A mug shot of 50-year-old Tony Denunzio shows a man with a contusion on his right eye and bruises and cuts on his forehead and cheeks. He’s got broken ribs, a broken nose, and a sore wrist, and is obviously labored when he breathes. The photo, released by police Monday, was taken at around 12:30 a.m., three hours after he was arrested in the parking lot of Loreta Plaza for DUI and resisting arrest. But Denunzio — and perhaps more importantly, several witnesses — say the mugshot shows the use of excessive force by a police officer.
A police account of Denunzio’s arrest in the parking lot outside of Gelson’s Market at the corner of Las Positas and State Street varies greatly with Denunzio’s and that of several other witnesses. They say that police officer Aaron Tudor — who has been with the department since June 2007 — punched, kneed, and tased Denunzio, even though Denunzio wasn’t resisting at all.
But the “he said, she said” nature of the case has an interesting twist: It was caught on Tudor’s patrol vehicle camera. Ironically, the department hasn’t had video in its vehicles for years, but after coming under fire in a recent Grand Jury report, it is testing a new video system that captured the incident. The issue was raised in a series of Santa Barbara News-Press articles in which freelance writer Peter Lance — himself facing a DUI charge — has alleged officer Kasi Beutel forged his signature on a police form. Both Lance and Denunzio have retained attorney Darryl Genis as their attorney, while Tudor has rotated onto the department’s drinking-and-driving enforcement team and Beutel was rotated off.
According to police, Tudor noticed Denunzio’s vehicle, a 2007 Chevy Avalanche, leave the parking lot at Hendry’s Beach. While driving north on Las Positas Road, according to Tudor’s report, Denunzio made several lane changes without using his signal. Tudor initiated the stop as the truck was headed into Loreto Plaza, according to police. The truck, however, continued into the parking lot and parked.
Eyewitnesses — several of whom spoke with The Independent — saw the two vehicles enter the lot and stuck around to see what was happening. The narrative in a press release sent by the Police Department Monday afternoon and the eyewitness accounts do not differ all that greatly, though in some instances there are key variations.
After exiting his truck, Denunzio ignored a command to get back in and began to walk away from Officer Tudor, police said. When Tudor grabbed his arm to keep him from walking away, Denunzio tried to break free. The officer tried to put Denunzio’s hand behind his back, but was unable to. He then tripped Denunzio, causing him to fall on his hands and knees, according to the police’s press release.
Tudor, according to police spokesman Sgt. Lorenzo Duarte, “delivered several palm strikes to the back of Denunzio’s head,” hoping to “distract” him. When the hits proved ineffective, the officer delivered a knee strike to the ribs along with “several hand strikes.” Denunzio continued to resist, police said, and a Taser was used. (Duarte would later tell The Independent the Taser was activated 13 times, though “how many times the Taser actually made contact with Mr. Denunzio is hard to say,” he explained.) Additional officers arrived, and Denunzio was eventually placed under arrest.
That was the police’s narrative, going into a rarely seen amount of detail for a press release. But witnesses described the scene a little differently. Denunzio himself said he was just going into Gelson’s to get food. He didn’t notice the officer until after he had gotten out of his vehicle, locked his car, and walked 10 or so feet toward the store. That’s when he heard Tudor yell to get back in his car. He turned around, and the officer told him to get down on the ground. Denunzio said he was already on his knees when he was first touched by the officer, a blow to the face. From there the punching, kneeing, and tasing ensued. In fact, according to witnesses, Tudor didn’t use palm strikes, but closed-fist punches. And Denunzio was at no point resisting, he said. “I laid down like a kitten.”
“A police officer is beating up a driver for no reason, and we need help,” she recalls telling dispatch.
“Why is this being done?” witness Ellen Hunter said Denunzio yelled. “Why are you doing this?” It got to the point, Hunter said, that her husband told her to call 9-1-1 to get Denunzio help. “A police officer is beating up a driver for no reason, and we need help,” she recalls telling dispatch. He squirmed as the Taser repeatedly sent shocks through his body. “It hurts,” he said Tuesday. “It definitely stops you.”
But it didn’t end there, according to Denunzio. He wasn’t taken to the hospital, but directly to jail, where, with a knee in his neck and back and with someone twisting his wrist, he said, they drew blood. Police say it was because Denunzio refused to provide a sample. He said he didn’t refuse, but wanted to know what his options were. “You don’t have any options,” he said police told him.
He was taken to the hospital and asked that blood be drawn there, but was refused by an officer. He was treated and brought back to jail for the night. The next day he returned to the hospital, he said, where a doctor told him he had broken ribs. He followed up with his family doctor on Monday, who told him he would not be able to work for three weeks.
S.B. Police Chief Cam Sanchez released a statement Wednesday morning saying he had reviewed the tape. About a minute of the struggle was not captured on video, but Sanchez said there was no apparent violation of department procedure.
“The use of force is never desirable,” he said in the statement. “It is difficult for members of the public to witness, particularly someone not familiar with police-arrest/use-of-force training. To an outside observer, the use of this type of force may seem excessive. However, with the possibility of a fleeing suspect being armed, and officer safety at stake when making an arrest of a noncomplying suspect, the techniques and force used by the arresting officer in a split-second decision-making mode is standard law-enforcement operating procedure.” The Independent has filed a public-records-act request seeking the footage, as well as 9-1-1 recordings. Those requests, thus far, have not been answered.
Denunzio’s blood alcohol level will not be known for some time. He said he had one cocktail at the Boathouse, near Hendry’s Beach, and he believes that when the test results come back, they will show he “was well under the legal limit.”
Denunzio — a general construction worker — has two prior DUI-related cases. One, from 2003, was pleaded down to a “wet reckless.” In 2009, he pleaded guilty to DUI. According to police, Denunzio has a suspended driver’s license.
No charges have been filed, though DA Joyce Dudley said the case had arrived at her office and was under investigation.