News - January 26, 2011

Investigator clears Atherton police

by Renee Batti

The internal affairs investigation of the alteration of the police report detailing the 2008 arrest of Atherton resident Jon Buckheit during a domestic violence incident at his home has exonerated the police officer or officers involved, according to a letter sent to Mr. Buckheit by Atherton Police Chief Mike Guerra.

The investigation's conclusion is unlikely to put the tempestuous issue to rest: Mr. Buckheit is continuing to push for a neutral, third-party investigation of the incident, and has asked for a meeting with Chief Guerra to address a number of questions, including why the investigator didn't interview Mr. Buckheit before wrapping up the case.

The letter from Chief Guerra, dated Jan. 14, stated that the "acts (that) provided the basis for the complaint or allegation occurred; however, the investigation revealed that they were justified, lawful and proper."

Mr. Buckheit's complaint stated that Officer Dean DeVlugt changed the police report hours after Officer Tony Dennis submitted it — a change that falsely stated that a young boy who was present during the domestic dispute had been physically assaulted by Mr. Buckheit.

The investigation, conducted by a former police chief of a small California town, Pete Peterson, also looked at whether an officer or officers violated the law prohibiting officers from falsifying "any report, official record or official communication (oral, written, electronic)." Mr. Peterson, who was chosen by Chief Guerra to conduct the investigation over the protests of Mr. Buckheit and other Atherton residents, concluded that "the investigation conclusively proved that the act or acts complained of did not occur," according to the letter.

Chief Guerra did not return phone calls from The Almanac seeking clarification about the seeming contradiction between the two conclusions and other information for this story.

Interim City Manager John Danielson did not return The Almanac's phone calls seeking information for this story, including how much the investigation cost the town, and whether the complete report would be made available to the public. The Almanac's request for a copy of the report was not responded to as of late in the day Jan. 21.

Mr. Buckheit said that he was upset but not surprised by the investigator's conclusions. "I didn't think it would be this blatant," he said

Referring to the conclusions cited in the one-page, sparsely detailed letter from Chief Guerra, Mr. Buckheit said, "If I could resurrect Plato or Aristotle, even they could not explain this."

Although it is unclear whether Mr. Peterson's complete report will be made available to the public, Mr. Buckheit has reviewed a copy of it. He said that Mr. Peterson blamed limitations of the computer system used for filing police reports for the addition of false information in the report on Mr. Buckheit's arrest.

Mr. Buckheit said the Peterson report also stated that the San Mateo County Superior Court judge who granted Mr. Buckheit a declaration of factual innocence in the case last year "is unfamiliar with how the county's domestic violence protocol works."

The arrest and legal fallout

The domestic violence incident occurred on the night of Oct. 19, 2008. Mr. Buckheit called the police for help, reporting that he had been assaulted by his then-girlfriend, who lived at the residence.

Although Mr. Buckheit was the person with visible injuries, he was arrested.

The District Attorney's Office soon after decided not to file charges after reviewing the case.

Months later, when Mr. Buckheit obtained a copy of the police report after suing the town to get it, he was shocked to see that, in addition to the claim that he had assaulted his girlfriend, the report included a charge of assault against her son.

In January 2010, Mr. Buckheit was granted a declaration of factual innocence in San Mateo County Superior Court. Atherton Police Officer Tony Dennis testified during the factual-innocence court proceedings that, although the police report bore his signature, the section recommending criminal charges for assaulting the child was not written by him.

During the trial, Judge Mark Forcum stated that "there's absolutely no basis to believe that Mr. Buckheit ever laid a finger on the child," according to the court transcript.

Chief Guerra announced in early December that the internal affairs investigation would take place after receiving a formal complaint and request for an investigation from Mr. Buckheit, dated Dec. 1. Although Mr. Guerra announced his intent to hire Mr. Peterson, Mr. Buckheit and other residents urged the town to ask a judge or a retired judge to appoint a neutral investigator. "In this way, the results of the investigation will be immunized from being challenged as unfair in any way," he wrote in a Dec. 5 letter to the police chief.

Mr. Buckheit told The Almanac at the time that if a judge-appointed investigator determined that the police report-alteration was a mistake rather than an intentional criminal act, he would be willing to live with the determination.

Mr. Buckheit on Jan. 21 sent Chief Guerra a letter requesting a meeting about the Peterson investigation. Questions he raised, in addition to his being left out of the circle of Mr. Peterson's interviews, include why, according to Mr. Peterson's report, the investigation was limited to "what was set forth in my (Dec. 1) letter, which was meant to simply be an outline of the complaint."

"Had anyone told me that my written submission would have been the only evidence considered, I certainly would have taken the time to make a much more detailed written submission," he wrote.

Another investigation?

Last March, Chief Guerra asked the county District Attorney's Office to investigate the police report-alteration matter — a move opposed by Mr. Buckheit, who called it "totally inappropriate."

Because his lawsuit names the county, "and that includes the D.A.," how can that office "pass judgment on the wrongfulness of what was done to me?" he said last spring. "The D.A. has a vested interest in not exposing the wrongdoing."

The investigation was stalled when Mr. Buckheit refused to give the district attorney the police report, which was sealed when Mr. Buckheit was given his declaration of factual innocence. Mr. Buckheit pushed to have an outside agency, such as the state Attorney General's Office or the FBI, investigate the matter.

Although Mr. Buckheit said he is now willing to release the report to the district attorney, he is still advocating that the investigation be turned over to another agency.


Posted by Michael G. Stogner, a resident of another community
on Jan 26, 2011 at 11:39 am

Former Police Chief Pete Peterson has solved the mystery.

He blames one of San Mateo County's finest Judges. He writes Hon. Judge Mark Forcum "is unfamiliar with the County's domestic violence protocol."

REALLY....Did he interview the Judge?

"The investigation conclusively proved that the act or acts complained about did not occur."

Did he interview Mr. Jon Buckheit? Answer NO

Try to get a copy of this 30 page report that was paid for by the taxpayers of Atherton.

Posted by Understanding the mindset, a resident of another community
on Jan 26, 2011 at 10:37 pm

MIchael the Atherton police's own mentality that everybody is wrong but them, including even a judge, is a common mindset in police work. This is a great article that might help everybody understand where they are coming from. This is a result of human nature and the culture of police work. It will be important for people such as yourself to continue to advocate and counterbalance. It shows the need for citizen review.

Web Link

Posted by None, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 27, 2011 at 5:23 am

Understanding the mindset:

Thanks for posting the interview with Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project.

The Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara Law School is also doing a great job at looking at misconduct by police and prosecutorial misconduct. They have had great success in cases where people have been wrongfully convicted.

They recently came out with a stud saying that prosecutorial misconduct in California is rampant:

Web Link

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