Family of murder victim Cukor files suit against Berkeley

Peter and Andrea Cukor. Photo: Matthew Sumner

The family of Peter Cukor, killed by a mentally disturbed man outside his Berkeley hills home on February 18, filed a wrongful death lawsuit Thursday against the city.

R. Lewis Van Blois, the Cukor family attorney, charged in the lawsuit that the city and police acted grossly negligently in their handling of Cukor murder. At the core of the case is the issue of how seriously police took Cukor’s call and how promptly officers responded.

“Peter Cukor had called the Berkeley Police Department on their emergency number for help to request a police officer be sent to their home right away because the intruder was attempting to get inside the Cukor home and was acting strangely,” Van Blois said in a press release. “The police dispatcher promised to get someone to their home soon and the Cukors relied on this representation. In fact, the Berkeley Police Dispatcher never intended nor requested a police officer to respond and when a police officer called to say he could respond to the call, he was told not to go. Soon thereafter, the intruder attacked Peter Cukor and fatally struck him on the head with a flower pot.”

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan has previously defended his department’s actions, saying that officers responded in a timely fashion.

The suit asks for unspecified damages for emotional distress for Cukor’s wife, Andrea Cukor.

“His wife witnessed everything,” said Van Blois. “She heard everything. She saw him get dragged down and struck. She watched him kill her husband. If you can imagine watching your husband get killed right before your eyes and hearing and seeing it, it’s devastating.”

The entrance to the house where Peter Cukor was attacked and killed. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Cukor, 67, and his wife returned to their 2 Park Gate Road home around 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 18 and encountered Daniel DeWitt, who told them he was looking for a “Zoey” he said he believed lived there. DeWitt is schizophrenic and had stopped taking his medications. Cukor told DeWitt to leave, and entered the house where he called Berkeley police at 981-5911 from his cell phone to report the intruder.

Since Cukor spoke in a calm voice and called on the police “non-emergency number,” the police dispatcher determined it was a Priority 2 call, which must be responded to within 20 minutes, rather than a Priority 1 call which means there is a crime in progress or life threatening emergency and gets immediate response, according to statements made by Berkeley police officials after the murder.

But the police were in the middle of a shift change and were anticipating trouble from an Occupy march that was scheduled to go from Oakland to UC Berkeley that night. Top police officials wanted to brief the incoming officers on the march and ordered that no Priority 2 calls get answered.

One police officer allegedly called in to dispatch and offered to take any calls, according to the San Francisco Chronicle and the lawsuit. He was told not to respond.

The lawsuit charges that this diversion was negligent. Meehan has said that there were other Priority 2 calls in the hopper at the time, and there is no guarantee that the officer would have been sent to the Cukor home, which was two miles from the officer, who was at Shattuck and Cedar. The officer might have been sent to the other pending Priority 2 calls, which included a fire and another suspicious person, because they were closer, said Meehan.

Regardless, Berkeley police did not dispatch any officers to the Cukor home after that first call. But Peter Cukor thought the police were coming and was concerned they couldn’t find his driveway since it is in a remote spot, according to the lawsuit. So he walked back out to his driveway to try to get the police’s attention, according to the lawsuit. He once again encountered DeWitt, who attacked him.

Andrea Cukor then called 911 to report that the intruder was beating her husband. Police responded immediately and arrested DeWitt a short time later. He was charged with murder but the charges were stayed while he is treated at Napa Valley Hospital, a state mental institution.

Cukor died later that night of his wounds.

The lawsuit contends that Cukor did call police on an emergency number since the police department website lists 981-5911 as a number to call in an emergency. And Cukor’s tone should not have mattered.

“Describing a very threatening individual that’s acting crazy, that’s six feet four inches tall, that’s outside and won’t go away … why would he call just to have a nice little chat with a communications person?” said Van Blois. “If he asked calmly or he was yelling, it should make no difference. He wanted help. “

In August, Berkeley rejected the Cukor family’s initial claim against the city, said Van Blois, paving the way for the filing of the lawsuit.

View a copy of the lawsuit.

Related:

Family of Peter Cukor criticizes police response [03.12.12]
City releases transcript of murder victim’s call the police [03.27.12]
Suspect not competent to stand trial in Cukor murder [03.22.12]
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

Berkeley police: We responded properly to Cukor’s murder [03.02.12]
Councilmember calls public meeting after Berkeley murder [02.29.12]
Murder suspect trial delayed for psychological assessment [02.24.12]
Murder suspect was looking for fictional girlfriend [02.23.12]
Councilmember: unanswered questions over murder [02.23.12]
Alleged killer had been in and out of mental institutions [02.21.12]
Berkeley hills neighbors react with shock to brutal murder [02.20.12]
Intruder assaults, kills homeowner on Grizzly Peak [02.19.12]

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  • http://blog.stupidcameratrix.com/ Gareth Bogdanoff

     Occupy is just a name and a bunch of random people. There is no organization to subpoena.

  • guest

    Hi Berkeleyside Editors:

    Do you know whether the Cukors are suing anybody besides Berkeley?  Examples might be the Dewitts and the mental health facilities that knew that Daniel Dewitt had a history of violence (before Dewitt killed Cukor) and released him anyway?  These people arguably are more responsible for Dewitt being on the loose than BPD who had no idea that Cukor was calling about Dewitt.  (The Cukors have repeatedly stated that they did not know Dewitt so they could not have told the police his name.)

    I also wonder if you know why the Cukor’s account of what caused Peter Cukor to leave his house has changed?  The first report was that he went to the fire station for help, found it empty, and was attacked on his way back home.  Now they are saying that he went out to direct the police to his house.  I think you reported the first version of the story.  If so, did you have a reliable source of this information that you can reveal?  (I think this could be important since the first story has the ring of truth, particularly since it actually is true that the fire station was empty during the relevant time.)

    Thanks.

  • guest

    What was the lie?  Doesn’t calling the statement that officers would be dispatched a ‘lie’ assume that we know the police never would have responded to the first call?  (Granted, they hadn’t responded before the second call was made.)  R. Lewis Van Blois, I think, will find it difficult to introduce evidence to support the claim that BPD personnel lied to Cukor.

    It’s also unclear that Van Blois could prevail even if he somehow could establish that BPD did lie to Cukor.

  • Howie Mencken

    The DeWitts struggled against the mental health system to save their son by pleading for involuntary in-patient treatment, which was denied.

    I too remember the fire house story.

  • The Sharkey

    Saying you’re going to send an officer when you aren’t is a lie.

    I’m not saying it was a lie of intent – it might have been a lie of ignorance – but it was a lie nonetheless.

  • guest

    The point was supposed to be that proving a negative is impossible.  To do so, you would have to show what would have happened if something else didn’t happen.  It could be that as the  march progressed and proved benign, the police would have gone to calls that were in their queue.  This possibility changes the issue from whether they were going to respond to when they were going to respond.  The latter takes the issue out of the realm of ‘lies.’

    By the way, Oakland has a reputation of routinely sending officers to calls literally hours after the call was received.

  • The Sharkey

    It’s hard to tell whether Cuckor was lied to or not, but that’s part of why BPD needs to be sued, and why they need to drastically change their procedures.

    http://www.berkeleyside.com/2012/03/02/berkeley-police-we-responded-properly-to-cukors-murder/

  • x dispatcher

    As a citizen and former dispatcher, I understand both sides of the issue. Having a departmental insight into the situation, the media has not clearly stated all the facts and variables in the case. Let me try to spell it all out for those who are interested
    1. Peter Cukor called on a non-emergency line to report a trespasser on his property. He was told an officer would respond AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. The dispatcher UPGRADED the call from a trespasser, which is a priority 3 call, to a Suspicious Person, which is a priority 2.
    2. Meanwhile, Command staffed informed dispatch that only priority 1 calls can be dispatched, all other calls must hold until the conclusion of the Occupy Briefing, which only left 1 officer available on the streets.
    3.The only available officer, offered to go to the Cukor home. But, were several problems that evening. As previously mentioned, command staff gave strict orders not to dispatch and call that was higher than a priority 1, so the dispatcher reminded the officer of the directive and canceled him. The second issue was that priority 2 calls require a dispatcher to send at least 2 officers. If 2 officers are not available, the call will have to hold until there is a second officer available.
    4. When Mr. Cukor called the dispatcher, he was completely calm. He did not feel that he was in danger. He said the person on his property appeared to have some mental instability and needed help. HE THEN LEFT HIS PROPERTY….. The fact that he went outside says two things to me: he did not feel like he was in that much danger because he went outside to where the trespasser was and he did feel it was an emergency because he did not call 911.

    At the end of the day, it is unfortunate that Mr. Cukor lost his life. Listening to the tapes and all the facts, I do not feel the dispatchers did anything wrong. I think they did exactly as they were told. I think the problem lies in the command staff. The BEAT officers were in a briefing for the Occupy Protest. There were no extra officers called in to assist with the Occupy Protest. So, the normal beat officers would have been tied up on protest all night……. That means, there would have been no officers to protect the rest of the city. If the city pays overtime for football games, high school dances and special events, why weren’t extra officers called in to cover the protest. I can assure you the department was aware that the Occupiers were going to do some additional protesting that night, but they did not take action to bring in additional officers to insure the safety of the city…….

    Lastly, to touch on a comment about how the dispatchers are treating callers. Dispatching is an interesting job. It is not like working at Sears and having to cater to all the customers needs. Dispatchers have several different customers. And while you may thing they are being short, rude or discourteous to you, usually, they are very busy and trying to get you to tell them the important part of the story. Many times, the back story is not necessary for the dispatcher to get you the proper help. They just need specific questions answered and THAT;S IT. If you ever have to call, STOP TALKING and let the dispatcher ask the questions he or she needs. It will save you from wasting your breath on unnecessary information. AND TAKE A STEP BACK AND PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES…… all they hear is negativity all day…. he beat me, they stole my car, i just got robbed, my house was broken into……. The are rarely thanked or even commended for doing a good job, but people are quick to criticize when things don’t go the way they THINK they should. If you don’t think your complaint is being taken serious, ask for the log number and request a copy of it from the city and you will see that you are probably wrong……