October 25th, 2023
An Anaheim police investigator has admitted to mishandling surveillance footage that allegedly shows a suspect fleeing the scene of a fatal 2015 stabbing, prompting the defendant in the murder case to ask that the charges be dismissed.
The surveillance footage was a key factor in obtaining a search warrant against defendant Pedro Hernandez, who is charged with the killing of Mychael Francis Ryan.
Anaheim officer Joseph Atkinson testified late last week that he watched surveillance footage from a business that authorities allege showed Hernandez running away from the scene of the stabbing, but the officer said he either neglected to make a copy of the footage or made a copy but forgot to book it into evidence and later lost it.
It will ultimately be up to an Orange County Superior Court Judge to determine exactly what impact the missing evidence — which has been acknowledged by prosecutors — will have on the criminal case against Hernandez.
Under questioning by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Atkinson — a 26-year law enforcement veteran currently working as a traffic sergeant — admitted that his handling of the purported video footage was a "significant failure."
"Is it important to take a video of a fleeing murder suspect?" Sanders asked Atkinson during a hearing on Friday.
"It is important," Atkinson agreed.
The officer said he remembered the video showing someone running, but testified that he could not recall what that person was wearing. He also acknowledged he should have, but didn't, write a separate report at the time describing the footage.
"You forgot to write a report about a murder suspect running through a crime scene?" Sanders asked.
"Correct," the officer said.
Atkinson later in his testimony agreed with a prosecution's description of the missing evidence and neglected police report being the result of "an oversight."
"Did you purposely destroy the surveillance video?" Deputy District Attorney Austin Deuel asked
"Absolutely not," Atkinson responded.
Hernandez — a 19-year-old Stanton resident at the time of his arrest — is accused of killing Ryan, a 47-year-old homeless man, during a mid-day attack on Dec. 15, 2015 in the 1200 block of South Magnolia Street. He is also facing sentencing enhancements alleging that he was involved in criminal street gang activity.
Atkinson, according to testimony and court records, played a small but key role in the investigation — authoring sworn statements that were used to obtain search warrants in the aftermath of the killing. Those sworn statements apparently included a description of surveillance footage that the investigator said showed a suspect in the killing running through a parking lot toward the rear of a Walgreens store.
But, despite law enforcement efforts to locate the video, the footage apparently could not be found in police custody.
Sanders alleges in a recent court filing that the footage may have been "willfully destroyed," describing it as "the most important piece of evidence in the case in terms of establishing that Defendant Hernandez was responsible for the murder." Other video footage — which was not lost — reportedly shows Hernandez walking behind the Walgreens before entering the store.
"Defendant alleges in this motion that Atkinson intentionally misrepresented in the search warrant affidavits what he saw in the undisclosed video, and that he did this to make it appear that Defendant was responsible for the murder, when in reality the video was not consistent with Defendant being the killer," Sanders wrote. "More specifically, Defendant alleges that Atkinson realized that the individual he saw running from the scene of the killing was not the same person who entered and exited the Walgreens."
Prosecutors in response to Sanders' allegations acknowledged that "There is no doubt that the loss of this particular surveillance video speaks to some level of negligence on the part of the Anaheim Police Department." But they argued that there was no indication the loss of the evidence was due to "bad faith," and alleged that other evidence — including eyewitness reports and other video surveillance footage — points to Hernandez.
"Defendant has presented no evidence which suggests the loss of this video was anything more than simple carelessness," Deuel wrote. "Moreover, the police had no reason whatsoever to destroy this video, as it helped confirm the Defendant was the murderer."
Judge Kimberly Menninger is expected to hear more testimony before making a ruling related to the missing evidence. That testimony — which is expected to include the lead investigator in the case — is scheduled to continue on Nov. 3.