FBI criminal investigation of Antioch, Pittsburg cops grows; grand jury convening

As part of a sweeping investigation into law enforcement officers in Contra Costa County, a federal grand jury has convened to consider indictments of multiple police officers from the Antioch and Pittsburg police departments for civil rights violations and other offenses.

Multiple law enforcement sources say the federal grand jury – a group of citizens that typically meets in secret to determine whether criminal charges should be filed – has called witnesses related to uses of force involving Antioch police K9 Officer Morteza Amiri, whose dog has bitten at least 22 people since 2019 — by far the most of any of Antioch’s seven K9s, according to documents released by the police department. The jury is also investigating uses of force involving Antioch police Officer Eric Rombough, a patrol cop who was one of four officers who shot and killed 55-year-old Guadalupe Zavala during an armed standoff in December 2021.

They are two of the 11 officers under federal investigation — a group that includes eight officers from Antioch and three from Pittsburgh — according to multiple sources.

The revelation of a federal grand jury probe comes after federal and state prosecutors dismissed cases that relied on the testimony of Amiri, Rombough and other officers. The stakes are high and potentially damaging to the Antioch Police Department where the eight officers under investigation represent 10% of the city’s patrol force.

Attorney Michael Rains confirmed that his law firm is representing Amiri and that the officer is one of the 11 under federal criminal investigation.

“I’ve been told nothing else except it relates in some way to his deployment of his dog,” Rains told this news organization.

Reached by phone, Rombough’s attorney declined to comment.

Rombough, a SWAT officer and 10-year police veteran who joined Antioch from the Alameda County Sheriff’s office in 2017, was one of four Antioch officers to shoot and kill Zavala during an hours-long standoff at an Antioch residence. Zavala, allegedly armed with a rifle, fired dozens of shots at officers during the standoff, police said.

Amiri, a former Brentwood police officer who joined APD in 2017, is a central focus of the investigation, sources say. More than any other Antioch officer, Amiri shows up in recent use of force cases his own department has released under SB 1421, the 2018 state law requiring police agencies to produce records of investigations related to use of force that caused great bodily harm or death.

Those police records show that in some cases Amiri used his police-issued metal flashlight and his fists to strike people in the face, while his K9 Purcy was attacking.

Under SB 1421, APD has released records in four of the nearly two dozen dog bite cases involving Amiri’s dog. This includes a 17-year-old armed robbery suspect Amiri punched in the head while the dog was gnawing at the teen, records show. The teen, like others bitten by Purcy, required surgery, needing stitches or staples to sew up wounds. Amiri wrote in a police report that he punched the 17-year-old suspect in the face while Purcy was biting him following a police chase from Antioch to Pittsburg on Feb. 17, 2021, according to police records.

A man suspected of driving a stolen vehicle suffered injuries to his arm and a head wound after Antioch police Officer Morteza Amiri struck him on the forehead with a flashlight while Amiri's K9 partner, Purcy, bit the man's arm during an April 2020 traffic stop. Antioch police commanders found that Amiri deploying his dog to jump through the driver's side window was within department policy. Note: the black squares are meant to protect the identity of the man and were put there by Antioch Police before releasing the photos in response to a public records request. (Antioch Police Department)
A man suspected of driving a stolen vehicle suffered injuries to his arm and a head wound after Antioch police Officer Morteza Amiri struck him on the forehead with a flashlight while Amiri’s K9 partner, Purcy, bite the man’s arm during an April 2020 traffic stop. Note: The black squares are meant to protect the identity of the man and were put there by Antioch Police before releasing the photos in response to a public records request. (Antioch Police Department) 

In another case — involving a man who was suspected of driving a stolen Chevy Trailblazer and did not respond to Amiri and other officers during an April 2020 traffic stop — Amiri deployed his dog to jump through the driver’s side window to bite the arm of a man suspected of driving a stolen Chevy Trailblazer who did not respond to officers during an April 2020 traffic stop. As Purcy clenched his teeth on the man’s arm, Amiri wrote in a police report, he swung his flashlight and inadvertently struck the man in the head, after determining he was holding his cellphone and not a gun.

Amiri and other officers claimed they feared for their lives. It turned out, according to the police report, that the owner of the Trailblazer knew the man and said they would not have reported it stolen had they known he was in possession of the vehicle.

In April 2019, Purcy bit a man named Vance Gattis while Amiri was attempting to arrest Gattis during a traffic stop. He was questioned for not wearing a seat belt as a passenger in a car Amiri stopped for having tinted windows. The situation quickly escalated, as Gattis resisted the officers, who shocked him with Tasers, deployed Purcy to bite and apprehend him, and struck him with their fists and flashlights. Amiri reported hitting Gattis three or four times, records show.

Rombough was the arresting officer but was not named in records as one of the officers who used force against Gattis.

Gattis suffered “an intracranial hemorrhage, spinal cord injury, and chest wall trauma,” according to a lawsuit he filed, naming Amiri, Rombough, and two other officers as defendants. His injuries required stitches for lacerations to the arms and a gash on his forehead.

This news organization reached out to Rains to seek comment from Amiri and did not receive a response.

Since the FBI and Contra Costa District Attorney’s office announced a joint investigation in March, federal prosecutors have dismissed more than a dozen cases, including four gun possession cases that either hinged on Rombough or Amiri’s testimony. In one instance, Rombough claimed he found a pistol on a man he chased on foot and tackled in June 2019. In another, Amiri claimed he saw a suspect throw a pistol out the window of an Antioch apartment during a search. In state court, Contra Costa prosecutors dismissed at least 40 cases that hinge on “impugned” officers, the agency announced, but have declined to specify which cases were dropped.

Rains did say, however, that he believes Antioch police conduct thorough investigations of use of force and excessive force allegations and that his client, Amiri, was not found to have violated policies or removed from the K-9 unit until the federal investigation began.

In the four use of force cases involving Amiri that APD released, none contain records showing Amiri was disciplined. Instead, command-level staff praised his work in sending in Purcy during the April 2020 car stop, concluding it was within policy.

“The restraint of all officers involved and their ability to process information during a high stress situation and recognize that the suspect was only simulating a firearm is commendable. This could have been an (officer involved shooting). Nice work by all involved,” an internal department memo said.

Antioch K-9 Officer Morteza Amiri was featured in a July 2021 city of Antioch promotional video called "meet your beat." (City of Antioch)
Antioch K-9 Officer Morteza Amiri was featured in a July 2021 city of Antioch promotional video called “Meet your beat.” (City of Antioch) City of Antioch

In July 2021, the city of Antioch released a biographical video about Amiri in which he talks about how a school resource officer inspired him to return to high school and ultimately become a policeman. He recounts growing up in a “Section 8 household” and how that experience gave him empathy for those he encounters in similar situations “while on patrol.”

“No matter where we go in our community, there’s always people waving at us, telling us they appreciate what we do,” Amiri, an Antioch resident, says on the video. But he later laments that, “Sometimes when people see the uniform, they judge you based on what they see on TV and what they see on the internet.”

With 11 officers under investigation, it is by far the largest criminal probe of law enforcement in Contra Costa County in a decade. Prosecutors typically ask for a grand jury to file an indictment with specific charges at the investigation’s conclusion, but the decision of whether and how to charge the case rests wholly with jurors.

The FBI and Contra Costa District Attorney probe includes similar allegations to the infamous CNET scandal of a decade ago, which targeted corruption among Contra Costa County law enforcement officials, both current and former, who were involved in stealing and selling drugs, illegal wiretapping, extortion and robbery.

This time around, officers are suspected of using cocaine and steroids, cheating on tests or misrepresenting their own training, and assaulting people, among other offenses, according to multiple law enforcement sources.

Antioch interim police Chief Steven Ford did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Civil rights attorneys and critical observers of Antioch police were not surprised by the existence of the FBI investigation. Attorney John Burris, who has filed multiple lawsuits against APD over the years, said the department has had a history of unchecked excessive force and has been resistant to discipline officers or change policies related to use of force.

Over the past decade, multiple Antioch officers have been involved in fatal shootings or in-custody deaths, including using carotid neck holds. From 2008 to 2021, Antioch police officers were involved in 22 shootings, according to police records.

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