Antioch Cops Indicted: Texts Detail K
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Antioch Cops Indicted: Texts Detail K

Jul 03, 2023

By Tim Dickinson

In the “thin blue line” myth, cops stand in the breach between civilization and chaos. But what happens when these same police become agents of wanton violence? A new federal indictment pulls back the curtain on sadistic behavior by cops in northern California, who allegedly brutalized residents — with K-9 dog bites or by shooting them with “less lethal” projectiles — and even bragged of breaching their civil rights.

The charging document, filed Aug. 16, accuses a trio of Antioch Police Department officers with conspiracy “to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate” city residents and to deprive them of the constitutional right to be free of “unreasonable force by a law enforcement officer.” Antioch is a suburb of 115,000 about an hour’s drive east of San Francisco that has become a popular landing spot for people of color displaced by soaring rents elsewhere in the Bay Area. The city’s nonwhite population has doubled over the last two decades, exacerbating tensions between residents and a PD notorious for biased law enforcement.

The arrested officers include a K-9 handler named Morteza Amiri, who is accused of inducing his Belgian Malinois, Purcy, to bite 28 suspects over three years, and Eric Rombough, a member of Antioch’s SWAT team and Gang Unit, who allegedly shot eleven suspects in one year with a “less lethal” launcher. The launcher is a shotgun-like device that fires 40mm impact rounds, about an inch-and-half in diameter — designed to bludgeon and bruise, rather than kill. According to the indictment, Rombough blasted suspects from close range, often hitting “potentially lethal” areas of their bodies. The alleged conspiracy includes a third cop, Devon Wenger, who, according to the charging document, cheered on Amiri as “my hero,” and also used a 40mm launcher to shoot a suspect in the chest who’d raised his hands in surrender.

Rombough and Amiri have entered pleas of not guilty, and each has been released on a $100,000 bond. A lawyer for Wenger, who has not registered a plea, could not be reached for comment. He is free on a $50,000 bond; federal records indicate he is due in court in Oakland on Aug. 29 to answer the charges.

The indictment paints both Amiri and Rombough as twisted: they allegedly collected “trophies” to memorialize their uses of “excessive force.” Amiri bragged he took “gory pics” of each K-9 bite for his “personal” collection, while Rombough allegedly collected his “spent 40mm munitions” for an art project: a hand-crafted American flag collage. (According to the indictment, “the munitions were used among the stars and stripes to commemorate” his shootings.)

These cops were remorseless about their bad actions, according to the indictment; Rombough even bragged about his unconstitutional actions, as in this text exchange:

Unidentified officer: What’re you guys up to? Rombough: Violating civil rights

Officers Amiri and Rombough also sent texts indicating racial animus, repeatedly referring to city residents as “gorillas”; Rombough texted of another suspect: “I seriously want to beat his black ass.”

The alleged sadism of Amiri, the K-9 handler, is presented in excruciating detail across the indictment, which reproduces texts to his fellow officers gleefully recounting his violent exploits — e.g. “that shit is fun” — and includes snapshots he sent of the wounds left by Purcy’s bites. He’d send such messages from his personal phone, along with the numeric tally of how many times he’d used the dog to attack someone. For example: “#4 on fire rn.. Lol.” (According to the indictment, the bite count rose above two dozen before Amiri was removed from the Canine Unit in 2022.)

The indictment paints a dark picture of an officer once touted by the department as an East Bay native, fluent in Farsi, and passionate about “serving” his community. One Amiri text reveals how he manipulated the animal to make the bites more savage. “I did something different this time,” he wrote, “as purcy was on the bite, i pulled back his harness which i think helped with the bite.” After one characteristically bloody encounter, a colleague responded with concern over an apparent cut on the dog’s muzzle. Amiri responded: “That’s a piece of the suspect’s flesh lol.”

The indictment alleges Amiri sicced the animal on suspects who were already subdued or lying down. “The guy i bit today was proned out,” Amiri texted to Rombough. “no fucks given.” He also directed the dog to bite a suspect whose only alleged infraction was riding a bike after dark without a light. Another time, Amiri bragged of locating a suspect asleep (or pretending to be asleep) in a tent, the indictment says. “I walked out the tent and game planned how to fuck him up,” Amiri texted, referring to the dog attack he unleashed on the man as “justice.”

The charging document even records Amiri acting like a rogue cop out of The Shield. It cites him as “threatening to kill” an Antioch resident whom Amiri had a personal beef with, allegedly over stolen mail. In a text message to another officer, Amiri claimed to have “dragged” the man “to the back of a car to ‘discuss’ the matter.” In a text reproduced in the indictment, Amiri defended his actions by claiming: “putting a pistol in someone’s mouth and telling them to stop stealing isn’t illegal… it’s an act of public service to prevent further victims of crimes.”

Rombough, like Amiri, seemed to be out for sport when deploying his less-lethal launcher. He is likewise accused of snapping and sharing personal photos via text of the bodily harm he’d inflicted, along with messages like, “Bro so much fun.” (This alleged behavior is at odds with the Antioch PD’s “Meet your Beat” profile of Rombaugh, describing him as family-oriented former professional soccer player who enjoys “wine tasting.”)

Rombough’s decision to use force against Antioch residents was often premeditated and unrelated to the circumstances of a particular arrest, the indictment says. In a text exchange with Amiri, Rombough wrote of a future shift: “I’m gonna fuck someone up and hopefully get you a bite.” Amiri responded: “exactly! blood for blood.”

The indictment records multiple instances in which Rombough used his launcher in a potentially deadly manner, against suspects who were not an obvious threat or were already subdued. In one case, he allegedly shot a man in the chest while that person was “laying on a bed.” He also allegedly hit a suspect, whom two officers had already brought to the ground, with a 40mm round fired from a distance of “1 feet to 3 feet.” That encounter struck even Amiri as out of bounds; he texted another cop: “Bro… Rombough be doing some unnecessary ass 40s.”

The indictment paints the third cop, Wegner, as a big talker (or texter) who egged on Rombough and Amiri’s misbehavior, instead of reporting their alleged abuses as required by department policy. Antioch PD touted Wenger, an Army veteran, to the community as Comicon-loving Star Wars “nerd.” But he, like the other charged officers, allegedly turned to the dark side. “We need to get into something tonight bro!!” he once texted Amiri. “Lets go 3 nights in a row dog bite!!!” He added eagerly that this would give a lieutenant, whom he referred to as “faggot ass,” something “to stress out about.”

When Wenger shot a less-lethal munition at a suspect with their hands raised, Amiri texted him with paise: “who the fuck are you?? i love this wenger 😂” Wenger replied: “#Newyearnewme Hahah jk Just trying to get on swat bro!”

All three charged cops sometimes were on the same text chain, as in this exchange, which offers evidence of a shared M.O.:

WENGER: Please find this guys and fuck him in the assROMBOUGH: DealWENGER: He’s the fuck face that ran. AMIRI: ill bite em

Are these just a few bad apples? Or is the whole barrel at Antioch PD full of rot? The scope of the federal indictments unveiled last week indicate widespread problems in the department. In total, 10 cops were busted by the feds, including two who were ”conspiring to distribute anabolic steroids”; one who allegedly interfered with a wiretap and destroyed evidence; and others who’d allegedly gotten pay increases for college coursework they paid someone else to complete. U.S. Attorney Ismail Ramsey indicated that more indictments may be coming: “This office will not rest until all persons who have engaged in this sort of behavior are apprehended and prosecuted,” he said.

The indictment is the fruit of a joint local and FBI investigation that was first announced in March 2022 to probe alleged “crimes of moral turpitude” within the Antioch police department. The federal charges come in the wake of an explosive investigative report released this spring by the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office detailing potential violations of the state’s Racial Justice Act. It described 10 members of the Antioch PD who shared “derogatory, homophobic and sexually explicit language and photographs” as evidence of “racial bias and animus toward African Americans and other people of color in the community.” (Rombough’s texts appear here too, including his complaining of a hurt foot after he’d “field goal kicked” a suspect. “Gotta stop kicking n—-s in their head,” he added, without redaction in the original.)

Amiri and Rombough are also both defendants in a civil suit, filed earlier this year, calling out more than a dozen members of the Antioch force for “bigotry, racism, willingness to falsify evidence,” and celebrating “unconstitutional and unreasonable force.” (The cops are represented in this case by the city of Antioch which answered the complaint by asserting that the defendants “deny generally and specifically” the allegations, and by insisting that the cops “at all times…acted reasonably and prudently.”)

In response to the federal indictments, Antioch’s acting police chief Joe Vigil released a statement vowing that justice will be served: “Any police officer who breaks public trust must be held accountable,” Vigil said, adding: “No individual – including a police officer – is above the law.”