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Ex-Fullerton cop charged with destroying evidence in jail death

March 13, 2012 |  2:21 pm

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef014e8bffcbb9970d-600wi

A former Fullerton police officer was charged Tuesday with destroying evidence by smashing a digital audio recorder that would have captured his conversations with a 52-year-old man who later committed suicide in the city jail.

Vincent Thomas Mater, 41, is charged with one misdemeanor count of destruction of evidence in a death investigation and one misdemeanor count of vandalism. If convicted, he faces up to 18 months in jail.

A few hours after Mater arrested Dean Francis Gochenour on April 14 last year,  the drunk-driving suspect hung himself in a Fullerton jail cell. On the night in question, Mater, a corporal working uniform patrol, crushed the digital audio recorder after learning of Gochenour's death, prosecutors allege.

Prosecutors say the audio recorder would have captured vital conversations with Gochenour. Mater stopped Gouchenour's car about 9:45 p.m after noticing the motorist  was driving without his lights on.

He arrested Gochenour after determining that the driver was under the influence of alcohol. Mater then drove Gochenour in his patrol car to the Fullerton City Jail and turned him over to jailers to be booked upon arrival. Prosecutor say Mater was wearing his department-issued digital audio recording device through the trip and would have audio-recorded any statements.

Gochenour committed suicide about 11:30 p.m. in his jail cell. In the hours after Mater learned of Gochenour’s death, the officer allegedly destroyed his recorder by crushing it and then “removing the mother board and circuit board.” The actions, according to prosecutors, made it impossible to recover the captured audio relevant to the Orange County district attorney’s custodial death investigation.

According to a death investigation report by prosecutors, Mater told investigators that while in the police car on the way to jail, Gochenour said that he had made a mistake, that he had a prior DUI conviction and his sister was going to be upset with him. He also said that he had recently lost a woman who was important to him. Mater “did not ask Gochenour to expound.”

Later, while Mater was inventorying Gochenour’s money, Gochenour said, “You can have it, I won’t need it any more” and “You are going to miss out on a good person.” Later, while alone in his cell, Gochenour was caught on camera praying and then saying “I can hang this right here” and “It’s where I’m going to die.”

A jailer found him at 12:39 a.m., while performing an hourly safety check. Gochenour was hanging by his shirt from a bar on the cell.

Mater told investigators that he became frustrated after trying unsuccessfully to download his audio recording to the department’s computer system and flung his recording device at a metal door, damaging it. He maintained that there was “nothing contained on that [digital audio recorder]  which he would not want others to hear,” according to the district attorney's report, and said that he did not hear Gochenour express any desire to hurt himself. Investigators reviewed audio from a second officer who arrived at the scene after Mater and said it was consistent with Mater’s story.

Based on the evidence available, investigators found that there was “no affirmative evidence” to show that Mater was aware Gochenour might try to harm himself, but added that “the conduct of Corporal Mater in damaging his DAR remains of grave concern to the [district attorney's office],  as the DAR itself would be the best evidence of Gochenour’s conduct and statements while he was in the presence of Corporal Mater.”

Acting Fullerton police Chief Dan Hughes said Mater was placed on administrative leave on April 26 and resigned on Aug. 2 after the department initiated disciplinary proceedings on June 20 in regard to the destruction of the recorder.

“This was something that was initiated by the Fullerton Police Department. We initiated the investigation, we conducted the investigation, and we submitted it to the district attorney’s office almost a year ago seeking charges,” Hughes said.

Hughes said the department did not believe the audio recorder had been damaged in the way Mater said it was, and based on that, submitted the case to the district attorney’s office. He said, however, that it seemed unlikely that Gochenour had made a statement to Mater threatening to harm himself, because the majority of their interactions were captured either on another officer’s recording device or on the jail’s recording system.

Gochenour’s family says the city’s officers failed that night in their duty to care for the Fullerton man.

“The Gochenour family feels that the Fullerton Police Department accepted the responsibility of taking care of and watching Dean when they arrested and incarcerated him,” said Bridget Wiseman, his daughter, in an interview last fall.

"They failed on the most permanent of levels and the officers who were there that night should know that they have forever damaged this family unnecessarily because they weren’t motivated enough to do their jobs correctly," said Wiseman, 20.

The audio recorder used by Mater is the same type that later in the year captured key evidence used in the case against other Fullerton police in the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man. In that case, the recorder captured Fullerton Officer Officer Manuel Ramos threatening Thomas during a July 2011 confrontation that resulted Thomas' death. A second officer, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 39, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force in the death.

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-- Richard Winton and Abby Sewell

Photo: Fullerton police station. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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