Captured on surveillance video beating an unarmed man and recklessly deploying his police dog, an Atlantic City police officer was recently charged with one count of violating the man’s civil rights and one count of falsifying a record for submitting a false police report about the assault. After footage of the incident became public, the victim later agreed to settle his lawsuit against the city for $3 million last year.
Shortly after 3 a.m. on June 15, 2013, then-20-year-old David Castellani was recorded on surveillance video leaving the Tropicana casino and approaching a group of Atlantic City cops to reportedly ask them for help getting to the other side of the hotel. After the officers ordered Castellani to leave, he calmly crossed the street before appearing to shout at them.
A minute later, five officers crossed the street as one of them immediately put Castellani in a headlock. As Castellani wrapped his arms around the officer’s waist, they both fell to the ground as the other cops began beating Castellani with multiple knee strikes and a metal baton.
As Castellani remained huddled on the ground attempting to protect his head and neck, one of the officers eventually began to handcuff his left wrist when Officer Sterling Wheaten arrived with his K-9 unit. Without issuing a warning, Wheaten instantly deployed the police dog which began biting Castellani’s chest.
Rolling onto his stomach in order to protect his chest, Castellani left the back of his neck exposed as the dog began to bite his neck. During his training at the K-9 Academy, Wheaten was trained that the only type of K-9 apprehension that has resulted in the death of a suspect occurred when a K-9 bit a suspect on his neck, and that even though the K-9 was immediately recalled and medical care given, the suspect died.
Despite his training, Wheaten did not immediately remove the dog from the back of the victim’s neck, but instead told the dog to “hold” on the victim’s neck, according to the indictment. As the dog continued to bite down on Castellani’s neck, Wheaten punched the victim twice in the shoulder/neck area.
Taken to AtlanticCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City in police custody, Castellani was treated for dog bites to his head, neck, and chest. As Castellani received medical attention, Wheaten prepared and submitted false and fraudulent police reports to justify his actions.
In his reports, Wheaten falsely accused Castellani of striking his police dog and attempting to flee while falsely claiming that he provided first aid to Castellani before the ambulance arrived.
Although an Atlantic County grand jury had previously cleared five of the officers involved in the Castellani case of any wrongdoing, the city agreed to settle Castellani’s lawsuit by awarding him $3 million in September 2017.
On Wednesday, an indictment was returned against Wheaten by a federal grand jury. The next day, the Justice Department announced that Wheaten had been arrested and charged with violating Castellani’s civil rights and falsifying a record for submitting a false police report about the assault.
“Sterling Wheaten is a family man who has served his community with pride and honor his entire career. We support him and are confident the facts will see him cleared of these charges,” Patrick Colligan, the president of the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association, said in a recent statement.
The violation of civil rights count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The false records count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The maximum fine for each of the charges is $250,000.