Monday, October 04, 2004 | Denver Post
Lawyer sees cop-case work as way of changing system
By Mike McPhee, Denver Post Staff Writer
Tim Rastello has won hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments from juries and judges. But he's proudest of the social changes he has brought about, changes in the way police officers are trained and in the way they conduct their business.
Rastello, of Holland & Hart, has won the two largest payouts in Denver's history for alleged police misconduct, the latest being the $1.35 million settlement for Helen Childs in the fatal police shooting of her 15- year-old mentally disabled son Paul.
Rastello insisted that part of that settlement include a "sea change" in police attitudes about stepping back from a threatening situation and not always shooting to kill. Rastello has demanded that police at least consider alternative ways of taking control of a situation.
Hickenlooper and City Attorney Cole Finegan kept the changes out of the settlement documents to avoid future liability but sent a letter to Helen Childs assuring her the changes are being implemented.
Rastello, a boyish-looking 51-year-old and graduate of Notre Dame Law School, was headed toward a quiet career as an accountant and a lawyer when an event close to home catapulted him into a rage.
His brother Kelly, the youngest of eight kids, was killed exactly 20 years ago Aug. 30 in a motorcycle accident with a pickup truck in Torrance, Calif. Rastello flew out from Denver immediately, and visited the accident scene the next day with his three brothers.
"The police told us Kelly drove into the back of the truck. But it was obvious as soon as we got there that the truck had made a left turn in front of Kelly," said Rastello, whose life was about to change.
Rastello soon found out that not only was the pickup driver an off-duty police officer but he had been drunk at the time of the accident. The city of Torrance and six police officers didn't budge. Rastello, only a third-year lawyer, was told to forget it, he'd never beat city hall.
Seven years later, after five years of discovery, 75 depositions, subpoenas for 200,000 documents, including 1,200 internal affairs files, and seven lengthy appeals, all of which led up to an eight-week jury trial, Rastello won a judgment of $5.8 million. The court awarded him an additional $2.1 million in attorneys' fees and costs.
"When I know I'm right, I never give up," he said. "It made me appreciate what it's like to be a victim."
Rastello went on to tackle on alleged police misconduct in three cities.
Along the way, he partnered with Johnnie Cochran, who years later would rise to fame as O.J. Simpson's lawyer. He won a $6 million judgment against the Denver Merchandise Mart for defrauding a tenant.
In 1993, Rastello, still a licensed CPA, took on the savings-and-loan debacle as lead counsel in a nationwide, class- action accounting-malpractice case, winning a $275 million settlement from the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche.
But he is most passionate about alleged police misconduct.
Ten years ago, Rastello took on a Las Vegas case in which a police officer's wife allegedly drove over and killed a woman on a bicycle. The family's wrongful death suit has yet to go to trial but Rastello won a "groundbreaking" decision regarding one aspect of the case in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled that if police cover up evidence that plaintiffs need to make their case, it's a civil rights violation.
Two years ago, Rastello won the largest police-misconduct award in Denver's history, $2.25 million plus another $1.25 million in attorneys' fees, after police officer Michael Farr, without a siren, ran a red light at high speed in June 1989 and struck a car driven by 22-year-old Randy M. Bartel, killing him.
That case took 10 years to get to trial, after U.S. District Judge Edward Nottingham dismissed the lawsuit. Rastello got his decision reversed on appeal to the 10th Circuit.