Murrieta Chief admits ‘mistakes were made’ in Norman investigation

Photo courtesy of City of Murrieta
Murrieta Police Chief Sean Hadden admits mistakes were made.

■ Staff Reports / The Valley Chronicle

The city of Hemet has decided to put its head in the proverbial sand with regard to the case of young Anthony Norman—refusing to release any more incriminating or financial information about the case—while Murrieta’s police chief is content to air the city’s dirty laundry in hopes of putting to rest any lingering allegations his department is covering up a politically sensitive homicide.
Norman’s death occurred early Christmas morning in 2012 following an altercation police say he started with a nearby neighbor. The fight caused a ruckus that led a number of residents in Murrieta to call 911 and for Hemet Deputy Police Chief (then Captain) Rob Webb to leave the comforts of his bed to help his neighbor prevail in a street brawl involving a survival knife, a heavy-duty flashlight, and a couple of two-piece pool cues.

DA Ruling
The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office recently ruled there was nothing criminal in the actions of either Webb or his neighbor, Michael Darragh, who admitted to striking Norman a dozen times with a heavy-duty flashlight, hitting him with a pool cue, and then choking him before sitting on top of him ‘til he couldn’t breathe because Norman — as it turns out—died of a heart attack!
It’s all in a letter Murrieta Police Chief Sean Hadden wrote to Norman’s grandfather, Gerald Norman, after Hadden reopened the case at the grandfather’s request. The Valley Chronicle obtained a copy of both the elder Norman’s letter to reopen the case, and Hadden’s written response, after submitting a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request to the city of Murrieta.
A similar request to the City of Hemet was abruptly rejected by Hemet City Clerk Sarah McComas, who cited an exemption under the law for “pending litigation.” The city got wrapped up in the wrongful death suit filed by Norman’s family, who named Deputy Chief Webb a respondent along with his neighbor Darragh.

Nearly $400,000
The city of Hemet has paid City Attorney Eric Vail’s firm, Burke, Williams & Sorensen LLP, nearly $400,000 in taxpayer money to defend Webb, despite Webb’s homeowner insurance company putting forth what many believe was a perfectly adequate legal defense. Since then, the city apparently has settled with the family for an undisclosed sum, an amount to be piled on top of what it has already paid out in legal fees.
It was The Valley Chronicle’s CPRA request for information on Vail’s most recent billing, as well as the settlement amount in Webb’s behalf, that McComas refused to provide to the citizens of Hemet, who are left to foot the huge bill. Ironically, before The Valley Chronicle broke the story about Webb’s enormous legal defense costs, McComas willingly provided Hemet’s citizens with all the billing information The Valley Chronicle requested.
All the details eventually will come out regardless of the city’s attempts to cover up its legal-fee largess once the case goes to trial this July. Although it appears since the settlement that Webb is now off the hook both criminally and from a civil liability standpoint, Norman’s family continues to pursue Darragh, and is not particularly happy with the DA’s office—or Hadden and the Murrieta Police Department—which botched the case three years ago in ways to which even the chief is now admitting.
Hadden was appointed police chief of Murrieta in September 2013, nearly a year after the initial investigation into Norman’s death and was not head of the department when decisions were made how to handle the case.

Photo source: Hemet Police Department Official Facebook page
Hemet Police Chief Dave Brown and Deputy Chief Rob Webb attend the recent San Bernardino Sheriff’s Academy “Chief’s Luncheon” where Brown spoke on “Ethics in Law Enforcement.” With them are Officers Alex Reynoso, Dylan Vrooman, and Eric Lynton — new recruits to Hemet PD. The department was pleased to be able to recruit all three candidates, including Vrooman, whose father, Dennis Vrooman, is a captain with the Murrieta PD.

Death Investigation
It seems there was a slight problem at the time of Norman’s death in which police classified it not as a “homicide” but rather a “death investigation.” Hadden swears this had nothing to do with the fact one of the people responsible for subduing Norman just before he expired was a top Hemet Police official—it was just that Norman was fine when police handcuffed him; then he just seemed to have trouble breathing. The family claims he died right there in the street in front of police, but doctors at Inland Valley Hospital called his death at 1:31 a.m. after attempts in the hospital to revive him failed.
“…It appears there was a mistaken presumption by the initial detectives that Anthony’s death was caused exclusively from medical reasons,” says Hadden in his letter to the family. “In hindsight, Anthony’s death should have been initially classified as an ‘In Custody’ homicide death, until proven otherwise,” he says.
“There were enough indicators based upon the statements of everyone involved and physical evidence that there was a distinct possibility that Anthony could have died at the hands of another, in addition to any known or unknown medical reasons, or other contributing factors,” says Hadden.

Thorough and Serious?
The chief goes on to say that while the classification of Anthony’s death was initially in error, the investigation and collection of evidence was treated with “the seriousness and thoroughness of a homicide investigation.”
Well…not quite, as it turns out. Hadden actually goes on to acknowledge that not only did police mishandle the evidence, but “a formal staffing review by the district attorney’s office was never conducted before this case was prematurely ‘closed’ the first time in 2013 by detectives,” he says.
“Admittedly,” says Hadden, “this investigation should have been given more scrutiny and subsequent monitoring by both the lead detective and the supervisor at the time.”

Should Have, Could Have…
“In 2013, the manner of death was formally deemed a homicide by the Coroner’s Bureau. Consultation and presentation of the entire case with the district attorney’s office should have occurred at that time to determine whether physical evidence should have been sent to the forensic laboratory for analysis,” Hadden says.
“Nonetheless, even with the case properly closed, any and all physical evidence should not have been returned or released without first consulting with the district attorney’s office,” admits Hadden.
“This was not done,” the chief confesses to the family in a series of maxima mea culpas.
It seems Darragh got his survival knife back along with his sweat pants drenched in blood that police confiscated earlier—a big “no-no” that police cadets learn at the academy, especially when investigating a homicide, and especially before the case is closed: You never return the evidence!
At the same time, police recklessly fiddled with a DVR belonging to Norman before they knew how to work it, then confiscated it, finally declared it contained nothing, and returned it to the family who later found recorded material on it showing Norman’s completely normal behavior being recorded just before his death.
The chief doesn’t go into the gritty details of why things went south with the case, but The Valley Chronicle has learned that the lead investigator, Detective Jeffrey Ullrich, 55, who reportedly was under investigation by the FBI, suddenly took his own life in August 2016. Efforts by The Valley Chronicle to uncover details surrounding the circumstances of his death so far have been rebuffed.
Because of the irregularities in the case, along with the family’s disbelief in Darragh’s changing story about how he was defending his home and family from what he claimed was the Norman’s drug-crazed schizophrenic grandson, the family requested the case be reopened and cited his Hispanic heritage and his mental illness as reasons for why police failed to pursue a proper homicide investigation.

Photo source: Hemet Police Department Official Facebook page
Officer Dylan Vrooman receives a handshake from Hemet Police Chief Dave Brown and his father, Murrieta Police Capt. Dennis Vrooman, as the younger Vrooman is sworn in as a new recruit with the Hemet Police Department. Family ties appear to be bringing the Hemet and Murrieta police departments into an increasingly closer professional relationship.

Reopened the Case
Hadden was moved by the family’s letter pointing out inconsistencies, he said, and disturbed by the unanswered questions lingering from the initial investigation. He quickly reopened the case upon request hoping to get to the bottom of the entire matter and put two of his best officers on it: Support Division Capt. Dennis Vrooman and Det. Sgt. Spencer Parker. Vrooman, who had 29 years experience as a police officer “at various ranks and assignments,” including extensive experience investigating homicides, and Parker, who had broad investigative experience, both as a detective and supervisor and was familiar with the original Norman investigation.
Hadden addresses the appearance of impropriety in the investigation involving another police officer—Webb—by saying,” I can assure you, no preferential treatment was given to Mr. Webb because of his employment as a police officer,” Hadden says. “The cities of Hemet and Murrieta are not neighboring cities. Although our agencies routinely collaborate on a professional level, including our combined Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, none of our personnel involved in the initial response and investigation that night has had any previous interaction with Mr. Webb.”
That Vrooman’s son around the time of the re-investigation was being evaluated by Webb himself for a position as a new recruit on Hemet’s police force was not mentioned in Hadden’s summary to the family. Given the elder Vrooman’s three decades of outstanding public service, however, had the Norman family been aware of this fact, it surely would not have wished to proffer any seamy conclusions of impropriety.

A Few Warts
Even though the original case had a few warts from its procedural anomalies, there is no statute of limitations on homicides, the chief pointed out. Thus, the department welcomed a re-examination of the facts in order to lay the family’s questions to rest once and for all.
And in Hadden’s mind, the facts as they relate to the law, make clear to him, and apparently the district attorney, that no criminal activity was behind Anthony Norman’s death—at least not by Darragh or Webb. The facts don’t meet the legal standard required to charge the participants with a crime. It’s a subtle collection of medical facts in connection with eyewitness accounts, but Norman apparently died from “cardiac arrhythmia”—a heart attack. It was “hypertensive cardiovascular disease” and not suffocation, or even the numerous blows he received from Darragh that killed him, according to Hadden, whose summary was based on the Coroner’s report.
“Dr. (M. Scott) McCormick’s preliminary findings did not indicate blunt force trauma, positional asphyxiation or larynx damage as a cause of death,” says Hadden. His initial findings were consistent with detectives at the scene that Norman died from medical causes, he says.

Heart Arrhythmia
In a sworn deposition, McCormick, a forensic pathologist, said Anthony died from a heart arrhythmia – “an electrical event” that is not caused by lack of oxygen or cardiac cell death. He couldn’t say when the arrhythmia occurred or if it was caused by Darragh and Webb’s actions.
“’There’s no significant traumatic event or traumatic injury that Anthony suffered from caused by either Mr. Darragh or Mr. Webb,” Hadden quoted McCormick. “…There was no evidence of physical injuries sustained in the fight which could have independently caused Anthony’s death,” Hadden said of McCormick’s testimony.
“Dr. McCormick also stated none of the contributing factors alone could have independently caused Anthony’s death,” said Hadden. Nevertheless, the pathologist did say that Darragh’s restraint actions could have restricted Anthony’s ability to breathe with full lung capacity and may have been “one of several contributing factors in Anthony’s death.” McCormick added that Webb’s contribution to the ultimate outcome was “probably relatively minor,” and though he might have strained Norman’s breathing slightly, the result had a negligible effect, according to Hadden.

Cause, Manner, Mode
The chief noted that even though the official “cause” of death was hypertensive cardiovascular disease,” the manner of death was still considered a “homicide” and the “mode of death” was “restrained by law enforcement following a physical altercation.”
The actions of the two Murrieta police officers upon arriving at the scene also were put under scrutiny in this case, according to Hadden. While he defended his officers, the first apparently chose to leave Darragh and Webb on top of Norman for several minutes until the officer’s partner arrived, then handcuffed Norman while he was lying face down. Hadden did allude to a claim by Webb and Darragh that it was these officers who mishandled the situation and Norman’s condition and were likely the cause of his breathing problems.
Hadden dismisses these cross claims and suggests that Anthony’s death “was most likely caused by the totality of being restrained (primarily by Darragh) in conjunction with several contributing factors; to include an enlarged heart caused by previous drug usage and abuse; mental health instability, notably schizophrenia; and THC toxicology caused by recent marijuana use. These were deemed contributing factors because Anthony was in an agitated and excited state while involved in a fight or altercation, which he initiated. At some time during the fight or restraint, his heart went into arrhythmia,” Hadden wrote.

Justifiable Homicide
From a legal standpoint, Hadden says the district attorney’s office ruled the death a “justifiable homicide” because Norman’s aggressive behavior before his fight with Darragh constituted a felony. Even though no one apparently intended to kill Norman, it seems even if they had, his felonious behavior prior to engaging with Darragh would have made his death justifiable in the eyes of the law. Darragh said Norman took a swing at him and struck him with a pool cue before he began struggling to subdue him. Norman’s family takes issue with his account.
“Based upon all the facts of the investigation and re-investigation, the district attorney’s office concluded this incident was a justifiable homicide,” Hadden says. “Therefore, the prosecution team would not consider filing any criminal charges on Mr. Darragh or Mr. Webb. The actions of the responding police officers were also deemed lawful and reasonable,” Hadden notes.
The chief sums up his feelings to the Norman family with a parting word acknowledging their despair and desire for revenge: “…My hope is that this re-investigation and letter satisfies your concerns and answers most of your questions. I know you want someone to be held criminally accountable for Anthony’s death. As we conduct investigations, we follow the facts to wherever and whomever it may lead. In this case, there is no evidence to support anyone was criminally responsible for Anthony’s death.”

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