San Diego On August 14, 2002, elevator doors opened to let Neil Rico into the lobby of the Comerica Bank building in downtown
San Diego. As Heritage Security Service's supervisor in the building, Rico figured he knew exactly where he was heading. But after one step he "flew across the lobby," he says. "My head crashed into the elevator door on the other side. Suddenly there was blood everywhere. If I had hit six inches to the left, I'd have been killed by the sharp edge of the elevator's indentation in the wall."
As he rolled on the floor and turned backward after the crash, he saw that the elevator he had exited only seconds earlier was a foot to a foot and a half higher than the lobby floor. For that reason, says Rico, "I thought for the longest time that I had fallen from the elevator being higher than the floor. Witnesses told me later that I tripped coming out because the elevator had stopped a foot lower than floor level."
Rico suffered not only head injuries that day, but damage to his knees, which hit the lobby floor as he was crashing headlong. "At first I was macho and wouldn't get on the stretcher. But when I got out to the ambulance that came, I almost collapsed getting in." At the hospital, doctors stitched up the gash in Rico's head and diagnosed him as having suffered a concussion.
Under California law, an injured worker must see a doctor of his employer's choice within the first 30 days after his injury. "Those were the worst 30 days of my life," says Rico. "To begin with, Heritage had no intention of reporting my accident to anyone. My requests for the Worker's Compensation paperwork were ignored. I received it only after I engaged the services of an attorney."
According to Rico, his health-care provider PacifiCare's doctor would not see him then because his injuries were work related. Eventually, his employer referred him to Dr. Laurence Pohl. But in a deposition he gave for superior court on June 4 of this year, Rico stated that "Dr. Pohl refused to give me an MRI, which I demanded because my head was killing me. When I complained of my pain, he dismissed it by saying, 'You East Coast Latins are an excitable bunch.' " Afterward, Rico complained about the incident to his boss, David Hoffman, operations chief at Heritage, and Jackye Sullins, their medical specialist.
Rico's attorney, Patrick Shea, at last was able to find doctors who helped him. Shea filed suit for damages on Rico's behalf against Heritage, Otis Elevator Company, and Southwest Value Partners, the company that owns the Comerica Bank building.
On the day of his accident, Debbie Valdivia drove Rico home from the hospital. Valdivia manages the Comerica building for Southwest Value Partners. "She drove me in her brand-new Lexus," says Rico of Valdivia. "As we got close to my house, she wanted to know if I was still bleeding. She was afraid I was staining her upholstery. Also, during the drive she was very nervous.
"Within ten minutes of arriving home," Rico continues, "I called David Hoffman, who had heard of my accident by that time." In his deposition, Rico states that with the phone call to Hoffman, his "relationship with Heritage started to become adversarial." Attorney for Southwest Value Partners Barbara Schloessman then says, "So tell me everything you can remember about conversations with David Hoffman at Heritage that led you to conclude that the relationship was becoming adversarial."
Rico: "I described what happened, the accident, and [Hoffman] got very belligerent. He told me not to use certain words. He claimed I was endangering the company's contract in the building, that I needed time to cool off, and he was going to give me a day off from work the next day."
S: "What words did he tell you not to use?"
R: "He told me not to use the word 'malfunction.' "
S: "Okay. What did you tell him had happened to you?"
R: "I told him that the elevator had malfunctioned, and I had fallen, and his response was, 'Don't go there.' "
S: "And did you say, 'What do you mean by that?' "
R: "When I did say that, 'What do you mean by that?' he adopted a very belligerent tone and began to tell me that I could cost the company the contract in the building and that I could lose my job."
S: "Did you ask him what he meant by that?"
R: "Excuse me?"
S: "Did you ask him what he meant by that?"
R: "No, I didn't."
S: "...was he shouting?"
S: "Raising his voice?"
S: "Did he use any four-letter words?"
R: "No, not at that conversation. I had others [with him in] which he did."
Several pages further in the deposition, Rico reports a face-to-face encounter with Hoffman three and a half weeks after their phone conversation. "He said I would have trouble with Sheriff Kolender's men -- that Mr. Larry Richmond, who is the owner of Heritage, has lots of friends in law enforcement [and] that I didn't want to create any problems."
Shortly after this confrontation, Rico says, Hoffman apologized to him. But several other people seemed to be conveying threats against him in the first several weeks after his accident. "Richard Schneider is the Heritage security supervisor in the building next door to Comerica Bank," Rico says. "He would come over before I went on disability and play good-cop/bad-cop, sympathizing with me, yet warning me against going too far at the same time. 'Neil,' he told me, 'these guys [Heritage] don't look at you the same way they did before your accident. So you'd better back off.'
"A friend of mine, John Minchella, also gave me advice against making waves. He worked for Heritage in the Comerica building, too. We became friends because we're both from the Bronx and speak Spanish. And he helped me get into a program I'm working on now at Vermont College to become a medical interpreter. But John has a nervous condition and, shortly I after I left Heritage, he got very sick," says Rico.
Questioning Rico at his deposition were attorneys not only for Southwest but for Heritage, Otis Elevator Company, and the California Compensation Insurance Fund. "My lawyer tells me the Insurance Fund is temporarily on my side," says Rico, "because they're hoping to recover money they've paid out for me so far."
In his deposition, Rico describes problems that the Comerica Bank building had with its elevators while he worked there. He claims that Otis did not properly maintain the elevators and that he and other employees kept a log of the things that went wrong with them. Oil leaks were one problem, Rico tells me. Instead of spending the money to fix the leaks, he says, Debbie Valdivia arranged for Otis to put buckets under the leaks and empty the buckets every week.
After Rico's deposition, each defense attorney wanted copies of his writing. "Do you realize how much work that was? I've written six novels and a whole lot of poetry and articles," says Rico. "I said to them, 'I've never made a dime on my writing.' Then, shortly after I told my agent that the attorneys might contact her to see if I had made any money, she informed me that she'd done about all she could for me. But my lawyer said, 'The defense doesn't want to see your writing to learn how much money you made. They are trying to find something in it that shows you're lying.' "
Before coming to San Diego in 2000, Rico says he lived in Panama City, Panama, with his wife, who worked at the U.S. embassy. "I wrote quite a few articles on boxing for a local paper there and became a minor celebrity," he says. "And I was writing all these novels. When we came here, I was sure my agent would get me a book contract soon. But it didn't happen. Simon & Schuster and other big publishers were rejecting my work. So I had to find work. That's when I went to work for Heritage Security Services."
Rico's case goes to court in January. Why is he talking publicly about it before the trial starts? "I couldn't put my finger on something that was bothering me recently about this whole thing," says Rico. "Then I saw some video of Muhammad Ali. There was that great confidence he had. And I thought, 'That's it.' These people who threatened me did it with such arrogance and confidence that I'm sure they've done it before. And if Larry Richmond, Heritage's owner, does have help from cops, they're going to go too far someday and hurt somebody."