A San Luis Obispo city employee has been placed on administrative leave after video surfaced of him cold-cocking a woman in an Avila Beach bar in 2016.
Christopher Matthew Olcott, a building inspector in SLO’s Community Development Department, ended up pleading guilty Feb. 21 to misdemeanor battery with great bodily injury after a felony trial in the case ended in a hung jury last year.
The city is now conducting a confidential personnel investigation into the off-duty attack on the Lompoc woman and her male friend, City Manager Derek Johnson said in a statement.
“As the criminal proceedings in this matter have finally come to a conclusion and additional information has been made publicly available, the city will thoroughly and quickly investigate the record to determine appropriate employment actions,” Johnson added.
The May 28, 2016, incident was captured on surveillance video at Mr. Rick’s bar in Avila Beach.
“We take these matters seriously,” Johnson said. “The safety and security of the community we serve and our employees is of utmost importance to us.”
Olcott was sentenced on March 21 to 60 days in jail, but court records indicate he will serve about half that time.
He was also sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation and three months of alcohol counseling. Olcott also must pay some amount in restitution, which will be determined at a hearing in June, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Olcott didn’t respond to Tribune requests for comment at his work.
Elbowed in the face
Camille Chavez, a special education teacher at Righetti High School in Santa Maria, said that she had had no previous contact with Olcott and no words were exchanged between them or her friend, Isaac McCormack, of Santa Maria.
Chavez said Olcott bumped her with his backside to establish his personal space in a crowded bar. Chavez nudged him back with her body to jockey for space, saying she believed he was being “territorial.”
“I don’t know what triggered the event,” Chavez said. “I have no idea what prompted it. He was territorial over this space. There was room in front of him, but he was not willing to give up that space.”
The video then shows Olcott turning to look at Chavez before suddenly elbowing her in the face, knocking her out. He then punches McCormack repeatedly as bar staff rushes to stop the violence.
Chavez said she was unconscious for more than a minute and felt dizzy for days afterward, missing some time at work.
“I had a concussion, and I have been diagnosed with PTSD,” Chavez said. “That has been the hardest thing. I’ve been dealing with being around crowds. I have a hard time going out in public and being around groups of people.”
McCormack told The Tribune that he had arrived at Mr. Rick’s about 15 minutes earlier and never even looked at Olcott until he felt the blows raining down. He said the incident took place on the weekend of a tequila festival, which McCormack didn’t attend. But many patrons at Mr. Rick’s seemed to have come from the festival that day, McCormack said.
“He could have killed someone,” McCormack said. “There’s really no explanation for what he did.”
DA takes the case to trial
The county District Attorney’s Office initially charged Olcott with felony battery with serious bodily injury for the blow to Chavez and misdemeanor battery for the attack on McCormack.
After what Chavez described as an emotionally difficult and frustrating legal process, a trial against Olcott resulted in a hung jury on Jan. 31, 2018.
“The jury (in the January trial) was hopelessly deadlocked 7 to 5 on whether any crime at all was committed, even after reviewing the video of the battery numerous times,” Dow said. “This illustrates that no matter how chilling video evidence might be, a jury must still weigh and evaluate all of the other evidence before reaching a verdict.”
The District Attorney’s Office was preparing for a new trial in February — but the case was resolved with the plea agreement.
Olcott was ordered to surrender to his jail sentence on May 20. He is also ordered to not have contact with the victims during the probationary period and is prohibited from owning or possessing firearms or ammunition for a 10-year period, Dow said. His probation includes a three-month alcohol abuse class.
Olcott had no prior criminal history, and “we made the decision that the plea agreement would serve the interests of justice in this case,” District Attorney Dan Dow said in an email to The Tribune.
Chavez, 30, said that she wished the District Attorney’s Office would have re-tried the case after the initial hung jury, rather than settle for a misdemeanor plea.
“It’s very disappointing they’d make a deal like that and not fight for justice,” Chavez said. “My parents and I met with (Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth) and told them we didn’t agree with their decision. It didn’t matter.”
But Dow said the defendant’s plea was “for a substantially similar punishment that we would expect if convicted by a second jury trial.” The statute for a felony battery suggests 2 to 4 years behind bars, which would be at the judge’s discretion.
Dobroth added, “I fully respect Miss Chavez’s position. This is extremely personal.”
Dobroth said the decision not to re-try the case, initially prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner, was fully vetted with the input of management.
Dobroth said the office took into account “the degree of the jury’s inability to make a decision and the defendant’s willingness to plead guilty to the exact same charge (albeit a misdemeanor).”
The jury’s verdict
Chavez said she’s unclear why the jury decided the way it did, noting the video evidence showed clearly what happened. She said she heard from the investigator that one of jurors said, “Why should he lose his job for two Mexicans in a bar?”
McCormack is a part Native American and Mexican, he said.
“We’re both white-passing individuals,” Chavez said. “To know that we’re experiencing that kind of racism is disheartening. That means there are others who aren’t as privileged and likely face similar or worse circumstances.”
Christine Dietrick, SLO’s city attorney, told The Tribune that the city is in the process of information-gathering, which includes interviewing relevant witnesses and awaiting further assessment of the situation from a third-party investigator.
Olcott earns a salary of $68,160, according to SLO Human Resources Director Monica Irons. Olcott was promoted by the city after being reclassified from building inspector I to a building inspector II, a higher ranking role, on Feb. 7, 2019, Irons said.
“We wouldn’t complete the (personnel) investigation until we have all the facts,” Dietrick said.
Dietrick said that city governments aren’t advised of arrests or charges against employees who are not public safety employees.
Dietrick said that cities must go through a process when it comes to off-duty conduct and determine the nexus between job performance and conduct off the clock.
Dietrick said Olcott was not in a leadership or management position with the city.
“We were only aware of the charges and not the details of the case; the first we saw of the video was when it was posted on line,” Dietrick said.
The former Assistant City Attorney found out charges were pending incidentally, Dietrick said, and became aware the trial ended in a hung jury.
“We have been awaiting final resolution and availability of complete information to evaluate whether there was any nexus between the off duty conduct and employment with the city,” Dietrick said.
Irons said the city places a high priority on personnel investigations and will take an active role in assessing his job status. The details of that investigation will remain confidential, Irons said, though Olcott’s employment status (whether he’s employed with the city or not) is public record.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of restitution Olcott might be required to pay.