A 34-year-old Atlantic City police officer has been indicted by a federal grand jury for a brutal 2013 arrest using a K-9 dog on a man outside a casino that cost the city $3 million to settle, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Craig Carpenito announced Thursday.
Sterling Wheaten, of Mays Landing, was charged with one count of violating civil rights and one count of falsifying a police report about the arrest of David Connor Castellani, a Linwood resident who was 20 at the time, outside the Tropicana Hotel and Casino on June 15, 2013.
Months later, Castellani sued Wheaten and Atlantic City and the case was settled last year after Senior District Judge Jerome B. Simandle denied Wheaten's motion that the lawsuit be dismissed.
In his 78-page opinion, Simandle described in detail the evidence in the case, including surveillance video that captured much of the incident. That video was posted on YouTube in November 2013, shortly after Castellani filed his lawsuit.
Castellani was hospitalized for four days and required more than 200 stitches after being mauled for nearly two minutes by Wheaten's K-9 dog "Hogan."
Simandle called the attack "vicious."
Wheaten had an extensive record of complaints against him, Simandle wrote.
"Defendant Wheaten accumulated 33 internal affairs complaints in his seven-year career (23 involving allegations of assault or excessive force), and triggered the early warning system eight times between October 2009 and September 2010, at least eight times in 2011, six times in 2012, and three times in 2013, but has never been disciplined," Simandle wrote.
The judge later noted, "Wheaten has been involved in a great deal of excessive force litigation in this vicinage, including a 2013 case where a jury awarded Plaintiff $250,000 after Wheaten assaulted a New Jersey Deputy Attorney General."
Wheaten appeared in Camden federal court Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider and pleaded not guilty. He was released on $50,000 unsecured bond.
His lawyer, Louis Barbone, could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
The indictment, returned by the grand jury Wednesday, does not identify Castellani by name, but the incident and Wheaten's role have been the subject of ongoing media coverage.
Simandle wrote that Castellani was with five friends who took a limousine to the Tropicana for a night of drinking and was tossed out of the casino three times that night for being underage.
At some point, Castellani was handcuffed and detained by security officers and then cited for disorderly conduct by a responding police officer, Darren Lorady. Castellani was released and he agreed to leave, but then he and police officers at the scene started verbally taunting one another from across a street.
Prosecutors said that after several minutes of the verbal altercation, an officer, identified in the lawsuit as Lorady, ran across the street to arrest Castellani.
A struggle between Castellani and several officers ensued. Four officers started striking him on the back and shoulders with their knees, punching him in the back, and using baton strikes on his back and legs. A fifth officer joined in with knee strikes before successfully handcuffing Castellani's left hand. During the struggle, the officers called for a K-9 backup.
The indictment states that Castellani was lying on his stomach with an officer kneeling on his head and neck, and several officers pressing down on his back and legs, when Wheaten rushed in with his dog.
While the dog was biting Castellani in the neck, Wheaten punched him twice, according to the indictment. Castellani was finally handcuffed and the K-9 was returned to his police vehicle.
The indictment alleges that Wheaten and other officers together reviewed the Tropicana's surveillance video before writing their reports on the arrest.