Deputies Face Brutality Suits, Justice Dept. Investigation
Robert William Whealon says his leg was shattered after two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies beat him for no apparent reason. Michael Fell said he suffered a concussion after the same deputies slammed his head into a car. Jon G. Heiken said he was roughed up by the deputies, who hit him with night sticks and kicked him. And the father of Floyd Holmes III says his 20-year-old son was shot--six times in the back--and killed by the same pair.
The deputies--Lewis Scott McAfee, 30, and Ronald Raul Gomez, 36--say they acted because they feared for their safety. The U. S. Justice Department, however, has been conducting a criminal investigation since Holmes was shot 19 months ago.
“We are investigating allegations of civil rights violations” by the deputies, Justice Department spokesman John Wilson said last week.
McAfee and Gomez, both five-year veterans who are still on active duty, are also defendants in four civil lawsuits accusing them of using excessive force in these incidents. Los Angeles County is also named in the suits, which seek a total of $10 million in damages.
‘These Aren’t Bad Cops’
The brutality allegedly occurred between April and August, 1984, when McAfee and Gomez worked as partners at the sheriff’s Malibu station.
Both declined to be interviewed last week, but in police reports and sworn depositions, the deputies said they acted because they feared for their lives or because they believed that the suspects were reaching for weapons.
“These aren’t bad cops,” said attorney Juli Christine Scott, who represented the deputies until she went to work for the Burbank city attorney’s office this month. “Police officers get challenged all the time, and they do fear for their lives.”
McAfee now works for the Sheriff’s Department’s Antelope Valley station and Gomez is at the Lennox station.
“If we had a serious concern relative to their competency, they would not be in a field assignment,” said Capt. William R. Hinkle, a department spokesman. The Sheriff’s Department is conducting an investigation of the deputies’ conduct that parallels the inquiry by the U. S. Justice Department, Hinkle added.
Robert William Whealon, 38, said he did exactly as the two deputies ordered when he stepped from his car into an unlighted Thousand Oaks parking lot.
But as the Newberry Park businessman walked from his car, a deputy began pulling his hair and striking him, Whealon said in a sworn deposition.
“What I remember saying is, ‘God, what did I do to deserve this?’ and the next thing I know I was being carried to the police car,” said Whealon, who was stopped on suspicion of drunk driving. “When I looked down, I saw that my shoe was completely red, full of blood.”
Whealon eventually pleaded guilty to delaying the officers and was placed on probation for two years. Whealon, who claims in a federal lawsuit that his civil rights were violated when the deputies broke his leg with night sticks and beat him, today walks with the aid of a cane.
Suspicion of Drunk Driving
In a sworn deposition, however, McAfee says that after Whealon was stopped on suspicion of drunk driving, he refused to follow instructions, struck McAfee in the groin, fell on top of Gomez and began kicking.
“At that point, I was in fear of losing my gun,” Gomez said in his deposition. According to their attorney, the deputies feared they were being led into an ambush when Whealon pulled into an unlighted parking lot.
In another case, the deputies are accused of wrongful death in a Superior Court suit filed by the father of Floyd Holmes III, 20, who was shot and killed on the Pacific Coast Highway.
McAfee and Gomez said they chased a Jaguar at speeds reaching 70 m.p.h. before the car skidded into a bus bench near Topanga Canyon Boulevard. As they approached the car, Holmes verbally threatened the deputies’ lives while reaching under the seat, according to a report by the Sheriff’s Information Bureau.
Believing that Holmes was reaching for a weapon, the deputies began firing from close range. An autopsy report later determined Holmes had been shot six times in the upper back and once in the neck with .38-caliber bullets, and once in the head with a shotgun blast.
No weapon was found in the car, which deputies later determined had been stolen from North Hollywood, the sheriff’s report said.
The lawsuit alleges that the deputies used “mortal and unreasonable force.” The lawsuit also contends that Sheriff Sherman Block was negligent because he continued to employ “brutal, savage, untruthful, careless and malicious” deputies.
In another federal suit, Granada Hills entertainment promoter Mike Fell, 24, claims that he suffered a concussion and a “split mouth” during a beating by the deputies. His attorney, Larry Clough, said the deputies slammed his client’s head against a car several times and struck him with a flashlight.
The police report said Fell and another man became abusive after the deputies smelled alcohol and ordered the men to step out of a car in Westlake Village.
When the deputies tried to arrest Fell’s companion, Fell bolted toward McAfee, the police report said. Gomez then grabbed Fell by the hair and struck him in the ribs with his flashlight, the report said.
Fell, who was treated at Westlake Community Hospital, later pleaded no contest to a charge of being drunk in public and spent one day in jail.
McAfee and Gomez are also accused of using excessive force in the arrest of a university student on suspicion of burglary outside a Malibu restaurant.
In the lawsuit, Jon G. Heiken, 21, a biochemistry student at the University of California, Davis, contends that he was beaten and kicked by the deputies.
A police report said the deputies spotted Heiken coming from a closed restaurant as they responded to a silent alarm. When it appeared that Heiken was reaching for a knife and trying to escape, McAfee struck him about five times with a night stick, the report said.
After the arrest, the deputies confiscated a butter knife from Heiken and found seven bottles of wine under a nearby table. Heiken was treated at Westlake Community Hospital, then taken into custody.
Heiken, in his county probation report, said he was struck at least 10 times and that a deputy pushed his chin along the pavement. At the hospital, a doctor told deputies that he had suffered a fractured knee cap, a fractured rib and injuries to his face, wrist, hand and back, Heiken said.
Heiken later pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor burglary and was placed on probation for one year.
Heiken’s attorney, Dale Grimm, said he was outraged that the deputies continued to work in field assignments while investigations by the Justice Department and the Sheriff’s Department continued.
Wilson of the Justice Department said the federal probe began 19 months ago after federal officials read press accounts of the Holmes shooting. FBI agents have completed an investigation of the shooting, he said, and the department is reviewing that case. The investigations of the incidents involving Whealon and Heiken are continuing, he said. There are no records indicating that the department is involved in the Fell case.
Michael Kernbach, an attorney for the U. S. Justice Department, declined to talk to the The Times. But in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Kernbach said: “The fact is that there were so many allegations made when these two hot dogs were driving around on the street, I just shake my head. It’s going to cost the county a lot of money.”