June 20, 2024
ANTIOCH – From the “Meet Your Beat” welcome pages the Antioch Police Department once posted on Facebook, officers Eric Rombough and Morteza Amiri look like awfully nice guys. Rombough, young and blond in his photos, is described as a family man, who enjoys wine tasting, cooking with his Traeger smoker and playing with his four

ANTIOCH – From the “Meet Your Beat” welcome pages the Antioch Police Department once posted on Facebook, officers Eric Rombough and Morteza Amiri look like awfully nice guys.

Rombough, young and blond in his photos, is described as a family man, who enjoys wine tasting, cooking with his Traeger smoker and playing with his four dogs, including a Chiweenie.

Amiri, who grew up in Antioch, loves dining out on sushi with his wife and young son. On his days off, he goes swimming with Purcy, the K9 he handles on the job. Every day he puts on his uniform, he says in the Facebook video, he wants to “make sure this community is safe for other families just like mine.”

It all seemed so sweet – until federal agents in armored tanks with flash bang grenades pulled into their driveways before dawn Thursday. Authorities dragged them out of their homes, indicted them on charges of civil rights violations and released a trove of new text messages between Rombough and Amiri and a slew of other East Contra Costa officers.

They now face allegations of plotting violent arrests and prison time if convicted.

“Lol putting a pistol in someone’s mouth and telling him to stop stealing isn’t illegal,” Amiri wrote to an officer from a neighboring city in one of the texts detailed in the federal indictment. “It’s an act of public service to prevent further victims of crime.”

The allegations captured in 29 pages of the indictment were so shocking that on Friday even some of the police departments’ most ardent supporters were left questioning how to square the officers’ protect-and-serve family-man images with their horrific texts.

“Maybe it’s time to take this tribute piece down,” one commenter wrote Thursday under the department’s post about Rombough. “How sad for all the proud friends and family congratulating him on his new job to learn he and his cronies have shamed the force.”

Particularly unsettling in the texts is the casual way Amiri and Rombough talk about inflicting pain and hiding their crimes. Amiri strategized about how to make Purcy bite harder on suspects – tug back on his leash when he’s biting down – and bragged about siccing him on a sleeping suspect, the indictment says. He kept a running tally of the bites, sharing his score – “just got #3” – after each attack and posted photos of the Belgian Malinois dog and the injuries it inflicted. One fellow officer, commenting “nice job,” seemed more concerned about an apparent injury to Purcy than the suspect.

“What cut the dog’s face?” the unnamed officer asked.

“that’s a piece of the suspect’s flesh lol,” Amiri replied.

LOL, they wrote over and over. And in some cases LMAO! At times, they peppered their conversations with racial slurs – calling their targets “gorillas” while one suggested to the other to “stay safe bro.”

Rombough kept his own tally, the indictment says. He didn’t work with a canine, but handled a .40mm foam bullet launcher instead as a gang and SWAT unit member. In one case, the indictment says, Rombough shot a suspect he said was pretending to sleep, hitting him in the chest – a potentially lethal location for an impact that knocked him out of bed. Rombough took home as a trophy each hard foam bullet that hit its human target and turned them into a craft project, prosecutors allege. With a framed outline of an American flag, the bullets filled in the stars and stripes. His fellow officers praised his progress.

“We just have to find a way to finish our flag,” wrote an unnamed officer in a text.

“I know,” Rombough replied, “challenge accepted.”

Someone who calls Rombough “babe” loved it, too.

“Nice babe, another one for the mantle,” the texter wrote. “Glad you’re having fun babe.”

Calls by this news organization to attorneys for Rombough and Amiri were not returned by Friday evening.

Both officers joined the Antioch police force in 2017, but took different routes to get there. Rombough had played soccer in college and professionally in Bolivia, then worked at his family’s construction business before joining the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, then Antioch Police.

Amiri grew up in Antioch’s Section 8 housing with his single mother – a life experience, he said on the Facebook video, that “makes me more understanding on patrol when I come across similar situations.” He speaks Farsi, the language of his Afghan Iranian mother. He worked in security at Target and Old Navy stores before joining the police academy and the Antioch force.

He earned his bachelor’s degree through online classes, he said. He didn’t mention, as the indictment revealed, that he made a $250 payment to someone to do the class work for him — a degree that boosted his police pay and ended in wire fraud charges.

The men are two of 10 current and former police officers indicted Thursday amid one of the Bay Area’s largest police scandals in recent memory – their alleged crimes ranging from fraudulently obtaining college degrees to steroid sales to one officer’s alleged attempt to interfere with a wiretap. It metastasized even further Friday with the filing of state charges of bribery against three new officers and two also facing federal charges, bringing the overall tally of people charged to 13.

But the civil rights indictment against Amiri and Rombough – as well as a third officer, Devon Wenger – stands out for the sheer brutality they allegedly wrought on residents of Antioch. And it shows Amiri and Rombough clearly shared a tight bond. In text messages, they called each other “bro,” while discussing how best to sic Amiri’s police dogs on suspects and joking about their “true love” for each other.

“F— I just want to punch the shit out of someone lol,” Rombough wrote to Amiri in December 2019.

“do it bro,” Amiri replied, adding, “I hate not having you on the streets with me.”

“i know bro,” Rombough said, “not even the same.”

It all stood in such stark contrast to their public, neighborly personas.

Amiri lives in a five-bedroom, three-bathroom home with a pool on a cul-de-sac at the edge of Antioch, where nearly every home has a camera affixed to the front door and a “no soliciting” sign. Amiri keeps a white pickup truck and a Tesla in the garage and an old RV in the side yard. An ice cream truck often drives through in the evenings. His neighbors are Black, White and Filipino.

Recently, he brought an extension ladder to his neighbor’s house to clean off her solar panels on the roof, neighbors said. A few doors down, Connie Daniels said that when her husband had knee surgery, Amiri brought over a box of cookies along with fresh eggs from his chickens. She’s never seen a dark side, she said.

“He’s always shown me respect,” said Daniels. “He’s always been a very pleasant person.”

At his front door, where Amiri’s wife told this news organization through an intercom to “leave my property” Thursday evening, Amiri keeps a welcome mat that says in black letters, “Come back with a warrant.”

On Thursday morning, the Daniels were awakened by FBI agents with a loudspeaker saying they had one.

At the same time Thursday morning, in Fairfield’s more rural Green Valley, Ignacio Abruzzo was also startled awake. A tank with what looked like a machine gun on top had pulled into Rombough’s driveway next to Abruzzo’s home. He feared for Rombough, at first, that maybe he was a victim of a crime.

But no. Rombough was the accused. Abruzzo couldn’t believe it. Rombough and his wife have been such wonderful neighbors, he said. Their 9-year-old son plays basketball in the driveway.

“I have nothing bad to say about him,” Abruzzo said.

The only time he was concerned, Abruzzo said, was when Rombough recalled shooting a suspect dead a year earlier, and “I could see in his face it really messed him up. He was thinking about leaving the force.”

But even that observation is difficult to square with the evidence in the federal indictments. In the text messages, Rombough said he considered leaving the police force in 2021 due to the scrutiny brought on by the use of body cameras.

Trying to reconcile the two sides of these officers – now facing 10 years in prison on the civil rights charges – is a difficult task.

“In reality, human psychology is far more complicated than that,” said Hans Menos, a vice president with The Center for Policing Equity, a California-based organization that seeks to address racism within law enforcement. “The folks that feel that they’re protecting and serving, while also harming people for sport, to put it mildly, are doing that because they see a clear difference between the people that they would harm, and the people they wouldn’t do that to.”

And race and class – especially race, he said — “are significant factors within that.”

The mother of Trent Allen, who is Black and was struck by Rombough’s foam bullets in March 2021, has her own assessment.

“They were disguising themselves,” Shirelle Cobbs said in an interview. “They were disguising themselves because of the way that they treated people. And it’s been going on for years.”

Both Amiri and Rombough appeared at their court hearings Thursday morning, pleaded not guilty and prosecutors agreed to release them on $100,000 property bonds. Rombough, his hands and knees bloody, wore a t-shirt that said “don’t weaken.”

His house in Fairfield is also filled with slogans across the walls, visible through the living room’s picture window. No one was home Friday morning, except for the dogs, including the Chiweenie.

“Family is everything,” is scrolled above a wall of wedding photos. “Home is our Happy Place” is printed on his welcome mat.

But there is no flag made of spent foam bullets above the mantel. The morning after the FBI handcuffed Rombough and hauled him away, there was only an empty picture hook.