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LA County Deputy Sheriff Awarded $4.5 Million in Retaliation Suit

by Christopher Zoukis

Darren Hager, a deputy with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department received a jury award of $4.5 million upon their finding that Hager was wrongfully terminated in retaliation for looking too closely into the disappearance of a fellow officer.

     On June 11, 1998, LASD Deputy Jonathan Aujay disappeared while participating in an extended run-hike in the Devil's Punchbowl area of Antelope Valley. Eyewitnesses reported seeing a runner matching Aujay's description in the area, but despite a five-day search, he was never found. The Sheriff's Department's Missing Person's Bureau concluded that he committed suicide.

     Within a week of Aujay's disappearance, LASD deputies were hearing from informants that Aujay had come across a meth lab while he was running and was killed. In January 2000, a LASD homicide detective received permission to reopen the case and, after a three-month investigation, he concluded that another deputy was involved in the drug trade and was the prime suspect in the murder of Aujay. Allegedly, the homicide captain refused to authorize a search warrant, took the detective off the case, and threatened to terminate the detective if he continued with the case.

     In December 1999, Hager arrested a man who offered to become an informant against five major methamphetamine manufacturers and distributors in the Antelope Valley. He not only provided leads for ongoing drug investigations, he reported a rumor that a certain deputy was involved in the Aujay disappearance.

     In March 2000, a joint narcotics task force was formed targeting the major meth dealers in Antelope Valley. Hager was the LASD member of the DEA task force. The then-assistant sheriff, Larry Waldie, ordered Hager to investigate the narcotics with the DEA, but to only document, not investigate, any information obtained on Aujay or any corrupt deputies, which was to be later turned over to homicide or the LASD Internal Criminal Investigation Bureau.

     Hager considered the DEA task force investigation an enormous success. The 11-month investigation led to 290 state arrests, and 32 federal convictions for narcotics manufacturing and trafficking. And, as he was instructed, Hager said he turned over information he obtained relating to Aujay and any corrupt deputies to his lieutenant, who transmitted it up the chain of command.

     Hager said he was then subject to an 11-month investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau, which he contended was retaliation for reporting the information about the corrupt deputies. On July 28, 2003, he was terminated from his job.

     Hager then filed a suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the Sheriff's Department and the county for retaliation and wrongful termination. He argued that, since he was hired in February 1998, he was rated outstanding for his last three reviews in 1999, 2000 and 2001, and in 2002 he went to Washington, D.C., to be presented with the DEA's Administrator's Award for his work on the task force, and that such termination was improper. After his termination, Hager said he was unable to find work because of the nature of the charges made against him: reckless investigation, disobeying orders and making false statements to his superiors.

     The defense argued that Aujay committed suicide and that the supposed corrupt deputy's involvement in his death was disproved by the February to April 2001 homicide investigation of Aujay's disappearance. The defense also contended that Hager falsely misrepresented and reported information to his superiors that was allegedly obtained from both informants and federal wiretaps about the claimed corrupt deputy.

     The jury returned a verdict in favor of Hager, awarding him $806,041 for past lost earnings, $1,199,974 for future lost earnings, and $2,500,000 for noneconomic damages, totaling $4,506,015.

See: Hager v. Los Angeles County, et al., Superior Court of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Division, Case No. BC370326 (Sept. 30, 2011)

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Related legal case

Hager v. Los Angeles County, et al.