Federal prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges against a former Santa Ana police officer for allegedly beating a man who was complying with police commands and then lying about it in official reports.
Brian Patric Booker was indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury on three felonies stemming from the June 2014 arrest of Edgar Vargas Arzate. The incident was captured on video and gained national attention at the time.
The indictment alleges Booker used unreasonable force against Vargas, who “was not resisting arrest,” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Following the incident, Booker allegedly caused false police reports to be filed. Booker falsely claimed that the victim reached toward Booker and grabbed Booker by his right leg, the indictment alleges,” the statement continued.
“Booker also falsely stated that he delivered three or four punches to the back of the victim’s head because he believed the victim was about to tackle him and possibly have access to Booker’s firearm, according to the indictment. Booker allegedly knew these statements were false when the reports were filed.”
He was charged with one felony count of deprivation of rights under color of law and two felony counts of falsification of records. Booker faces up to 60 years in prison if he’s convicted of all charges and receives the maximum sentences.
The former officer disputes the allegations.
“[We] look forward to fighting the charges, and the case is going to end up going to trial,” said Booker’s attorney, Kate Corrigan, in a phone interview Wednesday. “My client is wrongfully accused.”
Footage of the June 2014 arrest showed Vargas place his hands up and lie face down in a front yard before officers repeatedly punch him and swing a baton at his legs. The video, which was captured on a home security camera, went viral online the month after the incident.
The officers involved in the arrest were identified in police reports as Booker, Sonny Lim, Adam Aloyian, and Armando Aparicio.
Arzate was arrested and charged with attempted burglary, battery on a police officer and resisting arrest, with an enhancement for inflicting “great bodily injury” on Booker. The injury enhancement was for the officer allegedly hurting his hand while punching Arzate in the head.
The incident compounded tensions at the time between Santa Ana activists and police, and was cited in a confrontation that shut down a City Council meeting in October 2014.
“The fact that Officer Booker can even [expletive] claim that he was assaulted because he was punching Edgar Arzate’s face into the ground and he broke his hand, and he’s [accusing] Edgar Arzate of assault – that’s disrespectful!” an activist shouted after a City Council member described an anti-police hat as disrespectful.
When Arzate’s family was driving him to court to defend himself against the charges, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pulled over their car and arrested Arzate, an unauthorized immigrant.
But within a couple of months, the U.S. Department of Justice had declared Vargas a material witness and released him from immigration detention in late September or early October 2014.
The DA’s office also dropped four of its five the charges against Vargas, including all of the ones alleging he attacked the officers.
Later that October, the FBI declared Vargas a victim of one or more of the officers, as part of a certification for him to apply for a visa for crime victims who are cooperating with law enforcement.
“Evidence suggests that officers of the Santa Ana Police Department used excessive force upon arresting captioned victim,” the document stated.
A federal grand jury was hearing evidence in the case in June 2015, according to a court filing by the city at the time. It said the inquiry wasn’t expected to last more than four or five more months, suggesting a decision on indicting one or more of the officers would come by late 2015.
Ultimately, an indictment was returned by a federal grand jury on Wednesday. The document calls it the “September 2018 Grand Jury,” and it wasn’t immediately clear if that means it had convened for 10 months on the case. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to say.
In a statement, the Santa Ana Police Department said it started an internal affairs investigation of Vargas’ arrest in July 2014. Booker was placed on desk duty at that time, where he remained until he left the department in October 2018, according to the department’s lead spokesman.
“The officer was assigned to desk duty and had no contact with the public,” said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said in a statement.
“In September 2014, the Santa Ana Police Department was notified the FBI was conducting an investigation into the matter to determine whether the use of force constituted a Federal criminal violation,” the statement added.
“The Officer in question is no longer an employee with the Santa Ana Police Department. The Santa Ana Police Department has cooperated with the Federal investigation and will continue to do so.”
Federal felony charges can only be filed if approved by a grand jury, in what is known as an indictment.
Federal grand juries meet in secrecy, and hear evidence only from the prosecution, with no defense attorneys present.
Booker’s attorney said Wednesday evening she knew as much about the case as has been publicly reported, due to the secrecy of grand jury proceedings. “I don’t know who the witnesses are that came to testify,” Corrigan said.
Orange County has its own grand jury impaneled under state law, known as the Orange County Grand Jury. It’s tasked with investigating local government and deciding on indictments under state law, based on evidence presented by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
Unlike the federal system, county prosecutors in California can – and do – file felony charges directly without having to go to a grand jury. In such cases, a judge decides whether the case can move forward at a preliminary hearing, where both the prosecution and defense have the opportunity to present evidence.
Booker is scheduled to appear in federal court in Santa Ana on Aug. 12 for his arraignment. The federal prosecutors on the case are Jennifer L. Waier and Robert J. Keenan. A trial date has not yet been set.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].