By Arturo Castañares
The San Diego County Sheriff Department’s highest-ranking officials inserted themselves into the usual process of executing evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic moratorium and put deputies at risk during a warrant arrest for the purpose to carry out an eviction, according to a long-time Sergeant who retired last week and is now exposing improper conduct at the highest levels within the county’s largest law enforcement department.
David Pocklington, a 28-year veteran who retired last Friday as one of the most senior Sergeants in the Department, claims that political motives drove decisions on when and how to execute court-ordered evictions during the pandemic after state and local orders limited the ability to remove people from their homes.
The Sheriff’s Department began slowing down their process of serving court ordered evictions in mid-2020 after the moratoriums were put in place in an attempt to help those being displaced during the pandemic. The Sheriff’s Department is responsible for executing evictions, but has 180 days to do so before court orders expire.
Writs of eviction, warrants, restraining orders, and other court orders are carried out by the Sheriff’s Department Court Services Bureau units attached to each of the four courthouses in the County: Chula Vista, El Cajon, Vista, and Downtown.
Pocklington oversaw both the Chula Vista and El Cajon units.
During the pandemic, Pocklington explains, the Sheriff’s Department began taking months to carry out the court order evictions. Tenants would be served a required five-day notice to vacate, but often times, Pocklington states, deputies did not return for weeks, months, or not until just before the writ was about to expire.
“Even though the plaintiff obtained a lawful eviction, we were ordered not to carryout the eviction unless we could show a health or safety concern to the surrounding community,” Pocklington said. “The Department tried to assist tenants in connecting with other resources which could help them transition to another residence.”
Landlords, management companies, and lawyers representing owners, and even the San Diego Housing Commission which manages low-income apartments began complaining to the Sheriff’s Department about the delays, but they were powerless to take any further legal action while the evictions were pending for service by the Sheriff’s Department.
But, Pocklington alleges, political considerations led to some eviction cases being acted on quickly at the direction of the Sheriff’s top command officials, and that orders coming down from the Sheriff’s executive office was not the usual process for execution of court orders.
In an August 12, 2020, email to deputies in the Court Services Bureau, his direct-report Lieutenant explained that pressure was being applied from the highest levels of the Sheriff’s Department
“Please read between the lines and understand that when I ask you for the details, it is because the [Undersheriff] and the Sheriff are grilling [Assistant Sheriff] Tony Ray on these cases,” the Lieutenant’s email reads. “What we know, why we need to act on them, etc,” he added.
The Undersheriff mentioned in the email was Undersheriff Mike Barnett who later retired in February 2021.
In another email, dated March 20, 2021, Sheriff Gore emailed Assistant Sheriff Anthony “Tony” Ray an article about the federal moratorium that stopped residential evictions.
Less than an hour later, Ray responded to Gore that the eviction moratoriums only limited property owners or landlords from seeking evictions, but “it does not apply to the legal requirement we have to execute a valid writ”, yet owners, landlords and attorneys who had proven to the court the health and safety exception to the moratoriums still found their evictions held up by the Sheriff’s Department.
Even though nearly all evictions were delayed for weeks and sometimes months, a few were directed to be executed within days of being issued by the court, including one across the street from Sheriff Bill Gore’s own home.
SHERIFF’S NEIGHBOR QUICKLY EVICTED
An eviction order was received by the Sheriff’s court services office on May 11, 2021, for a property that is located across the street from Gore’s personal residence. The eviction was for cause, not for failure to pay rents during the pandemic moratorium.
The next day, Assistant Sheriff Anthony “Tony” Ray emailed the Captain who over saw the Court Services Bureau to check on the status of the service of the eviction notice. It is not clear how the Assistant Sheriff became aware of the eviction near Gore’s home.
“We have learned the writ for removal was received by the Sheriff’s Civil Division just yesterday,” the Captain wrote back to Assistant Sheriff Ray. “Sgt. Pocklington will be ensuring [Court Services Bureau] Field Deputies complete the posting tomorrow. As we progress, I will share any updated information with you.”
The Captain then emailed the Lieutenant who oversaw the deputies who actually served the orders, and that Lieutenant, in turn, then pushed on Pocklington to serve the order and asked to be kept updated on the status.
“Please advise when this is complete,” the Lieutenant email to Pocklington. “I believe you’re scheduling for today?”
Pocklington responded the next morning, confirming that he had posted the eviction notice.
“The location was posted yesterday and the lockout will take place on May 20, at 0800 hours,” Pocklington confirmed.
The entire process from when the Sheriff’s Department received the court order to it being posted at Gore’s neighbor’s residence was completed in less than 48 hours.
But, in other cases, landlords waited for months for their evictions to be served and enforced, even after constant calls to the Sheriff’s Department and even resorting to calling elected officials for help, including County Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Dianne Jacob, Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas, and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria.
Two cases where landlords had pressing reasons to evict the troublesome tenants were delayed for months even after repeated calls to the Sheriff’s office.
One case in Chula Vista involving an illegal adult film business being run out of a large home, and another case in Ramona where a tenant was selling drugs from the unit, were delayed for months, angering both landlords who expressed their frustrations with the deliberately slow process to La Prensa San Diego during interviews for this article.
Two other cases, however, raise questions as to how and why decisions from high-ranking department officials impacted the timing and execution of court orders.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SURVIVOR BOOTED
An eviction order involving a 35-year-old African-American woman was issued by the court on January 20, 2021, and served on her on January 29th, but the deputies did not return to lock her out after the five days had expired. The apartment is in San Ysidro.
Then on March 1, 2021, the Lieutenant asked Court Service deputies for “the Property Summary” on the residence, and asked for it to be “forwarded to me as soon as possible.” It is not known why the Lieutenant got involved in this particular case.
One of the court services deputies responded to the Lieutenant with information that the apartment was still occupied, that “no report of any illegal activity” had been reported, and that only the tenant was expected to be in the unit.
But the next day, Pocklington responded with more detailed information about the case, including about the tenant’s personal background.
“Tenant is a [Black female adult]…, she has no active warrants,” Pocklington wrote. “History shows she has been a victim of domestic violence on multiple occasions. Most recently in 2019…., [assault with a deadly weapon] and witness intimidation. [She] has a divorce filing in 2019 with a permanent restraining order against her former spouse. She has minor children, one that is approximately 2 years old.”
Pocklington recommended to command to contact the tenant and offer her housing resources prior to the eviction.
“Based on the summary above, this does not fall under the deterioration to the surrounding community and we would not be scheduling the eviction until the writ was close to expiring,” Pocklington wrote.
Two days later, the Lieutenant emailed the Court Services deputies, including Pocklington, directing them to execute the eviction.
“We have been directed to proceed with the eviction,” he wrote. “Complete the appropriate work-up and move forward. Please let me know when it is completed.” The Lieutenant did not explain who “directed” him to move forward with the eviction.
Pocklington alleges that, shortly after the eviction, he was told by Command that someone from North County with political influence had requested the eviction be expedited. Pocklington would later be told by Command that a small number of evictions where being expedited at the requests of local politicians who would have influence on the upcoming Sheriff’s race to replace Gore.
At the time, Pocklington contends, the political favors were rumored to have been to help Undersheriff Kelly Martinez garner endorsements in her eventual campaign to replace Gore, who will retire next year after three terms.
Martinez announced her candidacy five months later and, Pocklington says, the same politicians he was told were asking for favors later endorsed Martinez.
A search of property records shows that the apartment complex is owned by Dennis and Barbara Recker who live in Fallbrook. The Reckers also have a former address at the Cabrillo Isle Marina near Shelter Island, presumably where they docked a boat. Several messages left for the Reckers seeking comment on this eviction were not returned.
Dennis Recker reviewed this reporter’s LinkedIn profile on the same day phone messages were left at his home and cell phone, but neither of the Reckers responded to provide any comments for this story.
Martinez’ campaign consultant told La Prensa San Diego that she does not know the Reckers and has never been involved in any evictions.
ANOTHER EVICTION LED TO DANGEROUS RAID
To Pocklington, the most troubling of the eviction cases involved an African-American woman in Lemon Grove whose adult son became the target of a raid on their apartment in July 2020.
The case involved an elderly woman living in a 55+ community who had been served an eviction notice in January 2020, but then appealed to the court and was granted a stay through May 27, 2020 when there were only six weeks left before the order would expire on July 8th.
As part of the eviction, Pocklington conducted a background investigation on the case and found that the tenant’s adult son was “also possibly residing at the property“. The son had prior prison sentences and had an outstanding felony warrant for non-violent probation offenses at the time of the eviction.
Pocklington contends that directions were given from the Sheriff’s executive office to execute an arrest for the son’s outstanding warrant and then serve the eviction. Command ordered the arrest to take place inside the apartment. This was done to gain entry into the apartment under the arrest warrant and then assess whether the elderly female had moved. Pocklington maintains that the Command wanted to avoid any negative press from evicting an elderly black female.
“We had the suspect outside where it was much safer to take him into custody but Command ordered us to take him down inside the apartment,” Pocklington said.
A superior directed Pocklington to coordinate his eviction unit with Sheriff’s Department members of the Fugitive Task Force (FTF), an interagency group comprised of undercover Sheriff’s, Probations, and US Marshalls who usually target and arrest the most violent offenders.
Pocklington, who had previously served on the FTF, knew that the plain clothes officers would surveil the apartment to ensure the subject was present for the arrest.
The arrest took place early on July 2, 2020, with members of the FTF and Pocklington’s Court Services Bureau. The officers had secured a key to the unit from the property management. They inserted the key in the door and knocked to announce themselves.
While looking through the peephole, one of the officers saw the subject dart away from the door so they immediately entered the unit and confronted him as he was running to the kitchen.
After apprehending the subject, the officers found a loaded handgun in the kitchen and an unloaded AR-15 assault rifle in another room. Officers also found 36 grams of methamphetamines and about $60 in cash. The subject was arrested on new charges, as well as for the outstanding warrant.
Pocklington was very upset after the arrest because he was told not to utilize his usual approach for making arrests outside of a residence and that put officers’ lives at risk. In response to the situation, Pocklington sent an angry text message to his Lieutenant.
“Let command know this could’ve gone to shit with officers being killed,” Pocklington wrote to the Lieutenant in a text message. “Tell them to stop playing games before someone gets killed! This is BS. And tell them Pocklington said it!”
The Lieutenant responded to Pocklington, telling him, “I would have preferred a different process” and to “memorialize your outcome on an email” but to “leave the tactical things out“, saying he would “relay those concerns to command.”
SHERIFF’S DEPT RESPONSES RAISE MORE QUESTIONS
La Prensa San Diego sent a request for comment on this story to the Department’s Media Relations Director, Lt. Amber Baggs.
Lt. Baggs responded by writing that she “had a recent inquiry from another reporter as well, so I’ll pass along some of the info we have provided and responses to their questions below.”
In response to the issue of prioritizing evictions, Lt. Baggs wrote that “The Sheriff’s Department practice is to evaluate all pending Writs of Possession based on a variety of factors. Those factors include, but are not limited to, the expiration date on the writ, the community impact that the enforcement of the writ may create on regional social services, the overall state of the COVID-19 crisis, and how the pandemic is impacting local resources.“
“The Sheriff’s Department prioritized the handling of evictions based upon a variety of factors, to including criminal activity, health and safety concerns related to the COVID pandemic, the impact on the surrounding community, and the tenants’ ability to engage housing and other Health and Human Services resources,” Lt Baggs added.
But Lt. Baggs offered no explanation for why a few evictions were executed within just a few days.
On the question of how the Lemon Grove arrest was handled, Lt. Baggs wrote that “The Sheriff’s Command Staff does not make tactical or operational decisions for any bureau” and added that “It is the role of department supervisors to verify we are using best practices and complying with our policies and training,” contradicting emails and text messages showing that deputies who executed the raid were unhappy with being directed to use the most dangerous approach to handle the arrest.
But, Lt. Baggs then added details to justify the use of the Fugitive Task Force members to execute the raid and arrest.
“During their investigation into the location deputies identified that a male tenant, in his 30’s, was residing in a Senior Housing Community and was suspected of criminal activity at the location. Deputies also learned he had an outstanding felony arrest warrant and was suspected of being armed with numerous weapons.”
Lt. Baggs referenced that the subject was “suspected of being armed with numerous weapons“, but none of the background intelligence gathered by the Court Services Bureau before the operation mentioned any information about known or suspected weapons. She also suggested that “the Fugitive Task Force would also have conducted their own separate assessment/work-up, which they may or may not have shared with court field units.“
La Prensa San Diego asked Lt. Baggs in subsequent emails to document her statement that the subject was suspected of being armed, she responded that “I don’t have that info” and that “I do not personally have access to their investigative files, operational plans, or their documents.”
When asked to clarify her assertion that the subject was suspected of being armed, suggesting a higher potential danger that existed for deputies executing the raid, Lt Baggs responded that “I have answered your questions several different ways” without actually giving La Prensa San Diego any proof to back up her assertion that contradicts the documentation and text messages from the deputies who actually raided the apartment.
In response to the comments provided by Lt, Baggs, Pocklington said, “That is not true, to put it nicely.”
“No, we did not suspect he had any weapons; had we known that the subject had access to weapons we definitely would not have knocked on the door and exposed our deputies to a potential gunfight,” Pocklington said. “And had any of the FTF members known about a potential for weapons, they would have alerted us and none of us would have knocked on that door.”
La Prensa San Diego did not receive any further comments from Lt. Baggs or any additional documentation to prove that any Sheriff’s Department official had prior knowledge or suspicion that the subject had weapons.
The issue of credibility of public comments from the Sheriff’s Department has become problematic in other recent cases as well.
Earlier this month, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Editorial Board criticized the Sheriff’s Department for giving out inaccurate information about the November 2020 death of an inmate in the County jail.
The newspaper wrote that “the Sheriff’s Department put out a statement asserting that deputies and medical staff immediately performed life-saving measures until relieved by fire department personnel”, but it was later proven that “one deputy started to attempt cardio-pulmonary resuscitation but stopped after two chest compressions.”
The Editorial went on to state that “the Sheriff’s Department’s media relations office said the inaccurate March statement was based on what the media office knew at the time and not a ‘purposeful’ attempt to issue ‘misleading information.'”
The Sheriff’s Department was also criticized in August after it released a video featuring body-worn camera footage showing a deputy purportedly experiencing a drug overdose from indirect contact with Fentanyl while searching a vehicle. Medical experts quickly countered that there is no evidence to prove that near proximity to the dangerous drug could cause an overdose. Experts now believe the deputy experienced anxiety or other non-drug-related health issues.
Undersheriff Kelly Martinez later apologized for the fact the viral video damaged the Department’s credibility, but she did not disavow the video and the Department left the video available on its own Youtube channel. The video is still online today.
December 10th was Pocklington’s final day in uniform as he retired after 28 years with the department. He chose to retire sooner than he had planned so he could expose what he called “seriously unethical and dangerous behavior by Sheriff Command” which “needlessly put lives in danger.”
Now that he’s retired, Pocklington says he feel obligated to come forward saying, “If not me, then who?”
Now that he’s retired, Pocklington says he feels a responsibility to expose mismanagement and political pressure from the command staff that interfered with the field deputies doing their jobs appropriately.
“I was very vocal when I saw firsthand that our lives where put in danger by leaders who wanted to be politically correct,” Pocklington said. “I raided that apartment, too, and found the subject headed toward a loaded handgun. That day could have ended very badly for our deputies and that subject, all because we were not allowed to do our job as we otherwise would have,” he added.
Pocklington said he considered quitting his job after the raid because he was so frustrated at himself for not speaking up more strongly before the raid that endangered his life and that of his fellow deputies.
On his last day on the job last week, Pocklington received a Letter of Appreciation signed by Sheriff Bill Gore, stating that “your professionalism will serve as an example to the many men and women who are just now starting their careers.”
The congratulatory letter outlined some of the highlights of his career, including having “traveled to a Mexican prison and brought an FBI top 10 fugitive to justice in an American court“, that he “led the chase of murder suspect, Vicente E. Alves, on a 36-hour manhunt“, and also led his “Fallbrook patrol team on the capture of gang related murderer, Tyler Dean.”
“On behalf of the Sheriff’s Department, and the County of San Diego, please accept my sincere thanks and best wishes for a long, healthy, and prosperous retirement,” the letter ends, and is signed by “William D. Gore, Sheriff.”
Pocklington knows he will inevitably receive criticism for speaking out about his experiences, but he sees it as a way to improve the department where he spent his entire career.
“I hope that exposing the shortcomings of the department will help bring about changes that will be better for the deputies and the public at large”, Pocklington said. “I wore the uniform proudly for 28 years and I don’t intend on tarnishing its image; in fact, I think I’m working to make it more honorable and respected by advocating for change,” he concluded.
Castañares is the Publisher and Editor-at-Large of La Prensa San Diego. He is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Ruben Salazar National Award for Excellence in Journalism in Print presented by the California Chicano News Media Association, the oldest Hispanic journalism organization in the United States. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.