A San Mateo County Superior Court judge is hearing testimony this week in the trial of an East Palo Alto police officer accused of ramming a man into a window and punching three others while on duty.
Officer Robert Ludden is charged with four counts of assault under color of authority in connection with one incident in 1995, two in 1994, and one in 1993. Ludden's former partner, Officer Daniel Munoz, was also charged in connection with the 1995 incident, but the charges were dropped after a jury deadlocked in March.
Ludden's trial, which is expected to last two to three weeks, is being heard without a jury, at the request of his attorney, William Rapoport. San Mateo County Superior Court Judge John Schwartz will hear all of the evidence and testimony and then make a ruling in the case.
In opening arguments, Deputy District Attorney Charles Smith called Ludden "a bully with a badge," who without obvious reason, assaulted four different people, including one man being questioned in the East Palo Alto police station. He expects to call 45 witnesses to the stand, including eight police officers who say they saw Ludden beat or hit people.
Rapoport, Ludden's attorney, plans to call his client to the witness stand, and also may call several of his police colleagues. He contends that his client is a victim of law enforcement politics.
The District Attorney's office says Ludden is part of a group of East Palo Alto officers who call themselves the "Wolf Pack." Smith says Ludden and Munoz live in a house known as the "Wolf Den." At least four members of the "pack" branded themselves with coat hangers, according to a court brief filed by Smith.
Before the trial, Rapoport filed several motions, which the judge denied. One of them asked that references to Ludden's being part of the Wolf Pack be excluded. Instead, if the defense calls any officers who are part of that group, the prosecution is free to question them about it.
Court papers say that other police officers witnessed Ludden's behavior in all four cases.
Ludden is accused of grabbing a man by the throat, punching him in the face, and ramming him into the side of a building after the man made an allegedly provocative gesture at an East Palo Alto bar in March 1995. Munoz joined Ludden and the two allegedly used the victim's head and shoulders as a battering ram, cracking a window in the process.
In November 1994, Ludden and three other officers went into a club in East Palo Alto where several men were talking. One man got into a dispute with an officer, and Sgt. Thomas Alipio, court papers state, grabbed the man, trying to force his arm behind his back. Ludden joined, grabbing his other arm. The two officers dragged the man 30 feet and rammed him, face first, into a mirrored wall. As they pulled his arms back to handcuff him, they broke one of his arms.
Ludden was at the East Palo Alto police station in May 1994 when a man came in reporting his car had been stolen. Police found that the man had outstanding warrants. Ludden, court papers state, called the man a liar, struck him in the chest, and pushed his chair over. The man hit his head on a file cabinet. A sergeant who witnessed the incident told Ludden to stop and reprimanded him.
In September 1993, Ludden was called to a reported attempted suicide, and a man in the house became irate. Ludden asked the man to leave, and the man started toward the door, but turned around. Ludden grabbed him, held his throat, and started to push him out. The two then began punching each other. Officers nearby grabbed and handcuffed the man. Ludden swore at him, and punched him in the face twice. When he tried to punch him again, a deputy sheriff grabbed and restrained him. The next day, court documents say, Ludden thanked the deputy, saying "I lost it in there."
Ludden is not on patrol duty, but he still works for the East Palo Alto Police Department in an administrative job.
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