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Two Dead and $4.675 Million Paid After Deputies’ Alleged Misconduct in California’s Sonoma County

by Casey J. Bastian

A coroner’s report on March 14, 2023, confirmed that an undocumented worker was fatally shot by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department (SCSD) deputy after a foot chase the previous summer. Sebastopol attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who is representing the estate of the dead man, David Pelaez-Chavez, 35, cited SCSD’s poor supervision, training and discipline of deputies – arguments he also used to secure nearly $4.7 million in settlements for deputies’ alleged use of excessive force against two other arrestees on their way to the county jail.

One settlement was reached on October 21, 2021, when the county agreed to pay $875,000 to settle claims by a former Marine who said he was Tasered and beaten without provocation by deputies responding to a domestic disturbance at his home.

Fernando Del Valle was home in Boyes Hot Springs on September 24, 2016, when an argument erupted with his intoxicated wife. As it escalated, Del Valle went to a bedroom, locked the door and tried to sleep, unaware that neighbors had already called the police.

When SCSD deputies Scott Thorne, Anthony Diehm and Beau Zastrow arrived, Del Valle’s wife refused them entry. Deputy Thorne then forced open the door, grabbed Ms. Del Valle by the wrist and ordered her back inside. All of the deputies then entered the home.

When asked, Ms. Del Valle told deputies that Del Valle was in the house. Thorne and Zastrow approached the bedroom door and found it locked. Thorne ordered Del Valle to open it, and then kicked in the door when he was disregarded.

Thorne then yelled at Del Valle to “Stand up!” Del Valle responded, “Sir, I’m in my house. I was sleeping. I’m calling my lawyer.” Thorne drew his service baton, and Del Valle said, “Sir, I’m not being aggressive. I’m just lying here.” Thorne told Del Valle, “Stand up or I’m going to fucking bust your knee.” But Thorne put the baton away and got out his Taser.

Del Valle then received Taser darts in his “bare chest from point blank range.” Thorne also “smashed his baton” across Del Valle’s right shin. When Del Valle attempted to flee, he was “struck from behind,” he said, “numerous times.” Thorne then “attempted to choke Mr. Del Valle into unconsciousness” using the baton.

Del Valle was arrested on felony and misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and battery on a police officer – lies later exposed with recordings that Del Valle made on his cell phone and footage from the deputies’ own body cameras. Thorne took Del Valle to the hospital, but he would not remove the handcuffs, so medical staff could not evaluate Del Valle or provide treatment. Del Valle was then taken to the SCSD jail where he was thrown naked, “face-down” on a floor covered in “urine and feces” and left there for hours.

After Del Valle filed his complaint, some of claims were dismissed by the federal court for the Northern District of California on October 13, 2017. See: Del Valle v. Cty. of Sonoma, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 232966 (N.D. Cal.).

On January 23, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit remanded the sole remaining excessive force claim against Thorne to the district court. See: Del Valle v. Thorne, 790 F. App’x 868 (9th Cir. 2020).

After that, the parties proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included costs and fees for Schwaiger. See: Del Valle v. Cty. of Sonoma, USDC (N.D.Cal.), Case No. 3:17-cv-03611.

$3.8 Million Wrongful Death Settlement

Before that agreement was reached, county commissioners approved $3.8 million on April 20, 2021, to settle another case Schwaiger brought against SCSD over the in-custody death of David Ward on November 27, 2019.

The coroner eventually determined that Ward, 52, died from heart failure and blunt-impact injuries, after SCSD deputies Tasered him and put him in a neck restraint following another chase, this one in a car – one that deputies suspected was stolen because Ward had filed a stolen-vehicle report and only then just recovered it.

When the vehicle was finally cornered, the driver’s door jammed closed, so Dep. Charles Blount attempted to drag Ward through the window. But his legs were pinned beneath the steering column. A struggle ensued; Blount and Dep. Jason Little said that Ward bit them. They smashed his head against the car frame and Tasered him. He stopped breathing and died before they could get him out of the car.

After Schwaiger filed suit for Ward’s family in the Court, the parties reached their settlement agreement, which the county approved. It included costs and fees for Schwaiger and fellow attorney for Plaintiffs, John H. Scott of San Francisco. See: Est. of Ward v. Cty. of Sonoma, USDC (N.D.Cal.), Case No. 4:20-cv-03400.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Mark Essick began the process to fire Blount, but he retired several months later before it was complete. Little spent some time on leave and returned to work. A county jury then acquitted Blount of involuntary manslaughter in February 2022.

Assault charges were filed against Thorne for Tasering Del Valle, but a county jury deadlocked on those in March 2018. Before killing Fernando Del Valle, Thorne had previously been dismissed from the Richmond Police Department in 2002 for using excessive force that resulted in three complaints. He was also then hired and fired by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, after “failure to perform job requirements.”

County District Attorney Carla Rodriguez has announced no charges for Dep. Michael Dietrick, who fatally Tasered Pelaez-Chavez, SCSD’s most recent victim. The deputy reportedly fired after claiming Chavez bent over as if to catch his breath and picked up “something” that Dietrick thought might be a rock, which Chavez might throw at him.

That’s a lot of conjecture, but the only one left alive to refute the deputy’s self-defense claim is a fellow deputy who was on the scene. Schwaiger’s court filing in the case even calls out SCSD deputies for their “code of silence.” See: Est. of Pelaez-Chavez v. Cty. of Sonoma, USDC (N.D.Cal.), Case No. 4:22-cv-06715. 

Additional source: KQED, Santa Rosa Press Democrat