A former Police Explorer in Santa Maria has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, members of its Police Department and the estate of Officer Albert Covarrubias Jr., alleging that Covarrubias used his position of authority to rape and sexually harass her.
The Police Department and city are accused of lack of training and supervision and negligence in the lawsuit, which was filed Aug. 7 in U.S. District Court by attorneys with Goldberg and Gage, a Woodland Hills firm. Gloria Covarrubias is sued as the representative of her late husband’s estate.
Jane Doe, as the girl is identified in the court documents, was a 17-year-old participating in the Santa Maria Police Department’s Explorer Program, designed for young people with an interest in law-enforcement careers.
When police heard about the relationship, they interviewed her and went to arrest Covarrubias in the early morning hours of Jan. 28 while he was on duty at a DUI checkpoint. He resisted, pulled his weapon and was then fatally shot by a fellow officer and friend, Officer Matt Kline, according to the District Attorney Office report on the incident.
Assistant City Attorney Phil Sinco said his office has not completed its review of the complaint, and has not yet been served with the lawsuit. It’s unlikely the city will have any comment on the allegations until after significant discovery has been completed, which could take several months, he said Monday.
From late December until Jan. 29, 2012, the lawsuit alleges, Covarrubias “embarked upon a nefarious scheme to intimidate and rape” Jane Doe by using his authority as a police officer, building a relationship of trust, and spending time alone with her.
Covarrubias was assigned to train Jane Doe for the Explorer Program, and they spent time alone together, including in his patrol vehicle late at night for DUI checkpoints and other police-related functions, according to the complaint.
He made unwanted sexual advances and threatened her to make her have sex with him and text him, and she was assaulted multiple times in January, the lawsuit alleges.
“Covarrubias told Jane that if she did not sleep with him that he would kill Jane’s boyfriend and her family. Covarrubias emphasized that as a police officer he would be able to get away with it,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit also addresses the police investigation and fatal shooting of Covarrubias.
Police were tipped off to the relationship by a friend of Jane Doe, and police then interviewed her with her parents the night of Jan. 27. She had been present at a DUI Checkpoint along with Covarrubias and other officers, but was called home on the pretext of a family emergency, according to the report by the District Attorney’s Office on the incident.
As part of the police investigation, investigators had Jane Doe call Covarrubias less than an hour before he was killed, according to the report.
Jane Doe agreed to a plan by investigators to lie during the call, and tell Covarrubias she was pulled away from the checkpoint because her mother found a positive pregnancy test, and she might be pregnant with his child. In the call, Covarrubias allegedly admitted having sexual contact with Jane Doe, was suspicious the call was a set-up, and asked her not to tell anyone about it.
He also said words to the effect that “I’m not going to be taken in. I’m going to kill myself,” according to the report. Police decided to go to the DUI checkpoint and arrest him immediately.
Sgt. Chris Nartatez and Sgt. Mark Norling attempted to take him into custody, and as they approached him, he backed away and pulled his weapon, according to the report. Covarrubias fired a single shot, which didn’t hit anyone, and Officer Matthew Kline moved in on the struggle and fired three shots. An autopsy determined that Covarrubias died from a shot in the neck.
“As a result of the negligent manner the investigation was conducted and the arrest of Covarrubias executed, Jane suffered significant emotional distress,” the legal complaint states, asking for damages for significant emotional distress.
The complaint also seeks damages for deprivation of right to be free of sexual assault, violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments, lack of training to the point of indifference for the Police Department, negligent supervision and sexual harassment.
Jane Doe considered it a hostile work environment.
“The harassment included Covarrubias’ repeated touching and fondling private portions of plaintiff’s body, sending her lewd messages, and coaxing her into various sex acts though such action is illegal as plaintiff was under 18.”
The defendants should have known Covarrubias was mentally unstable and Explorers were vulnerable for sexual exploitation, the lawsuit alleges, but he was assigned to train Jane Doe, and was allowed to have time alone with her. The Police Department also allegedly failed to interfere and violated its policy to prohibit minors from ride-alongs after midnight in this case.
Several officers knew that Jane Doe went on late-night ride-alongs and Covarrubias gave her rides home afterward, and if contact between them had been more restricted, sexual assault would have been less likely, the lawsuit alleges.
The complaint asks for damages to compensate for loss of earning and employment opportunity, medical expenses, legal expenses, litigation costs and attorneys’ fees, interest, damages caused by deprivation of constitutional rights, civil penalties and punitive damages.
The case has been assigned to Magistrate Judge Frederick Mumm of the Central District Court.
In early August, Police Chief Danny Macagni retired two days after being placed on administrative leave as a result of an undisclosed personnel matter. He served as chief since 2003 and worked in the department since 1975. The city has appointed retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. Ralph Martin as interim police chief.