Last March, Manhattan Beach police arrested 18 men in a sting operation targeting a public restroom on the beach, which, as police were informed by lifeguards, had become a popular meeting place for men seeking sex.
The following month, MBPD sent out a public release that included the name, birth date and booking photo for each arrestee. The information quickly disseminated through the local news circuits, including on the front page of the Daily Breeze.
One man, a 22-year-old former Hawthorne resident, has since come forward to recount his version of the events surrounding his arrest, during which he was taking care of a disabled boy. In a criminal complaint filed in a Los Angeles federal court earlier this month, Charles S. Couch says police arrested him without cause and violated his civil rights by publicizing his identity, among other transgressions.
The former El Camino College student is suing the city, MBPD Chief Eve Irvine and five police detectives, seeking $5 million in damages for mental distress, aggravation and loss of work. He is being represented by civil and gay rights attorney Bruce W. Nickerson, who specializes in litigation surrounding police sting operations.
The public restroom at Marine Avenue by the beach became the setting of a police sting in early 2012 after Los Angeles County lifeguards noticed unusual activity — the “same men [who] were frequently using and returning to the location” and “loitering in the area as well as inside the restroom for long periods of time,” MBPD Public Information Officer Stephanie Martin told CBS News in April 2012.
Additionally, they discovered graffiti that, according to Martin, showed “graphic sexual images” as well as several holes drilled in the partitions between the stalls.
Subsequently, MBPD detectives began monitoring websites and online chatrooms with discussions of the “Marine Bathroom” and determined that the restroom was being used as a meeting place for sexual activity, according to police. They set up a sting operation, with five detectives in plainclothes, and arrested 18 men, ages ranging from 20 to 59.
All but one were immediately cited with misdemeanors, charges including soliciting and engaging in lewd conduct in a public place, loitering, indecent exposure and invasion of privacy.
Couch, who was arrested outside the restroom while working as a caretaker for a 14-year-old boy with disabilities, was under investigation on a possible felony charge of child endangerment.
A stroll gone awry
On March 9, 2012, Couch, then a 20-year-old student at El Camino, was on the clock as a hired caregiver for a 14-year-old boy with Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by arrested sexual development and cognitive disabilities. The two were in the middle of a walking exercise when the boy, identified in the lawsuit as D.K., needed to use the bathroom.
When they arrived at the Marine Avenue restroom, D.K. entered the stall farthest away from the door while Couch used the urinal, then sat waiting in the changing area of the bathroom for D.K. to finish.
According to Couch’s lawsuit, a sting operation was in full swing. MBPD detective John Nasori entered the restroom, acknowledged Couch then went into the middle stall, next to D.K.’s. A few minutes later, the child emerged from his stall and rushed to tell Couch that a man was peeking at him through a hole on the partition.
“Horrified, the plaintiff said, ‘Let’s get out of here,’” according to the criminal complaint.
As the two rushed out the restroom, Nasori followed them out and asked why they were leaving so quickly, according to the suit. Couch and D.K. were then approached by five plain-clothed men — four MBPD detectives and one sergeant “resembling thugs,” the suit claims. Couch grabbed the child in fear of his safety.
“[Couch] was tackled, choked and handcuffed,” the lawsuit says. “He didn’t realize that they were police until he was taken to jail.”
After an interrogation lasting several hours and a call to D.K.’s parents who vouched for him, police released Couch with a detention certificate, which stated that there was “insufficient evidence for making a criminal complaint against the person arrested.”
“His parents did vouch for me,” Couch said in an interview with CBS News. “They told police I was his caregiver and there was nothing wrong going on in this situation. And still, police continued to badger me. They wouldn’t take any other answers.”
During the investigation, detectives retrieved Couch’s personal laptop from his car without a warrant, according to the lawsuit. About a month later, Detective Nasori swore under oath that the laptop was used as a means to commit a felony. But when the laptop was passed onto a Beverly Hills police detective, no material related to “glory holes” or child pornography was discovered. This is clear evidence of Nasori committing perjury, the lawsuit claims.
By the time police returned Couch’s laptop months later, the El Camino student had already dropped out of his classes, as all his school work was on that laptop, the lawsuit contends.
A month later, after police had determined there was insufficient evidence against Couch, his name and booking photo was among the 18 included in the widely disseminated press release and published on the MBPD website, an act which lawyer Nickerson describes as “malicious.” Couch’s photo, along with the other booking photos, appeared on the front page of the Daily Breeze.
The ordeal still wasn’t over. Eleven months later, Couch received a notice in the mail from Chief Irvine stating there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest, for two misdemeanor counts of obstructing police. This past August, a superior court in Los Angeles County dismissed the charges.
Couch now attends college in Philadelphia. He told CBS News that his college application process wasn’t easy, as a simple web search of his name brings up his mugshot and insinuates a criminal association with the sex sting.
“I’ve been working with special needs kids for several years and I’ve built very close relationships with the parents,” he told CBS News. “So to have someone make these types of allegations, it just does a huge blow to your character.”
Couch’s attorney Bruce Nickerson on Tuesday told Easy Reader News that he received a letter from the Manhattan Beach City Attorney’s office last Thursday indicating the city will accept the service on behalf of the six city-employed defendants. The city has until Nov.6 to file a formal response in court.
Eugene Ramirez, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing the city, said Tuesday that the city will provide a response to the allegations in the days leading up to the deadline.