SAN FRANCISCO - A federal grand jury in San Francisco returned four separate indictments August 17, 2023 that, collectively, charge ten current and former officers and employees from the Antioch and Pittsburg police departments with various crimes ranging from excessive force to fraud, announced United States Attorney Ismail J. Ramsey and Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Robert K. Tripp. The indictments all were filed August 16, 2023, and unsealed the following day. The charges were described by U.S. Attorney Ramsey and Special Agent in Charge Tripp at a press conference held on August 17, 2023.
“Police officers promise to enforce laws for the protection of the public and to protect the rights of the accused,” said U.S. Attorney Ramsey. “That is the job. The indictments describe officers who are alleged to have violated this oath. When this happens, the damage done to the public trust cannot easily be calculated. This office will not rest until all persons who have engaged in this sort of behavior are apprehended and prosecuted.”
“This case is one of the highest priorities for the San Francisco Field Office,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Tripp. “Law enforcement officers bear a tremendous responsibility to police our communities lawfully in keeping with the Constitution, and we must always be true to that guiding principle. I want to extend my sincere appreciation to the FBI agents, analysts, and law enforcement partners who worked tirelessly on this case and whose efforts culminated in the operations today.”
At the press conference, U.S. Attorney Ramsey referred to the first indictment as the “college degree benefits fraud indictment.” According to the indictment, six defendants engaged in a conspiracy to defraud police departments out of taxpayer dollars, including the Antioch and Pittsburg Police Departments, by claiming they had earned college credits toward degrees when, instead, they paid others to attend classes and take exams for them. Specifically, beginning in June of 2019, Officer Patrick James Berhan of the Pittsburg Police Department utilized a person identified as “Individual 1” to complete multiple college courses on his behalf. The courses were credited toward Berhan’s completion of a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice. Berhan allegedly received a degree and then applied for and received reimbursements and increases to his pay from Pittsburg Police Department. Further, the indictment alleges Berhan “promoted Individual 1’s services” and “benefited from payments received by Individual 1 in furtherance of the scheme.” The indictment describes how five other members of the police departments retained Individual 1 to complete similar coursework from the university. Each paid money to Individual 1, obtained a degree based on the fraudulent coursework, and applied for benefits including reimbursements and increases in pay from their law enforcement employer.
The second indictment charges two defendants with conspiring to distribute anabolic steroids. The indictment describes how Officers Daniel Harris and Devon Wenger, both employed by the Antioch Police Department, allegedly conspired illegally to distribute the drugs to an unnamed customer. The indictment also alleges that Harris possessed and attempted to possess the drugs, and that Wenger attempted to delete evidence of the scheme from his cellular phone prior to handing the phone over to law enforcement officers.
The third indictment charges a single defendant, Timothy Allen Manly Williams (Manly), also then with the Antioch Police Department, with three charges—two involving alleged interference with a wiretap investigation and the third involving the illegal seizure and destruction of a telephone. The indictment alleges that on March 23, 2021, Manly was assigned to a “wire room” where, pursuant to a court order, he was supposed to monitor communications between a target and others who contacted the target by telephone. While monitoring the target, Manly allegedly used his personal cellphone, dialed a special code to ensure his number would not appear to others, and called a target of the investigation. After dialing the number, Manly also designated his call to the target to be “non-pertinent” ensuring the 14-second conversation would not be recorded. Manly also allegedly made entries on the wire logs to suggest that the call he made resulted in no answer and no audio. The indictment further alleges that on May 6, 2021, Manly was on the scene when another officer deployed a police dog when arresting a person. Upon seeing a witness using a cellular telephone to record the aftermath of the incident, Manly allegedly seized the witness’s telephone and destroyed it.
The fourth indictment charges three Antioch police officers—Morteza Amiri, Eric Rombough, and Devon Wenger—with conspiracy against rights and deprivation of rights under color of law. The 29-page indictment describes how the defendants allegedly communicated with each other and others about using and intending to use excessive force against individuals in and around Antioch. The uses of excessive force included deployment of a K9, deployment of a 40mm “less lethal” launcher, and other unnecessary violence. Further, the indictment alleges that the defendants deployed uses of force as “punishment” to subjects “beyond any punishment appropriately imposed by the criminal justice system,” and allegedly made repeated reference to or suggestion of violating the civil rights of their victims. Examples in the indictment include the following:
• On July 24, 2019, Amiri allegedly pulled over a bicyclist, identified as A.A., for failing to have lights on after dark. The indictment alleges that “[i]n the course of apprehending A.A., Amiri punched him multiple times; K9 Purcy then bit A.A. in the arm, injuring him.” Amiri then shared pictures of the victim’s wounds with other Antioch police officers who exchanged text messages including: “Yeah buddy good boy pursy,” “F[expletive] that turd,” and Amiri later stated “Detectives already called PRCS and got him a 45 day violation and we are gonna leave it at that so i don’t have to go to court for the bite. easy.” In response to a question from another officer about what cut the dog’s face, Amiri responded, “that’s a piece of the suspect’s flesh lol.”
• On October 8, 2020, Amiri allegedly sent a text message identifying a transient living in Antioch identified as M.Z. stating “anyone that finds him gets code [a free meal or beverage]. This f[expletive] stole my mail and was trying to open accounts under my name.” Wenger responded “Lets beat his f[expletive] ass I’m down after work morty” According to the indictment, the recipients of Amiri’s message located M.Z. later that evening. Amiri then arrived on the scene, shoved M.Z. against a wall and threatened to kill him. The indictment also alleges that a few months later Amiri texted another group of officers in reference to M.Z., “few months ago, I tracked him down and dragged him to the back of a car to ‘discuss’ the matter,” and “putting a pistol in someone’s mouth and telling them to stop stealing isn’t illegal. . . it’s an act of public service to prevent further victims of crimes”
• On May 5, 2021, Rombough accompanied other Antioch police officers who responded to a report that transients were living inside a privately-owned unit. While responding, Rombough and another officer located a couple lying on a bed inside a room. Rombough deployed a 40mm less lethal launcher at one of the persons on the bed, hitting them in the chest and knocking them off the bed.
• On August 24, 2021, Rombough accompanied other Antioch police officers as they executed a search warrant at a residence in Antioch. Officers located a subject—identified as J.W.—inside a locked bedroom holding a video game controller while sitting on an air mattress, with a video game on a television screen. J.W. removed a pair of headphones and raised his hands as officers, including Rombough, entered the room. One officer took J.W.’s left arm to arrest him as four other officers surrounded J.W. As the other officer held J.W.’s left arm on the bed, Rombough deployed the 40mm less lethal launcher at J.W., injuring him.
The indictment describes several other incidents of excessive force as well as the collection and sharing of pictures to memorialize acts of violence and the collection by defendant Rombough of spent munitions to commemorate his deployment of the 40mm launcher.
An indictment merely alleges that crimes have been committed, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The indictments charge the following defendants with crimes as follows:
In addition, as part of any sentence following conviction, the court may order defendants to serve an additional term of supervised release to begin after a prison term as well as additional fines, and restitution, if appropriate. Any sentence following conviction would be imposed by the court only after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.
The case is being prosecuted by the Special Prosecutions Section and Oakland Branch of the United States Attorney’s Office. The prosecution is the result of an investigation by the FBI and the Office of the District Attorney of Contra Costa County.