Friday, 19 July 2024

Dinius seeks $1 million in federal lawsuit against Lake County, local officials

THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED.


LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – A Carmichael man prosecuted for a fatal 2006 sailboat crash has filed a federal lawsuit against Lake County and several of its law enforcement officials, claiming that his civil rights were violated and seeking $1 million in damages.


Bismarck Dinius, 42, and his attorney Laurence Masson of Berkeley, along with the Northern California Innocence Project filed the case on Tuesday, according to Masson.


It names a number of county officials, including District Attorney Jon Hopkins and Sheriff Rod Mitchell; Capt. James Bauman, Sgt. James Samples, Sgt. Dennis Ostini and Deputy Lloyd Wells; retirees Sgt. Wes Frey and Sgt. Dean Pick; former sheriff's Capt. Russell Perdock; and Lt. Charles Slabaugh of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office, who assisted with the initial investigation. Additionally, the case alleges the involvement of 25 unnamed individuals.


The 14-page document said the action arises principally “from the unconstitutional, corrupt efforts” of county elected and law enforcement officials to prosecute Dinius for a homicide he did not commit.


Dinius alleges violation of his federal civil rights, and makes claims for slander and malicious prosecution.


Masson said Dinius is seeking $1 million, including punitive damages, and attorneys fees and costs, the latter having totaled over $300,000, according to a previous Dinius interview with Lake County News.


We haven't been served yet with the legal action so I can't really comment on anything at this point,” County Counsel Anita Grant said Wednesday afternoon.


Hopkins, who had been out of the office Tuesday and Wednesday, said he also hadn't seen the document and couldn't offer comment on it.


Sheriff Rod Mitchell called the situation “very unfortunate.”


“I'm confident that the department handled this matter appropriately,” he said.


Questioned about the timing of the case, Linda Starr, legal director for the Northern California Innocent Project at Santa Clara University, said it had nothing to do with the sheriff's race that is under way and about to go into its fall stretch.


“That there is a contested sheriff's race is purely coincidental,” she said. “The suit was filed when it was adequately investigated, researched and drafted.”


Case alleges corruption


On Clear Lake on the night of April 29, 2006, Dinius was sitting at the tiller of the Beats Workin' II, a sailboat owned by then-Willows resident Mark Weber, when it was hit from behind by a powerboat driven by Perdock.


Witnesses during the 2009 trial estimated Perdock was traveling between 40 and 60 miles per hour.


Weber's girlfriend, 51-year-old Lynn Thornton, was mortally injured and died several days later.


Perdock was not charged, but a year after the crash Dinius was charged with felony boating under the influence causing great bodily injury and manslaughter, and misdemeanor counts of boating under the influence and boating with a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08.


Dinius, Weber and Perdock all were sued by Thornton's estate, with that civil case settling in 2007. The terms of the settlement required that Perdock's and Dinius' insurance each paid $300,000 to the estate, and Weber's paid $100,000, as Lake County News has reported.


Shortly before the trial began in July 2009, Hopkins dropped the manslaughter charge and issued on open letter, which Dinius' lawsuit alleges slandered him by calling him “a drunken sailor.” Dinius' suit said Hopkins' conduct was “malicious and oppressive,” and warrants award of punitive damages.


The case filing comes nearly a year after a Lake County jury acquitted Dinius of the felony and misdemeanor boating under the influence charges.


At the same time, the jury deadlocked on the misdemeanor count of boating with a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08, which the court later dropped.


In January Dinius filed a claim with the county seeking unspecified damages to cover attorney fees, emotional distress, and loss of both his reputation and his job.


That claim was rejected the following month, clearing the way for the federal civil rights case, Victor Haltom, Dinius' criminal defense attorney, told Lake County News in a previous interview.


In the Tuesday filing Dinius accuses the named officials of concealing exculpatory evidence and fabricating evidence to make him appear guilty of Thornton's death.


“Defendants' corrupt investigation, prosecution, and attempted conviction of Dinius exhausted his financial resources, left him jobless, degraded his reputation, and emotionally scarred him,” the suit states. “Corrupt personal motives, rather than the pursuit of justice or legitimate activity within the scope of their employment, busied defendants' conduct.”


As part of his case Dinius argues that county officials ordered former sheriff's Sgt. James Beland not to administer a breathalyzer test to Perdock at the crash scene, and that Beland's statements to fellow employees that he was upset about that order led to “harassing internal affairs investigations” and his termination in December 2008.


The filing alleges that the sheriff's office under Mitchell's leadership “had a custom, usage, pattern, practice, or unwritten code of conduct of protecting favored employees, such as defendant Perdock, aligned with Mitchell and punishing employees, such as Sergeant Beland, who resisted the favoritism when it crossed the line.”


On the stand during the 2009 trial, Beland claimed his termination was a direct result of the case. He said that he had asked Ostini at the scene if he should do the breathalyzer and that Ostini had said no, Perdock was going for a blood test.


Beland maintained on the stand that it was “a discussion on how to handle the situation, but it was also an order,” as Lake County News reported in its trial coverage.


What's ahead for the county


Grant said the county belongs to the California State Association of Counties' Excess Insurance Authority.


She said the county's liability claims are handled by a third party administrator through that organization, in this case the George Hills Co., which had turned down Dinius' administrative claim against the county in February.


“When we're served then counsel will be assigned,” said Grant, noting that pursuant to the terms of the liability insurance, an outside attorney will defend the county in the suit.


Hopkins, who came in third in the June 8 primary and so will not be on the November ballot for the district attorney's job, will nonetheless be defended by the county after he's gone from its employment, Grant said.


“He's named for actions he took while in our employment so it should be covered,” she said, adding that the same should apply to Frey and Pick, the two retirees the suit named.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf .

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