Court Hears Evidence in Deputies' Beating of Suspect in Mission District Alley

Frame from video showing Alameda County sheriff's deputies beating car theft suspect Stanislav Petrov on Nov. 12, 2015.  (San Francisco Public Defender)

Three civilian witnesses who awakened to find a pair of Alameda County sheriff's deputies clubbing a car theft suspect in a darkened San Francisco alley told investigators they never saw the man resist arrest.

But three officers who arrived on the scene of the brutal November 2015 beating, which was recorded by a private surveillance camera and one of the deputies' body cameras, told investigators that suspect Stanislav Petrov appeared to be resisting even after being severely injured by dozens of baton blows.

The surveillance footage released the following day by the San Francisco Public Defender's Office shows former Alameda County deputies Luis Santamaria and Paul Wieber striking Petrov more than 30 times as he tries to squirm away, puts his hands over his head and pleads for them to stop. The video skips for a few seconds approximately every 10 seconds, so the total number of strikes, as well as Petrov's movements during those times, is unknown.

Santamaria and Wieber are each facing felony charges of assault under color of authority, battery with serious bodily injury and assault with a deadly weapon.

Both appeared in San Francisco Superior Court Monday for a preliminary hearing. Judge Bruce Chan is expected to decide by the end of this week whether there is enough evidence for them to stand trial.

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Petrov was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle in San Leandro and crashed into a sheriff's cruiser earlier that evening when deputies attempted to trap him in a hotel parking lot. A deputy was injured in that collision. Petrov then led officers on a high-speed chase to San Francisco that ended on a Mission District side street.

Petrov was hospitalized after the beating with head wounds and severely fractured arms, requiring multiple surgeries. In April 2016, he was named in a federal indictment on unrelated firearm and methamphetamine distribution charges.

Defense attorneys are arguing that the deputies' use of force was reasonable, justified and legal.

On Monday, San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Kelly Burke called Alameda County Sheriff's Commander Colby Staysa as the prosecution's first witness. He testified about recovering about a minute of video footage recovered from Wieber's body camera after it was accidentally switched on during the beating.

Then the body camera video was played in court.

One of the deputies can be heard yelling between baton strikes: "Get on the fucking ground!" and "Give us your hands, motherfucker!"

Petrov can be heard moaning. The video appeared to stop just as other officers arrived at the scene of the beating and Wieber began to back away from Petrov.

Staysa testified that he had known Santamaria for about 10 years and had personally approved him to train new deputies in the field. He called the training assignment "one of the most important jobs we have in the sheriff's office."

Staysa said Santamaria was also a K-9 officer and had a dog with him. He was supervising Wieber, who had recently transferred from Santa Rita Jail to patrol duty.

The deputies wrote their reports about the incident several days later, Staysa testified, after the surveillance video became national news.

"They worked with an attorney to write their reports?" Burke asked him.

"That's correct," Staysa said.

Burke next called San Francisco police Sgt. Thomas MacMahon, who was a criminal investigator for SFPD's internal affairs division and led the early investigation into the beating, to the stand.

MacMahon described speaking to three nearby residents -- a couple and another man who lived on another floor of the same building near Clinton Park and Stevenson Street.

The couple owned a surveillance camera facing Valencia Street. They told MacMahon they awoke to the noise of footsteps and yelling in the alley, the inspector testified. They didn't look outside, but instead switched on a live video feed from their camera. Although the final video recording had gaps every 10 seconds, the live feed was uninterrupted.

"He said he heard the person saying 'Stop, please,'" MacMahon testified one the witnesses told him. "He never saw him try to get up beyond him trying to move away from the blows."

Another witness separately woke up to the sound of running in alley. Then he heard the baton strikes.

"At first he said he thought they might have been gunshots echoing through the alley," MacMahon said.

He then looked out the window and saw the suspect trying to cover his head to shield himself.

All three witnesses said Petrov never resisted arrest.

Wieber's attorney, William Rapoport, asked Inspector MacMahon about an interview with SFPD Officer Patrick Cummins, one of the first officers to join the two deputies in the alley.

Cummins said "it looked like a fully engaged fight was going on," MacMahon testified. Cummins said Petrov tried to kick one of the deputies as they stepped away.

Cummins "delivered a knee strike to abdomen of the subject," Rapoport read from a transcript of MacMahon's interview with the officer. Then, Cummins said, he had punched Petrov in the face.

"There was something going on there," Cummins said, according to the transcript. "It wasn’t as if he was lying there doing nothing."

Rapoport also mentioned two other officers who said they thought Petrov was resisting when the arrived on the scene.

Santamaria's attorney, Michael Rains, asked MacMahon about a report from a use-of-force expert, UC Berkeley Police Lt. Joey Williams.

Williams initially concluded in March 2016, that "there are instances in the video where the deputies’ use of force was out of policy, but in the totality of the situation, those instances could be explained," MacMahon told the court.

But about a month later, Williams contacted MacMahon and said he had had second thoughts about that conclusion.

"He said the force was not reasonable in his second report, while in the first report it was absolutely the opposite, the force was objectively reasonable," Rains said outside court.

He also accused the district attorney's office of replacing the original investigator in the case because it seemed like he "wasn't going in the direction Mr. Gascón wanted; so they got rid of him."

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"I suggest the defense attorneys watch the video before making that statement," DA's spokesman Alex Bastian said in response.