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A trial in a civil lawsuit against the federal government has revealed the extent to which a former San Diego Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer seemed to go to mislead his supervisors and attempt to place the blame for striking a pedestrian with his vehicle on the teenager he hit.
Though some details of the case have been public since the 2014 incident, court documents and testimony have showed that even Thomas Malandris’ supervisor was concerned about the officer’s “lack of candor” regarding the accident.
Despite 18-year-old Ali Mendoza’s obvious injuries when he was struck – and the potential for others that were less visible, like damage to his spinal cord or brain – Malandris “dragged Mendoza over 30 feet back to the opposite end of the street and moved his ICE vehicle to the same location in an effort to frame Mendoza as the cause of the collision by setting up a fraudulent ‘dart-out’ scenario,” according to court documents. Malandris moved Mendoza before calling for help. It was actually a National City Police officer who arrived at the scene who called an ambulance.
In his deposition, Malandris said he did move Mendoza and his vehicle, but that it was for Mendoza’s safety.
Court documents and testimony show Malandris misled his superiors about the incident and attempted to lay the blame on Mendoza, but that they eventually realized he was at fault.
Malandris was suspended for five days because of the incident, though he was later promoted. He is now medically retired. Five years after the accident took place, the case is now awaiting a judge’s decision.
Mendoza broke his leg in the accident, and suffered brain injuries, which will forever impact his ability to function and work. Mendoza gets headaches daily and suffers from tremors. He’s still bright, but sometimes struggles to get his words out.
Whatever the outcome of the case, Mendoza and his family say they’ll never be made whole after what happened.
‘I Feel Like My Voice Was Robbed of Me’
A little before 9 p.m. on the night of July 12, 2014, Mendoza looked both ways before stepping into a pedestrian crosswalk on D Street in National City with his friend, Alberto Morales. Mendoza wanted to make sure Morales, who is autistic, made it home safely.
An unmarked police car turned the corner and drove toward them. As they were nearing the other side of the street, Mendoza pushed Morales out of the way before being struck by the vehicle. According to court documents, the vehicle hit Mendoza at a speed between 20 and 25 mph. Before braking upon seeing the men, the vehicle was going an estimated 50 mph – roughly double the 25 mph speed limit.
Malandris, an ICE deportation officer at the time, had been “assisting the National City Police Department in the identification of criminal aliens,” according to court documents, as part of a joint task force. He was responding to a call about a man with a knife, but wasn’t using sirens or emergency lights, according to the National City police report.
Morales heard braking and a loud bang before he turned around and saw Mendoza flip about 10 feet in the air, according to his testimony. Then Morales blacked out from shock.
Malandris, Mendoza’s attorneys allege in court documents, “immediately took steps to stigmatize Mr. Mendoza and cover up Malandris’ negligence.”
In addition to moving Mendoza and his vehicle before first responders arrived, Malandris also told his supervisors that Mendoza had been high at the time of the incident.
Mendoza had been holding his guitar and sheet music when he was hit. That, his long hair and his communications with Malandris after he had been struck by the car led Malandris to conclude Mendoza was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident.
According to the National City police report, a pipe was also found nearby and Mendoza said he had smoked earlier that day, about seven hours before the accident. Yet the police report concluded that Malandris, not Mendoza, was at fault. Government attorneys, however, continued to highlight Mendoza’s marijuana use in court to suggest he was not credible.
Upon arriving at the hospital that night, Mendoza’s attorneys argue law enforcement’s attempts to make Mendoza appear at fault for the collision continued. For one, he wasn’t given a scan to check for brain damage, although a doctor and his mother asked for one. He wasn’t given brain scans until two years later, for the court case, which showed he’d sustained traumatic brain injuries.
In a separate lawsuit, Mendoza alleges that a National City police officer, who responded to the accident, illegally directed the hospital to draw his blood to test for drugs without his consent.
The National City Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“I felt like my voice was robbed of me,” Ali Mendoza told me of his stay in the hospital. Even in the chaotic moments immediately following the accident, he said he could feel a sense of injustice.
Mendoza’s attorneys say racism motivated the way he was treated by government officers.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deportation Agent Malandris knew just how to marginalize a Hispanic young man with a Hispanic surname and he knew just how to, you know, get him to be a zero,” said Linda Workman, one of Mendoza’s attorneys. “It followed him all the way to the emergency room and all the way through this case.”
After the accident, Malandris wrote an e-mail to his supervisors, notifying them of the event.
“A subject [whose] name is on the police report attempted to cross the street in unsafe conditions and was struck [by] my vehicle,” wrote Malandris in an e-mail the following day. “The subject suffered minor injuries and a broken leg. Overall he is ok. The police department found the subject to be at fault for crossing the street in unsafe conditions while under the influence of a controlled substance as well as by [subject’s] own admissions…I notified my supervisor but the scene was cleared up rather quickly and the police report should be ready in a few days.”
The police report found Malandris at fault for not yielding the right-of-way to a pedestrian at a crosswalk. ICE’s investigative reports and findings on the incident also found that Malandris was the only party at fault.
Richard Abend, an ICE supervisor who has since retired, was in charge of reviewing Malandris’ conduct with respect to the collision. Abend said during the trial that he received a call around 11 o’clock the night of the accident from Malandris, informing him of the collision.
But as he investigated the incident, Abend discovered discrepancies between Malandris’ initial account and findings made by National City police and ICE as those agencies responded to the incident, according to his testimony on the first day of trial.
“Did you make a report back to your supervisor at some point in time letting them known that Mr. Malandris had not been candid, had not been truthful with you in reporting the accident?” Mendoza’s attorney Dicks asked Abend.
“I did discuss that with my supervisor, sir.”
“And you, personally, after learning what truly happened, as opposed to what Mr. Malandris told you, [felt] that Mr. Maladris was not being truthful in his reporting to his supervisors about the collision; correct?”
“And that part of your concern was that his lack of candor could have reflected poorly on you because you reported those facts, those falsities up the chain of command, correct?
“You were concerned that you were – that someone was going to think you were trying to cover up, correct?” Dicks continued.
Malandris was eventually suspended for five days, for carelessness that resulted in an injury and for violating traffic laws.
The local ICE union has held up Malandris’ case as an example of the San Diego office’s management issues, because he was promoted after the accident, according to the Washington Post. The Post also noted that “Malandris had previously been suspended for misusing a government credit card.”
Malandris was transferred to Texas and medically retired, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Starita said at the trial. He did not testify.
Neither ICE nor Malandris responded to requests for comment.
A Loss of Faith
Whenever Magdalena Mendoza hears an ambulance in her National City neighborhood in National City, she prays for whoever is being whisked away to a hospital. So on the night of the accident, when she heard an ambulance racing past her home, she and her youngest son, Max, prayed for the person inside.
A few hours later, she discovered that person was her other son, Ali.
Regardless of what the judge decides, Magdalena Mendoza is upset by the way the government treated her family.
“It’s like we have no value to them,” she said. “Even if we are good citizens, they don’t care. It’s like we are nothing.”
Mendoza said he suffers from headaches almost every day and hand tremors.
He’s also grappled with his faith since the accident. The guitar that Mendoza had been carrying that night, which he used to play in church – the same one that Malandris noted to paint him as a drug user – also broke when he was hit that night.
“Half of it feels like I’ve lost my faith and the other half feels like I am working really hard to find new reasons to come back,” Ali Mendoza said. “I don’t know. I feel like it’s changed.”
Magdalena Mendoza said that after the accident, the family never received a phone call, a letter or any acknowledgement of remorse for what happened to Ali.
“I was expecting a letter, and I was going to show him, ‘See, God is there,’” she said. “But that letter never came.”