWAT team also raided Poe's home and forced him, his wife and their children out of their home in their underwear, Poe says. His wife was recovering from cancer at the time.

When Poe and Wirsing voluntarily surrendered to authorities in August 2015 ,officers violated their constitutional rights by strip-searching them in a communal area, they say in the complaint.

Ventura County Fire Protection District is holding the two men personally liable for more than $1.9 million for emergency response costs, the lawsuit states.

Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson said she found the allegations troubling.

"You wonder why the law enforcement thought they needed to use SWAT teams to do a search of this nature," Levenson said. "The big question here is why did they fear there was such a danger and needed to use such a showing of force."

Levenson cited other cases in which juries found similar tactics unreasonable, and noted that the LAPD has scaled back controversial operations that use battering rams and flash explosives.

"We certainly want the police to be protected, but before you come in with this overpowering show of force there usually has to be a reason. The Constitution requires that it be reasonable," Levenson said.

Attorney General Kamala Harris announced last year that her office was joining Totten in prosecuting the case.

"The reckless handling of hazardous waste is a danger to public health and safety, and will not be tolerated in California," Harris said at the time. "My office will continue to prosecute serious environmental and health violations and will work closely with the Ventura County District Attorney's Office to hold all perpetrators accountable."

Poe, Wirsing and their family seek $9 million in compensatory damages and $18 million in punitive damages for assault, unreasonable search, excessive force, retaliation, political discrimination, false imprisonment and other counts.

Named as defendants are Ventura County, Totten, Barry, Sheriff Geoff Dean, Deputy District Attorneys Chris Harman and Karen Wold, and DA investigators Paul Krueger, Ryan Hamlin, Joey De Los Reyes, Robert Macinnes and Chris Borkovec.

The plaintiffs are represented by Stephen Larson with Larson O'Brien, who did not immediately respond to requests for an interview.

The District Attorney's Office referred Courthouse News to county counsel, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Ventura County Sheriff's Office Capt. Garo Kuredjian said he had not received a copy of the complaint and declined comment.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.