A couple whose children have been in protective custody since the search for the San Luis Obispo police chief’s lost gun brought officers to their door had their first substantive court hearing Thursday, as they fight the child endangerment charges against them.
Everyone agrees Cheyne Orndoff and Vanessa Bedroni had nothing to do with San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell’s accidental loss of her gun in a fast-food restaurant restroom last summer, yet the two admitted drug users ended up in worse trouble than the man who took the weapon under seemingly innocent circumstances.
They have since and were at the time seeking treatment for their drug use, according to testimony and court records.
But a detective’s cellphone video shown in court also shows that the city didn’t wantonly abduct two adolescent children simply because of a dirty house, as has been alleged in some local media.
The video shows the house the family was living in was “totally uninhabitable,” as the detective described on the stand, with the sole toilet and bathroom sink clogged, “hundreds of needles,” trash stacked feet high, and flies and mold festering in the summer’s heat.
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“I don’t think you could care for a person, a human, in there,” testified SLOPD Sgt. Jason Dickel, who led the search. “It was singularly the most troubling house I’d ever been to.”
But there appears to be plenty of blame to go around in the case.
Dickel allegedly told Orndoff “I really don’t care” and refused to listen to Orndoff when he repeatedly insisted that the officer was mistaken and that he wasn’t on probation but was instead the victim of identity theft, according to court filings by the defense.
Because Orndoff was not on probation as officers believed — the result of what one courthouse staff supervisor testified was a “rare” error in a criminal database shared by local agencies — they were not legally allowed to search the home without a warrant or consent.
Parties in Thursday’s preliminary hearing Thursday sought to resolve three things: whether San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell should turn over additional, un-redacted communication records; whether evidence collected during what the defense called an illegal search of the couple’s home should be tossed out; and whether the District Attorney’s Office established enough probable cause to move the felony case toward trial.
Only one of the three were accomplished Thursday. Within the first five minutes, Superior Court Judge Covello ruled that following his in-chambers review of Cantrell’s un-redacted records, the city had turned over all relevant records and denied the defense motion.
Cantrell, who was seen waiting in the hallway outside the courtroom before the beginning of the hearing, has been subpoenaed to testify, but it does not appear that she will take the stand during the preliminary hearing.
Her last day in San Luis Obispo is Sept. 30, after she accepted another chief position in Fairfield.
There was no resolution to the preliminary hearing Thursday; witness testimony is scheduled to resume Oct. 1.
A series of errors
Orndoff, 33, and Bedroni, 31, were arrested at their home outside San Luis Obispo on July 10, 2019, in the hours after Cantrell left her firearm in a bathroom at the El Pollo Loco restaurant near Target. Both face two felony counts of child abuse likely to cause great injury.
Authorities originally believed a tip from a Morro Bay police officer that erroneously identified Orndoff as the man seen in restaurant surveillance footage.
San Luis Obispo police officers and SLO County sheriff’s deputies searched Orndoff’s home without a warrant, believing Orndoff was on probation when in fact it was his brother, Cole Orndoff, who was on probation for a drug conviction but had given sheriff’s officials Cheyne’s name during his arrest.
The District Attorney’s Office argues the search was legal because a clerical error in the law enforcement records database listed Cheyne Orndoff as on probation at the time.
Both rejected a plea deal by prosecutors in May to plead guilty to drug charges in exchange for the dismissal of the child endangerment charge.
Orndoff was again arrested Feb. 26 by the Morro Bay Police Department on suspicion of four misdemeanor drug-related offenses — possession of methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl and drug paraphernalia. Orndoff has pleaded not guilty to those charges, and that case is moving through the court separately.
Earlier this month, Bedroni’s attorney, Pete Depew, wrote a scathing legal recap of the actions taken that day by Cantrell and members of the San Luis Obispo Police Department, which includes a laundry list of alleged violations of city policy and constitutional rights.
“Across more than 10 police reports and dozens of hours of electronic media, one trend is clear,” Depew wrote. “Every coincidence, every mistake, every dropped call, every semantic ambiguity, every gender-neutral sentence construction, every jurisdictional irregularity, every malfunction, every phone call on a private cellphone, every lapse in judgment, every deviation from SLOPD policies, every sequence of events that strains believability — coincidentally helped keep Chief Cantrell’s identity as the loser of the firearm from becoming public knowledge.”
Depew filed the motion to suppress evidence obtained in the alleged bad faith search, which will be determined at the conclusion of the Oct. 1 hearing.
‘Rare’ database mishap led to search, witnesses say
At the hearing Thursday, Orndoff and Bedroni sat solemnly in the audience two seats apart due to coronavirus restrictions, but held each other’s hands across the seats as they listened to testimony.
Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Blumenthal called to the stand Petti Gill, a supervising correctional technician with the Sheriff’s Office who testified that on Jan. 27, 2017, a person who identified himself as Cheyne Orndoff was booked into the County Jail on a minor offense. That person, who fingerprints later identified was Cheyne’s brother Cole, was released shortly after being booked and fingerprinted.
Gill testified that when jail staff discovered the ruse, they contacted Pismo Beach police, the arresting agency, and changed their records of the arrest to reflect Cole Orndoff’s identity. Gill said to her knowledge, Pismo Beach PD made the fix.
Michelle Goossens, supervisor for San Luis Obispo Superior Court’s criminal department operations, testified as to how the court’s electronic records system translates into the county’s Criminal Justice Information System, which is an informational database accessible to all local law enforcement agencies as a way to share criminal history and probation terms, among other things.
Goossens testified that her staff was informed of the discrepancy in Cole Orndoff’s case, which listed Cheyne Orndoff as the defendant. While the court system was updated, the district attorney’s complaint against Cole Orndoff listed a booking number from the Sheriff’s Office that still named Cheyne Orndoff, she said.
Though Cheyne had brought the issue to court staff’s attention, there was no record of his visit to the court.
After Orndoff and Bedroni’s arrest in 2019, court staff again were informed of the computer glitch, and Goossens personally contacted the county’s head IT supervisor, who also testified, to ensure a fix.
While the error was ultimately corrected, that same fix could have been completed in 2017, Goossens said under questioning by Orndoff’s attorney, Jason Dufurrena.
Goossens says it still remains a mystery where the error originated and why it was not fixed over three years.
“We could not figure out how that crossover came to be,” she said. “It started before it ever got to the courtroom.”
The county’s head software engineer, Michelle Courier, testified that she’s personally seen a similar error only about three times since she started with the county in 1991.
‘This cannot be the same person’
Dickel took the stand Thursday afternoon, recalling how he led the effort to recover “a San Luis Obispo police officer’s” gun, never specifically naming Cantrell.
“That was the goal, to recover the firearm,” he said. “Because it’s a dangerous thing to have out in public.”
Despite the lack of likeliness between Orndoff and the suspect in the missing gun case (Orndoff had a beard, the suspect was clean-shaven), Dickel said Orndoff “seemed very similar” to the suspect.
Blumenthal played a recording of Dickel’s call to a dispatcher, who was heard conveying the inaccurate information that Cheyne Orndoff was on bench probation and subject to search of person and property “any time, day or night.”
Dickel said he asked for the help of sheriff’s deputies to conduct a “low-key operation” at Orndoff and Bedroni’s rural residence on O’Connor Way.
Orndoff came out of his house with Bedroni and their children and complied with officers, Dickel said, though he was agitated and argumentative, insisting that he was not on probation and didn’t have any guns in the house. Dickel said it’s not unusual for people to deny being on probation.
Orndoff did admit to having drugs inside the home, Dickel said.
“It’s not unusual for people involved in narcotics to have children, and it could be extremely dangerous for a child,” Dickel said, noting that Bedroni told him it was “very bad” inside the house.
Dickel described the conditions of the house and noted that officers hadn’t contributed to any of the filmed mess as they hadn’t actually begun searching for the gun.
“We hadn’t searched anything at that point,” he said. “None of those items were caused by us. We didn’t move anything.”
Eventually, another surveillance photo from El Pollo Loco was brought to the officers’ attention and clearly showed that the clean-shaven suspect was not Orndoff.
“At that point we determined, hey, this cannot be the same person in the video,” Dickel testified.
Orndoff and Bedroni are due back in court Oct. 1.
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