| Monterey County Sheriff’s SWAT vehicle decorated for the holidays
By Royal Calkins
It was supposed to be a routine going-away party for a brother in arms. He was a longtime member of the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department SWAT team, and his teammates wanted to give him a decent sendoff.
So after an abbreviated SWAT practice on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, the SWAT squad adjourned to the Prunedale home of their boss, Cmdr. Mark Caldwell. According to several of his colleagues and one deputy who attended, the commander liked to barbecue and there was something he enjoyed showing off. Moonshine stills are illegal, of course, but Caldwell is a lawman and who’s going to mess with a lawman over a little backyard hooch?
Caldwell denies he had a still but acknowledges that a SWAT team sergeant passed out after drinking too much of something and had to be taken away by ambulance. Contrary to reports from several past and present Sheriff’s Department employees, including a SWAT team member, Caldwell insisted that everyone was off duty and wasn’t being paid to party.
As a precaution, Caldwell had instructed the partygoers not to drive their county vehicles to his house and to leave their guns and badges behind. That could be because he knew that another commander, Matt Luther, was under internal affairs investigation over a gathering of his crew months earlier. Some detectives in Luther’s unit had enjoyed after-work beers at a Salinas pizza parlor. Internal Affairs was looking into whether Luther had properly supervised the deputies as well as a report that he had left the gathering in his county car. Alcohol and the Sheriff’s Department seem to go together like cops and guns, but he apparently violated department policy by using the county vehicle.
Unlike Luther, Caldwell apparently didn’t have to worry much about what might happen to him as a result of his party. Caldwell had supported Sheriff Steve Bernal’s election three years earlier and would remain solidly behind the sheriff in his re-election campaign.
Luther, on the other hand, was an outspoken leader of the Deputy Sheriffs Association, a union of sorts, and was poised to support Bernal’s opponent in the re-election campaign of 2018.
Luther lost his job as a result of what came to be called Pizzagate, though he has appealed and is involved in an arbitration process. Three deputies who were at the pizza parlor that evening were later demoted but details remain under wraps.
Unlike Luther, Caldwell remains on the job at the same rank but with expanded responsibilities — investigations as well as special operations. If he was disciplined in any way, it’s a well kept secret within the department.
In a brief phone interview this week, Caldwell acknowledged that he had needed to call 911 for ambulance service after the sergeant passed out and could not be revived even by colleagues holding him under a stream of cold water in a bathtub.
Beyond that, it was all by the book, the commander said.
“You’re listening to Luther and Mitchell, who holds onto your pocket,” he said without explaining what he meant. Dan Mitchell, like Luther, is a former Deputy Sheriffs Association president. He was demoted and forced into medical retirement after raising questions about deputies being directed to claim overtime for hours spent working as drivers for a private convention organized by Sheriff Bernal last year.
For reasons unknown, Caldwell complained that Voices of Monterey Bay had previously published three articles about the SWAT party without seeking comment from him. This is the first article on the subject. When this reporter suggested he do a Google search for such articles, he replied, “You Google it.”
Caldwell denied that any of the SWAT team members were paid for time they didn’t work on the day of the party.
“If they said they did, they lied on their timecards,” he said. Caldwell said he had not seen their timecards, which would have been signed by those who supervise them on days they aren’t assigned to SWAT duties. When asked for more information, he hung up.
Dramatically different outcomes arising from the two gatherings add to a growing perception that Sheriff Bernal’s administration is as much about politics as it is about law enforcement. The department became bitterly divided along political lines in both of Bernal’s campaigns for sheriff. Numerous deputies, former ranking officers and others say it has become a patronage system as much as a merit system. They say promotions, reassignments and demotions are based on allegiances rather than performance.
Several department employees interviewed for this article said they would be punished if their names were used.
The Pizzagate affair generated media attention earlier after someone leaked details to KSBW-TV and Bernal confirmed on the air that the matter was under investigation. The Monterey County Weekly also published a column on the topic.
But Sheriff’s Department officials won’t comment on the Prunedale party, at least not to Voices, which has published a string of articles questioning how the Bernal administration conducts itself.
In response, the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office has interviewed deputies about work performed for a California State Sheriff’s Association convention on the Peninsula — work paid for from the county budget even though the group is a private entity that apparently did not reimburse the county. The bulk of the work involved using county-owned vans to drive sheriffs and their spouses to various outings.
Separately, the Sheriff’s Department Internal Affairs unit has been investigating the use of a large supply of SWAT ammunition for a rifle and pistol demonstration during the gathering of sheriffs last spring.
Another federal investigative agency is reported to have requested payroll records for deputies who were paid overtime for working at a Bernal campaign fundraiser a week before the convention.
Bernal and the rest of his command staff have declined to discuss any of this with Voices. They also have declined to comment for a Voices report about a troubled young homeless woman being killed by a train last August after a deputy simply let her go rather than taking her to a hospital as instructed by the county jail’s medical staff.
Bernal was a deputy at the bottom of the departmental pecking order without management experience when he became sheriff in 2015 after an upset victory over incumbent Scott Miller. He once put his name in for promotion to detective but was passed over. Even so, his two successful campaigns enjoyed strong support from South County farming and oil interests.
Bernal was given little chance of success in his first election bid but he prevailed with the help of a series of misleading flyers and ads contending that Miller countenanced drug dealing.
Four years later, Bernal beat back a challenge from within after three of his commanders, Caldwell among them, publicly claimed to be carrying out a criminal investigation of his opponent for allegedly embezzling from the Deputy Sheriffs Association. The state Attorney General’s Office found no evidence supporting that claim. His opponent, sheriff’s deputy and Salinas City Council Member Scott Davis, filed a defamation suit against Bernal and others, a suit that sputtered in court but that is in the process of being appealed.
Luther, who supported Davis, filed an official citizen’s complaint against Caldwell over the SWAT party. Luther was in charge of investigations before he was terminated. He said in his complaint that the SWAT members worked four hours before heading to the gathering at Caldwell’s house. One SWAT member and four other Sheriff’s Department employees said the practice lasted anywhere from four to six hours before about 20 men went to Caldwell’s.
Others in the department complained that they were required to fill in for the team members on overtime while the SWAT team trained and partied.
Caldwell’s whiskey, whether homemade or store-bought, proved to be popular with the fellows, too popular for at least one.
“He was getting pretty belligerent, just kind of causing trouble,” said a veteran department employee with firsthand knowledge of the event. “And though Caldwell had told them not to bring their guns, some of the guys noticed he had his gun and that wasn’t a good combination.” What combination? “Whiskey and his weapon.”
Another deputy who was there later told his supervisor, “I thought he was going to die.”
At some point, deputy Matt Costa decided it was time to separate the sergeant and the revolver but he didn’t want to try to wrestle it away. Instead, Costa pretended to admire the sergeant’s new Kydex-brand holster and asked if he could check it out. Behind the sergeant’s back, Costa hid the holstered weapon but after a while the intoxicated sergeant figured it out and demanded that he get it back.
“That’s when he got really belligerent,” said a former department employee who said he had received his information from Caldwell and others who were at the party. “He was throwing stuff and yelling. I think he broke some furniture.”
Eventually, the other SWAT team members were able to get the sergeant under control, to an extent. They half carried him into a bathroom in Caldwell’s house, got him into the tub and doused him with cold water in an effort to sober him up. Instead, he apparently passed out, going in and out of consciousness.
Luther wrote about the incident in a citizen’s complaint form he filed with the Sheriff’s Department while he was on administrative leave before being terminated. Although he wasn’t at Caldwell’s party, he and many others in the department had heard about it.
Luther wrote that when the inebriated sergeant realized his gun had been taken away, he “became enraged.”
“He started challenging people to fight, breaking items around the commander’s garage and drinking more and more alcohol, most of which was alcohol that the commander makes in his own garage … .”
“At some point, (the sergeant) became incredibly incoherent and an ambulance needed to be called to transport him to a local hospital for possible alcohol poisoning … “
One law enforcement source told Voices that Caldwell had previously shown him the still, inside his garage. Mitchell and another former department employee said Caldwell had occasionally given away samples of his product as presents. Mitchell said he described one type as whiskey and another type as rum.
In response to Luther’s citizen’s complaint, Chief Deputy Kevin Oakley wrote to Luther nearly a year later. Oakley indicated that the issues raised in the complaint pertained to timekeeping, county vehicle use, firearms, supervision and general conduct, but he didn’t provide specifics. After that, Oakley became vaguer yet.
“After carefully reviewing the complaint, the report prepared by my staff, and related materials, my findings included Sustained, Unfounded and Not Sustained,” Oakley wrote. He defined each of those terms without saying which applied to which aspect of Luther’s complaint.
Caldwell’s 911 call requesting an ambulance was recorded at the 911 dispatch center. On the recording, he can be heard calmly explaining that it appeared the deputy was suffering from alcohol poisoning and was in and out of consciousness.
Department policy requires deputies to be sent to the scene before an ambulance is sent out on a call involving drunkenness. The ambulance provider, American Medical Response, also requires deputies on scene before the ambulance’s arrival. Possibly because Caldwell identified himself as being with the Sheriff’s Department, an incident report prepared by the 911 dispatch staff indicates that no deputies were sent.
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