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Feature Stories

City Challenges Zerby Verdict

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 19

By Kirt Ramirez

Diana Lejins

Attorneys for Long Beach disagree with the jury verdict that awarded the family of Douglas Matthew Zerby – who was shot and killed by police – $6.5 million for his death.

After an almost three-week trial in a Santa Ana federal civil courthouse, the jury unanimously found Long Beach Police officers Jeffrey Shurtleff and Victor Ortiz liable of all nine counts in April. They violated Zerby’s Fourth Amendment rights in the infamous water nozzle situation. The two shot Zerby without announcing their presence.

“The City Attorney’s Office and its clients are obviously disappointed with the verdict. We maintain that the verdict is not consistent with the evidence presented at trial, and the verdict was influenced by what all agree was a tragic situation,” said Principal Deputy City Attorney Monte Machit.

“We are still evaluating options and have already filed a post-trial motion regarding the amount of damages. The hearing on that motion is scheduled for October 21, 2013. But the City’s excess insurance carrier will have to be involved with what additional post trial actions are taken,” he said.

Zerby’s son, River, would receive $3.5 million; the father, Mark, $2 million; and mother, Pam Amici, $1 million.

Zerby had four siblings. Eden Marie Biele-James, the oldest sister – who was very close to her brother and is only one year older than him – expressed disappointment in the city’s decision to “drag this out.”

She has followed everything closely from the beginning and remains quite upset with the ordeal.

Biele-James found it interesting that the city attorneys are now complaining about the same jury they helped pick.

“The jury was too sympathetic? They helped select the jury,” Biele-James said. “It’s silly. That’s the grounds that you want the case thrown out? It’s a waste of tax dollars. The verdict supported the evidence.”

Biele-James said a lot of things came out in court that contradicted what the police department and city initially said in 2010, after Zerby was shot.

For instance, regarding that Zerby pointed a “pistol-grip” hose nozzle at police, it turned out in court that other police officers present at the scene did not fire their weapons because they did not feel threatened by Zerby and that he did not point anything, Biele-James said of police testimonies.

Only two officers, Shurtleff and Ortiz, fired their guns. A 9-1-1 tape recording played during trial demonstrated that a dog barked and a phone rang and one of the officers got startled and his own gun went off, then another officer began shooting in a classic case of contagious fire, Biele-James said. The other officers did not shoot, it was determined.

Also, it came out that the pistol-grip hose nozzle in the pictures released by the city in 2010 had been altered. The nozzle that Zerby fiddled with while intoxicated, as he sat Indian-style in front of a friend’s house, had a plastic green tip at the end, confirmed multiple witnesses.

The replica hose nozzle in the photos did not have the green tip at the end. It was pulled off and made the pistol-grip nozzle look more like a real gun, Biele-James said.

“All the information put out to the public was wrong. The city changed its story. The city contradicted itself in court,” she said.
Both sides agreed that police did not announce their presence at any time while watching Zerby undercover for nearly eight minutes and that police did not believe Zerby knew they were there, Biele-James said.

“Everything we have said as a family was proven true in the end,” she said.

She added that when paramedics arrived to treat Zerby, they were stopped by police and not allowed to assist him. “Police wouldn’t let them work.” And as a result, Zerby bled to death. The gunshot wounds could have been treated, Biele-James said.

“The LBPD blatantly lied about everything,” she said, adding that the Zerby family will now go after the two officers criminally after winning this civil case.

What also hurt Biele-James and the family was the way the city attorneys portrayed Zerby. Instead of accepting responsibility, apologizing and making amends for killing unarmed Zerby, the city instead, according to Biele-James, lied and “played dirty.”
They said Zerby was a drunk and was sick anyway. They said he had pancreatitis, but the city’s own coroner found otherwise, Biele-James said.

“It’s crazy how the city attacked his character. That’s why they lost; they were guilty,” she said.

Biele-James said her brother was in the top 16 in the nation for swimming, a number one swimmer in the nation and trained with Olympians when he was younger.

“I want there to be a change for humanity. You just can’t shoot people,” she said. “I miss my brother every day; no more holidays; his child cannot grow up with his dad; and the city is dragging this out.”

Zerby would have turned 38 October 4.

It was Dec. 12, 2010 when Zerby watched a football game on Second Street, had some drinks and did not drive home. He instead walked to his best friend’s house in the 5300 block of E. Ocean Blvd. but the friend was not home. He waited on the stoop and played with a hose nozzle. A watchful neighbor saw this and called 9-1-1.

Several officers arrived and observed undercover. The police did not announce their presence and shot Zerby multiple times.

Editor's Note: See two responses to this story by clicking on the "Letters to the Editor" link in the left column.