OCFA employee who shot and dumped his pit bull is sentenced to 250 hours of community service

NEWPORT BEACH — An Orange County Fire Authority employee who was charged with shooting his 4-year-old pit bull and dumping the canine’s carcass in a trash bin at his workplace in Irvine accepted a plea Wednesday that ordered him to perform 250 hours of community service.

Ryan John Monteleone of Menifee, 46, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of putting a carcass of a dead animal on the road. As part of the plea deal, a felony count of cruelty to animals was dismissed and he was placed on three years of informal probation and must complete the community service by April 1 of next year, according to court records.

Monteleone could have faced up to 3 1/2 years in custody if convicted at trial.

Monteleone worked as a heavy fire equipment operator for the fire authority for four years and was not a firefighter, Colleen Windsor, a spokeswoman for the OCFA, said when he was charged in November 2019.

He remained on duty at that time, but it was not clear if he is still on the job.

He was arrested by Irvine police on Oct. 17, 2019, according to Kimberly Edds of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

A Waste Management trash truck driver found the dog’s body inside the trash bin at a fire station on Fossil Road in Irvine on Aug. 9, 2019, Edds said. The dog had been shot in the head, she said.

Monteleone’s attorney, Rod Pacheco, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The defendant’s attorneys filed a motion in January of last year to dismiss charges based on an argument that he killed the dog at his ranch home, so the case should have been filed in Riverside County.

Monteleone’s wife told investigators that the family adopted the canine about a year before the dog was killed, but that the animal had attacked a donkey and an Amazon driver and killed a pet cat, according to the court filing.

The family previously had to put down another pet and the bill was “significant,” according to the motion. The family at the time was “suffering severe financial restraints,” so the couple decided to kill the dog, according to the motion.

The couple discussed “the challenge they faced, a dangerous pit bull that attacked pets, livestock and people, the presence of their young sons and their inability to afford a sizable veterinarian bill for putting the dangerous animal down,” the attorneys said in the court papers.

So Monteleone “took the pit bull into their barn and shot the dog one time,” according to the motion.

The following day he took the dog’s body to a dumpster near his workplace at an Irvine Fire Department Station and dumped it, the attorneys said.

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Skateboarder ordered to kneel at gunpoint by deputy settles lawsuit against Orange County

The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a $195,000 settlement Tuesday, July 13, in a lawsuit filed by a teenager who was involved in a conflict with a gun-wielding Orange County sheriff’s deputy in a San Clemente skate park two years ago.

Max Chance III, the son of a former Orange County sheriff’s sergeant, filed the lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court in March. Deputy Michael Thalken, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County were named as defendants in the suit, which alleged negligence, assault and battery, civil rights violations and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The board voted 4-0 to approve the settlement. Supervisor Katrina Foley abstained from voting because her firm has accepted referral from the attorneys who handled the suit, County Counsel Leon Page said when announcing the settlement.

“The family is pleased that this chapter in their son’s life has come to an end and that some justice was served,” said Eric Traut, the attorney who represented the Chance family in the lawsuit.

Chance, then 16 and living with his family in San Juan Capistrano, went to a skate park in San Clemente the evening of Oct. 12, 2019, with a friend. He was enjoying a band playing at the park when Thalken, who was off-duty at the time, confronted the band about the noise, according to the lawsuit.

Thalken was at a nearby Little League baseball diamond and apparently wanted the band to stop performing, according to the lawsuit. The suit alleged he “appeared angry and possibly intoxicated.”

One of the group’s members “mimicked the drunk-like walk” of Thalken as he bellowed, “Where’s the tough guy,” the lawsuit alleged.

As Thalken confronted the teen mocking him, Chance told the youth to back up, according to the lawsuit.

Chance put up his skateboard “to defend against a potential assault” from Thalken, who had not told the group he was a deputy, according to the plaintiff.

Thalken tried to grab Chance’s wrist and said, ‘Get on your knees or I will shoot you in the (expletive) face,” the lawsuit alleged. “He still did not identify himself as law enforcement as he brandished and pointed his handgun at (Chance’s) face.”

The teen “complied, while others pleaded with Deputy Thalken to stop what he was doing,” according to the complaint.

Cellphone videos captured the conflict and were aired in news reports.

Thalken eventually “identified himself as law enforcement,” and said “You are coming with me to the parking lot,” according to the lawsuit. It alleged that the deputy returned the weapon to his jacket pocket and argued with other witnesses.

Thalken told responding deputies that the group of kids “were the aggressors and that (Chance) had swung his skateboard at him,” according to the lawsuit. “Of course, both claims were false and refuted by video evidence.”

Chance’s father, who had previously worked with Thalken as a rookie before the sergeant retired, called Thalken at the scene, and the defendant told him that “the kids were douche bags with a mob mentality,” the lawsuit alleged.

Thalken told Chance’s father that he pulled out his gun because Chance “went at me with a skateboard. They were all crowding around me,” the lawsuit alleges.

Orange County sheriff’s deputies presented a case for criminal charges to prosecutors, but the District Attorney’s Office declined to file a case, said Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

After an internal review, Thalken was disciplined, but state law prevents the release of any details of the discipline, Braun said.

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Court says California must more quickly move mentally incompetent defendants out of jails

SAN FRANCISCO — California can’t lock up people for months in jails after they have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial, a state appeals court said.

In a 3-0 ruling Tuesday, a panel of the First District Court of Appeal upheld a 2019 lower court order that gave the state a 28-day deadline for placing defendants in state mental hospitals or other treatment facilities after they were found incompetent to stand trial because of psychological or intellectual disabilities.

The appellate court also included people charged with certain felony sex offenses, rejecting an exception carved out in the earlier Alameda County ruling.

The previous ruling had set a phase-in period that ends next year.

State law says people facing criminal charges but who are judged incompetent to face trial can be ordered committed for treatment to help them become capable of understanding trial proceedings.

Two years before the 2019 time limit was enacted, defendants waited 86 days on average after a judge issued the transfer order to get into a hospital, according to the appellate court.

California has “systematically violated the due-process rights” of these defendants by keeping them for longer periods in jails where they may suffer further problems because of crowding, violence and a lack of treatment, Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline said in the ruling.

The decision involved a 2015 lawsuit filed against the state Department of State Hospitals and Department of Developmental Services on behalf of five relatives of defendants who were found incompetent to stand trial.

Due to lack of space, about 4,000 people each year who are declared incompetent to stand trial are placed on a waitlist for admission to facilities administered by those departments, and the list for admission to state hospitals alone soared to more than 1,600 people during the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase of 500% since 2013, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which took part in the lawsuit.

The ACLU has urged use of community treatment centers to help ease the hospital bed shortage.

“The court recognized that California cannot continue to warehouse people in jail for months at a time while it denies them both their right to a trial and the mental health treatment they need to become competent to have a trial,” Michael Risher, counsel for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said in a statement.

“This ruling is a step in the right direction, and our family is very grateful,” said Stephanie Stiavetti, a plaintiff who said her brother was abused in jail during weeks of delay before his transfer.

“The state needs to recognize that there are far too many mental health patients suffering in jails, lost in a system that is rife with abuse and ill-prepared to care for them,” she said in a statement. “Immediate legislation is needed to ensure that people with mental health disorders receive treatment promptly and outside of the jail system.”

The Department of State Hospitals told the San Francisco Chronicle that it was reviewing the ruling.

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Former O.C. chiropractor convicted of defrauding insurers of $2.2 million

SANTA ANA — A 56-year-old former Orange County chiropractor was found guilty Tuesday of defrauding health insurers out of about $2.2 million in a scheme that spanned more than three years.

Susan H. Poon of Dana Point submitted false reimbursement claims to the health insurance providers Anthem and Aetna from January 2015-April 2018 for false diagnoses and chiropractic services that were not performed, according to Ciaran McEvoy, a public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Poon also submitted fraudulent prescriptions containing fabricated medical diagnoses of dependents of Costco and United Parcel Service employees, McEvoy said.

Poon unlawfully took the personal identification information of the victims by attending health fairs at various UPS warehouses and Costco locations, and soliciting the information from employees.

Poon, whose office was located in Rancho Santa Margarita, had her chiropractic license revoked in July 2019, according to the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

Poon was found guilty of five counts of health care fraud, three counts of making false statements relating to health care matters and one count of aggravated identity theft, McEvoy said.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter scheduled a sentencing hearing for Aug. 30. Poon faces a maximum sentence of 67 years in federal prison, McEvoy said.

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U.S. Supreme Court to weigh secrecy, national security issues in suit over FBI surveillance of O.C. Muslims

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether a lawsuit can go forward in which a group of Muslim residents of California allege the FBI targeted them for surveillance because of their religion.

It’s the second case the court has accepted for the fall involving a government claim of “state secrets,” the idea that the government can block the release of information it claims would harm national security if disclosed.

As is usual, the court didn’t comment Monday beyond saying it will take the case, which is expected to be heard after the court takes its summer recess and begins hearing arguments again in October.

In the other state secrets case the justices have accepted they’ll decide whether a Palestinian man captured after the Sept. 11 attacks and detained at the prison on the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can get access to information the government classifies as state secrets.

The case the court accepted Monday involves three Muslim residents of Southern California who say that from 2006 to 2007 the FBI paid a confidential informant to covertly gather information about Muslims in Orange County, based solely on their religion.

A district court dismissed the case after the federal government invoked the state secrets privilege. The court agreed that continuing the case would “greatly risk disclosure of secret information.” But an appeals court reversed the decision.

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Court documents: 2 firefighters could be fired for sharing Kobe Bryant crash scene photos

By STEFANIE DAZIO and BRIAN MELLEY

LOS ANGELES — Two Los Angeles County firefighters could be fired and a third suspended after first responders took and shared graphic photos from the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his teenage daughter and seven others, court documents say.

The court documents were filed Monday as part of widow Vanessa Bryant’s federal lawsuit against Los Angeles County that alleges invasion of privacy. The filings propose that a Nov. 16 trial be postponed five months to April 27, 2022, because of a large amount of material that attorneys need to review.

Kobe Bryant and the others were killed Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter they were aboard crashed west of Los Angeles. Federal safety officials blamed pilot error for the wreck that killed the basketball star, whom Michael Jordan will present for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.

An internal investigation by the Los Angeles County Fire Department found that two firefighters — whose names were not disclosed in the court filings — had taken photos of the bodies in the helicopter wreckage that “served no business necessity,” Vanessa Bryant’s attorneys wrote, and “only served to appeal to baser instincts and desires for what amounted to visual gossip.”

They then sent the photos to a third firefighter — a media relations officer who went to the scene and later shared the images with off-duty firefighters and their wives and girlfriends while socializing at an awards ceremony at a Hilton hotel the month after the crash.

The two firefighters — one of whom was at the site solely to monitor safety procedures — were sent “intention to discharge” letters last December. The third firefighter received an “intention to suspend” letter. The employment status of all three was not immediately clear Wednesday.

Los Angeles County attorneys have argued that there is no legal basis for Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit because the photos were not publicly disseminated. She can’t sue for a “hypothetical harm” that they may be shared publicly, the county said in filings.

Capt. Ron Haralson, a spokesperson for the county Fire Department, declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.

Several Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies — none of whom were directly involved in the investigation of the crash — are also included in the lawsuit because they are accused of taking or passing around the grisly photos with family, friends and, in one case, a bar patron and a bartender who later complained to the sheriff’s department.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva condemned the deputies’ behavior and, in a move that has since been heavily criticized, ordered them to delete the photos. The captain of the Malibu-Lost Hills sheriff’s station, which oversees the area where the crash occurred, pushed back on the decision but was overruled.

The Sheriff’s Department said Wednesday that “a full administrative investigation was conducted and appropriate administrative action was taken.” But it couldn’t provide details about discipline involving the deputies because of a pending lawsuit and state employment law that bars disclosing “specific administrative actions.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom last year signed a law that makes it a crime for first responders to take unauthorized photos of deceased people at the scene of an accident or crime.

The firefighters’ punishment was first reported by KNBC-TV. Representatives from the union that represents firefighters did not immediately respond to The Associated Press’ request for comment Wednesday.

The firefighter who received the photos and shared them with others was not named in court documents, but the Los Angeles Times has reported that Capt. Tony Imbrenda filed a retaliation lawsuit in November. Imbrenda alleged he was demoted for refusing to hand over his personal cellphone during the investigation into the photos, which he said was a violation of the Firefighter Bill of Rights.

Imbrenda did, however, hand over his department cellphone and laptop, the Times reported. His lawsuit says he received photos from people working at the crash site “as is common practice on all major incidents.”

He took his own photos the next day, the Times reported, but denied taking photos of the victims’ bodies and said he did not take photos with his personal cellphone.

Imbrenda did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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12 indicted in alleged Southern California ‘green’ loan and mortgage fraud scheme

LOS ANGELES — A dozen people have been indicted in connection with an alleged mortgage fraud and “green” loan scheme that operated throughout Southern California and resulted in losses of about $15 million, the California Attorney General’s Office announced Wednesday.

The 133-count grand jury indictment, handed up April 26, alleges that the crimes occurred in Los Angeles, Riverside and Ventura counties.

The indictment charges the defendants with a variety of counts, including conspiracy, mortgage fraud, grand theft, identity theft, forgery, filing a false or forged document and money laundering.

The defendants allegedly exploited the Yrgene Energy Fund and Renew Funding, companies that provide funding to licensed contractors for energy- efficient home improvements for homeowners, and used false identities to get mortgage loans from conventional banks and hard money lenders, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

“The allegations against these defendants charge a pattern of disregard for the law and willingness to go as far as stealing the identities of the deceased just to further their scheme,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement announcing the charges. “Our office will seek to hold these defendants accountable for their alleged actions.”

Those named in the indictment are: Tamara Dadyan, 39, Richard Ayvazyan, 42, Artur Ayvazyan, 41, Grigor Tatoian, 50, Andranik Petrosyan, 46, Arshak Bartoumian, 48, Artashes Martirosyan, 43, Lilit Malyan, 39, Lubia Carrillo, 41, Rosa Zarate, 49, Estephanie Reynoso, 31, and Vanessa Bell, 60.

Eleven of the defendants have pleaded not guilty, with Malyan due back in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom for arraignment May 18.

The case stemmed from a multi-year investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department, with assistance from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Office of Inspector General.

The attorney general lauded the two agencies for “their work to put an end to an extensive, six-year fraud scheme that resulted in the theft of an estimated $15 million.”

“If you were a victim or have information please call 213-486-6979,” said a tweet from LAPD Capt. Lillian Carranza.

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Driver charged with gross vehicular manslaughter in Santa Ana crash that killed a passenger in his car

SANTA ANA — A 22-year-old man was charged Wednesday with gross vehicular manslaughter for a collision in Santa Ana a year and a half ago that killed a passenger in his vehicle.

Manuel Jesus Galindo was behind the wheel of a 2013 Hyundai Sonata that was southbound on Newhope Street about 10:50 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2019, when the sedan collided with another car and slammed into a street pole at Westminster Boulevard, said Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.

The brunt of the impact was on the passenger side of the car, where 20-year-old Kobe Kidwell of Santa Ana was sitting, Bertagna said. Kidwell died of his injuries.

Galindo sustained serious injuries in the crash, and two women in the back seat of his car also were injured and taken to an area hospital, Bertagna said.

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Man pleads guilty in ‘affinity fraud’ scheme in Garden Grove

WESTMINSTER — A 44-year-old man pleaded guilty Wednesday and was immediately sentenced to time served in custody and ordered to pay $2 million in restitution for a $3 million affinity fraud scheme in Garden Grove.

Lo Van Tran of Fremont was sentenced to 630 days in jail, or time already served since his arrest in May 2019. He was also placed on two years of formal probation.

Tran faces 12 years in prison if he fails to complete probation, his attorney Cameron Talley said.

Before his arrest, Tran paid back $800,000 and has chipped in another $100,000 now, Talley said.

“He came forward and told the people he defrauded them,” Talley said. “He didn’t mean to steal their money. He used their money to start another business and thought he could pay them back.”

Tran collected the money from more than 10 investors, most of them Vietnamese, between June 2017 and February 2018, according to Garden Grove Police Department Lt. Carl Whitney.

Tran promised a predetermined return based on the amount invested in his scheme, which involved a company he owned and operated called SmartBuy Outlet Inc., which had two storefronts in Garden Grove, Whitney said.

“The business also operated under the name SavMax Solutions Inc.,” Whitney said. “As a side business related to SmartBuy Outlet Inc., Tran claimed to have a partnership with a third-party logistics company known as Zyp Corporation, where he would facilitate the purchase and sales of large amounts of Apple products.”

Turns out Zyp Corporation never existed, Whitney said.

“He also fabricated bank and business documents to make his business appear legitimate,” Whitney said.

Affinity fraud involves preying upon victims from the same identifiable groups, “such as minorities and professional groups,” Whitney explained.

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L.A. County brother and sister arrested, accused in real estate scam tied to fraudulent listings and sales

LOS ANGELES — A Southern California brother-and-sister team were arrested Tuesday on federal charges alleging they orchestrated a $6 million real estate fraud scam in which they listed homes without the owners’ consent and collected money from multiple would-be buyers for each of the not-for-sale homes.

Adolfo Schoneke, 43, of Torrance, and Bianca Gonzalez, also known as Blanca Schoneke, 38, of Walnut, each pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a nine-count indictment unsealed after their arrests.

If convicted of seven counts of wire fraud and one count each of conspiracy and aggravated identity theft, Schoneke and Gonzalez each would face up to 162 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

A June 1 trial date was set. Both defendants will remain in custody at least until detention hearings scheduled Friday for Schoneke and next Tuesday for Gonzalez.

According to the indictment, Schoneke and Gonzalez, with the help of co-conspirators, operated real estate and escrow companies based in Cerritos, La Palma and Long Beach under a variety of names, including MCR and West Coast.

The indictment alleges Schoneke and Gonzalez found properties that they would list — even though many, in fact, were not for sale, and they did not have authority to list them for sale — and then marketed the properties as short sales providing opportunities for purchases at below-market prices.

Using other people’s broker’s licenses, Schoneke and Gonzalez allegedly listed the properties on real estate websites such as the Multiple Listing Service. In some cases, the indictment alleges, the homes were marketed through open houses that co-conspirators were able to host after tricking homeowners into allowing their homes to be used.

As part of the alleged scheme, the co-conspirators accepted multiple offers for each of the not-for-sale properties, hiding this fact from the victims and instead leading each of the victims to believe that his or her offer was the only one accepted, according to federal prosecutors.

The co-conspirators allegedly were able to string along the victims — sometimes for years — by telling them closings were being delayed because lenders needed to approve the purported short sales.

The indictment also alleges that Schoneke and Gonzalez directed office workers to open bank accounts in the office workers’ names. Those accounts were used to receive down payments on the homes and other payments from victims who were convinced to transfer the full “purchase price” to these bank accounts after receiving forged short sale approval letters, prosecutors allege.

Schoneke and Gonzalez also allegedly directed the office workers to withdraw large amounts of cash from those accounts and give it to them — a procedure that allowed the defendants to take possession of the fraud proceeds while hiding their involvement in the scheme.

Investigators estimate that several hundred victims collectively lost more than $6 million.

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