What follows is not just a story of police bungling – which is akin to regular bungling. We all bungle things. I do so on a weekly basis. You have a laugh. You move on. Next.
The problem here, as you’ll see, is that there’s one point in this tale where things take a darker turn.
And there’s a person who should be held accountable for it – Mammoth Lakes Police Chief Al Davis.
But between Mammoth’s wussy Town Manager and the wussy Town Council, I imagine Al will skate.
Personally, I’d fire his ass.
The story starts a few weeks back on a snowy night. Stephanie Thompson, 25, daughter of Julie and Gary Thompson, a third generation Mammoth local, pulls up to Vons. As she’s getting out of her car, she surmises later, she must have dropped her keys.
When she returns post-shopping, the car isn’t there. Stolen. She calls the cops. An MLPD officer takes a stolen vehicle report.
The next morning, Thompson receives a call. Great news! We have located your 2003 Ford Explorer. It is parked in front of the Mammoth Unified School District Offices.
Only one problem. Thompson does not have an extra set of keys – the thief’s got the only set. She’s going to have to call a locksmith.
The police convince her the car will be fine right where it is. It’s broad daylight. There are security cameras.
The police choose not to place a boot on it. They don’t place a warning note on the car. No prints yet. Zilch.
* … Even though there have been a rash of car thefts in Mammoth during the first few months of 2021. Stephanie’s Explorer would represent the fourth such theft. A fifth theft occurred just this past Sunday.
By the time the locksmith calls, the car’s long gone. Three young men are later spotted on the security camera taking the vehicle (see photo at right).
Before the locksmith call, but after the car was stolen (again), this is what happened. The police call Ms. Thompson. Tell her they’ve got to meet with her so she can fill out paperwork for the second auto theft.
She’s visiting a friend on Lupin Street. Tells ‘em to come on over.
The first squad car shows up. Stephanie goes out to the street to meet him. He produces a form for her to sign, but it’s the wrong form, so he radioes his supervisor.
The supervisor pulls up a few minutes later.
According to Stephanie, and verified by at least one eyewitness as well as bodycam footage viewed by Town Manager Dan Holler, this is what happens next.
The initial squad car is facing one direction. The first officer on the scene and Stephanie are facing toward the hood of the car.
The second car pulls up behind them, at Stephanie’s back, perhaps 20-25’ away.
The supervisor exits the vehicle without shifting it into park.
The vehicle rolls forward, and winds up pinning Stephanie’s thighs between both bumpers.
After impact, she’s able to pivot away, spin and fall. But she’s hurt. They call an ambulance and she’s taken to Mammoth Hospital.
“I initially thought my leg was broken,” said Thompson. “But it was just crushed.” Two weeks after the incident, she still sports a ring of deep bruises around her thighs. Her mother Julie says if she were taller, the accident would have crushed her kneecaps.
At the hospital, they run her through tests and x-rays. The police tell her they’ll pay the medical bills. Thompson has received no communication from Mammoth Hospital since to indicate differently.
But (if you can believe that the foregoing isn’t weird enough) this is where it gets weird.
As Stephanie is exiting the hospital and getting into a friend’s car, MLPD Lieutenant Eric Hugelman pulls up. He asks her to follow him down to the police station.
Once at the station, Stephanie and her friend are brought to Hugelman’s office. The friend is then asked to step out for a moment so it is only Hugelman and Thompson.
Thompson has known Hugelman her whole life. She trusts him. She grew up with his children.
Hugelman produces a town document signed by Town Manager Dan Holler which would release the Town from liability for the accident
Then he fans some Ben Franklins on the table.
Which left Stephanie Thompson profoundly unimpressed.
“It was a low enough offer that I was offended … never mind that he tried to fan the bills in such a way that it would look like there was more than there was.”
Hugelman upped the offer twice, maxing out at $2,000. Town Manager Dan Holler later explained that $2,000 had been the maximum offer authorized.
In a phone conversation with Holler on Wednesday, he was asked if he felt it was appropriate for police to sequester a person alone in a room without counsel minutes after exiting the ER to make such a 3rd-rate mafioso offer.
*Lt. Hugelman, according to Thompson, did appear clearly uncomfortable when making the offer.
Holler replied that he was unaware of how the offer was made and that if the description of events is correct, it “doesn’t sound wholly appropriate.”
But, Holler said, he didn’t mind making the offer. He said he had watched bodycam footage of the incident and that it hadn’t looked too bad.
Which is a pretty interesting detail, given that Thompson said she was told there was no dashcam footage when she asked for it.
Because Mammoth cops only use bodycams these days and not dashcams. But do you think anyone offered to tell her about the bodycam footage? Hell no.
Holler said it was Chief Davis who initiated the settlement process, which is a way to compensate for pain and suffering and mental anguish without getting lawyers involved.
Holler said that as of Wednesday, Ms. Thompson had not filed a claim with the town. “She could also end up with nothing and a lot of [legal] bills,” he said, if a claim action proved unsuccessful.
Thompson did note wryly that the MLPD was a lot nicer to her after they’d crunched her between their bumpers.
Prior to her injury, she said she was “victim-blamed” for having her car stolen.
She also said her vehicle insurance did not cover theft, and that the thieves had stolen her young son’s new $160 scooter.
They also stole the car’s battery and slashed a tire.
Which leads us to the final chapter of our story.
The night of March 10 (when Thompson is injured) and the whole of the next day pass without news.
The day after that, Thompson receives a Facebook message from a woman who heard a missing car had been reported found.
A call to the California Highway Patrol couldn’t confirm the car was hers, but did say a non-recoverable car (the drive shaft was locked) had been found on Tungsten Road in Bishop across a creek.
The next morning Stephanie accompanied her father to check it out.
Indeed it was her car.
They were able to make a key to unlock the drive shaft and put in a battery (the old one had been removed).
They also determined that one of the tires had been slashed.
While father Gary was putting the spare on, Stephanie noticed a twinkling, bright, light behind him. It was the sun reflecting off of her car keys, which the thief had stashed in a nearby branch.
So once they put the spare on, she was able to drive home.
Chief Al Davis declined to answer inquiries made by the newspaper this week.
The Sheet made a public record request for both auto theft reports. The reports were not made available by press time.
The Sheet also made a request to obtain a copy of the settlement offer signed by Dan Holler.
Mammoth Town Clerk Jamie Gray replied via email, “Apparently after it was not executed it was tossed, so the Town does not have the signed version.”
Ms. Thompson, however, says she kept her copy.
One interesting sidenote: During our conversation, Dan Holler said that Lt. Hugelman is due to retire on April 15. That date marks thirty years of service.
Holler said the Lieutenant’s position will not be replaced. The leadership structure of the department will be a Chief supervising four sergeants.
Which is exactly how the Chief wants it I imagine – supervising a team of rivals all jockeying for his favor, as Davis contemplates a run for Mono County Sheriff in 2022.
A final thought. Davis was awfully clever on this one. He gets Holler to sign the offer and Hugelman to execute the deed – so he can try to claim plausible deniability in the matter. But there’s no doubt he drove this bus.
And I don’t see where trying to bully a young woman into rushing a decision and forfeiting her rights intersects with “serve and protect.”
This is precisely the type of culture which creates risk of $50 million legal settlements. We’ve seen this before.
What happens next is crucial. What kind of message does town leadership wish to send to a relatively young police force? That bullshit like this is acceptable? Or that Council actually has a handle on the asylum.
Direct Holler to fire Davis. if Holler won’t do it, fire him, appoint an Interim, and direct the Interim to fire Davis.
Or see the place further disintegrate on your watch.