MODESTO—Judge John D. Freeland heard witness testimonies for the City of Patterson vs. Sheree D. Lustgarten case Wednesday in determining whether a temporary workplace violence restraining order against the councilwoman would be extended or not.
The temporary restraining order, which stays in effect until the judge makes his decision, currently applies to 15 people—a mix of city staff and elected officials.
The city filed for the restraining order in response to Lustgarten allegedly leaving several emotionally charged, threatening and profane messages for city representatives after the release of an investigation report centered around her conduct at the Hammon Senior Center.
S.K. Nelson & Company’s report concluded that Lustgarten “more likely than not” engaged in verbal and occasionally physical behavior that left senior citizen patrons and volunteers feeling bullied, intimidated or belittled.
One message left for City Attorney Tom Hallinan was played during the July 14 City Council meeting. In it, an audibly distraught and angry Lustgarten uses threatening, profanity-laden language when demanding that he have an attorney call her attorney.
Lustgarten admitted to being frustrated and making rude remarks, but claimed these remarks were not threatening.
“It was not professional, and I try to stay professional,” she said.
Nine witnesses testified under oath Wednesday, four of them representing the prosecution, and five in defense of Lustgarten.
The judge stressed that his main concern was whether violence had occurred in this case or not.
Patterson City Manager Ken Irwin spoke first, repeating a threat that the councilwoman allegedly made against a fellow City Council member following a closed session council meeting July 10. “If Dennis McCord leaks anything out of closed session, he’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead,” Irwin said.
The city’s special legal counsel Shelline Bennett had reported the same threat during the July 14 council meeting. Through the city attorney, Irwin submitted a police report in response to the verbal threat.
Irwin confirmed that Lustgarten has committed no bodily harm to anyone before or since that incident.
At the July 10 meeting, City Council members, the city manager and legal counsel discussed aspects of the investigation report. Lustgarten was asked to not to attend the meeting, and she waited in the council chambers for it to adjourn.
During Lustgarten’s testimony in her defense, she claimed that she had not threatened anyone that night. She claimed that she had said that when the truth comes out, it’s going to “kill the issue.”
This statement, Lustgarten said, was misconstrued as a threat toward McCord.
Ice-cream social incident
Pat Maisetti, former mayor of Patterson, testified for the prosecution and spoke about an incident at an ice-cream social Aug. 30, 2014. Maisetti claimed that Lustgarten snatched a container out of her hands and slammed it into a fridge.
Then, while holding a butcher knife, Lustgarten allegedly asked if any seniors present had received indications of a report, adding that she had lawyers in her family and that she was going to sue.
Defense witness Mary Gong said that she has not seen Lustgarten threaten anybody or brandish a knife, and the councilwoman claimed that Maisetti is lying about the kitchen knife incident.
Another defense witness Donna Sesock-Miller, who is a former member of the Stanislaus Elder Abuse Prevention Alliance, corroborated Gong, saying she has seen no bullying “by Ms. Lustgarten, a lot by other people.”
Allegations of stalking
Councilwoman Deborah Novelli claimed that, before release of the Hammon Senior Center investigation report, Lustgarten left five voice messages on her phone regarding the report that, to her knowledge, none of the council members had read yet.
Lustgarten allegedly said that it was despicable that Novelli was a part of a “public rape of her.” Novelli said she felt Lustgarten was trying to sway her opinion on a report that she had not read yet.
The witness brought up past, alleged instances of stalking by Sheree Lustgarten and husband Jeff that she said make her feel threatened, citing one incident in 2012. Novelli claimed that Lustgarten was parked outside of her house at 11 p.m. at night, and when Novelli approached her, Lustgarten replied, “I have a right to be here.”
Lustgarten claimed that the reason she was in Novelli’s neighborhood was that she was dropping off Carlos Fierros, an attendee at the City Council meeting that night.
Novelli made another claim against Lustgarten when speaking of an incident in 2011. After the City Council installed Larry Buehner to fill in former council member Sam Cuellar’s seat following his death, Lustgarten allegedly questioned Novelli in an aggressive, flailing manner, asking, “What have you done? What have you done?”
Lustgarten claimed by phone Thursday that Novelli had approached Lustgarten and former City Councilwoman Annette Smith, who were engaged in a conversation behind City Hall that night, and that Smith was the one who was “irate,” “hyper” and flailing her arms.
Novelli confirmed that since the restraining order was granted, Lustgarten has made no attempt to contact her.
When on the stand, Councilman Dennis McCord claimed that at one time Lustgarten left several phone messages for him approximately between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. in the morning. He also said that Lustgarten threatened his life.
McCord requested a restraining order through Deputy City Attorney Doug White and warned neighbors to turn on cameras due to alleged threats of vandalism by the councilwoman.
Asked why McCord wanted to extend the restraining order considering that Lustgarten has not violated any of the councilman’s boundaries of privacy nor made attempts to contact him, he replied that his father was murdered by someone who had threatened his life.
Lustgarten claimed under oath that McCord is lying about the confrontation. She also claimed that Novelli’s accusations are lies.
Lustgarten established during her examination that she did not own a firearm. She also claimed that since the restraining order she has not been able to fulfill her job duties.
“It’s been hindrance for sure,” she said.
The temporary restraining order is still in effect until Judge Freeland reaches a decision on whether or not to extend it.
The city is asking for an additional five months on the restraining order, a time frame during which the councilwoman would also not be allowed to visit the senior center.
“The rationale was to get through a highly charged period during the recall election,” Hallinan said by email Thursday, referring to a recall petition approved by the city Sept. 10.
The recall campaign has 90 days to collect 1,790 signatures, which will need to be certified if the deadline is met. The City Council would then have to approve the certification before a special election could be called.
If the judge decides to uphold the order, then Lustgarten will have to return for another hearing. There will not be another hearing if Freeland does not grant an extension.