The Authorities' Inadequate Investigations
and Failures to Act
Tom Green, a deputy sheriff summoned to Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club (COAC) left the scene a mere twelve minutes after he arrived. Although he chatted briefly with the lifeguard, Deputy Green departed without conducting any formal interviews, without pursuing any kind of investigation, and without apparently taking any notice of the video cameras or attempting to secure the video recording. The deputy did nothing to designate the pool area a crime scene and took no action to preserve the integrity of the scene until a full investigation could be conducted. Instead, because Deputy Green so quickly left the scene, COAC employees immediately hosed down the pool deck and nearby objects, and removed all soiled towels. The deputy did not even write a report until sometime later when he was asked to do so by his supervisor.
Even in the most routine traffic incidents - in which no one has died - officers obtain the identification of all witnesses, check for the influence of drugs or alcohol, check for a history of prior events and check licensing. None of these things, especially checking to ensure that COAC was running a licensed child care facility, was done in connection with Yoni’s death.
More than a year after Yoni died, a Sheriff’s department spokesman, Sgt. Erik Raney, said it stood by its investigation, adding that he didn't remember hearing anything about dunking. That is hardly a surprise given the delayed, incomplete review that was conducted. So sloppy was the investigation that the Sheriff’s department did not even realize that the original time stamp on the video was approximately twenty (20) minutes off from the actual time of events.
When the Coroner was notified of Yoni’s death, the Sergeant in charge of the Coroner Bureau, Deputy Court Williams, and the Sheriff Coroner Investigator, Deputy John Kolbert, conducted only a cursory investigation and summarily concluded Yoni’s death was an “accidental” drowning. Remarkably, Deputy Kolbert did not even bother to go to COAC the day Yoni died. Instead, he first went to the Club the following day, the same day -- and before he even watched the video -- that he made the conclusory statement to the media that Yoni's death was "an accident." In addition, Deputy Kolbert was only two (2) weeks from retirement when he was appointed to "investigate" Yoni's death, and much of his work was done after he was retired. The Coroner’s report contains two startling conclusions that are directly contradicted by the video: (1) That, in reviewing the video, the Coroner “saw nothing to indicate that Jonathan was either accidentally or intentionally struck or handled in a manner that would cause him to drown”; and (2) that “there is nothing to indicate that these employees were not performing their duties at this time.” The report also erroneously stated that Yoni was floating for only five (5) minutes when in fact he was floating face down for over eight (8) minutes.
Until Mr. and Mrs. Gottesman retained legal counsel who hired a private investigator to conduct an investigation and undertake extensive witness interviews, no real inquiry was made into how a four-year-old child, otherwise completely healthy, possibly could have died in plain view of numerous adults who were charged with his care and safety.
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The drowning of a small child at a summer camp should have led to an immediate and thorough investigation by the Sheriff’s department. It did not. Sheriff’s Department and Coroner personnel conducted no real investigation at the time of Yoni’s death, did not preserve evidence at the scene or interview percipient witnesses. Witnesses who contacted the Coroner with evidence of prior unsafe conditions and incidents of near-drowning at Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club (COAC) were ignored. And, until pressured by the Gottesmans and their attorneys, the District Attorney’s office did nothing to obtain the most critical piece of evidence: the video of the drowning.
Because the authorities did not conduct the complete investigation required, the Gottesmans and Cappello & Noлl pursued the matter with the District Attorney’s office. They provided the D.A.’s office with written memoranda, and met with both District Attorney Tom Sneddon and his successor, Christie Stanley. When the Gottesmans and their attorneys noted the impact the aggressive dunking would have had on Yoni, District Attorney Sneddon dismissed the seriousness of the action and excused the conduct saying that he dunks his own kids. However, this was not a game played with your own children, closely under your supervision. A child died as a result of the inexcusable dunking and the subsequent failure of anyone to save him.
The video alone, which clearly shows gross negligence on the part of the lifeguards and counselors, should have caused an immediate investigation by the District Attorney’s office. It did not. Instead, D.A. investigator Paul Kimes did not begin his investigation until 4 months after Yoni’s death, and did not issue his report until 9 months after Yoni’s death. Most of the key witnesses were not interviewed until six months after Yoni’s death, and most of those witnesses were not interviewed in person but only by telephone. Worse, in many instances Investigator Kimes suggested facts to interviewees rather than letting them respond to non-leading questions uninfluenced by his suggestions. Many aspects of the report are vague as to time, place and dates. Many statements contained in it are conclusory and not based on established facts. Most important, Investigator Kimes failed to follow up on key pieces of evidence and witnesses.
In addition, District Attorneys Sneddon and Stanley both completely ignored and refused to consider the fact that COAC was an unlicensed facility in violation of California law. The D.A.’s office never sought to determine if the Camp’s failure to meet licensing requirements was one of the causes of Yoni’s death. District Attorney Sneddon also whitewashed Berti’s connection to the Sheriff’s Council. When Investigator Kimes interviewed law enforcement personnel and other witnesses, he did not ask questions to elicit facts about the witnesses’ knowledge regarding any connection between COAC’s owner and the Sheriff’s Council. Rather, he began his interviews by telling the witnesses about the allegations of favoritism and conflict of interest and then essentially invited witnesses to deny those allegations. Berti’s notable financial contributions to the Sheriff’s Council lead to an unavoidable appearance of impropriety. In spite of this, the D.A.’s office never checked phone records between Berti and the Sheriff immediately following the incident. The conclusion is that the D.A., one small-town, good old boy to another, either didn't take the allegations seriously or didn’t want to pursue a prosecution that might support the allegations against the Sheriff and/or the owner of COAC.
In arriving at his refusal to file any criminal charges in connection with Yoni’s death, District Attorney Sneddon not only ignored the facts, he also ignored clear legal precedent in his own and other jurisdictions. Cases with circumstances very similar to those leading to Yoni’s tragic death have caused district attorneys in other California counties to file criminal child endangerment charges against the operators of day care centers, caretakers and even parents. And, district attorneys in other states repeatedly have charged third-party child care providers with child endangerment in the drowning deaths of toddlers or young children left in their care. Yet while District Attorney Sneddon refused to prosecute this case that so clearly should have been prosecuted, he had no problem expending vast taxpayer resources in the failed attempt to prosecute celebrity Michael Jackson.
But neither the facts nor the law had any influence over two separate Santa Barbara District Attorneys who refused to prosecute this matter. The D.A.’s office simply turned a blind eye to the grossly outrageous misconduct of the Club owner, the managers, supervisors, counselors and lifeguards, the people who are responsible for Yoni’s death.
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