Criminal Threats by Former LBPD Cop Not Prosecuted

By: 
Stephen Downing

Sam Zavala is a former Long Beach Police Officer who apparently still treasures his ability to “kick ass.” He represents himself on Facebook as one whose view of police work is to make guns, handcuffs, skulls and violence the stuff of all that he stood for as a Long Beach police officer.

In September 2018 following the Beachcombers exposure of LBPD supervisors instructing subordinates to use the TigerConnect ephemeral (self deleting) texting app “anytime you don’t want your text messaging subject to discovery,” Zavala got into a Facebook discussion about the article with two other former LBPD officers about the fact that the Beachcomber writer who exposed the police corruption is a retired LAPD deputy chief who lives in Long Beach.

I am that writer.

Zavala’s Facebook message to one of his friends said: “John, here’s the prissy little bitch I was talking about. Yet another LAPD command staff office pogue who lives in the LBC and thinks he’s gonna change the LBPD. He’s wrong. That boy might end up in the Los Angeles River floating out to the Port of Long Beach with all the garbage, feces and aborted fetuses…” “He’s about to get an LBC education. The fool won’t ever see it comin’.”

Based on Zavala’s advertised love of violence I concluded that his message posed a significant threat to my family and me. It frightened my wife to the point that she did not want to leave the house alone.

The threat was reported to the LBPD. I received an immediate email from Deputy Chief Richard Conant who informed me that investigation of the crime had been assigned to the Violent Crimes section and that “all efforts for this incident will be worked via my office for oversight.”

Chief Conant also kindly offered to conduct a vulnerability assessment of my home, which I declined, knowing that my home security measures effectively protected against a home invasion.

My concern was when we were outside our home. I had no idea what Sam Zavala looked like.

The case was assigned to Detective David Ternullo, who interviewed me by phone the following day.

The detective’s interview was aimed at satisfying two of the six primary elements of Penal Code section 242 that must be proven, according to Jury Instructions for Criminal Threats published by the Judicial Council of California:

That the threat actually caused me (and/or my wife) to be “in sustained fear for my safety or the safety of my immediate family AND

That the fear was reasonable under the circumstances.

Having seen the grotesque skull, guns and “kick ass” braggadocio along with the threatening language on Zavala’s Facebook page, especially his final statement that “the fool won’t ever see it coming,” I told Ternullo the level of fear both my wife and I were experiencing (and continue to experience to this day) was real and palpable.

That fear was also strengthened by an LA Times article I found from a Google search the night before. The March 1987 story was headlined “L.B. Rejects Review Panel for Fired Cops.

The article identified a number of criminal issues surrounding Zavala’s termination from the LBPD that included sexually assaulting and harassing women in his custody, inciting fights between prisoners and jail security guards (laughing as he watched) and witness intimidation; all of which ultimately produced a finding from the state appeals court that concluded, “repeated misconduct by Zavala showed he was not amenable to rehabilitation and lacked the ability to treat prisoners in a manner becoming a police officer.”

Zavala was terminated by the LBPD, but the department did not seek criminal prosecution for his crimes.

So, yes, considering the totality of circumstances, I believed our fear to be reasonable and so informed the detective.

Three months later Detective Ternullo informed me that his investigation was complete and that the district attorney’s office felt that there was a “lack of corpus in that the comments made were not directly communicated to you and were not intended to be a threat.”

I asked the detective for a copy of the DA’s charge evaluation worksheet to better understand the prosecutors rational.

Ternullo refused and referred me to Deputy District Attorney (DDA) Simone Shay in the Long Beach office. I asked Ternullo for a photo of Zavala so that I could be armed with a minimal level of awareness should Zavala make good on his threat that, “the fool won’t ever see it coming.” Ternullo declined to provide a photo or a description of Zavala.

I reached DDA Shay by telephone. She argued that the case presented to her did not support a criminal filing. She agreed to send me her charge sheet. I also asked for a copy of the detective’s investigation report presented to her. She refused the request and referred me back to the police department.

I received the charge sheet from Shay via email 8 days later.

A formal, written request to the police department for Detective Ternullo’s investigation report resulted first in a written denial – after a two month wait – and, following multiple calls and discussions with both investigative and records supervisors, the detective’s report finally arrived in the mail last week.

During this span of time I also discovered that Detective Ternullo retired shortly after he submitted the case to DDA Shay.

The DDA’s charge sheet narrative began with the statement, “Suspect is a 64-year-old with no prior criminal convictions…” What followed that statement was heavily redacted, including the language of the threat. DDA Shay wrote, “A violation of PC 422 requires that a defendant intend the statement to be taken as a threat and intended the threat be communicated (sic) the victim. There does not appear to be any intent to communicate the threat to the victim.”

The DDA provided no explanation as to why she did not consider the public nature of Facebook or the legal concept of “third party” communication which case law upholds as a basis to establish “intent to communicate the threat to the victim.” She also made no mention that Zavala was a former LBPD police officer who was terminated for multiple crimes and was never prosecuted for those crimes.

In concluding her rational to reject a criminal filing DDA Shay wrote, “Additionally, the entirety of the circumstances under which the statements were made do not convey a sufficiently clear, immediate and specific threat to unlawfully kill or cause great bodily injury to the victim.”

After reading Detective Ternello’s investigation report I had to wonder why – because of Shay’s need for a stronger “entirety of circumstances” the prosecutor didn’t kick the investigation back to Ternullo and ask that he develop a stronger case.

Ternullo’s investigation was sloppy, incomplete and reflected a totally unprofessional approach to the investigation of a felony suspect.

According to the investigation report, when the detective and another officer went to interview Zavala at his home the suspects wife answered the door. Ternullo wrote: “She told us that he was sleeping and she asked for my business card. I then provided it to her and she said that she would have him contact us later.”

The detectives left. When I read that part of the report I commented to my wife, “I wonder if they would have agreed to let a felony suspect continue sleeping if the threat had been made against Chief Luna or Mayor Garcia?”

Two days later Ternello interviewed Zavala by telephone. He did not advise the felony suspect of his Miranda rights prior to the interview but instead, read Zavala the threat language that was attributed to him and asked the suspect if he did in fact make the statements.

Zavala admitted that he did but said, “I did not intend to harm Downing or anyone else.”

If not, what did he intend?

According to the investigation report Zavala was not asked that question. Additionally, Zavala’s admission to making the threat would not have been admissible had the DDA decided to charge him because the suspect was not advised of his rights.

During the same interview Ternullo learned from Zavala that the parties with whom he was discussing his threats were also former Long Beach police officers. According to his report, Detective Ternullo did not interviewed any of them in order to strengthen the “entirety of the circumstances” surrounding the case.

In his report Ternullo wrote that when he finished asking Zavala questions, the suspect “then told me that it appeared to him that a criminal investigation was being conducted into these comments and I told him that a police report had been filed in regard to them. He then offered to turn himself in if that was needed and I told him that I would submit this case first to the DA’s office for review.”

After reading the DDA’s Charge Evaluation report and Ternullo’s investigation report I sent an email to DDA Shay with a copy to Deputy Chief Conant pointing out my various concerns and asked – at the very least – if the case could be referred to the City Prosecutor for misdemeanor consideration – or even an attempt. I wrote: “You can also let the City Prosecutor know that I would be agreeable to Conflict Resolution in lieu of prosecution as well – as it would provide me the opportunity to see what Sam Zavala looks like.

Neither the prosecutor nor the deputy chief replied.

Stephen Downing is a resident of Long Beach and a retired LAPD deputy chief of police. stephen.beachcomber@gmail.com

EDITORS NOTE: A July 27, 2018 article in the LB Post by Jeremiah Dobruck reports a similar incident involving a local hip-hop artist who made threats on Twitter about “shooting up City Hall and “murking the mayor.” The rapper, Mario Chheng, was arrested and felony charges were filed by the district attorney’s office. Detective Ternullo investigated the case. In spite of the fact that – like Zavala – Chheng denied he had any intent to carry out his threats Ternullo said, “There’s always a chance that the threat could be carried out, yes.” Chheng was reported to be free on $50,000 bail pending trial.

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