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Case against police chief moves forward

A harassment and intimidation civil lawsuit that names Petaluma Police Chief Patrick Williams will move forward next month, even though the woman at the center of the case died in October.

The case began when Williams headed the Desert Hot Springs Police Department, which at the time was under an FBI investigation for civil rights violations perpetrated against suspects in police custody. During an FBI interview, one officer, Andrea Heath, spoke out to investigators, listing numerous offenses she had witnessed during her time with the department.

Her testimony was used in the case that convicted officer Anthony Sclafani of two counts of utilizing excessive force in the line of duty, for which he was sentenced to four years in the federal penitentiary. Another officer, David Henderson, was given one year of probation in exchange for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor excessive force charge.

In the wake of the investigation, Heath alleged that she was repeatedly harassed and chastised for speaking out against her fellow officers. At the time, Sclafani was still working for the department as his case made its way to court, and Heath's attorney, Jerry Steering, said the officer went out of his way to make life miserable for her.

"It was so bad for her when he was there," Steering said on April 11. "She thought he was going to have her killed."

Heath eventually filed a civil lawsuit that named Scalfani, Williams, the City of Desert Hot Springs and others related to the case. Last May, a Southern California judge threw out the suit, dismissing two of Heath's claims with prejudice, meaning her attorney could not file on those charges again. However, five of the claims were dismissed without prejudice, allowing Heath and Steering to appeal the case to the 9th District Court in San Francisco. Heath and her attorney were scheduled to begin settlement talks with the City of Desert Hot Springs in October when she was found dead of a gunshot wound in her Cathedral City home. The coroner's office ruled the case a suicide. With the victim dead, the future of the case seemed uncertain. But in March, Steering got the court's approval to continue the lawsuit with Heath's two children named as the plaintiffs.

"Whatever she was entitled to, her children are now entitled to," Steering said, who admitted the case will be much more difficult without Heath's testimony.

Williams declined to answer questions related to the case, saying only, "I've made my comments on that case previously." In prior news articles, Williams called the allegations "untrue."

Opening briefs on the civil lawsuit are due on May 2.

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)


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