ANTIOCH – A week after eight Antioch police officers were indicted on federal and state charges, Contra Costa County’s criminal justice system is buckling under the weight of alleged racism and corruption within the police force on an unprecedented scale: dozens of criminal cases tainted by rogue officers have already been dismissed, and thousands more are under review.
The vast stain on East Contra Costa law enforcement has led to the unraveling of murder and other serious cases, while people imprisoned on the word of officers accused of harboring racist views and violating civil rights are being freed or seeing charges dropped.
Already, there are shocking examples: Two men accused of stuffing 25-year-old Mykaella Sharlman into a garbage can and setting her body on fire last October were freed earlier this year amid growing concerns about the integrity of Antioch police officers. Prosecutors may refile felony arson and mutilation of a corpse charges, but doing so may require them to re-create the police investigation because the Antioch detectives behind the probe were in group chats using racist language.
The ordeal, and others like it, have left crime victims and their families grasping for some sense of justice.
“The way they burned and mutilated my sisters’ body and put her in a garbage can – how do you let someone walk away from that?” said Sharlman’s sister, Mia Sharlman, 40. “We’re not the only family, and it hurts, because it’s like ‘Why? Why us?’”
Meanwhile, newly-freed defendants say they feel vindicated and relieved by watching their cases be dismissed amid the discovery of reams of racist text messages sent and received by nearly half of the Antioch Police Department’s officers. On top of that, some of those same officers are accused of wantonly siccing K9s on people and shooting residents with foam bullets for sport, while targeting people to abuse because of their race.
“When it comes to someone like me, I’m brown, I come from that area, we’re already a stereotype,” said Amadeo Garcia Jr., 46, who has sued Antioch alleging police illegally searched his car and claims officers possibly planted the drugs after prosecutors dismissed drug charges against him in May. “I thought that I was going back (to prison) for a long time.”
There is a growing realization amid the fallout that prosecutors handling any case out of Antioch are likely to face a significantly harder time securing convictions as trust between the community and its police force craters.
“The system is based on trust – we have to be able to trust our police officers to act in a fair and honest way,” said Tom Kensok, an attorney who worked for 30 years as a prosecutor in Contra Costa County. “They clearly fell down in terms of acting in a way that was unfair to people. And (the officers) left a strong perception – rightly so, in terms of the texts – that people were not going to be treated fair.”
“And once that foundation falls out, things end up in a freefall,” he added.
The dismissals date to at least March 2022, when federal prosecutors dismissed more than a dozen cases – many of them firearms-related offenses – that hinged on the word of Antioch officers under investigation at the time by the FBI for “crimes of moral turpitude,” which led last week to 13 Antioch and Pittsburg officers being charged on crimes ranging from savage violations of civil rights to cheating on training classes to distributing steroids.
Another 40 or so cases were dismissed by the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office that summer.
Yet the revelation this spring that about half of Antioch’s police force had either sent or received racist text messages raised the possibility that thousands of additional cases could be next, potentially eclipsing anything previously seen in California’s history.
The scope is such that Contra Costa County’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved spending $2.2 million to hire 10 attorneys – five each for the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices – to review cases for possible wrongdoing by Antioch officers.
Previous instances of so many cases coming under review for dismissal have typically centered on dysfunctional crime labs or other scandals involving racist texts sent between police officers. But not on this level, said Terry Wiley, a former Alameda County prosecutor who helped oversee the criminal prosecution of Oakland police officers in the infamous Riders scandal more than 20 years ago.
“The damage can sometimes be irreparable. People will lose so much confidence in the criminal justice system in Contra Costa County,” Wiley said. “At some point, the city of Antioch and the county have to sit down and discuss – for the sake of the criminal justice system and being able to keep the community safe – do you continue to maintain the Antioch Police Department?”
Many of the dismissed cases centered on firearms-related charges or allegations of resisting or assaulting a police officer. Some, like Vance Gattis, have already served their time or taken plea deals on charges that now are under scrutiny. Gattis was charged with assaulting a police dog, after a car stop in which Gattis was beaten, tased and attacked by the dog, Purcy, whose handler Officer Morteza Amiri was indicted on civil rights violations. Gattis, who also was charged with resisting arrest of Amiri, Officer Eric Rombough and others, took a plea deal.
Still, other cases are far more serious.
Just this month, a murder case was dropped against a juvenile accused of the 2021 freeway shooting death of India Prince, a 24-year-old woman caught in the crossfire of a suspected gang hit targeting her brother, who was riding next to her and was wounded in the attack. Her 2-year-old son was in the back seat and escaped uninjured from the July 24, 2021, attack on Highway 4 near Concord.
The teen was arrested a year later and charged in the killing after a California Highway Patrol investigation. But charges in the case were dismissed this month, according to a lawsuit the teen filed that alleges Antioch police did not have a search warrant when they raided his family’s San Joaquin County home in July 2022. One of the officers was Rombough, a gang unit and SWAT member who was among the Antioch police who sent texts that repeatedly used the N-word and referred to Black people as “gorillas,” while joking about “violating civil rights,” the lawsuit said.
Rombough was indicted earlier this month on federal civil rights charges.
For the teenager’s mother, the dropped charges validated her conviction that officers wrongly targeted her son without enough evidence to back it up.
“They need to rebuild from the top to the bottom – they all need to be swept through with a fine-toothed comb,” said the teen’s mother, Tiffaney Turner. She said officers dismissed her demands to see a search warrant when her house was raided, saying that “I watch too much TV.”
Terry Thomas Jr. and wife Tiffaney Turner show the room where their son was arrested in a July 2022 raid by Antioch police. A murder case against the son for a 2021 freeway shooting death has been dropped, according to a lawsuit filed by the teen that alleges Antioch police did not have a search warrant for the raid. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
“It was a game – they were laughing at upending someone’s life, turning someone’s life upside down,” Turner added.
But for the victim’s family, Prince’s relatives can’t help but feel deeply wronged.
“It’s very disheartening – you’re just putting them back on the streets to commit more crime,” said Prince’s aunt, Shayla Jamerson. “It’s a slap in the face for my family.”
“It’s just a very eerie feeling that the people that are supposed to be here to protect and serve, we can’t even trust them, because they themselves are doing crimes as well,” she added.
The ramifications of so many dismissals are dizzying, said Gigi Crowder, executive director of Contra Costa County’s branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The organization has started leading so-called “healing symposiums” to help people begin addressing the trauma brought on by the policing scandal — be it years of intimidation and abuse by police officers, or the pain of watching no one be held accountable for so many crimes.
“I’m not of the belief that in all the cases, the person didn’t do it,” Crowder said. “You put the community at risk — if you’re so rogue as an officer – that we have to dismiss cases where maybe the person was guilty.
“But we also know that the cops were biased,” she added. “So when cops do bad things, there are consequences across the board.”