A former Santa Maria police supervisor is fighting allegations that his poor decisions and oversight played a major role in the shooting death of Officer Alberto Covarrubias Jr. last year.
Lt. Dan Ast was fired by Chief Ralph Martin in March, due in large part to what Martin said was poor judgment and incompetent leadership regarding the January 2012 attempted arrest of Covarrubias.
Officers had discovered Covarrubias, 29, was allegedly engaged in a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old police Explorer scout and attempted to arrest him while he helped dismantle a sobriety checkpoint for vehicles. As police supervisors tried to arrest him, Covarrubias drew his duty gun and fired a shot. Covarrubias then was shot and killed by a fellow city police officer.
The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office determined the Covarrubias shooting was legally justified, but Martin said that nine officers violated Police Department policy.
As part of the discipline process, Ast was fired from the agency, according to court documents filed by Ast’s attorneys.
The name of a second officer whose employment was terminated was not revealed in the court file.
In Santa Barbara County Superior Court documents filed in May, Ast’s attorneys asked the court to order the city of Santa Maria and its police department to postpone a hearing, called a Skelly hearing, that would allow Ast to challenge the terms of his termination.
They sought the delay because, according to the documents, Ast’s firing and other workplace happenings devastated him to the point of severe depression. Ast claimed he was not mentally well enough to attend the hearing and, according to the filings, checked himself into a hospital for psychiatric treatment in May.
Court documents indicate Ast’s case was dismissed because the involved parties told the court they agreed to pick dates for Ast’s hearing that he would be well enough to attend.
Santa Maria City Attorney Gil Trujillo declined to comment on the Ast case and whether the hearing had occurred. He said any city employee is able to appeal any disciplinary action and that the process can be lengthy.
Jonathan Miller, an attorney representing Ast, also declined to discuss the court filing.
The documents, which include a termination letter Martin wrote to Ast, are shedding new light on the high-profile Covarrubias shooting and its aftermath.
Martin stated in his letter that Ast failed to properly and quickly update his supervisor, Cmdr. Craig Ritz, on the status of the Covarrubias investigation. Ritz is no longer with the police department, but the terms of his departure are unclear.
Martin also said Ast did not develop a proper tactical and contingency plan to safely arrest Covarrubias and neglected to consider Covarrubias’ police training and expertise, among other issues.
“You allowed the threat of a criminal suspect’s potential suicide to override your training and experience and forgo department policy,” Martin continued.
Martin said that although Ast’s actions concerning the Covarrubias matter were enough to justify his termination, he was also fired because he discharged a stun gun into his leg in late 2011 as part of a bet with a colleague. The stun gun had been seized as part of a criminal investigation.
“The preponderance of the evidence, in these two incidents, establishes that you repeatedly fail to perform your duties in a competent manner,” Martin wrote. “Your incompetence continues to expose you and the city to criminal and civil liability,” he added.
Ast countered in court documents that in his 23 years in law enforcement, 16-and-a-half with the Santa Maria Police Department, he’d never been disciplined for misconduct or other violations of law or policy.
He said he followed Ritz’ orders regarding the Covarrubias matter, and denied compromising the investigation.
Ast said Lt. Rico Flores, who retired in the wake of the Covarrubias incident, leaked information to Covarrubias that made him suspect he was about to be arrested and draw his gun.
Ast charged that former Santa Maria police Chief Danny Macagni, who retired in August last year, Ritz and Flores were all allowed to retire from the police department instead of being fired.
“However, even though I was following orders and did nothing to compromise the Covarrubias investigation, I have been notified that my ... career in law enforcement is about to end,” Ast said.
Ast went on to accuse the Santa Maria Police Department of firing him because he’d filed two grievances when Macagni was in charge, and “caused the city to address serious improprieties going on within the SMPD.”
Ast said the stun gun incident was minor and did not warrant his termination.
Martin said Wednesday that he could not comment on personnel matters, including addressing any of the allegations made by Ast.