Three Manhattan Beach police officers fired for their involvement in an off-duty hit-and-run collision three years ago spent at least seven hours drinking in a bar before driving and crashing just 220 feet later, court documents reveal.
The officers then drove away from the crash scene and never returned to exchange information. Two more officers, including their watch commander, discovered the wrecked Chevrolet Corvette abandoned on a nearby street, but failed to impound it "because they knew that it belonged to their fellow officer," the documents filed in Los Angeles Superior Court said.
Although the story of what happened Jan. 31, 2010, has been revealed partially through sources since the crash, the documents filed in former Officer Eric Eccles' battle to overturn his firing finally explain publicly the behavior that persuaded former Police Chief Rod Uyeda and City Manager David Carmany to fire him and two other officers, and demote a lieutenant.
Eccles, who was terminated on March 18, 2011, along with officers Richard Hatten and Kristopher Thompson, is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in his quest to persuade a judge to overturn his dismissal. He is the only officer still fighting his dismissal.
"(Eccles) didn't commit any misconduct," said Eccles' attorney, Bill Seki. "He was forthright. He's been truthful about things. He's an extremely good officer."
Peter Brown, an attorney for the city of Manhattan Beach, disagrees.
"(Eccles) had a front-row seat for this DUI collision and hit-and-run," Brown wrote in a court filing. "However, he never returned to the scene of the accident, called 9-1-1, or told the responding officer that he was in the car when Hatten crashed. He took off, ran some errands, and went drinking again."
According to Brown's court brief, Eccles, Thompson and Hatten spent the day at Grunion's bar on Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach.
Thompson had several drinks, buying rounds for Eccles, who averaged one alcoholic drink an hour. Hatten drank a couple of large mimosas, a number of pint glasses of beer, and several mixed drinks, the city document said.
When they were done at 7 p.m., the men were concerned Thompson was "too drunk to drive," so they left his truck and climbed into Hatten's two-seat Corvette, the document said. Eccles sat on Thompson's lap in the passenger seat, according to a letter written by Chief Rod Uyeda.
Hatten accelerated to 26 mph and, less than 75 yards from the bar, crashed without braking into the back of an Audi stopped at a red light. The crash pushed the Audi into a Honda Fit in front of it.
The Audi and Honda's drivers pulled over and called police. Hatten drove off, despite the fact his air bags had deployed and his front bumper was dragging along the ground. The car shut down on Dianthus Street near Manhattan Beach Boulevard. The officers got out, but none of them called for police, the document said.
"They knew it was possible that someone had called 9-1-1 and that the dispatch center had put out a hit-and-run notice," the document said.
Hatten told the others he was going to walk back to the crash scene to exchange information with the other motorists. He later told investigators he instead "wandered around in a 'drunken daze,' " the document said.
Eccles and Thompson walked back to Grunion's, bypassing the crash to pick up Thompson's truck. At the police station, Lt. Bryan Klatt, who was working as the watch commander, heard the hit-and-run call and dispatched Officer Jeff Goodrich to handle it.
Goodrich, an officer battling cancer, took statements from the victims, including the Honda driver. The driver later stopped for gas on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, saw the Corvette on Dianthus and called Goodrich. Goodrich ran the car's license plate number, discovered that Hatten owned it, and wanted to find Hatten, the document said.
Goodrich called Thompson, who said Hatten was not with him. Thompson did not mention that he and Eccles had been in the car with Hatten, the document said. Goodrich then called Klatt, who drove out to Dianthus and recognized Hatten's yellow Corvette.
"Even though it is standard procedure to impound a vehicle involved in a hit-and-run accident, Lt. Klatt and Officer Goodrich chose not to impound the Corvette because they knew that it belonged to their fellow officer," the city's document said. Klatt told Goodrich to find Hatten and left.
Hatten soon returned to his Corvette. Goodrich later told detectives that Hatten was drunk, the document said.
Eccles and Thompson also returned. Thompson drove Hatten home in the Corvette, while Eccles and Goodrich drove there separately. Eccles never told Goodrich how the crash occurred, the document said.
Eccles, Thompson and Hatten then went out drinking, and Eccles called in sick for his shift that night, court documents said.
The next day, Manhattan Beach police officials questioned Hatten, who was put on paid leave. Thompson then called Eccles, who went to the station and told Uyeda that he was in the Corvette. Uyeda then put Eccles, Thompson and Goodrich on paid leave, and asked the Sheriff's Department to investigate the crash and his officers' conduct. After a year, the District Attorney's Office filed a misdemeanor hit-and-run charge against Hatten, who later pleaded no contest to the offense and received three years probation and 45 days of roadwork.
Eccles and Thompson were not charged because they were passengers. Goodrich died Nov. 30, 2010.
Manhattan Beach police Capt. Derrick Abell, meanwhile, reviewed the Sheriff's Department's reports and decided that Eccles failed to fulfill his duties as a police officer. Abell wrote that Eccles should have come forward immediately, notified his superiors and returned to the crash scene "even if it meant that Officer Hatten was possibly going to be investigated for DUI," the document said.
Abell recommended that Uyeda fire Eccles, concluding that Eccles' "misconduct and intentional dishonesty undermined his ability to serve as an officer." Uyeda and Carmany agreed. Thompson and Hatten also were fired, and Klatt was demoted from lieutenant to officer.
Eccles and Thompson appealed, but an arbitrator upheld their firings.
In his court appeal to overturn the arbitrator, Eccles' attorney, Seki, argued that Eccles should not have been terminated because Klatt was allowed to keep his job. Seki blamed Hatten for not telling Eccles he was too drunk to drive.
"(Eccles) did not believe that Hatten was driving under the influence in violation of the law, nor did he believe that Hatten was fleeing an accident scene in violation of the law," Seki's court petition reads.
"Our position is, based on everything Eric knew that night, he was not acting as a police officer and it was reasonable for him to believe Hatten -- somebody he knew and trusted -- was going to do what he was supposed to do," Seki said in an interview. "He did not believe he witnessed any crimes that night that would necessitate him doing anything more than what he did."
Eccles, an officer for 12 years, was awarded a South Bay Medal of Valor in 2004 for rescuing a woman shot by her husband. A year earlier, a Torrance jury acquitted him of charges alleging he beat a man with a flashlight and falsified a police report to cover it up.