Marines from the Combat Logistic Batalion 7 who served with Cpl. Allan DeVillena II attend a candlelight vigil for him at the parking garage where he was fatally shot by Palm Springs Police on November 10th. Photo taken on Thursday, November 15, 2012. (Richard Lui / The Desert Sun)
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PALM SPRINGS — It started with a simple police stop, and it could have ended there, too.
On Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, Cpl. Allan DeVillena and Pfc. Clint Harris were in downtown Palm Springs, drinking heavily, celebrating the 237th birthday of the Marine Corps. Someone reported them for public drunkenness, so the Marines were stopped by two police officers on bike patrol, Mike Heron and Chad Nordman. In the strip of bars downtown, public drunkenness is a common crime, rarely worthy an arrest, so the officers let the two Marines go.
Several hours later, the four men met again. About 2 a.m., loud voices drew the two bike cops to the downtown parking garage. Inside, they found DeVillena and Harris, both visibly drunk, climbing into a sedan.
The officers shouted for the Marines to halt, but DeVillena started the car, turning the wheel as if to head for the exit. Nordman jumped through the passenger-side window in an effort to stop the car. The sedan struck Heron in the leg, so both officers opened fire.
DeVillena, 22, was shot six times. He died at the scene, slumped in the driver’s seat of the sedan, which crashed into a concrete pillar near the garage exit. An autopsy would reveal his blood-alcohol content was 0.18, more than twice the legal limit to drive.
Fourteen months later, it is still unclear who was to blame for this death. The Palm Springs Police Department has never released the results of its internal investigation. The findings were forwarded to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office seven months ago, but the DA has yet to reach a decision on the case. The DeVillena family has filed a lawsuit in federal court.
Regardless of who is at fault, a partnership between local police and the Marine Corps might have avoided it all.
The Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center recently requested approval from Marine headquarters in Arlington, Va., to launch a “security liaison program” that would station uniformed Marines in the downtown office of the Palm Springs Police Department.
Although this security team would have no law enforcement authority of its own, they would remain on standby in the downtown office, ready to take custody of Marines who get in trouble with city police.
If the partnership had existed in 2012, on the night that DeVillena died, it may have prevented the shooting. Police could have delivered DeVillena and Harris to military authorities after the initial stop for public drunkenness, ensuring the two Marines had a sober ride back to the high desert, preventing them from attempting to drive out of the parking garage several hours later.
The Police Springs Police Department proposed a partnership with the Marine base about a year ago in response to a series of downtown incidents involving Marines — including the DeVillena shooting — said Lt. Mike Kovaleff, weekend watch commander.
The security liaison program still needs approval from the Marine headquarters in Virginia, but police are eager for the program to start.
“We are ready whenever they are,” Kovaleff said.
He said the liaison program will allow Palm Springs officers to use more discretion when Marines commit minor offenses like public drunkenness, a misdemeanor.
Currently, if a person is apprehended for public drunkenness — regardless of whether they are a civilian or a Marine — police have two options: Either arrest the suspect, dragging them off to a county jail in Banning; or let them go, releasing them to a friend or family member with orders to go home and sober up.
The proposed partnership will add a third option for Marines. If police find a Marine on the verge of arrest for a minor crime, officers can deliver the Marine to the security liaison. The liaison will then contact the Marine’s command, arranging a sober ride back to base instead of a long needless night in county jail.
“In the past, we would arrest (Marines), and then notify the base, and they would come down and pick them up,” Kovaleff said. “But these days, without any liaison in-between, generally when we arrest them, we are taking them out to the county jail.”
Maj. Kim Keefer, provost marshal of the Combat Center, said there is no estimate for how long the liaison proposal will be under review at the Marine headquarters. Keefer said in February she hopes the program will start in the “coming months.”
If the program is approved, the Marine base will send two Marines to the police office on Friday, Saturday and holiday evenings.
An isolated base
Security programs like this one are normal at U.S. military bases that are overseas, where they are often called “shore patrol,” but far less common at bases on American soil.
Keefer said she knew of no other Marine bases in the U.S. that had a security liaison program like the one proposed in Palm Springs. Keefer said she believed the liaison program was necessary because of the unique, rural location of the Combat Center. The base is surrounded by only a few small desert towns, leaving off-duty Marines with little to do and more reason to travel for entertainment.
“This area is isolated. … An enticing option is to go to Palm Springs for liberty,” Keefer said. “I don’t think a lot of bases are in this situation. They are not as secluded as (the Combat Center) is.”
Although many Marines travel to Palm Springs for weekends, they can’t go everywhere. The Marine Corps has barred Marines from two downtown bars, Village Pub and NYPD, and Whispering Palms Apartments on Arenas Road.
These places have been forbidden by the base’s Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board, according to the base’s weekly newspaper. These are the only two forbidden bars in the Coachella Valley or the high desert. Marines are also barred from three smoke shops in Twentynine Palms and two tobacco marts in Yucca Valley.
The Marine base does not provide an explanation for banned locations.