By Karen Velie
Editor’s Note: This is part one in a two-part series about the consequences of mistaken identities assumptions and the San Luis Obispo Police Department’s efforts to send a couple to prison after officers tried to quietly find then-Police Chief Deanna Cantrell’s pistol, lost in an El Pollo Loco bathroom.
It’s been nearly a year since Judge Timothy Covello told prosecutors to provide phone and other records in the felony case against Cheyne Orndoff and his wife, Vanessa Bedroni. But the City of San Luis Obispo has not fully complied with the order.
But, records, including recordings of phone conversations, show the mistakes and assumptions and unwillingness on the part of police to accept that they had not found the man who took then-Police Chief Deanna Cantrell’s pistol from a fast-food restaurant bathroom.
Chief Cantrell left her pistol on a toilet paper holder in an El Pollo Loco bathroom in July 2019. After she left and while she was shopping in a Target, Cantrell noticed that her pistol was missing. But instead of reporting the loss of her weapon and posting a BOLO (Be On the Look Out), Cantrell spent an hour looking in the bathroom, talking to people in the restaurant and viewing surveillance video.
The video showed a clean-shaven man entering and leaving the bathroom. He was not at the restaurant when Cantrell returned. She called the dispatcher. But, as she later said, her cell phone call dropped. Twelve seconds later, Cantrell and a senior dispatcher were talking on two private, unrecorded cellphones.
It was the first of many calls made through her private cell phone, defense attorney Peter Depew wrote in his motion to suppress evidence in the case.
“Chief Cantrell would make approximately 40 calls on her private cellphone between the time she lost her gun and the time SLOPD entered Defendants’ home approximately seven hours later,” according to Depew’s motion. “All 40 of those calls were to unrecorded lines – a dubious pattern and a deviation from SLOPD Policies by the SLOPD Chief that cannot be ignored.”
As officers tried to figure out who might have the chief’s pistol, a Morro Bay police officer, who was off duty, looked at the image of the clean-shaven man and concluded it was Cheyne Orndoff.
Because Orndoff, Vanessa Bedroni and their two children live in the county, the city requested the SLO County Sheriff’s Office assist in the search. During the recorded call, an unidentified SLO police sergeant explains why the city failed to issue a BOLO.
“I was told that we fired off the teletype at 1400 when we initially found out about the original loss off the firearm, but apparently we did not. (…) I think what happened, to be honest with you, was it looked like they tried to keep it on the DL (downlow) a little bit and assign it out to our undercover detectives and let them kind of run with it without letting too many people know yet,” the sergeant said, according to court records. “And then it kind of got carried away. And somebody just dropped the ball, I bet. So, I mean obviously it’s on us, you know. I mean it’s no excuse. We should have got that out to everybody sooner. But, um, we’re playing catchup right now.”
Two SLO County deputies spoke on another recorded call, making clear that they had doubts about a search of Cheyne Orndorff and Vanessa Bedroni’s home. Even so, they decide to keep the information out of the log.
Deputy 1: Yeah, call me a cynic, but I don’t have total confidence in the fact that they’ve worked this out all the way through. You know what I mean?
Deputy 2: Oh no, absolutely. That’s why I told him, “Well you know what, at this point, time is on your side. So, let me call my chief before I authorize that.”
Deputy 1: And it’s fine if they’ve got authorization for a probation search and they’re going to do it that way, that’s fine. But, it sounds like the only thing they got hanging on this guy was he was the next one into the head after her.
Deputy 2: That’s it. That’s all they have.
Deputy 1: Yeah. Okay, then just make sure Sandra understands we’re just there to keep the peace and that’s it. Okay.
Deputy 2: Do you want me to send a page up or anything?
Deputy 1: Don’t send a page because of the sensitive nature of it.
Deputy 2: Yeah, and I’ll leave it out of the log too.
Deputy 1: Yeah, that’s fine.
More than a dozen sheriff deputies, SLO police officers and probation officers gathered for a briefing before going to Cheyne Orndoff and Bedroni’s home. During the meeting, the briefer is recorded saying, “We are going to search no matter what,” court records showed. The officers did not have a search warrant.
SLO Police officers said they could conduct the warrantless search because Cheyne Orndoff was on probation. But he wasn’t.
He was the victim of an impersonation by his brother Cole Orndorff. Cole Orndorff identified himself as Cheyne Orndorff when he was arrested on drug charges. Cole Orndorff would later plead guilty to five misdemeanor charges, including one for impersonating his brother. He was sentenced to the time he had already served and three years of informal probation.
An error in a law enforcement data base identified Cheyne Orndorff, the victim of the impersonation, as the person who committed the crime. Despite repeated efforts to correct the records, Cheyne Orndoff continued to be listed as perpetrator, not victim.
Police said they relied on the probation information in searching the house. They refused to believe Orndorff’s statements that he was not on probation and had documents to prove it in his car, parked nearby. Orndorff asks in a recording what crime his “probation” was for.
Orndoff: Would you have access to any of that information, like what case he’s talking about that I’m on probation? Because I have no cases on me, so I don’t understand.
SLOPD officer: OK. Even if I did, I can’t tell you.
Orndoff: OK, there’s nothing.
Orndoff: Once again, I’m going to say that you don’t have permission to search whatsoever.
SLOPD Jason Dickel: That’s fine.
Orndoff: You have no permission to go inside the house. There is no evidence against me whatsoever.
Orndoff: The cuffs are extremely tight. I bet you can’t get them off although I don’t see why. And also, what case am I on probation for? I’d like to know. Do you know that?
SLOPD Dickel: All … I’ll be able … back.
Orndoff: Okay. Because yeah, I have no case.
SLOPD officer: You’re still on bench probation.
Orndoff: No, I’m not.
SLOPD officer: Yes, you are.
Orndoff: No. All those charges were put on my brother, therefore it’s not possible. I even have the paperwork in the car.
SLOPD officer: Your record still says you’re on probation.
Orndoff: I have an expunged record. I’m just telling you that.
SLOPD officer: Well, I don’t really care
And despite several officers’ observations that Orndorff did not look like the man in the surveillance video, they went ahead with the search. Orndorff had a full beard and mustache while the man in the video was clean-shaven.
Officers searched the home, breaking down the locked bedroom door, before acknowledging that Orndoff did not look like the suspect.
The officers did not find the chief’s pistol. But they did, as they reported, find used paraphernalia and a dirty home. They arrested Cheyne Orndorff and Vanessa Bedroni on charges of child neglect, placed his daughters, ages 7 and 9 in the custody of child care officers and put the family dog, Princess, in the pound.