When Sgt. Chris Nartatez was told to arrest a fellow Santa Maria police officer suspected of having an improper relationship with a teen who was part the department's Explorers program, he repeatedly asked former Lt. Dan Ast to spell out the plan, and questioned the urgency in the case that ended with the suspected officer being shot to death.
Nartatez’s offered that emotional testimony Monday during the arbitration hearing for the fired Santa Maria Police Department lieutenant who is seeking to get his job back.
Ast was terminated in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Officer Albert Covarrubias by a fellow officer at a DUI checkpoint in Jan. 28, 2012.
Covarrubias was suspected of having a sexual relationship with an 17-year-old girl who participated in the department’s Police Explorer program.
While details of the night have come out in reports, this was the first public testimony of the circumstances leading up to the fatal shooting of Covarrubias by his friend.
Nartatez testified Monday that he was “shocked” when Ast told him they needed to arrest Covarrubias that night.
“I said, ‘What’s the rush? Why do we have to do it now?” Nartatez testified.
“It felt like we were just being pushed out the door to go do it,” Nartatez added.
Ast said the officers were wrapping up the DUI checkpoint and needed to act immediately to take Covarrubias into custody, according to Nartatez, who suggested then-Sgt. Mark Norling also be involved in the arrest.
“We got in the car,” Nartatez said, referring to himself and Norling. “As we were leaving the compound, I looked at Mark and said, ‘What are we doing? What’s the plan? This isn’t good. This is not good.’”
Norling, who testified earlier Monday, got out and went to the car behind them to talk to Ast before they left the police station parking lot.
“I basically went back and said there’s an investigation, he’s suicidal, he may know we’re coming …,” Norling said, explaining his questioning of Ast's urgency to arrest Covarrubias at the checkpoint. “I was voicing my concerns about going up there under those circumstances.”
Despite their concerns, the arrest plans weren’t canceled, and the officers proceeded to the checkpoint site just minutes way at Broadway and McElhaney Avenue, where they looked for Covarrubias, according to Nartatez, who choked up with emotion several times during his testimony.
“It was very dark. I could see a group of motor officers standing in the parking lot. I started looking for Officer Covarrubias, but it was very dark so I was depending on his stature,” Nartatez said. “He was shorter.”
Upon reaching the group, Nartatez said he intended to put Covarrubias — his second cousin — in a bear hug and then get help from Norling to subdue the man.
“I grabbed him. We continued walking north. I tried to take him to the ground, and as we were doing that I could hear the gun come out the holster — his gun,” Nartatez said, crying. “The next thing I heard and saw — there was gunshot about two inches from the left side of my temple. I saw the muzzle flash.”
“And then we went down the ground. I was on top of him and we struggled slightly. The gun was to my left. He had his hand on his gun. At that point Sergeant Norling was there. I could see Sergeant Norling place both of his hands on the gun to keep it down on the ground.
"A couple seconds went by, and another gunshot was to the right of my face and that’s when the struggle was over.”
“At that point, I got up, I called on the radio, ‘Officer down. Officer down, we need an ambulance,’” Nartatez said.
He recalled turning to Officer Matthew Kline, who asked if it was “Cova,” their nickname for Covarrubias. Nartatez confirmed the identity of the downed officer.
Nartatez testified that he yelled for help from the other officers, but Kline was the only one to respond.
“The only help that was received was Officer Kline, but that’s not the kind of help I was asking for at that time. I wanted somebody to come help us restrain him, to take him into custody,” Nartatez said.
Ast, who subsequently had arrived on scene, began administering first aid to Covarrubias, who had been shot in the neck by Kline.
Monday was day six of the hearing, which will resume Tuesday and possibly into Wednesday, as Ast attempts to get this job back.
Nartatez claimed as false Ast’s statement that everyone was on board with the intention to arrest Covarrubias that night.
“The only direction we got from Lieutenant Ast was 'for you two to go arrest him,'” Nartatez said.
Testimony on Monday revealed a dysfunctional department in which police supervisors allegedly were envious at the overtime one officers earned, and favoritism allegedly shown by the former chief, Danny Macagni.
The city’s attorney also asked about the relationship between Ast and Lt. Richard “Rico” Flores, who was overseeing the checkpoint and Explorers that night.
“It was not a good relationship,” Nartatez said.
He added that he was aware of the allegations that Ast may have pressed forward with the arrest that night to embarrass Flores.
But Ast has contended he was one of three lieutenants and whistle-blowers targeted by the former chief.
Ast contended after the shooting that the incident involved a five-man arrest team, although Norling and Nartatez testified they were unaware of this.
“I was not aware of a five-man arrest team,” Nartatez said.
Flores, who has since retired from the department, testified in the afternoon about his role that night.
As the shift began Ast didn’t reveal details of the investigation to Flores, who wondered if a parent had complained about treatment of Explorers. Ast asked for a list of the Explorers working that night, tipping Flores that an investigation was occurring.
During a briefing, Flores told his traffic officers about an investigation involving the Explorers, unaware an officer was considered a suspect.
When the city’s attorney, Dennis Gonzales, asked if he had been told it was confidential matter, Flores, responded, “Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”
Later, Flores gave the list to Ast, who told him, “By the way, don’t say anything to anybody about this.”
“That was shocker,” Flores said, wondering why the earlier conversation in the middle of the traffic bureau didn’t occur somewhere private if there were concerns.
Later that night, Ast told Flores that Covarrubias was suspected in a molestation case in which the victim had been threatened and the officer claimed he wouldn’t be taken in alive.
“I was just floored,” Flores said.
Flores also denied he was part of a planned five-man arrest team, as Ast claimed.
“I don’t know how in the world I could possible be considered part of the arrest team,” Flores said. “That just blew me away when you say that.”
Ast’s attorney, Jonathan Miller, questioned if Flores knew Covarrubias had given the teen rides home alone and was having an inappropriate relationship.
“Sir, you are attacking my credibility and my character” Flores responded. "Absolutely not."
Flores also denied having a one-on-one conversation with Covarrubias, although Ast’s attorney played testimony from an Explorer Scout saying the two men were talking to each other before the checkpoint.
Flores said he was greeting the traffic officers as they arrived for the shift.
Monday's hearing was continued from early June because witnesses remained to testify beyond the originally scheduled five days. Typically these hearings are held behind closed doors, but Ast requested it be open to the public.
Current and former members of the department plus current Chief Ralph Martin, who joined the department after the shooting, took the stand during the first few days of testimony.
In March 2013, Martin disciplined or fired nine officers involved at varying levels in the fatal shooting of the 29-year-old Covarrubias.
Ast, a veteran with the department, filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the city’s Police Department shortly after, alleging he was merely following supervisor’s orders
A hearing officer will make a final decision on the case, and could take three to four months before issuing a ruling.
If the hearing officer rules in favor of reinstating Ast, city leaders said they would follow protocol outlined in the official decision.