Eighteen current or former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials have been indicted in five separate criminal cases in connection with a wide-ranging investigation into allegations of abuse and misconduct inside L.A. County jails.
The four grand jury indictments unsealed Monday and one criminal complaint allege that deputies beat jail inmates and visitors without justification, unjustly detained people and conspired to obstruct a federal investigation into misconduct at the Men's Central Jail.
Sixteen of the defendants were arrested Monday and are expected to be arraigned this afternoon in federal court.
“Our investigation also found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum — in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized," the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Andre Birotte Jr., said in a statement.
"The pattern of activity alleged in the obstruction of justice case shows how some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law. Instead of cooperating with the federal investigation to ensure that corrupt law enforcement officers would be brought to justice, the defendants in this case are accused of taking affirmative steps designed to ensure that light would not shine on illegal conduct that violated basic constitutional rights.”
Charges in the indictments range from conspiracy and obstruction of justice to improperly arresting and searching visitors to the jails.
In one of the cases, deputies allegedly improperly arrested and searched an Austrian consulate official and her husband during a visit to an inmate who was an Austrian national.
One of the indictments details three separate incidents in which prosecutors alleged that a sheriff's sergeant encouraged deputies he supervised at the visiting area of Men's Central Jail to use excessive force and unlawful arrests of visitors.
Visitors were taken to a deputy break room, which could not be seen by the public, and beaten by sheriff's officials, the indictment said. One visitor had his arm fractured.
In June 2011, an Austrian consul's husband was arrested outside the jail because he had walked near the doors going into the visiting center, according to the indictment.
When the consul requested to speak to a supervisor about her husband's arrest, she too was placed in handcuffs and arrested, even though she had committed no crime and would have been immune from prosecution, the indictment said.
The couple were taken to the same deputy break room, where they were searched, the indictment said.
The indictment accused Sgt. Eric Gonzalez, the supervisor of deputies working in the visiting center, as reprimanding deputies for not using force against visitors who had "supposedly 'disrespected' these deputy sheriffs through the visitors' words or conduct," the indictment said.
The indictment names Deputies Sussie Ayala, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack as preparing false and misleading reports in an attempt to show that the use of force was justified.
Although the indictment does not identify alleged victims by name, one incident matches the Feb. 26, 2011, date on which Gabriel Carrillo was arrested while attempting to visit his brother in the jail.
Carrillo accused deputies of beating him while he was handcuffed. Carrillo was initially charged with battery against the deputies following the incident but prosecutors abruptly dropped the case, telling a judge they were awaiting more reports from the Sheriff's Department.
Carrillo said Monday that the indictments mean “justice is being served.” He pointed out that the odds were unfairly stacked against him after the incident because it was his word against several deputies.
“I feel like now people are starting to believe the cops aren’t always telling the truth,” he said. “Now it’s showing, don’t just take their word because they have a badge. Look at the facts.”
Gonzalez, Ayala, Zunggeemoge and Womack were charged in the indictment with violating the civil rights of an inmate identified as G.C. by assaulting him on Feb. 26, 2011. Also charged was Deputy Fernando Luviano.
A separate indictment details charges against seven other sheriff's officials accused of conspiracy, obstruction and giving false statements as part of the FBI's long-running investigation into jail misconduct.
The document shows that federal authorities allege that the officials hampered the federal probe after the sheriff's department discovered that an inmate was working as a federal informant.
The officials moved the inmate — identified only as AB in the indictment — and changed his name, even altering the department's internal inmate database to falsely say he had been released, according to the indictment.
In addition, the indictment says, sheriff's officials confronted one of the lead FBI agents outside her home and falsely claimed that they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest.
The actions were taken despite a federal judge's order that the informant appear before a federal grand jury as part of the FBI's investigation, the indictment alleges. The sheriff's department was served with the judge's order Aug. 25, 2011.
The indicted officials are: Lt. Stephen Leavins, who was assigned to the unit that investigates alleged crimes by sheriff's deputies; Sgts. Scott Craig and Maricella Long, who were assigned to the same unit; Lt. Gregory Thompson, who oversaw the department's Operation Safe Jails Program; and Deputies Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo and James Sexton, who worked for Thompson.