When the mayor of Wapato fired the city’s police chief, she appointed a temporary chief identified in a number of lawsuits and claims against the city.

Wapato Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa fired Chief Dominic Rizzi on Aug. 2. She appointed Wapato police Officer Michael Campos to serve as the city’s acting police chief.

Campos has nearly 15 years with the Wapato Police Department. He formerly served as the city’s police chief for nine months in 2008 and as the city’s first public safety director from February to August 2018.

He said that over the course of his career, he has responded to gang-related shootings, assaults, homicides, kidnappings, burglaries and domestic violence concerns.

“The appointment makes sense,” Campos said. “I am passionate for this community, and I am excited for this opportunity.”

But his appointment has raised new concerns in a community grappling with repercussions from city government management since the start of 2018, when Juan Orozco rose to power. Some of the concerns focus on Orozco’s role in police department activities.

The city has been named in eight lawsuits and nine civil tort claim filings since Orozco became mayor after a controversial November 2017 election. He resigned in September 2018 to accept a newly created city administrator role that included an annual $95,000 salary.

He then resigned as city administrator in July to settle a lawsuit filed against him by the state Attorney General’s Office, which alleged he had used the position to unjustly enrich himself and that the city had violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act under his leadership.

Campos is identified in one of those lawsuits, filed by the Teamsters police union, and in six of the tort claim filings tied to Orozco, with allegations in the lawsuit and the claim filings that the men established a pattern of bullying and retaliation against those who refused their directives or challenged them and that Campos had directed multiple officers to engage in unlawful or unethical directives.

Campos also has been named in two additional lawsuits: one related to the 2016 fatal shooting of Mario Torres, pending in federal court, and a second in which he sued former mayor Tony Guzman over alleged defamatory remarks related to the shooting. That suit has since been settled. Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic determined in October 2016 that Campos had been justified in using deadly force.

The Yakima Herald-Republic obtained copies of the lawsuits and other court documents through the court system. The newspaper received copies of the civil tort claim filings through a public records request to the city of Wapato.

Campos said he could not comment on the specific allegations in the claim filings, citing the pending litigation. Orozco denied the allegations of retaliation and attempted intimidation made by the officers.

“There is no evidence whatsoever that any of them were ever intimidated or directed to do anything directly by me at any time for any reason,” Orozco said.

Orozco was booked into the Yakima County jail Tuesday on suspicion of official misconduct. A judge granted his release Wednesday, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to move ahead with the charges. Brusic said the investigation isn’t over and that Orozco can still be charged.

Officers raise concerns

In February 2018, the Wapato City Council authorized through a 5-2 vote the creation of a new public safety director position that combined the city’s former police chief and fire chief roles.

Orozco appointed Campos to the position, citing an informal survey he took of the city’s other officers about who should lead the department. Under the initial agreement worked out between the police union and the city, Campos would continue to be given union benefits during the six-month term even given his supervisory role. The agreement noted that the union benefits could be renewed for six-month periods. Officers voted not to renew Campos’ union benefits at the end of the first six-month term.

The Teamsters Local Union No. 760 filed a civil lawsuit in August 2018 against Wapato and Orozco, alleging discrimination and retaliation against officers who voted not to renew Campos’ union benefits. Though not named as a defendant, Campos is identified frequently throughout the suit.

According to the lawsuit, Campos was present at a mandatory meeting Orozco allegedly held with officers on Aug. 10, 2018, in which Orozco allegedly insisted officers take another vote on renewing Campos’ union benefits or that Orozco would institute a hiring freeze and possibly hire an “anti-union” chief. Also according to the lawsuit, Campos then allegedly “expressed his displeasure with the officers,” informed the officers that working overtime would no longer be allowed and that any new patrol vehicles would no longer be assigned to officers as previously planned.

The lawsuit alleges that Campos then sent an email to officers a few days later that canceled all vacations immediately and also that Orozco and Campos allegedly met with two officers and “pressured the officers to revote.” The lawsuit was settled in April and required the city to advertise for the public safety director’s job.

A month after the initial filing of the lawsuit, in September 2018, Orozco resigned as mayor and was almost immediately appointed as city administrator by Alvarez-Roa. That same month, 10 anonymous corrections and police officers issued a letter to city residents alleging that Orozco had threatened, harassed and intimidated employees of the police department and used officers to intimidate council members and city residents.

Five former and current officers have since gone on record with civil tort claim filings, the first step in a formal civil lawsuit. The claim filings allege that Orozco and the Wapato Police Department had established policies of bullying, threats and retaliation against officers who questioned or refused orders they deemed unethical or unlawful.

Sgt. Michael Deccio, who was public safety director for a short time in the fall of 2018, also was identified in the five claims, to a lesser extent.

Asked for comment, Deccio forwarded questions to the police union. Teamsters business representative Dave Simmons said police department policy requires officers to defer comment to city leadership. Alvarez-Roa had no comment.

As of Friday, Aug. 9, when Alvarez-Roa fired Rizzi, the Wapato Police Department had seven officers on staff: one sergeant, two veteran officers, three officers on probation, and one in academy. Simmons said that the police union has ongoing concerns about the use of intimidation and retaliation by city leadership against officers.

“Teamsters was very concerned by the actions taken by Mr. Orozco and continues to be concerned with the actions of the city’s mayor,” Simmons said. “It’s been expressed to us that certain of our members have remaining concerns about retaliation.”

Claim filings

Tort claim filings are the first step in filing a lawsuit against a government entity. David Therrien-Power, the attorney who submitted the tort claim in May, said his clients plan to proceed in court and “stand by the veracity of what is laid out in the tort claims.”

The four Wapato police officers who filed notices are former Officer Andreas Eismann, who resigned from the department; former Officer Jacob Murphy, who resigned; former Officer Fernando Lopez, who resigned; and Officer Charles Lawther, who still serves with the Wapato Police Department.

Former corrections officer Keilen Harmon, who was fired by Orozco, also filed a claim notice.

The claim filings from Lawther, Lopez and Harmon allege that the city of Wapato through Orozco and the Wapato Police Department “clearly established a pattern of bullying and threats to unlawfully further nefarious objectives. Resistance more often than not results in administrative leave or termination of employment.”

The claim filings from Murphy and Eismann allege that “Former police officers will have knowledge of the pattern of activity engaged in by Mr. Orozco and Sgt. Campos and Sgt. Deccio at his behest. They are aware of the retaliatory actions taken by Mr. Orozco and his subordinates against employees and citizens.”

Review of the claim filings:

  • In his claim filing, Eismann alleges that Orozco directed Campos to use officers to target Councilman Frank Jaime, a critic of Orozco. Eismann alleges in the claim filing that Campos drafted a letter of resignation for Jaime, told Eismann to deliver the letter when Eismann was in full uniform with tactical vest and firearm, “became angry” when Eismann returned without a signature because Jaime had refused to sign, and then allegedly said that “Mr. Jaime should have been treated like a suspect in a criminal investigation to get him to do what was needed to be done.” In his claim, Eismann said he reported the incident as a possible violation of law to the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, allegedly causing Orozco, Campos, and Deccio to target him in “a concerted effort to fabricate a reason to fire him or find him insubordinate,” according to his claim filing.
  • In his claim filing, Murphy alleges that Campos told him that Orozco had allegedly ordered the police department to provide civil service document delivery, despite the police department’s policy not to do so without a court order, and directed Murphy to hand-deliver letters of unlawful dismissal to two civil service board members while in uniform and with his firearm. (The two board members remain in their positions on the Wapato Civil Service Commission, according to Wapato’s website.)

Murphy alleges that on a second occasion, Campos provided a suspect information report, which typically requests felony criminal charges against someone, on former mayor and then City Councilman Tony Guzman and allegedly directed Murphy to detain and interrogate Guzman, then transport him to the Yakima County jail in handcuffs. Murphy says in his claim that he carried out the arrest but did not handcuff Guzman. He alleges he received a follow-up call from Campos telling him to call Orozco and explain why Guzman had not been handcuffed, adding that “Mr. Orozco was very angry that Mr. Guzman had not been placed in handcuffs,” according to the claim filing.

Murphy also alleges in his claim that Campos directed him to leave out possibly exonerating information during an interview with a witness related to the Guzman investigation. Murphy says in his claim that Campos had a pending defamation lawsuit against Guzman at the time. Murphy alleges that Orozco had started the criminal investigation and that Campos had prepared and drafted some — if not all — of the information in the report.

Murphy says in his claim filing that he felt Orozco and Campos wanted to target Guzman and that not following their orders could result in his termination. The Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office decided not to file charges against Guzman, according to a court document filed in July 2018.

Reactions

Campos, citing the pending litigation and claims, said that he could not comment on the specific allegations. But he said he is looking forward to serving Wapato residents as their temporary chief of police.

“The community is very welcoming of my new appointment,” he said. “I work well with this community. I am looking forward. I will do my very best to do whatever I can to rebuild trust.”

Alvarez-Roa did not comment on why she appointed Campos to the role.

Guzman, who is running for Wapato City Council, alleges that Campos had him arrested in 2018 at Orozco’s order.

“Campos was doing that investigation on me because Orozco made him do it,” Guzman said. “Orozco wanted me paraded in front of everyone to humiliate me, but Murphy wouldn’t allow it. He said he would not handcuff me, and if Orozco wanted to fire him, so be it.”

Jaime, also running for Wapato City Council, viewed the police-delivered letter of resignation as an attempt at intimidation.

“Orozco pulled me aside one day and started telling me I had done a list of things wrong, when I had done nothing wrong, but that he could make it all go away,” he said. “I really didn’t want to resign, but my wife got sick because of what had happened to Tony (Guzman). Because of Campos and Orozco, he got thrown in jail, and she didn’t want that to happen to me.”

Jaime resigned from his council seat in May, about a month after he was delivered the letter of resignation.

Councilman Keith Workman, whom the council voted into a mayor pro tempore role Aug. 7, said the appointment of an officer over the department’s sergeant did not seem to follow the chain of command.

“In my opinion, the appropriate chain of command wasn’t followed and that situation should have been handled differently,” he said.

Workman added he’s heard from constituents who have concerns about the appointment.

“They’re afraid of him,” Workman said. “They figure if they speak out, they will experience retaliation. People are really afraid.”

The Yakima Herald-Republic asked on social media, in a community group with a mission to “enrich the lives of those living in Wapato and surrounding communities,”about Wapato residents’ experiences with Campos. The post received 35 comments from 17 individuals over the course of a week.

Seven of those individuals referenced concerns about Campos’ appointment, that Orozco had directed his actions and continued to do so, that he had harassed members of the Wapato community, and about his involvement in the 2016 fatal shooting.

The paper also heard from four additional individuals who shared specific concerns about Campos.

Other litigation

Campos and Wapato Police Sgt. Larry Ehrhardt responded to a possible domestic violence call at a residence on West Second Street the evening of July 31, 2016, that ended in Campos shooting and killing Mario Torres, according to documents the Yakima Herald-Republic obtained through the court system.

Following the shooting, then-Mayor Tony Guzman posted publicly that Campos was a disgrace to the police department. Campos sued Guzman in March 2018, alleging the comments were defamatory. Yakima County Superior Court dismissed the case in December 2018. Brusic determined in October 2016 that Campos had been justified in using deadly force.

Rosa Sanchez, Torres’ sister and the special administrator for his estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Campos in February. Ehrhardt, the city, its police department and 10 unnamed individuals are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The case moved to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington in June. A scheduling conference for the case is set for Sept. 5 in front of Judge Salvador Mendoza Jr.

Editorial Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Alvarez-Roa terminated Rizzi on Aug. 2.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.