Legal victory for family's lawsuit against suspected dirty cops

May 12, 2011 12:42:40 AM PDT
There is a new twist in an East Bay police scandal after a judge takes a second look at a lawsuit against two suspected dirty cops. It is a legal victory for the family of an Antioch man killed during a police drug raid and now they can move forward with a suit against two of the officers caught up in the growing Contra Costa County narcotics scandal. That surprise ruling came from a federal judge on Wednesday.

Judge Susan Illston had initially said there wasn't enough evidence to prove Timothy Mitchell was wrongfully killed during the police raid in Antioch. Then, two of those officers in that raid were linked to the growing Central Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team, or CNET, scandal. Now, Mitchell's family is wondering what really happened inside the apartment.

Three years ago, a special team of narcotics officers burst through the door of an Antioch apartment in the hunt for a notorious drug dealer. Once inside, they shot and killed the man who lived there saying he went for an officer's gun. But fingerprints on 29-year-old Timothy Mitchell's body later revealed police had the wrong guy. A convicted felon had stolen Mitchell's identity and he had no real criminal history.

"It's been an emotional journey...period. The fact that my son is gone and will never be back," said Paulette Mitchell, Timothy's mother.

Paulette's son would have turned 33 years old on Friday.

"This is a young guy who didn't deserve to die," said John Burris, the Mitchell family attorney.

Burris is representing Mitchell's family in a federal civil suit.

In January, a judge dropped that case saying the officers committed a "justifiable act of homicide." Then Norman Wielsch, the narcotics team commander, and Louis Lombardi, a San Ramon officer charged with busting down Mitchell's door, were arrested in the growing CNET scandal.

In a surprise twist this week, the same judge reversed her decision and ruled the civil case can move forward because of those arrests. Burris says the officers' credibility is now badly damaged.

"I've always more recently suspected that this was a potential operation where you get drugs from a big time dope dealer and you ultimately get those drugs back and make money from them. It's where the drug enforcers become the drug dealers," said Burris.

Prosecutors say Wielsch and Lombardi made a habit of stealing and reselling drugs seized during busts.

"We fully understand that his credibility will and would be an issue," said attorney Michael Cardoza.

Cardoza admits his client, Wielsch, was wrong on some fronts, but not this one.

"To say, 'Oh, you did it in one situation, so they must be lying in the Mitchell situation,' doesn't really make any sense to me at all. I mean, these officers didn't go out and commit crime in every piece of law enforcement work they did," said Cardoza.

"My issue is and always has been that we did not ever have the real story about how this young man was killed," said Burris.

Attorney Michael Rains, who has counseled Lombardi since his arrest, is not shocked by the reversal.

"I think the judge out of an abundance of caution, and I think appropriately, has decided to reverse that decision and say that because there could be issues of credibility, let's let a jury hear testimony and make the decision as to whether there was any inappropriate behavior by any of the officers involved in that situation," said Rains.

"I just have all along felt like something was rotten and that there were some things that have been covered up that will come to light," said Paulette. "So, I just want to see justice during this process with the officers involved in this CNET scandal."

Mitchell's family says the emotional highs and lows are very hard to cope with.

As for Mitchell's civil case, both sides will now present their arguments on officers' credibility and then a judge will decide whether or not it will go to trial.

Another Twist

Late Wednesday evening, another twist in the CNET scandal emerged. Private investigator Chris Butler is said to have written a 34-page statement in which he claims he and officer Wielsch ran a brothel in a Pleasant Hill business park.

Wielsch's attorney is strongly defending his client against that accusation. Cardoza said, "He was saying in one part that there was a brothel that he started along with my client Wielsch, and I'm telling you, no, that's not true. That is absolutely not true. That is a Butler fairy tale."

Cardoza says Butler may be making up the story to shave time off a possible prison term.

ABC7 reporter Leslie Brinkley contributed to this report


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