, October 22, 2021

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Vallejo tentatively settles excessive force lawsuit over alleged police assault in church


  •   4 min reads
Vallejo tentatively settles excessive force lawsuit over alleged police assault in church
A Vallejo police car.

VALLEJO - A federal lawsuit alleging that three undercover Vallejo police officers assaulted a man inside a church during a case of alleged mistaken identity has been settled, but terms of the agreement will remain a secret, for now.

Settlement terms remain confidential until the Vallejo City Council approves them. Once approved, the agreement will be publicly available.

The lawsuit filed in December 2019 alleges that Jose Villalobos was walking to the bathroom inside the St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church on Tennessee Street in Vallejo on Nov. 4, 2018, when officers dressed in plainclothes approached and wrestled him to the ground.

The lawsuit names Vallejo police officers Jerome Bautista, who has since been promoted to lieutenant, Kevin Barreto, and Detective Jarrett Tonn, who shot and killed Sean Monterrosa last year.

The lawsuit states that Villalobos was attending services at the church with his family when he went to use the restroom in the back of the building. The officers approached him, One officer grabbed Villalobos’ arm and bent it behind his back, the lawsuit alleges.

“As he turned to see who was attacking him, he [recalled] being struck in the cheek and wrestled to the floor,” the lawsuit states.

Villalobos, who is blind in one eye, cried out that he had no money, believing he was being robbed, the lawsuit alleges.

“He also remembers making additional statements to the effect: ‘I just had a surgery on my shoulder. I’m in church. Not doing nothing. I came to pray and relax,’” the lawsuit states.

Reached for comment Monday, Villalobos’ lawyer Thomas Seabaugh declined to state how much the settlement is for, deferring to the city to release that information. Seabaugh said that what happened to his client “was a terrible injustice.”

“No amount of money will ever undo what happened, the injuries, or the indignity of that experience. At the same time, I am pleased that I was able to secure compensation for Mr. Villalobos,” he told the Vallejo Sun. “I think the outcome certainly vindicates his decision to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the three officers.

“We all have constitutional rights, and when they are violated, it is important to ensure that there are accountability and consequences,” Seabaugh said.

Vallejo City Attorney Veronica Nebb didn’t return a request for comment about the settlement.

The case will go before the city council during a special closed session on Tuesday.

The city admitted that the officers were in plainclothes, approached Villalobos, and took him to the ground, court records show. However, Vallejo denied that the officers mistook Villalobos for another person, and the city has denied that one of the officers struck the man in his face.

In a motion to dismiss from February 2020, the city alleged that Villalobos entered the church by himself and fit the description of a suspected sexual predator.

The Vallejo Police Department’s Crime Reduction Team was conducting an undercover operation at the church to locate a man who had been soliciting sex from underage girls there, according to the city’s motion.

“Given the serious nature of the crime and ongoing danger to the public, officers began conducting surveillance of males entering the church for all scheduled masses starting at noon,” according to the city in its motion. “One of the officers observed Mr. Villalobos, who matched the description of the suspect and smelled of alcohol, walk into the church alone and walk straight to the bathroom.”

When the officers approached him, Villalobos resisted and thus was taken down to the ground, the city stated.

U.S. District Judge William Shubb rejected the city’s argument that the case should be dismissed.

“Because officers continued to exert that force after plaintiff allegedly saw [non uniformed men], cried that he had no money and informed the officers of his injured shoulder, the allegations in the complaint plausibly allege the officers intended to exert that unreasonable force or at least acted with a reckless disregard for plaintiff’s fourth amendment right to be free from excessive force,” Shubb wrote.

This isn’t the first time Tonn has been named in a federal excessive force lawsuit.

In September 2020, the city paid $52,500 to settle an excessive force lawsuit brought by a local man who Tonn threw to the ground and choked during a traffic stop April 2017.

Robert Strong filed the lawsuit in May 2018 alleging Tonn pulled him from his vehicle after he refused to stop filming the incident. Tonn was later promoted to detective.

This past July, the city agreed to pay out $38,000 to settle a federal lawsuit alleging Tonn, Barreto, and former police Officer Sean Kenney used excessive force when they fired on a vehicle in a May 2017 incident.

A task force composed of U.S. Marshals and Vallejo police officers arrived at a residence in an unincorporated area near Concord to arrest Kevin DeCarlo days after he got into a chase with police.

The officers fired multiple times after DeCarlo attempted to flee in a vehicle. He used his car to strike an unmarked police vehicle at least twice. DeCarlo was struck multiple times while the passenger in the car,  Patricia Whitaker, was not hit by the gunfire.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled in March that DeCarlo’s claims of excessive force were barred following his conviction stemming from the incident. White further stipulated that Whitaker’s claims were still valid.

Tonn has been also named in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the city by the family of Sean Monterrosa, who Tonn shot and killed outside a Vallejo Walgreens during the early morning hours of June 2, 2020. That lawsuit is still pending.

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