SANTA MARIA – Three years ago, over Memorial Day weekend, Camille Chavez was hanging with a friend in a bar in Avila Beach, the tiny seaside town on the Central Coast. Nearby, Avila Beach’s fifth annual Tequila Festival was winding down. Chavez, a high school special education teacher in Santa Maria, is not a fan of tequila, but she wanted to see the headlining band, Ozomatli.
After dinner at the Custom House restaurant, she bumped into her friend Isaac McCormack. The pair decided to grab a drink inside a beachfront bar called Mr. Rick’s. McCormack ordered at the bar while Chavez stood behind him, her arms affectionately draped around his neck. As the bartender served them a bottle of beer and handed them cups, a San Luis Obispo building inspector named Christopher Olcott began backing into the two friends. On the security video, it looks as if he is protecting some imaginary turf, or being deliberately obnoxious.
Finally, Chavez pushed him back with her hip. Olcott cocked back his right elbow and smashed it into her face. Chavez fell to the floor unconscious, twitching slightly, and Olcott began pummeling McCormack in the face with his fist. Olcott was charged with felony assault.
The case went to trial in January 2018 and lasted 13 days. Until the security video was leaked to a local news outlet last month, almost no one outside the legal system had paid any attention to the story.
The video shows a damning sequence of events, but the jury could not come up with a unanimous verdict. It deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of guilt.
Maybe defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu persuaded the five holdouts that Chavez was the aggressor because she bumped Olcott back.
But juror John Backer, who had voted to convict Olcott, told the San Luis Obispo Tribune that he believed race played a role in the verdict. Olcott is white; Chavez is Mexican American and McCormack is Native American and Mexican American.
Backer described the jury as older, conservative and nearly all-white. The defense, he told The Tribune, painted the assailant as a “good, clean-cut, hardworking professional with a family – as opposed to two people who don’t come from this area and shouldn’t have come to this place in the first place.”
Chavez, deeply disappointed but not surprised by the outcome, said an investigator for the prosecutor told her something disturbing. A juror, he said, told him a second juror had wondered why Olcott should lose his job “for two Mexicans in a bar.”
On Monday, I called Asst. District Atty. Eric Dobroth, a spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County prosecutor’s office, to see if that was true. Dobroth checked with the investigator, then called me an hour later to confirm the quote. The investigator, Dobroth said, “spoke with a member of the jury, who described another member of the jury making the comment that is consistent with what Camille told you.”
I met Chavez, 30, on Friday afternoon at a coffee shop in Orcutt, about a five-minute drive from Righetti High School in Santa Maria, where she teaches. Her short hair, dyed a stylish gray, peeked out from her hat brim. Her lower lip is pierced with a stud (which she removed when she testified).
“This is not the first time in my life a man has done something really awful to me,” she said. “But it’s the first time there was an opportunity for justice to be served. I relied on the judicial system to do that and it didn’t. I think that hurts more than the initial event.”
What hurt even more: San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow declined to retry the case. “It was a management decision made by consensus,” Dobroth said.
Despite the report about the juror’s allegedly racist comment, he said, the prosecutor decided not to risk another hung jury. The case was finally resolved on March 21: Prosecutors would drop the felony charge and let Olcott plead guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge.
Instead of a two- to four-year prison term, he would face 60 days in jail. He is likely to serve half that time. His sentence is to begin on May 20. He will be on probation for three years and was ordered to attend alcohol counseling.
A few weeks after a Superior Court judge approved the deal, the security video of the assault was obtained by Cal Coast News, a local website. Once people saw the video, they were outraged.
The release of the video prompted the editorial board of the San Luis Obispo Tribune to condemn the 2018 verdict : “We rarely criticize jury verdicts – after all, we aren’t privy to all that goes on in the courtroom,” the board wrote, “but this is one time when the video evidence speaks for itself.”
The editorial board also called for Olcott, 39, to be fired.
It was not until the video surfaced that the city put Olcott, who had continued to inspect buildings, on administrative leave, and the city manager announced he would investigate.
“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,” San Luis Obispo City Manager Derek Johnson told The Tribune.
Olcott’s attorney was outraged. Monday, he emailed me a copy of a letter of protest that he sent to the San Luis Obispo city manager.
“In my almost 40 years of practicing law in San Luis Obispo County, I have never seen the public lynching my client is enduring,” wrote Funke-Bilu. “The message conveyed by the media was that my client, without provocation, attacked an innocent woman. Naturally, this one-sided presentation fomented public indignation.”
His client pleaded guilty, according to prosecutors, yet Funke-Bilu wrote that Olcott “has always maintained his innocence.”
You don’t get violently smashed in the face, and fall head first onto a concrete floor without some lasting damage. Chavez was diagnosed with a concussion, and she had a lump on the back of her head that lasted months. She tried to forget about the assault, to put it behind her.
“Initially, I didn’t process it,” she said. “Life went on, and I didn’t tell very many people about it. It was not on news. It actually took a couple years for it to really hit me.”
Three years later, she is still being treated for anxiety, depression and PTSD. Her short-term memory is impaired, she said. She’s uncomfortable in large crowds. “I constantly worry about what’s going to happen,” Chavez said. “I don’t sit with my back exposed.”
I asked whether she had considered filing a civil personal injury lawsuit, but she told me she had not known there was a two-year statute of limitations on a case like hers. On June 20, she’s due in court to present a bill for restitution, the right of any California crime victim.
She will ask the court to order Olcott to cover her medical expenses, co-pays and missed work. She also wants him to reimburse her for training her dog as a PTSD service animal. All in all, she’s asking for about $15,000. She expects Olcott to fight her on the amount, and she’s prepared to be disappointed again.
Robin Abcarian writes for the Los Angeles Times.