Local News

Wednesday, Sep 05 2012 05:01 PM

Former police officer receives felony probation in connection with drug conviction

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Former Bakersfield Police officer Ofelio Lopez was sentenced Wednesday morning in Kern County Superior Court.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

Former Bakersfield police Officer Ofelio Cesar Lopez Jr. made a terrible decision last year, one that ended his law enforcement career in disgrace and will have repercussions throughout his life.

Lopez showed up to work a DUI checkpoint the night of Dec. 2, 2011 while high on methamphetamine, Bakersfield police reported. Investigators had already determined through a sting operation earlier that day that Lopez had failed to book meth into the department's property room.

He was arrested and charged with several felonies, his reputation shattered.

That's not the whole story, however, said defense attorney Tony V. Lidgett during Lopez's sentencing Wednesday morning. The former officer and U.S. Marine turned to drugs to deal with the recurring nightmares and psychological trauma he suffered following the fatal shooting of a man who threatened him with a knife while in the line of duty.

Before Lopez's arrest last year, he was an exemplary officer, Lidgett said. He deserved leniency.

Kern County Superior Court Judge Charles R. Brehmer agreed that further jail time would serve Lopez no good. He sentenced Lopez to three years' felony probation and ordered him to complete a counseling program for chemical dependency and a mental health program.

"This is an appropriate resolution and he has accepted responsibility and will be accepting responsibility for the rest of his life as he has no career in law enforcement," Brehmer said.

Prosecutor Bud Starr had argued Lopez deserved more time than the four days of custody credits he'd already served. Similar cases resulted in harsher sentences than what Lopez was receiving, Starr said.

"The people's concern is that this defendant is being treated lightly in terms of punishment," he said.

Lidgett countered that Lopez's punishment will have far-reaching effects throughout his life, and his employment options are limited now that he has a felony conviction on his otherwise spotless record. Plus, a defendant's past should play a part in sentencing, and Lopez's past was rife with good deeds and meritorious service, the attorney said.

Lopez, only 16 at the time, saved the life of a man after a tractor flipped over, Lidgett said. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and participated in humanitarian missions in other countries. And as a Bakersfield police officer he joined in charitable events such as delivering Christmas baskets filled with supplies to needy families.

But Lopez changed after the 2005 shooting of Victor Mike Montoya. Lidgett said Lopez became haunted by the fact he'd taken the life of another man, regardless of the fact that Montoya was armed with two knives and approaching Lopez and another officer in a threatening manner.

A shooting review board found the officers acted within guidelines when they shot and killed Montoya, but that did nothing to alleviate the psychological trauma Lopez suffered. He couldn't even watch crime shows on television anymore because of the emotions they stirred up.

When an officer-involved shooting occurs, people tend to think only of the person who was shot, Lidgett said.

"What we don't understand is how it affects the officers," he said. "We don't think about it."

Assistant District Attorney Scott J. Spielman said following sentencing that previous good deeds don't excuse criminal behavior. This was a case where a police officer was on duty while under the influence of and in possession of drugs, and that's something the DA's office takes very seriously, he said.

Spielman said it's his opinion more jail time would have been appropriate.

"It's not to say that the judge abused his discretion in this case, it's just that we disagree with the sentence that he got," Spielman said.

The investigation into Lopez began about a week before his Dec. 2 arrest when a citizen contacted officers to report a police officer was using illegal drugs, Bakersfield police have said. Investigators determined Lopez was the officer in question and set up a sting operation.

They received a court order releasing meth from their property room which they put in bindles inside a purse, police said. The purse was placed in a remote city location and dispatch contacted Lopez and sent him to the location on a "found property call."

Lopez took the purse and continued his normal patrol duties, never checking the bag and drugs into evidence, according to police. He went home without booking the property.

Lopez was scheduled to work a DUI checkpoint that evening and when he returned to work he still didn't book the drugs into evidence, police said. The watch commander called him to the department and Lopez's home and police cruiser were searched.

The purse was still in the trunk, police said. Officers interviewed Lopez and searched him, finding meth in his pocket.

Officers also noticed Lopez was acting a little strange, and a California Highway Patrol drug recognition expert -- called to the department after Lopez refused a chemical test -- determined Lopez was under the influence of a stimulant. Police said he was booked into jail that evening and bailed out the next day.

Lopez was charged with five felonies. He pleaded no contest July 17 to being under the influence of drugs while in possession of a gun, and the other charges were dismissed.

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