Peter and Andrea Cukor. Photo: Matthew Sumner

The family of Peter Cukor, killed by a mentally disturbed man outside his Berkeley hills home on February 18, filed a wrongful death lawsuit Thursday against the city.

R. Lewis Van Blois, the Cukor family attorney, charged in the lawsuit that the city and police acted grossly negligently in their handling of Cukor murder. At the core of the case is the issue of how seriously police took Cukor’s call and how promptly officers responded.

“Peter Cukor had called the Berkeley Police Department on their emergency number for help to request a police officer be sent to their home right away because the intruder was attempting to get inside the Cukor home and was acting strangely,” Van Blois said in a press release. “The police dispatcher promised to get someone to their home soon and the Cukors relied on this representation. In fact, the Berkeley Police Dispatcher never intended nor requested a police officer to respond and when a police officer called to say he could respond to the call, he was told not to go. Soon thereafter, the intruder attacked Peter Cukor and fatally struck him on the head with a flower pot.”

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan has previously defended his department’s actions, saying that officers responded in a timely fashion.

The suit asks for unspecified damages for emotional distress for Cukor’s wife, Andrea Cukor.

“His wife witnessed everything,” said Van Blois. “She heard everything. She saw him get dragged down and struck. She watched him kill her husband. If you can imagine watching your husband get killed right before your eyes and hearing and seeing it, it’s devastating.”

The entrance to the house where Peter Cukor was attacked and killed. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Cukor, 67, and his wife returned to their 2 Park Gate Road home around 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 18 and encountered Daniel DeWitt, who told them he was looking for a “Zoey” he said he believed lived there. DeWitt is schizophrenic and had stopped taking his medications. Cukor told DeWitt to leave, and entered the house where he called Berkeley police at 981-5911 from his cell phone to report the intruder.

Since Cukor spoke in a calm voice and called on the police “non-emergency number,” the police dispatcher determined it was a Priority 2 call, which must be responded to within 20 minutes, rather than a Priority 1 call which means there is a crime in progress or life threatening emergency and gets immediate response, according to statements made by Berkeley police officials after the murder.

But the police were in the middle of a shift change and were anticipating trouble from an Occupy march that was scheduled to go from Oakland to UC Berkeley that night. Top police officials wanted to brief the incoming officers on the march and ordered that no Priority 2 calls get answered.

One police officer allegedly called in to dispatch and offered to take any calls, according to the San Francisco Chronicle and the lawsuit. He was told not to respond.

The lawsuit charges that this diversion was negligent. Meehan has said that there were other Priority 2 calls in the hopper at the time, and there is no guarantee that the officer would have been sent to the Cukor home, which was two miles from the officer, who was at Shattuck and Cedar. The officer might have been sent to the other pending Priority 2 calls, which included a fire and another suspicious person, because they were closer, said Meehan.

Regardless, Berkeley police did not dispatch any officers to the Cukor home after that first call. But Peter Cukor thought the police were coming and was concerned they couldn’t find his driveway since it is in a remote spot, according to the lawsuit. So he walked back out to his driveway to try to get the police’s attention, according to the lawsuit. He once again encountered DeWitt, who attacked him.

Andrea Cukor then called 911 to report that the intruder was beating her husband. Police responded immediately and arrested DeWitt a short time later. He was charged with murder but the charges were stayed while he is treated at Napa Valley Hospital, a state mental institution.

Cukor died later that night of his wounds.

The lawsuit contends that Cukor did call police on an emergency number since the police department website lists 981-5911 as a number to call in an emergency. And Cukor’s tone should not have mattered.

“Describing a very threatening individual that’s acting crazy, that’s six feet four inches tall, that’s outside and won’t go away … why would he call just to have a nice little chat with a communications person?” said Van Blois. “If he asked calmly or he was yelling, it should make no difference. He wanted help. “

In August, Berkeley rejected the Cukor family’s initial claim against the city, said Van Blois, paving the way for the filing of the lawsuit.

View a copy of the lawsuit.


Family of Peter Cukor criticizes police response [03.12.12]
City releases transcript of murder victim’s call the police [03.27.12]
Suspect not competent to stand trial in Cukor murder [03.22.12]
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

Berkeley police: We responded properly to Cukor’s murder [03.02.12]
Councilmember calls public meeting after Berkeley murder [02.29.12]
Murder suspect trial delayed for psychological assessment [02.24.12]
Murder suspect was looking for fictional girlfriend [02.23.12]
Councilmember: unanswered questions over murder [02.23.12]
Alleged killer had been in and out of mental institutions [02.21.12]
Berkeley hills neighbors react with shock to brutal murder [02.20.12]
Intruder assaults, kills homeowner on Grizzly Peak [02.19.12]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...