The Atlantic City K-9 officer at the center of a 2013 arrest outside the Tropicana that went viral has been arrested.
Now a detective in the Atlantic City Police Department, Sterling Wheaten is accused of depriving Connor Castellani of his civil rights in the arrest that resulted in 200 stitches to close up head wounds caused by Wheaten’s dog.
He was also indicted on a charge of falsification of facts in a police report.
Wheaten pleaded not guilty in Camden federal court on Thursday, and was released on his own recognizance with a $50,000 unsecured bond, his attorney told BreakingAC.
He appeared with the support of his department, attorney Lou Barbone said.
A PBA officer, deputy chief and captain were in court with him.
Wheaten and the five other officers involved in Castellani’s arrest were cleared by a grand jury in Superior Court.
Castellani was indicted on charges of aggravated assault on a police officer and resisting arrest in the case. He was allowed to enter into pretrial intervention, which he completed.
“To justify his actions against the victim, Wheaten prepared and submitted false and fraudulent police reports,” the indictment reads. “He wrote that the victim was ‘fighting my K9 partner, [struck] my partner with his right hand,a further violent struggle ensued,’ and, in an effort to falsely justify the utilization of the K-9, that the ‘suspect violently assaulted uniformed law enforcement officer[s] with hands and fists . . .'”
The indictment also says that “Wheaten, in an effort to falsely justify the closed fist punches to the victim, falsely stated that he feared that the victim ‘was going to get up and retrieve his weapon to injure us or flee the area endangering the public. As part of the report, Wheaten falsely stated that he provided first aid to the victim’s wound until the ambulance/EMT arrived.”
Castellani’s criminal attorney in that case, Steve Scheffler, said he had implored the then-Atlantic County prosecutor and the first assistant prosecutor in the case “to remain fair and impartial in reviewing teh evidence in that case.”
“Notwithstanding, Connor was indicted on numerous charges and there was little to no reference made to the grand jury regarding the actions of Officer Wheaten,” Scheffler said.
“It took a strong-minded judge (Michael Donio) and the appeallate division to push a resolution, which ended with all charges being dismissed against Connor.”
He said it was “sad that the matter wasnt handled properly in the first place.”
A civil jury awarded Castellani $3 million in the case.
Wheaten was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday.
The move is similar to the charges filed against officers in the Rodney King case.
In 1992, a state jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of almost all the charges in that arrest. The verdict set off deadly riots. Then, three months later, a federal grand jury indicted the same four men for violating King’s rights.
In Wheaten’s case, it took more than five years for charges to come.
“It’s most unfortunate,” Barbone said. “Sterling’s done nothing but serve his community for the past 10 years.”
He said they are confident that Wheaten’s actions were “within the bounds of the law.”
In an unrelated case, Wheaten testified at a 2016 criminal trial about de-escalating a situation: