Family of murdered man files claim against Berkeley

Peter and Andrea Cukor. Photo: Matthew Sumner

The family of Peter Cukor, killed outside his Berkeley hills home on February 18, took steps Wednesday to sue the city of Berkeley for wrongful death.

R. Lewis Van Blois, the Cukor family attorney, filed a claim against Berkeley and its police department for wrongful death and severe emotional distress. The city has 45 days to respond to the claim. After that a lawsuit can be filed.

The claim includes new details about the attack that 23-year old Daniel DeWitt allegedly made against Cukor around 8:45 pm on February 18.

Peter Cukor and his wife Andrea returned to their home at 2 Park Gate around 8:40 pm where they encountered Dewitt inside their garage, according to the claim. Cukor told Dewitt to leave, but the 23-year old responded that he lived there, he was looking for Zoey, and a psychic told him he could find her if he entered the house. Dewitt eventually left, but returned a short time later and entered a gate that led to a patio at the front of the house. Cukor told him to leave a second time.

“Fearing for his safety and the safety of his wife and the immediate threat to their lives, Peter Cukor called the Berkeley Police Department emergency number and gave a clear, unambiguous account of the intruder’s actions and emphatically and firmly requested an officer to come right away,” said the claim.

Cukor did not call 911 but 510-981-5911, a number that a neighborhood group had told local residents to program into their cell phones for emergencies. Cukor spoke with a police dispatcher, who did not consider the situation a Priority 1 emergency and ranked it a Priority 2. But the Berkeley police department was in the middle of a shift change and was getting ready to discuss an Occupy march that was supposed to come to the city. Police officials had determined not to respond immediately to any Priority 2 calls.  But the dispatcher told Cukor that an officer would be coming soon, said the claim.

“Soon after the emergency call had been made, Peter Cukor saw DeWitt leave the patio through the front gate, go down the driveway to the road and turn left leaving the property. After several more minutes had passed, he was concerned that the policeman could not find the driveway to the house that was difficult to find and went down the driveway toward the fire station expecting to meet a policeman trying to locate his home. Instead of finding a policeman on the road searching for his driveway, Peter Cukor encountered DeWitt who had returned again to try to get into the Cukor house. Although Peter Cukor attempted to get back into the safety of his home, he was viciously attacked by DeWitt, knocked to the ground and struck in the head with a blunt instrument while Andrea Cukor watched from an upstairs window. She immediately screamed at DeWitt to stop striking her husband, yelled for help and then called 911. DeWitt then came through the gate and banged on windows and the French doors trying to get into the house. “

Police did eventually respond to Cukor, but they found him unconscious. He died later that night.

Police arrested DeWitt within 20 minutes. He was charged with Cukor’s murder, but an Alameda County Superior Court judge suspended the charges because she ruled that DeWitt, who suffers from schizophrenia, was not competent to stand trial. He is being held at Napa State Hospital.

Andrea Cukor and her two sons, Christopher Cukor, 37, and Alexander Cukor, 34, filed the claim.

“The Berkeley Police Department and their dispatchers were grossly negligent, breached their duty of care to claimants and committed actionable torts in affirmatively representing to Peter Cukor in bad faith that a police officer would be sent to the Cukor home,” said the claim. “The affirmative conduct of the dispatchers was in direct violation of accepted public safety standards. The affirmative conduct of the dispatchers was directly contrary to the specialized training which enables public safety agencies, including those operated by the City of Berkeley, to provide effective emergency assistance to citizens at risk. Mr. Cukor provided clear and unambiguous information that he was currently encountering an intruder at his home who was acting in a bizarre manner and requested police assistance right away.”

The Berkeley Police Department declined to comment on the claim, saying it is pending litigation. Previously, Chief Michael Meehan said that the department responded appropriately to Cukor’s call.

Related:
Family of murdered man criticizes police response
[04.23.12]
Berkeley police officer switching jobs in wake of scandal [04.19.12]
Police used internal database to get reporter’s address [03.28.12]
Officer put in awkward position by Berkeley police chief [03.16.12]
Berkeley City orders investigation into police chief [03.16.12]
Spotlight on City Manager’s response to Berkeley Police Chief [03.14.12]
Few comments on Chief Meehan before Council session [03.13.12]
Questions remain about Berkeley police chief’s actions [03.11.12]
At 12:45 am police chief demands reporter make changes [03.10.12]
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

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  • Guest

    The Police Chief seems like he’s becoming a bit of a liability. 

  • The Sharkey

    “The Berkeley Police Department and their dispatchers were grossly
    negligent, breached their duty of care to claimants and committed
    actionable torts in affirmatively representing to Peter Cukor in bad
    faith that a police officer would be sent to the Cukor home,” said the
    claim. “The affirmative conduct of the dispatchers was in direct
    violation of accepted public safety standards. The affirmative conduct
    of the dispatchers was directly contrary to the specialized training
    which enables public safety agencies including those operated by the
    City of Berkeley, to provide effective emergency assistance to citizens
    at risk. Mr. Cukor provided clear and unambiguous information that he
    was currently encountering an intruder at his home who was acting in a
    bizarre manner and requested police assistance right away.”

    I have to agree with this 100%.
    If the dispatcher had been truthful with Mr. Cukor about how long it might take for someone to show up in response to his call, he might not have gone back outside.

  • Heather_W_62

    City of Berkeley Management & Chief Meehan:

    Mr. Cukor’s blood is on your hands. No thanks to you for costing him his life and costing the taxpayers what could be a million dollar lawsuit. 

    Sincerely,
     Heather W. 

  • Gin1423

    The lawsuit will not bring Mr. Cukor back from the dead. The lawsuit
    Will not erase the assailant’s mental health problems.
    There seems to be smoothly ‘new’ detail as the victims’s family
    Gets in touch with their deeply impacted memory
    The fault ofnThe Berkeley Police – I dont know.
    This was a very sad tragic event! I am unsure how it could have
    Been any more controlled!
    My prayers and heart go out to both families who are victims of
    Of a crumbled mental health system along with unrealized details of the
    Events.
    I am befuddled to what the positive implication of a lawsuit
    Against Berkeley Police may accomplish!
    More victims of an already devasting tragedy!
    I honestly do not know!

  • Heather_W_62

    You can’t put the police department in jail, Gin1423, so the only sanction that might create change is monetary.  Changes in the department are desperately needed, not just in this case, but overall.

  • Annie Painter

    Of course I grieve for the Cukor family. The facts seem to have changed a bit since the initial reporting however. I recall that Mr. Cukor was reported to have left the safety of his house to walk to a nearby Berkeley fire station outpost, thinking that if someone from BPD would not come soon, he could find someone at the fire station. I recall reading that he found the fire station empty and thus returned to his house where the assailant encountered him. I am curious to know why the details have changed in the filing of the suit. Can someone clarify?

  • MFox327

    I feel for the Cukors and understand their frustration and feeling that the police let them down. However, suing the City is only going to cost the city precious dollars and resources, further limiting the police department from effectively carrying out its duties.

  • Guest

     ”I don’t know…I am unsure…I am befuddled…I honestly do not know!”  Do you realize this is not all about you?

  • vickley

    If the cell emergency number promulgated by BPD and other emergency providers was not properly treated as a type 1 emergency by Berkeley Dispatch an entirely new light is cast on this entire tragic affair.

  • Guest

     This is NOT a comment on the Cukor case or potential lawsuit.

    Unfortunately, not all 9-1-1 calls are ‘type 1 emergencies.’

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,504125,00.html

  • Guest

    As far as I have heard, Mrs. Cukor is the only competent eyewitness to the events of that evening prior to police arriving on the scene.  It is easy to imagine that her thoughts were not entirely clear at first.  Could that be why this new account of events differs from the initial reports by media outlets?

  • Bruce Love

     

    Could that be why this new account of events differs from the initial reports by media outlets?

    A lot of the media reports are echo chamber — stories reporting what other stories said earlier like a game of telephone.   It’s hard to tell, through that fog, what the primary sources actually said in the first place.

  • vickley

    A short history of the affair will show you that the BPD or Dispatch claimed the first call was not an emergency 911 call.  If it was as described the cell “911″ for Berkeley or 981 5911 then somewhere beginning at the dispatcher people were mislead or misinformed. The latter is an area on which new light can and will be cast. It is important to everyone in Berkeley.

    The number dialed and received are matters of record.  

    The issues and facts of proper response are matters for a jury.

    Let’s not lose sight of the possibility (perhaps certainty) that we do not yet have all the evidence.

  • vickley

      

    Heather so quick to judge without sufficient information making her judgments at best of questionable value.

  • EBGuy

    For those interested, here is the link to the call transcript (from an earlier BS article):
    http://www.berkeleyside.com/2012/03/27/city-releases-transcript-of-murder-victims-call-to-police/

  • Heather_W_62

    Well your contribution here really is fantabulous, vickley. 

  • Biker 94703

    D: Okay, we’ll try to get somebody out there as soon as we can.

    plus

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_v._District_of_Columbia

    This lawsuit is a waste of time.

  • Guest

    Can anyone who thinks that the police ought to have done MORE in response to Peter Cukor’s call please suggest what else the police ought to do for us, how many more (or fewer) police it will take to implement your suggestions, and how much more (or less) your suggested policies will cost?

  • hardlyaguest

    The civility previously assumed in our society killed Mr. Cukor. Those raised at a time when even obviously disoriented strangers were not considered inherently dangerous would regard hunkering down in their home till the cops came as over-reacting.

    I remember a black and white photo from a ’50′s National Geographic – a little girl sharing her ice cream cone with a bear, out the window of the family car in Yellowstone Park.  

    Wild life is dangerous.

  • David

    This is a tragic case, but it seems self-evident that no one (victim nor police) could have known that this particular trespasser would be mentally impaired. And, as others have stated, not every call is an emergency. It was this particular man’s unknowable and rare mental state that was the guilty party here. I am deeply sympathetic to the family, but I do not think it is reasonable to hold BPD responsible for an unknowable and rare circumstance.

  • Guest

    Dangerously crazy is not all that rare a mental state, particularly in a city like Berkeley.  It’s also perfectly reasonable to assume that a guy trespassing in someone’s yard poses an immediate danger.  Sure, sometimes people get disoriented because they went for a long bird-watching hike and didn’t hydrate themselves properly, and then there are those harmless crazy people who wander into your front yard because they want to pick daffodils to celebrate the universe or something, but would you bet your life on that?  More importantly. if you were a police dispatcher, would you bet someone else’s life on it?

  • hardlyaguest

    David and Guest are both right. We live in a society where some shown the photo I mentioned of the little girl and the bear see an innocent encounter, others have visions of her arm being ripped off. 

  • David

    I hesitate to add the following, but it does seem valid to observe that this event occurred near the top of the Hill, not too far from where I live. The event felt rare and unknowable in that context. If the same call had been reported downtown I think it would and should have been perceived as more likely to have involved an issue of mental instability.

  • TizziLish

    thankfully, a legal precedent in federal court in the district of columbia does not automatically dictate that the Cukor suit has no grounds in California state courts and, possibly, also have grounds in this federal judicial district.

  • TizziLish

    Immediately after Mr. Cukor’s tragic murder, I did not see any media accounts that quoted his grieving widow.

    And I venture to guess that this legal claim, with its detailed description of Mr. Cukor’s police call was prepared with access to the recorded call Mr.Cukor had with the dispatcher.
    It looks to me like the initial media reports were based on Meehan’s good spin machine, that the Berkeley police chief and his staff told the media a version of the story that shielded the full truth. Gee, is anyone surprised that meehan spun? Has anyone forgotten that Meehan rousted a journalist in the middle of the night in Meean’s desparate determination to control the story?I will take a legal petition, which would have been carefully drafted with a transcript of Mr. Cukor’s police call . . . 

    The only ‘report’ we have that Cukor went to the fire station was based on speculation, rumor and police-department spin. Apparently “journalists” interpreted Cukor’s physical presence outside his home, connected some unfounded assumptions about the proximity of the fire station — clearly the early media reports were based on gossip, innuendo, assumption, spin, speculation   . . . 

    A legal petition will allege facts that the petitioner’rs attorney believe he/she will be able to prove. I bet the taped dispatch conversation supports this laweyr’s version over ‘the media’ version based on cop tall tales and gossip.

  • TizziLish

    Can any ordinary, reasonable prudent person honestly suggest that they would not want the police to respond immediately if they called the police and said there was a crime being committed on their property, by a spacey person who had ignored a reasonable request that the intruder leave?

    Your questions do not address this specific case, and you engage in illusory sophistry. It is not a question of how many more or fewer police would be needed. SAdly there were lots of cops on duty that night. As I recall, a cop in a cop car overheard the call and offered to respond but was told by dispatch not to  .. . there were adequate cop resources that night so your question about how many more would we need is irrelevant. The question is how the generously adequate resources were allocated that night.
    A walking Occupy demonstration that was still at least one hour away from Berkeley was prioritized over two human beings being directly invaded in their home. Who would not feel threatened when a stranger insists on a right to enter their home? Who would not expect immediate police response if police were available — which they were? This is not, at all, about how many more cops we need to meet our community standards. This is about the competence of the current police administration to evaluate prioritities in exigent circumstances. Life over political displays with the Occupy movement should be prioritized.

  • TizziLish

    I pray that Berkeley will offer a decent financial settlement to the Cukors and spare them further emotional suffering.  I can’t see how the Cukor family could not file this claim and, should the claim be denied, a lawsuit. Who would want the police to respond to them as Meehan’s department responded to the Cukors?  No one.Immediate physical invasion with the risk of physical assault by a stranger should always trump something that MIGHT happen in an hour or two.

  • TizziLish

    I don’t quite agree with you, David. The event did feel rare for the wealthy area where the mentally unstable  murderer (forget his name) was roaming in someone’s home — don’ tyou consider the inside of your garage your home, and a stranger invading that private space a threatening intruder?! Everyone would. This inside the Cukor home. . . . such events might be more common downtown or in the flatlands of Berkeley which would tend to make it stick out even more, its rarity would seem to merit closer attention — and what about the stereotype that the richer parts of town tend to get better police response? I live downtown and I can assure you cops don’t respond fast to downtown events .  . unless they feel like it. Of course each call is judged by the dispatcher. . .

    It sure looks to me like the dispatcher miscategorized Cukor’s call and it is hard to convince myself that the mistake was not independently of Meehan’s obsession that night with the Occupy WALKING demonstration that was still an hour away. It looks to me like Meehan runs a tight ship with an iron fist and the dispatcher was doing what s/he was told:  prioritize Meehan’s priorities, not human life.

  • hardlyaguest

    Mr. Cukor made a judgement that cost him his life. He left the safety of his locked home and was killed before the police arrived. 

    The neighborhood has lost its fragile, false sense of being a safe place. As tragedies like these repeatedly prove, there aren’t any safe places. 

    Laying this on the police department endangers us all. If a pay-out is made or a verdict  won, we can keep believing our safety is solely the responsibility of others.

  • Guest

     The top of the hill isn’t as far from the rest of Berkeley as it often feels.