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Wrongful death lawsuit filed by family of couple allegedly killed by sheriff’s deputy

(BCN) — A wrongful death lawsuit filed this summer claims the married couple allegedly killed by a former Alameda County sheriff’s deputy in Dublin last year reported his frightening behavior a month before they were killed, but the county failed to do anything.

Devin Williams Jr., then 24, and Maria Tran, 42, were both employed by the county. Maria was a nurse at John George Psychiatric Hospital, and she met Williams at work. They developed a personal relationship, but plaintiffs say when Tran attempted to end that relationship, Williams went to her home in the 3100 block of Colebrook Lane on Aug. 8, 2022.

Maria and her 57-year-old husband Benison Tran called for help — stating that Williams was repeatedly ringing their doorbell, demanding to talk — and they were afraid. But a law enforcement officer responding to the call gave Williams “preferential treatment” due to his employment as a sheriff’s deputy, according to the lawsuit.

Then around 12:45 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2022, police again responded to Colebrook Lane, finding Maria and Benison with gunshot wounds to the head and neck. Williams was identified as a suspect and a brief manhunt ensued but he surrendered to the California Highway Patrol early that afternoon in the Coalinga area, roughly 150 miles away from the crime scene. He is alleged to have used his service weapon in the commission of the crime.

Family members of the victims argue that if Williams had been stripped of his badge and gun after the incident in August, Maria and Benison might still be alive. They also allege Williams was one of roughly four dozen deputies found to have failed their psychological screening exams during an audit performed in the weeks after Williams’ arrest.

The Sheriff’s Office announced that 47 deputies, or nearly 5 percent of the force, had been moved to desk jobs as a result of that audit as of Sept. 27, 2022. Former Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said in a Sept. 23, 2022 letter to the affected deputies they had been deemed “not suited” for work in law enforcement by a psychologist and could not legally serve as a peace officer under state law.

Ahern also told the reassigned deputies the Sheriff’s Office intended to have them reevaluated and returned to full-duty status if possible.

“It’s a hideous situation and one has to wonder whether this was accidental, or whether the sheriff’s office was having trouble recruiting and decided to scrape the bottom of the barrel,” said Christopher Dolan, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “To have this happen on such a scale as it did makes me think it’s a systemic issue.”

A spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office referred questions about the current employment status of those deputies to internal affairs. Internal affairs referred questions to the Alameda County Counsel, which did not immediately respond.

Ahern had served as Alameda County sheriff since 2007, but lost his re-election bid last year to Yesenia Sanchez, a 24-year Sheriff’s Office employee running on a reform ticket.

Ahern and Sanchez are both listed as defendants in the civil suit, alongside Alameda County and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. The 13-count complaint accuses county officials of wrongful death, several forms of negligence, assault, battery and infliction of emotional distress.

Dolan said several of the victims’ family members were home at the time of the homicide, including the Trans’ minor son and Maria Tran’s mother.

“The mother was actually trying to talk this fellow (Williams) into putting the gun down when he shot and killed them,” Dolan said.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office led the Bay Area in payouts for wrongful death and excessive force between 2015 and 2020, according to Sanchez’s 2022 campaign website.

Williams has been charged with two counts of murder, with enhancements associated with the use of a firearm. He pleaded not guilty to all charges in December.

Dolan said his clients worry Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price may drop those enhancements to appease the law enforcement community by giving Williams a lighter sentence as part of a plea deal.

“The family doesn’t want this to become some sort of political bargaining chip,” Dolan said.

Copyright © 2023 Bay City News, Inc.

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