It's been a little more than four years since Chuck Bernstein discovered a cell phone behind some bushes in his Menlo Park front yard, lying near a campaign sign for Virginia Chang Kiraly, a candidate for a seat on the local fire district board.
The mystery of how that cell phone got there and who moved the sign may never be solved. But the long-running legal saga that followed the discovery of the cell phone, which turned out to belong to John Woodell, a neighbor and the husband of Menlo Park City Council member Kirsten Keith, appears to, finally, have come to an end.
On Dec. 30 a state appeals court ruling affirmed a lower court's dismissal of Mr. Woodell's defamation and conspiracy lawsuit against Ms. Chang Kiraly and Mr. Bernstein after the memory of the cellphone at the center of the case was wiped.
"The only directly relevant evidence was the information on the phone," the appeals court ruling says. "As the trial court found, it would be patently unjust to require defendants to continue to defend an action" after Woodell's "willful destruction" of the cellphone's contents.
"Destruction of evidence undermines two important goals of the legal system -- truth and fairness," the appeals court ruling said.
When contacted by the Almanac, Mr. Woodell declined to comment for the record.
According to the appeals court ruling, the saga began on Oct. 17, 2011, when Mr. Bernstein returned from a trip and found the campaign sign and a black Samsung cell phone behind a juniper bush in his yard. Mr. Bernstein emailed Ms. Chang Kiraly after noticing "Woodell" in messages on the phone.
The two decided to turn the phone over to the Menlo Park Police Department, which soon ruled that no crime had occurred because the sign was not stolen or damaged. Police returned the phone to Mr. Woodell. A police officer later told Mr. Woodell that he also had seen "Woodell" on the phone, the ruling says.
At the time, the Almanac noted that Mr. Woodell said he was not opposed to Ms. Chang Kiraly's candidacy and that he would never tamper with a campaign sign.
The matter did not end with the return of the phone. In November and December Mr. Woodell asked the Menlo Park Police Department and the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office to look into the matter, claiming that "he was concerned another individual had found his phone and given it to Bernstein 'for nefarious purposes,'" the appeals court ruling says.
No charges were filed, and in October 2012 Mr. Woodell sued Ms. Chang Kiraly and Mr. Bernstein for defamation and conspiracy because they had said that he had dropped his phone while moving the sign.
As the legal process ground on, it was revealed by Mr. Woodell in a deposition taken in August 2013 that he had "completely wiped the phone" long before he had filed the lawsuit, but after downloading information off it he had provided to police, the ruling says.
Mr. Bernstein, who had served as his own attorney for most of the case, asked to see the phone anyway. When he made no progress, he hired an attorney, and six months later, in March 2014, was finally given access to the phone, only to find that "the charging connector was damaged preventing the phone from receiving any power," the ruling says.
Mr. Bernstein was elected to the fire board himself in November 2013.
Soon after, Mr. Bernstein and Ms. Chang Kiraly asked to have the case dismissed because of the destruction of evidence.
According to the court ruling, Martin Haeberli, a cell phone expert who had been hired by Mr. Bernstein to examine the phone, said: "There are several unanswered questions in this case that could have been answered conclusively had the evidence been preserved from the very beginning."
In her earlier ruling, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Lisa Novak agreed, saying that Mr. Woodell's lawsuit "is based in his contention that his cell phone was somehow purloined and used in order to frame him for 'vandalizing' a campaign lawn sign. ... His contention is that the phone was planted next to the discarded sign in order to cast blame on him."
"All parties seem to agree that the phone and its contents are critical pieces of evidence," the judge wrote. The wiping of the cell phone "has destroyed any relevant information which the phone retained," she wrote.
Judge Novak also wrote that what she found "most disconcerting" was action taken by Mr. Woodell "prior to filing the lawsuit, which included allegedly capturing for his own purposes information from the phone favorable to his position, and then completely wiping clean the operating system such that all potentially relevant information on the phone was destroyed."
The appeals court ruling says that "evidence supported the trial court's finding that Woodell deliberately removed the information from the phone in anticipation of litigation and a discovery request."
Mr. Woodell was ordered to pay the costs of the appeal.