Crime

Chief’s letters: Bellingham cop destroyed evidence, told girlfriend to recant to save job

Jacob Esparza, a Bellingham police officer, was fired in December after accusations of misconduct.
Jacob Esparza, a Bellingham police officer, was fired in December after accusations of misconduct. City of Bellingham

A Bellingham police officer was already on the brink of losing his job on accusations of misconduct when he was arrested on new charges of domestic violence and was fired in late fall, according to public records obtained by The Bellingham Herald.

Disciplinary letters from Bellingham police Chief Clifford Cook recount three off-duty fights – one at a bar, two at home – in which Officer Jacob Esparza is said to have lied about what happened, destroyed evidence and, in the chief’s opinion, persuaded a possible domestic violence victim to recant so he could save his job.

The first fight was at a sports bar in March. Three months later at his Lynden home, his girlfriend reported that Esparza had choked her and aimed a gun at her. She withdrew her story, but the chief wasn’t convinced of Esparza’s innocence.

“Your conduct during this incident (was) dishonest, disgraceful, and, arguably, criminal,” Cook wrote to Esparza on Oct. 31, in a letter obtained in the first installment of records requested by The Herald.

About 2 1/2 weeks later, Esparza was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence against another woman, his ex-wife. Cook sent Esparza a final formal letter Dec. 1.

The Bellingham Police Guild responded with a letter of its own, asking for Esparza to be reinstated with full back pay. Esparza has been advised not to talk with the media, according to the guild. He could not be reached for comment.

Slo Pitch

Police were called to break up a bar fight about 2 a.m. March 28 at the Slo Pitch, 3720 Meridian St. Security footage showed two brothers, Michael and Martin De La Cerda, punching and kicking a man on the floor, according to charging papers. The man on the floor was Esparza, a Bellingham police officer since 2011.

Bouncers threw the brothers out and had to hold back Martin De La Cerda from coming at Esparza again. Outside the bar, Martin De La Cerda said he had a gun and pointed what appeared to be a gun at the door of the bar. “If you don’t get inside, you’re going to die!” he told security, according to charging papers. Everyone went inside, and the brothers drove away.

Police confirmed Martin De La Cerda’s identity, in part, by “a phone number he had given to (Esparza’s) girlfriend while inside the bar,” according to the charges. Esparza suffered injuries to his ribs and face. Martin De La Cerda pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, and he agreed to pay more than $5,000 in restitution for medical bills.

And though he was considered a victim in the criminal case, Esparza received a reprimand from Cook for carrying a gun in a backpack while off-duty, when he wasn’t qualified to carry that firearm. He was disciplined over the fight, too.

“I respectfully disagree that you were a blameless victim ... or that you were mistreated by the Department during the investigation,” Cook wrote.

Esparza admitted he was “severely intoxicated” at the bar, according to the letter. The chief gave Esparza a choice of alcohol treatment or a suspension without pay. Esparza took the two-day suspension. He insisted, Cook wrote, that a second chance was all he needed to succeed. He was handed a formal reprimand July 5.

Second strike

In tears, Esparza’s girlfriend called a co-worker about 2 a.m. July 26. She said Esparza either had pointed a gun at her or held it to her head, and that he choked her and threatened to kill her during an argument, records show. She fled Esparza’s home in Lynden. Esparza called his ex-wife and told her that he would shoot himself in the driveway. His children were still inside.

All on-duty officers in Lynden and Sumas converged on his home, but for two hours Esparza refused to come out. Officers told him they wanted to secure any guns in the home. Esparza said there were none – a lie, he later admitted, according to the documents.

“This patently false statement exposed you, your children, and the responding officers to an unnecessary risk,” Cook wrote in another stern letter to Esparza.

He claimed, at one point in the night, that he’d been assaulted by “a member of this department” – the name is redacted, and it’s unclear if it’s a reference to an on-duty officer or someone else. (Cook declined to clarify, when asked.) Regardless, that was a lie too, Esparza later admitted.

Once he exited the house, Esparza agreed to go to St. Joseph hospital for a voluntary mental health evaluation. He went, but didn’t follow through. He started the 12-mile walk home from Bellingham to Lynden. Police stopped him while he was still within the city limit. By then, Esparza had texted and called his girlfriend and told her not to let police enter the home. He deleted all records of those conversations, and she did too, before the internal investigation, according to Cook’s letters.

Esparza maintained that he got into a heated argument, but that it did not turn physical. That night, his girlfriend asked a sergeant to forget what she had reported. She made up the assault, she told officers, because she was mad at Esparza.

“I believe she withdrew her complaint in a misguided attempt to save your job,” Cook wrote.

Third strike

Esparza was put on paid administrative leave in August. He acknowledged receipt of the chief’s second letter Nov. 4, but Cook hadn’t decided on how he should be disciplined.

The next day when his ex-wife showed up to pick up the children, they got into an argument, according to her account in charging papers. They had signed their final divorce papers months earlier. She told Esparza, “I hope you and your whore are happy, you ruined our lives,” the charges say.

The ex-wife said Esparza pushed her against her van, with both hands on her shoulders. They yelled at each other, she freed herself, and Esparza told he would kill her, according to the charges. She kneed him in the groin to get him away. He put his hands around her throat and told her again he would kill her, according to the charges. He broke her necklace with his hand, then put his hands on her throat. Once he let go, she got into the van and drove off, the charges say.

She did not call police, at first, because “she did not want to get her ex-husband in further trouble,” according to the charges. However, after she told friends what had happened, they told her to go to the police. She did so on Nov. 19.

Police arrested Esparza when he came home that weekend. Prosecutor Dave McEachran charged him with felony harassment and assault in the fourth degree. A Superior Court commissioner barred Esparza from having a gun. In jail, a mental health evaluator found him “generally asymptomatic.” He was calm, friendly and cooperative, but getting little sleep, the report says.

Days earlier, McEachran had written a letter to Cook, saying a summary of Esparza’s behavior in July that was seen as drunken and dishonest would need to be disclosed to the defense attorneys, in case Esparza were called as a witness in a court. That rule of due process, established in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, would brand Esparza as a “Brady cop,” a kind of scarlet letter for officers with a record of lying. If prosecutors don’t disclose that an officer has a record of dishonesty, the whole case can get thrown out.

Esparza and a police guild representative met with the chief in late November. Cook’s account says Esparza apologized and acknowledged that he’d taken steps to address the stress in his personal life, but at the same time suggested that his girlfriend’s original statements “should be ignored” because she later recanted.

“As you know, victims of domestic violence frequently recant their allegations of abuse,” Cook wrote in a disciplinary letter in December. “This is especially true in cases where the victim chooses to remain in a relationship with the abuser.”

Cook rejected another argument from the police guild’s attorney, that Esparza’s level of intoxication should excuse his behavior.

Esparza was fired Dec. 2.

Appeal

A four-sentence grievance letter from the police guild says the firing violated the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the guild, pointing to Article 20, a chapter about disciplining officers. It does not say what part of the article was violated. The letter goes on to say the firing “lacks just cause in several regards” and violates procedural rights in the bargaining agreement, without adding specifics.

The president of the police guild, Officer April Mitchelson, emphasized that the grievance was about whether the disciplinary process was followed, not about emotions or the personal side of it.

“As noted in your voice message, you are lacking Jacob Esparza’s side of the story,” Mitchelson wrote, in response to a reporter’s message. “Until such time when those questions can be answered, we would hope your article would not lend itself to undue speculation or judgment.”

She declined to comment further, because the appeal is pending.

In the criminal case, Esparza is out of jail on $10,000 bond. He’s awaiting trial, with a court hearing set for Feb. 8.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

2016 timeline for Bellingham Officer Jacob Esparza

Jan. 11: Officer Jacob Esparza files for divorce in Lincoln County, Wash.

March 28: Esparza gets into a drunken fight at the Slo Pitch, after a man gives a phone number to his new girlfriend.

May 16: Fact-finding hearing for the Slo Pitch fight.

June 13: Police Chief Clifford Cook finds first report of misconduct is sustained.

June 24: Esparza’s divorce is final.

July 5: Cook hands down discipline for the Slo Pitch fight: a written reprimand for carrying a gun off-duty against department policy, and a two-day suspension. Esparza turns down the alternative: alcohol treatment instead of suspension.

July 26: Esparza’s girlfriend reports an assault involving a gun at Esparza’s home in Lynden. She flees. Esparza threatens to shoot himself, refuses to come outside for two hours, lies about whether he has guns in the home, and goes to a hospital for a mental health evaluation – from which he walks away, according to the police chief’s disciplinary records. His girlfriend recants her story in what the chief believes was a “misguided” effort to save Esparza’s job.

Aug. 8: Esparza is placed on paid administrative leave.

Aug. 31: Fact-finding hearing for the July incident.

Oct. 31: Cook finds the second report of misconduct is sustained.

Nov. 5: Esparza’s ex-wife is assaulted during an argument at a home in Lynden, according to charging papers. She does not make a report for two weeks.

Nov. 17: Prosecutor Dave McEachran decides Esparza’s name should appear on a “Brady” list for dishonesty during the July incident.

Nov. 19: Esparza’s ex-wife reports the assault she says happened Nov. 5.

Nov. 21: Esparza is booked into jail on suspicion of domestic violence assault and felony harassment.

Dec. 2: Cook fires Esparza.

Dec. 13: Bellingham Police Guild files a grievance with the Police Department, asking that Esparza’s job be reinstated.

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