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Indictment details alleged assault and coverup by L.A. County deputies

Crime, Law and JusticeLaw EnforcementAssaultCrimeJustice SystemFBIAmerican Civil Liberties Union

Two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies conspired to assault a handcuffed jail inmate and struck him with a flashlight before writing reports that falsely claimed he attacked them, according to a federal indictment made public on Friday.

The alleged attack was witnessed by a jail chaplain who wrote a sworn declaration saying he witnessed deputies beat an inmate in Men's Central Jail. 

The indictment does not mention the chaplain but accuses Deputies Joey Aguiar, 26, and Mariano Ramirez, 38, of beating an inmate on the same date in February 2009. The indictment identifies the inmate only as "BP," but a district attorney's record obtained by The Times names him as Brett Phillips.

The inmate's hands were cuffed and secured to a waist chain at the time of the assault, the indictment alleges. Both deputies are accused of kicking him in the head and upper body. Ramirez is also accused of using pepper spray on the inmate and striking him with a flashlight.

The indictment alleges that the deputies submitted false reports to justify the force. Aguilar claimed that the inmate tried to head-butt his face and violently kicked at him, prosecutors said. Ramirez, they said, wrote in his report that the inmate kicked at deputies.

Prosecutors say the inmate neither tried to head-butt the deputies nor kicked at them.

The deputies' false reports resulted in the Sheriff's Department beginning the process of referring the victim to the district attorney's office for prosecution, according to the indictment. The indictment does not say whether the inmate was criminally charged.

Chaplain Paulino Juarez, a Catholic deacon, said he witnessed the incident while ministering to a different inmate, and filed a report about what he saw.

In a sworn statement he made for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Juarez said he first heard thumps and gasps and, as he went to investigate, saw three deputies pounding an inmate pressed against the wall. Juarez said he believed the inmate was handcuffed because he never raised his hands to protect his face from the deputies' fists, instead shouting: "I am doing nothing wrong; please stop."

The inmate, Juarez said, collapsed face first. His "body lay limp and merely absorbed their blows." The deputies continued kicking, the chaplain said.

One deputy eventually turned and saw Juarez. "When we made eye contact, the deputy ... had a nervous and surprised look on his face. Then he began making signs to the others with his hands, motioning them to stop the beating," according to the declaration.

Later, the chaplain said he noticed a pool of blood, 2 feet around. He recalled one sheriff's official yelling: "Check if he has HIV."

The chaplain filed a report at the time and was interviewed by Sheriff's Department investigators. In the weeks after he filed his complaint, he said, passing deputies would call him "rat" and other insults. After hearing nothing for two years, Juarez reached out to the department and was granted a meeting with then-Sheriff Lee Baca.

The sheriff, Juarez recalled, said he had never heard about the incident.

"This happened two years ago and I'm only finding out about it now?" Baca asked his executive staff, according to the chaplain. Baca looked over the file, about 10 pages, and told the chaplain his investigators had determined that the inmate was schizophrenic. Juarez said Baca told him that deputies had to punch the inmate a couple of times to get him into the cell. "Punches are allowed, but kicks are not allowed in my department," Baca said, according to Juarez.

According to the chaplain, Baca said his investigators determined that the bruises on the inmate were the result of the man being run over by a car before he was incarcerated, not from a beating.

About two-and-a-half years after the incident, the ACLU filed Juarez's declaration in court along with dozens of other sworn statements by inmates and others who alleged excessive force by deputies. Baca launched a jail task force to review the allegations.

According to a district attorney’s memo, the task force submitted its investigation to county prosecutors in January 2013, nearly a year after the statute of limitations had past for a criminal filing in state court.

County prosecutors had three years from the date of the incident to file criminal charges, the memo said. The task force had begun its probe four months before the deadline, the memo said.

The memo provides additional details about the force used by Aguiar and Ramirez. The deputies punched Phillips five to eight times in the rib area while Ramirez struck the inmate two to three times in the leg and elbow with a flashlight, according to the document, which was written by Deputy Dist. Atty. Fernando Guzman.

A sheriff's sergeant said he saw the inmate try to kick the deputies, according to the memo, which identified other deputies involved in the force as Mario Pinedo and Rene Madrid. (The indictment says that the grand jury knows other people were involved in the incident but does not identify anyone other than Aguiar and Ramirez.)

Medical records from the jail show that Phillips suffered two raised contusions on his forehead, including one with a cut, but no fractures. A nurse noted scrapes to both of the inmate’s wrists and his left eyebrow, according to the memo.

This week's indictment, which was handed up on Thursday, marks the latest in the federal government's corruption investigation of the L.A. county jails.

In December, 18 current and former deputies were charged and accused of beating jail inmates and visitors, trying to intimidate an FBI agent, and other crimes following a two-year investigation of corruption inside the nation's largest jail system. All of those defendants have pleaded not guilty.

A few weeks after the charges were filed, Baca decided to retire instead of seeking reelection to a fifth term in office.

A former deputy, Gilbert Michel, has pleaded guilty to one count of bribery in connection with his role in bringing a cellphone into the jail for an inmate who turned out to be working as an FBI informant.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

Twitter: @jackfleonard

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

Twitter: @RobertFaturechi

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Crime, Law and JusticeLaw EnforcementAssaultCrimeJustice SystemFBIAmerican Civil Liberties Union
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