11:41 PM PDT on Thursday, March 25, 2010

By PAUL LAROCCO
The Press-Enterprise

Without appearing in person, Riverside police Chief Russ Leach pleaded guilty Thursday to driving under the influence during his post-Super Bowl ride in a heavily damaged city-car.

The 62-year-old, who consumed 11 drinks in the hours prior to being stopped, was sentenced at arraignment to three years probation and a 30-day home monitoring program. He’s required to pay more than $1,700 in fines and take an alcohol education class. He stepped down as chief on Feb. 11 and is seeking a medical retirement.

All are common in first-time misdemeanor DUI cases, as is not being required to personally attend proceedings.

What is not common, as prosecutors acknowledged, was that Leach was never arrested, booked or given blood, breath or urine tests after his own patrol officers stopped him about 3 a.m. Feb 8.Using Leach’s size and interviews about the strength of the drinks and the time they were ordered, they estimated he had a blood-alcohol level of .22 when he was pulled over — nearly three times the legal limit

“He’s very, very sorry for his actions,” said defense attorney James Teixeira. “He takes responsibility, and with that he wants to move on with his life.”

Under the plea, which comes only three days after charges were filed, a second misdemeanor of driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit was dismissed.

Authorities allege Leach mixed four beers with up to five prescription medications while at home Feb. 7, then visited an area topless bar and drank seven “double” scotches in four hours. He was unsteady on his feet upon leaving the bar near 2 a.m. Feb. 8, they said.

But as he exited Club 215 in Colton, Leach declined a taxi, and at some point, ran his Chrysler 300 into a low-profile object like a curb or center divider. It shredded his tires, yet he continued on for several miles, down to his rims.

“It appears something dreadfully wrong occurred for the vehicle to be in the condition it was,” court commissioner Bambi Moyer said Thursday before accepting the chief’s guilty plea in absentia.

‘Reckless Acts’

Ultimately, after running a red light, Leach was stopped by Riverside police officers. He was slurring his speech, couldn’t stand straight, and wasn’t aware his car was badly damaged, investigators have said.

Supervising Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Weissman said that Leach had made an illegal U-turn and nearly collided with another vehicle at the same intersection where he would later run the red light. His headlights were off.

“All of those would be reckless acts,” she said.

Patrol officers drove Leach home and filed a report recommending no criminal action.

The department handed the case to the California Highway Patrol nearly two days later. Its findings were issued in a 537-page report, which they have declined to release in its entirety.

City leaders have criticized the police’s handling of the incident. They are conducting an internal affairs probe.

“He hopes his actions are no reflection whatsoever on the fine men and women of the Riverside Police Department,” Teixiera said.

Asked Thursday whether Leach believes he has a problem with alcohol, his attorney said “I don’t think so.” He said the chief is focused on treating medical issues he declined to identify, and moving into retirement, including possible speaking engagements.

Leach’s medical retirement could pay him more than half of his $241,000 salary. The city, meanwhile, is actively recruiting his replacement.

Scrutiny on Club

The CHP said it has not referred its findings related to Leach’s condition when he left Club 215 to the state’s Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, which reviews and issues liquor licenses.

The seven drinks served to Leach over a four-hour period, and surveillance video that shows him apparently unsteady on his feet, according to authorities, contradict the club’s statements about the evening.

Roger Jon Diamond, a club attorney, has said the chief only had four single scotches while inside, and looked perfectly sober on the video.

“I was informed he had four drinks,” Diamond repeated Thursday. “And the video’s not perfect clarity, but it’s not like he was falling down or anything. From my perspective he appeared to be walking OK.”

The CHP said it would typically take more for it to request that the state’s ABC investigate an establishment. Its sole focus was on potential criminal behavior by Leach.

“If we reported every establishment where a suspect had been served drinks, we’d be overwhelming them,” said Lt. Dave Lane. “We arrest hundreds of people a month (for DUI).”

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