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updated: 3/9/2011 7:02 AM

Trial beginning for ex-Streamwood cop

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  • Former Streamwood police officer James Mandarino, right, leaves the Rolling Meadows courthouse Tuesday morning during a break in proceedings.

      Former Streamwood police officer James Mandarino, right, leaves the Rolling Meadows courthouse Tuesday morning during a break in proceedings.
    Ashok Selvam | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Dashboard video

 
 

The alleged victim in a Streamwood police brutality case underwent a grueling stint on the witness stand Tuesday as defense attorneys questioned his credibility.

It was the first day in the bench trial of 41-year-old James Mandarino of Elgin, who was fired by Streamwood after a March 28 traffic stop in which a video camera mounted on his police cruiser captured him striking a motorist 15 times with his baton. The footage, which played widely on television and the Internet, also shows Mandarino using a Taser twice on a passenger.

The driver, 29-year-old Ronald Bell, needed seven stitches and also was treated for a concussion and bruises at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates.

During testimony at the Rolling Meadows courthouse, Bell maintained he didn't know why Mandarino pulled him over and attacked him as he parked his truck outside the house he shares with his brother, sister-in-law and the couple's 3-year-old child.

Bell, who appeared tense on the stand and unsure when to reply to questions, said he obeyed Mandarino's instructions and he kept his arms in plain sight and above his head because he "didn't want to alarm the officer."

"I was scared, I didn't want to get shot," Bell said.

Meanwhile, Mandarino's attorneys questioned Bell's motivations, and noted he had turned down a $250,000 settlement offer from the village of Streamwood in a pending civil suit. Bell acknowledged that fact, and said the money wasn't enough to pay for his medical bills.

Attorneys said Bell and the passenger in the truck, Roland Stalbaum, were drinking alcohol before being stopped. The pair were at a banquet for Operating Engineers Union Local 150 held in Willowbrook. The event included an open bar and Bell said he drank three whiskey and colas.

A fight between Bell's friends broke out, but Bell said he wasn't involved. Bell said at 1:30 a.m., he drove Stalbaum to Carol Stream, where Bell's cousins had rented a mixed martial arts pay-per-view bout. Bell then drove with Stalbaum back to Streamwood, where he was pulled over as he arrived home. He insisted the three drinks he had at the banquet were the only ones he had the entire night.

If that's the case, Mandarino attorney Rick Beuke questioned, why Bell didn't let hospital staff take blood or urine samples?

"You told them, 'You're not drawing any blood from me,'" Beuke said.

Beuke repeatedly raised his voice at Bell, and when Bell stammered in his reply, Beuke asked Bell: "Do you understand my question?"

Mandarino's defense said in opening arguments before Judge Thomas P. Fecarotta that Bell disobeyed Mandarino's instructions to stay in the truck. They also said Bell tried to kick out Mandarino's back windshield after he was arrested and handcuffed inside the car.

Cook County assistant state's attorney Virginia Bigane in opening arguments brought out photos of Bell's injuries, including cuts to his ear and injuries to both arms. Mandarino's actions weren't appropriate, Bigane said.

"Mr. Bell was on the ground, he laid defenseless, he was crying, he was cowering," she said.

She pointed to the video footage taken from Mandarino's squad car.

"This evidence will prove overwhelming, your honor," she said.

The defense argued, though, that Bell's story changed after he saw the video, pointing to disparities in written statements he made.

Mandarino attorney Ed Wanderling called his client the poster child for quality police service. He called Mandarino's career and character "impeccable." Wanderling also noted there is no audio to go along with the video. He said the video as a whole needs to be judged, not just the 11-second clip that shows the attacks.

Mandarino himself said little on Tuesday. Dressed in a gray suit, he crossed his arms in front of him and politely replied to the judge's questions.

Mandarino's attorneys waived his right to a jury trial. That means Fecarotta will determine the guilt or innocence of the 15-year police veteran. Mandarino faces two to five years in prison if convicted.

Testimony from an expert in police brutality, along with testimony from Bell's brother and neighbor, is expected Wednesday. The court is also expected to view the video from Mandarino's cruiser.

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