A former Palo Alto police sergeant facing criminal assault charges for roughing up a city resident during a 2018 arrest had a prior reputation for using force and a questionable nickname among fellow officers to match, according to recent court records filed by Santa Clara County prosecutors.
He was officially known as Palo Alto Police Sgt. Wayne Benitez, but according to court filings in his ongoing criminal case, fellow officers within the department also referred to him as “The Fuse” and apparently celebrated his reputation for using force.
Sgt. Benitez was among a group of officers responding to resident Gustavo Alvarez’s mobile home in 2018 after another officer said he spotted Alvarez driving on a suspended license.
A home surveillance camera installed by Alvarez captured the officers forcefully pulling the man from his house. Shortly thereafter, the video shows Benitez striking Alvarez at least once before slamming the resident’s head into the windshield of a parked car.
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When Alvarez tells the officer he’s bleeding, the video shows Benitez respond by saying, “You’re going to bleed a whole lot more.”
But it’s not just the video that Alvarez and his attorney, Cody Salfen, say reveals misconduct by Benitez and other officers.
Just after Alvarez’s arrest, officers’ body-worn microphones capture the veteran sergeant appearing to mock Alvarez for being gay and encouraging the use of force by police officers.
“See how quickly they behave once we put our foot down?” Benitez can be heard saying to another officer. “And that’s what we don’t do enough of.”
About 30 minutes later, Benitez can be heard saying, “We’re not gonna get s*** on out here by these frickin’ low-lifes.”
Palo Alto later settled a lawsuit filed by Alvarez for more than $500,000. As part of the settlement, Palo Alto officials agreed to put every police officer in the department through two hours of mandatory “LGBTQ awareness training.”
Benitez retired from the department and the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office later charged him with two misdemeanor crimes tied to the incident: Assault by a public officer and filing a false police report. Benitez pled not guilty, and the case is expected to go to trial.
Now, documents from that criminal case raise new questions about the broader culture within the department.
A court filing from the district attorney’s office includes a transcript of car-to-car text messages between two Palo Alto officers from the night of Alvarez’s arrest that appear to celebrate Benitez’s conduct during the incident.
Former Palo Alto police agent Thomas DeStefano Jr., who was on scene during Alvarez’s arrest, sends a message to Palo Alto police officer Kevin Mullarkey, who was not on scene, saying: “You missed out – The Fuse was lit tonight!”
From there, court records show the text conversation continued:
Officer Mullarkey: That’s my favorite thing ever…I saw it go off before when I was brand new and I was like, ‘This is what it’s like in Los Angeles.’
Agent DeStefano: Yup…it happened tonight
Officer Mullarkey: Amazing…I love it…that’s a 100% real cop right there
Agent DeStefano: We got to 87 [police code for “meet the officer”] later…I want to hear it and tell you what I saw…allegedly
Officer Mullarkey: Let me know
When asked about his reaction to the court documents and Sgt. Benitez’s nickname “The Fuse,” Alvarez said he was bothered yet hardly surprised.
“It makes me angry because they were not reacting professional,” Alvarez said. “They need to change the police department completely.”
Salfen, Alvarez’s attorney, said the text messages demonstrate a widespread toxic culture within the department.
“This is obviously clear cut, objective evidence that this is a culture that exists,” Salfen said. “They knew that something horrible had occurred and they weren’t condemning it. They were celebrating it.”
Following the Alvarez incident, Salfen later filed a separate civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the department on behalf of another client, Julio Arevalo, alleging the city resident suffered a fractured bone in his face during his forceful 2019 arrest at the hands of Agent DeStefano outside a local donut shop. The lawsuit remains pending in court.
NBC Bay Area has previously reported on additional controversies involving Agent DeStefano, including a separate civil rights lawsuit alleging the officer broke a young man’s arm during a traffic stop. The plaintiff alleged he had a seizure during the stop and said DeStefano reacted by placing him in a hold that severely broke his arm.
As of September 2021, DeStefano is no longer with the department, according to the city, though officials won’t disclose the circumstances of his departure.
Attorneys representing Benitez and DeStefano did not respond to NBC Bay Area’s request for comment. Neither did Mullarkey when NBC Bay Area attempted to contact him directly through email.
Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen declined an interview request through a department spokesperson, citing the pending court cases.
Jonsen is now running for Santa Clara County Sheriff, seeking to fill the coming vacancy left by Sheriff Laurie Smith, who announced she will not run for reelection this year in the wake of several scandals during her time in office.