One of six Atlantic City police officers recorded on video beating a 20-year-old Linwood man this summer was the subject of at least three prior allegations of excessive force and civil rights violations.
Court records show K-9 Officer Sterling Wheaten has appeared as a defendant in at least three civil cases filed in the past three years.
Surveillance footage obtained via subpoena from Tropicana Casino and Resort show the officers tackling David Connor Castellani to the ground about 3:10 a.m. June 15, followed by a succession of blows from clubs and the officers’ knees.
The incident occurred off Pacific Avenue near South Morris Avenue, after Castellani was removed from Tropicana. It was unclear Saturday why he was removed.
Less than a minute later, a K-9 vehicle drives into frame. Within seconds, the K-9 is seen biting Castellani’s neck and dragging him to the curb.
“He told me he kept screaming, ‘I’m not resisting, I’m not resisting,’” his father, David Castellani, said as the video played from a laptop on his kitchen table.
Jennifer Bonjean, the Castellanis’ civil attorney, said authorities confirmed Wheaten as the K-9 officer on the tape but have not provided names for the other officers involved.
Wheaten was specifically named in at least three pending cases filed against the department in recent years, according to court records. Documents from another case, filed in Atlantic County, could not be obtained Saturday.
In the three cases where Wheaten is specifically named:
n A Burlington County man alleged officers “brutally beat,” restrained and charged him with obstruction of justice at a restaurant in 2008. The suit states the charges were later dismissed.
n A Sewell, Gloucester County, man alleged officers threw him down a flight of stairs and punched him at a nightclub in 2010. He was initially charged with obstructing, resisting arrest and aggravated assault. The suit states all three were dismissed.
n A Phildelphia man man alleged officers “grabbed, punched and restrained” him at a casino in 2011. The suit, filed earlier this month, also claims the city’s policy “routinely deprives citizens of their Constitutional rights, and/or by failing to train, supervise or discipline its officers.”
The family first brought the tape of the June 15 incident to NBC 10, which aired a report Friday in advance of a lawsuit the Castellanis said they will file Monday.
The encounter lasted less than three minutes — with police and the K-9 seen backing away shortly after 3:12 a.m. — but the elder Castellani, who is a lawyer, said it left his son with permanent injuries, including nerve damage and muscle paralysis where the K-9 grabbed onto his son’s neck.
“They’re just here standing around looking at him, like he’s a piece of meat,” said his mother, Terri, as the officers on the tape slowly back away from her son, much of his body blocked by the K-9 vehicle.
Medics arrived about eight minutes later. An officer who arrived after the arrest prevented Castellani from bringing his handcuffed hands up to feel his injuries.
Terri Castellani said her son still wore those handcuffs when, hours later, she visited him in the hospital after authorities allowed the 20-year-old to call home. His back and head “looked like Hamburger Helper,” she said, with more than 200 stitches needed to close his wounds.
“It was the most horrific sight I’d ever seen,” she said. “I never expected to walk into what I did.”
Steve Scheffler represents the younger Castellani in his criminal charges. His client, he said, was unjustifiably charged with aggravated assault on an officer and a police dog, disorderly conduct and resisting.
Based on the evidence in the video tape, Scheffler said, he’s hopeful the charges will be dropped within the next month or two. Although Scheffler has yet to see video of Castellani inside Tropicana, he said he doubts anything that happened inside the casino justified the charges.
Earlier in the video, Castellani is seen holding his hands behind his back waiting to be cuffed. Instead, the police allow him to walk several feet away and make a phone call. His parents say their son was trying to reach the friends from whom he had been separated.
A few minutes later, police allow Castellani to walk across the street. As he walks down the sidewalk, he turns back several times, exchanging words and gestures with someone — presumably police officers — behind him and on the opposite side of the street.
“If he committed any of the offenses they charged him with, he wouldn’t be on the other side of the street figuring out a way to get home — he’d be under arrest,” Scheffler said. “I certainly don’t see aggravated assault on a police officer or a K-9. Quite frankly, I don’t see resisting, either.”
The use of K-9 police dogs in Atlantic City has a long, controversial history. In 2009, Mayor Lorenzo Langford banned their use amid accusations of misuse and an internal investigation, but they returned to duty about a year later.
At the time, the city’s solicitor proclaimed their return as a vindication and “a blow to the litigation culture.” Now, the Castellanis say they’ve filed a tort claim and plan to follow up with a lawsuit this week. They say they are seeking monetary damages, disciplinary action for the officers and changes to city and department policy.
Bonjean, the New York-based civil attorney, said the suit will also seek to remove canines from Atlantic City’s streets entirely.
Barring that, Bonjean said, major changes to training and policy are necessary to stop the alleged abuses.
“This is not a matter of some bad apples,” she said. “It’s a case of policies not being enforced.”
Langford could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Police Chief Ernest Jubilee confirmed the incident is the subject of an internal affairs investigation Saturday but declined further comment. He previously told NBC10 that both his department and the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office were conducting investigations.
“I saw the tape, and I saw no reason to suspend or remove the officers from their regular duties,” he said.
Acting Prosecutor Jim McClain declined to comment.
Scheffler, who has represented both criminals and police officers before, said he believes most of Atlantic City’s police are “good people that are trying to do a job.”
Staff Writer Lynda Cohen contributed to this report.
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