Justice for Gricelda: Local 1932 Beats Ontario’s Unjust Firing in Court
The following is an article published by the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin on January 6, 2022, detailing the fight for justice for Teamsters member Gricelda Perez of the City of Ontario:
Ontario’s 3-year quest to fire woman over alleged theft of $2.99 protein bar fails by Brian Rokos
The city of Ontario was certain that police records specialist Gricelda Perez had pilfered a $2.99 protein bar from a convenience store in 2018, and officials set out to fire her.
But Perez denied ever taking the RXBar. A search of her car and purse turned up the wrapper from the string cheese she had purchased, as well as the receipt, but no protein bar or wrapper. A grainy video of the alleged theft, which received Zapruder-like scrutiny, was judged “inconclusive,” even by the expert paid by the city to examine it. And an independent arbitrator, after a three-day hearing, found that there was no cause to fire Perez and ordered the city to reinstate her with back pay.
Nevertheless, the City Council, after listening to testimony, voted in a closed session in 2020 to uphold Perez’s dismissal.
But now, a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge, after weighing the evidence, found that the theft had not been proved and ordered the City Council in a tentative ruling issued Dec. 20 to abide by the arbitrator’s decision.
“It was three very long, stressful years, but I can’t even begin to tell you what it feels like to finally get justice,” Perez, 30, said in an interview on Thursday, Jan. 6. “There were many times I wanted to give up, but if it wasn’t for my support system, my family, my friends, my union, my gosh, we wouldn’t be here without them.”
Perez said she was never arrested or charged with a crime.
It was unclear Thursday when the City Council would act on the judge’s order. City spokesman Dan Bell said late Thursday afternoon that he would attempt to provide a comment soon.
“What was done should never have occurred,” said Romualdo Sanchez, a spokesman for Teamsters Local 1932, which represented Perez and documented her situation in a video. “It’s truly unbelievable that the city would commit a vast amount of resources to keep this proud mother and hard-working public employee away from her job.”
Perez visited the AM/PM store near the police station on June 19, 2018. As she shopped, Perez said in the interview, she picked up the bar, read its nutritional information and put it back. The video showed Perez bringing her hand back near a pocket, Judge David Cohn wrote. Perez paid for the cheese and coffee and left.
The manager, identified in the ruling as Tracy Ellington-Davis, watched this unfold on the store’s surveillance video and believed that Perez had pocketed the protein bar. But Ellington-Davis did not confront Perez, who was wearing her civilian police uniform, and instead later drove to the police station to report the incident. With a police supervisor unavailable, Ellington-Davis returned to the store and that day discussed what happened with Officer Jason Knighton, who was shopping.
Knighton watched the video, asking Ellington-Davis to play it several times, including at least once frame-by-frame. Knighton left unconvinced that a theft had occurred, the judge wrote, but reported the incident to Detective Melissa Ramirez. Ramirez and Ellington-Davis watched the video and both concluded that Perez had stolen the bar.
At the end of an internal affairs investigation that included the fruitless search, Perez was told she was being fired.
But Perez had a bargained right to a last-ditch hearing before an impartial arbitrator, and in July 2019, the video was the star witness.
“This video was played so many times, and it felt that the more they played it, the more they hoped to find something as if the video was going to change,” Perez said.
Unlike the “clear” video that Ellington-Davis, Ramirez and Knighton recalled seeing, this version was not.
“It was live when I watched it. It didn’t look, you know, little pixels and whatever the fuzzy stuff looks like,” Ellington-Davis testified, according to the judge’s ruling.
Ramirez acknowledged that she never sought the video that supposedly clearly showed a theft, the judge wrote.
And the city’s video expert, Brian Moreno, said it was “inconclusive” whether Perez took the protein bar.
“Based off the quality of the video, the frame rates, lighting, the pixels, it’s — you’re unable to tell if it’s just reflection, if there’s anything in her hand at all,” Moreno testified, according to the ruling.
Even so, the City Council voted 4-1 in October 2020 to fire Perez. Council members gave considerable weight to the testimony of Ellington-Davis and Ramirez about the “clear” video that was not entered into evidence while ignoring Knighton’s opinion that Perez had not shoplifted. The judge described that as “problematic.”
“The weight of the evidence does not support the city’s findings,” the judge wrote.
Perez emphatically said Thursday that she did not steal the bar. After graduating from Chaffey High and attending Mt. San Antonio College, she applied for various jobs at police departments. Ontario police even visited her home while doing a background check before hiring her, so Perez knew it was important to follow rules, she said.
So with the way Perez said the city treated her, will she return to her job at the Police Department?
Perez has children ages 9, 4, and 2 and said she wants them to be proud that she fought City Hall — and won.
“This really, really taught me a lesson, and it’s to stand up for myself, and by going back and working, that would be the purpose, to clear my name,” Perez said.