The chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors carried a loaded gun into a restaurant and handcuffed a man who had approached his table to discuss religion and refused to leave him alone.
In an interview this week, Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he felt threatened and feared for the safety of others during the incident, which took place on April 3 – Good Friday – at Wahoo’s in Foothill Ranch.
Spitzer called 911 after he’d been approached by Jeovany Castellano, a youth counselor who turned out to be unarmed, according to a Sheriff’s Department incident report.
Then Spitzer went to his car to get his weapon and a pair of handcuffs. He returned to the restaurant and put the handcuffs on Castellano, detaining the man until sheriff’s deputies arrived about eight minutes later.
Related: Hear the 911 call Spitzer made
“We are having the most outrageous, crazy acts of violence in our country right now,” Spitzer said this week as he recounted the incident. “If I had left, had he knifed somebody or shot people or did something horrific, the first question would have been, ‘Wasn’t Todd Spitzer there?’”
Deputies questioned Castellano and Spitzer but did not arrest either man.
Spitzer volunteered for 10 years as a reserve officer in Los Angeles but was never a full-time police officer. Spitzer, who has a concealed weapons permit, said he never displayed his gun during the incident; it remained in his fanny pack.
Sheriff’s investigators concluded Spitzer’s actions were legal.
“According to Mr. Spitzer, this guy was acting bizarre, and he was worried about his safety,” said Lt. Jeff Hallock. “He did it as a means of holding on to him during a response from law enforcement.”
Castellano told deputies he simply wanted to talk to Spitzer about God, and agreed to be handcuffed “if that’s what it takes for me to preach to you the word of God,” according to the sheriff’s report.
Castellano, who worked at Boys Town, said this week he barely remembers the incident, though he does recall being handcuffed – which he says was a first in his life.
“I don’t know what was going on through his mind, but whatever it was, he has his motives,” Castellano said of Spitzer. “I have not thought about that in a long time.”
Spitzer had attended a religious event that day, hiking through the 12 Stations of the Cross at Black Star Canyon for Good Friday. Afterward, he went to Wahoo’s.
About 2:20 p.m., Spitzer said, he was sitting at a corner table eating a fish combination plate when he noticed Castellano sitting at a table across the restaurant, staring at him.
Castellano approached him to discuss the Bible.
Spitzer said he told Castellano he was a believer but soon asked to be left alone. Castellano, however, didn’t leave. Instead, according to Spitzer, he came even closer to the table, drawing the attention of neighboring diners.
The man continued to ignore his requests to leave, Spitzer said.
A restaurant manager intervened and escorted Castellano back to his table. But Spitzer said the man continued to stare at him and at a dinner knife on his table.
“As soon as he looked at the knife, he completely changed the dynamics of the conversation,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer called 911, identifying himself as a county supervisor. He told the dispatcher that he was eating lunch when “a stranger comes up to me and wouldn’t get out of my face and I asked him to leave me alone.”
“He’s like, harassing me. He needs to be talked to … I’m concerned for my safety,” Spitzer said, according to a recording of the 911 call.
With deputies en route, Spitzer went to his car and retrieved hisgun and handcuffs.
He went back inside the restaurant. “After I returned … Castellano got up and assertively came again toward me,” Spitzer said. “He had been seated in the booth with the manager telling him to leave the premises. It was only then that I asked him to stop and sought his permission to search him because he was scaring patrons who were leaving and I became very concerned for our safety.”
Spitzer said Castellano also gave him permission to put on the handcuffs.
That’s when Spitzer called 911 a second time to report a change in circumstances: “I have this man now under arrest. He’s handcuffed,” according to the recording.
The dispatcher told Spitzer the call already was a priority and that deputies would be there as soon as they could.
Spitzer responded: “Well, let the officers know: I am armed, and I had to place handcuffs on this guy, OK. Just let them know that, OK?”
Hallock said deputies treated the call as a Code 3, which allows them to use lights and sirens, because Spitzer reported feeling threatened and possessed a firearm.
“When there’s a weapon involved, they’re going to make that an emergency response,” Hallock said.
When asked this week if the gun was loaded, Spitzer replied, “Yes. Of course.”
Spitzer said the Good Friday call was “only the second time I’ve been involved off duty in an incident” that involved his firearm. He said he prevented a carjacking in Orange in 1991.
One legal expert on citizen’s arrests questioned Spitzer’s decision to bring a gun into a potential conflict that was not violent.
“Just because you happen to be a local government official and you carry a handgun and a pair of handcuffs, that doesn’t empower you to take into custody anyone you happen to feel is irritating,” said Eric Miller, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who is researching citizen’s arrests as part of his work teaching about criminal procedure.
Castellano, 32, was unarmed during the incident, according to the sheriff‘s report. He has no criminal history in Orange County. He worked as a counselor in Santa Ana at the time of the incident, though a Boys Town supervisor said this week that Castellano is no longer employed by the organization.
Spitzer said his law enforcement background – which he said included training at a police academy – gives him “some kind of weird sixth sense when something’s not right.”
“I’m trained to go into dangerous situations. I was a cop for 10 years.”
Spitzer was a volunteer reserve officer for the Los Angeles Police Department from 1990 to 2000. He said he’s carried a firearm for about 25 years.
Citizen’s arrests are rare but legal. Miller, the Loyola law professor, said the practice originated at a time when professional law enforcement wasn’t prevalent. He compared the Spitzer incident to someone handcuffing a stranger who won’t stop trying to sell something on a street corner.
Miller added that Castellano had a legal right to defend himself from Spitzer if he had declined to be handcuffed.
“The worry is that … things escalate rapidly,” Miller said. “What you really want is a trained professional dealing with that kind of situation.”
Spitzer said every citizen has a right to do what he did.
Sheriff’s spokesman Hallock agreed, though was more circumspect.
“If they believe a crime is being committed, they need to make a decision in terms of how they might get involved and not get involved,” Hallock said.
“Our recommendation is always: If you believe a crime is being committed, call 911. That needs to be a priority. Your decision to intervene? We would caution people, because we don’t want to jeopardize their safety.”
Contact the writer: [email protected] or Twitter: @meghanncuniff.