Riverside Police Officer to Return to Work

Posted on Wednesday, February 01, 2006 at 12:00PM
Posted by Michael Schwartz

For Vince Thomas, the four-year nightmare is over. From the beginning he had proclaimed his innocence. From the first accusation he denied any misconduct. The internal affairs sergeant didn’t think the case was provable. His administration was supportive, but tentative. Yet after two trials resulting in two hung juries, the city felt it had no choice but to let him go. Proclamations of innocence fell on deaf ears. Unemployed and after two trials, broke, Thomas was at the end of his rope. To make matters worse, the accusations were off-duty in nature, so, he thought, he would not be covered by LDF to arbitrate his case. Thankfully, he was wrong. His association had signed up for the expanded non-scope rider coverage, and Thomas’s case was grandfathered in. He could still fight for his job. There was still one more chance for vindication.

The nightmare began in December of 2001, when the Thomas’s received a message on their answering machine from the biological father of their estranged niece, Desiree, accusing Thomas of some kind of indiscretions with her. That message was followed by a phone call to Thomas, later found to be a pretext call in which his niece had accused him of molesting her over a 2 1/2 year period. Thomas, shocked and horrified by the accusation, angrily denied any wrongdoing. That night he gave a voluntary statement to the criminal investigator which was totally ignored. The investigator had believed Thomas’s niece. Later, the Thomas family offered witnesses and evidence that cut into the niece’s credibility. The criminal investigators chose to ignore that evidence.

Thomas had always dreamed of being a police officer. He put himself through the academy and took the first offer he received by the city of Riverside. He served for five years with no blemishes on his record. Before these accusations he was a respected patrol officer and field-training officer. Now none of that seemed to matter. He and his wife had taken his niece in to live with his family after her mother had rejected her and her grandmother could not control her. They thought they were doing the right thing. Yet, as Thomas and his family soon sorely learned, no good deed goes unpunished.

First came a one-sided criminal investigation by an outside agency, then an arrest, incarceration for almost two months, then bail. The first trial resulted in a hung jury. A re-trial also resulted in a hung jury. Thomas’s family and friends stuck by him. His employer, the city of Riverside, ordered his department to terminate him. Unemployed, he was unable to find work because of the stigma attached to the accusation. Although never convicted, the prosecutor had posted Thomas’s name on a website as if he had been convicted. Thomas, police officer, father of four, could see no light at the end of this now seemingly endless tunnel. But there was.

On September 7, 2005, Thomas, under the non-scope rider coverage with LDF, took the matter to arbitration. He was represented by Michael Schwartz of Silver, Hadden & Silver. The case took five days to litigate broken up over a three-month period. The city argued that the complaining witness, Desiree, was an impressive witness. Schwartz disagreed and argued that at this stage, after four to five criminal interviews and two trials, she may appear polished but would still be incredible. His statement proved true. Schwartz also argued that the real reason behind the accusations were Desiree’s near-hatred of her aunt and her desire not to be forced to move back in under her aunt’s strict disciplinary standards.

During the hearing, Schwartz caught Thomas’s niece in several lies, one of which she was forced to admit outright. Desiree also claimed to have confided in her boyfriend about the alleged molestations, telling him everything. Schwartz then confronted her with a goodbye letter she had written to her boyfriend in which she apologized for moving away explaining that she had to get away from her aunt, and NOT Thomas . Schwartz also got Desiree to admit that she had made an accusation in the past against her step-father remarkably similar in facts to the ones she made against Thomas. Yet she had recanted that earlier accusation. On further cross-examination she admitted that the earlier recantation at her mother’s prompting taught her not only to lie, but that lying was okay if it would benefit her somehow. Several of Desiree’s friends then testified that they did not believe Desiree, that she was an habitual liar, and that they had heard and seen her complain incessantly about her aunt, but never Thomas. Instead, they all testified, Desiree routinely referred to Thomas as the father [she] never had. Donna Thomas testified to the poor relationship that she had with her niece, as well as verifying Thomas’s testimony that during the time period of the accusations, Thomas was rarely home, working both his normal shift and an inordinate amount of overtime to pay for a bigger house and a growing family. Everyone, including Desiree, testified that the Thomas’s routinely took in members of Donna’s family during the two and a half year period, again cutting into any opportunity Thomas would have to commit the acts alleged. The city, Schwartz argued, had definitely not proven its case.

The arbitrator agreed. She found it striking that Desiree’s goodbye letter to her boyfriend did not mention the molestation but did list Donna as THE reason she wanted out of the Thomas house. The arbitrator also found significant Desiree’s earlier reported molestation and subsequent recanting of the molestation. In short, Desiree did not prove to be the impressive witness the city had said she was. Neither Desiree’s testimony nor the other evidence put forward by the city could persuade the arbitrator. In ordering Thomas back to work, the arbitrator wrote, “without proof by a preponderance of the evidence of the sexual abuse, none of the department’s charges can be sustained.” The department had the burden of proof and was unable to meet it.

Thomas can now finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. Vindicated and somewhat relieved after four years, Thomas looks forward to getting back to what he had always dreamed of as a boy: serving his community as a police officer.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.