FBI Probing Inmate’s Death After Fight With Jail Deputies
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has begun investigating the case of a Twin Towers Correctional Facility inmate, Danny Smith, who the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department admitted Tuesday was handcuffed during the altercation with deputies that ended with his death.
That admission directly contradicts the department’s previous account of the Aug. 1 death.
The sheriff’s initial news release said the incident began after deputies removed Smith’s handcuffs. It said he attacked a deputy and collapsed as he struggled with the officers.
“He did have handcuffs on,” Assistant Sheriff Bob Mann said in an interview. “The initial statements were incorrect.”
Mann said conflicting initial reports are “not uncommon. That’s why we like to take some time and determine what the facts are.” He said the internal Sheriff’s Department investigation has closed some gaps between the claims of deputies involved in Smith’s death and those of inmates.
But Mann would not say what the detectives have learned. He said the department could offer no further details until it gets the coroner’s report.
Los Angeles FBI spokesman John Hoos said the office had opened a “preliminary inquiry” into the incident. The federal investigators will forward their findings to the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division in Washington, where officials will decide whether to open a full-blown probe, Hoos said.
Smith’s fellow inmates said the altercation began when deputies tried to put Smith into a cell with a Latino inmate--ignoring a procedure of segregating most inmates by ethnicity to avoid inmate racial strife--and he resisted.
Inmates said deputies threw Smith to the floor face down in handcuffs and kicked and hit him, while choking him with a flashlight. They say he yelled that he couldn’t breathe and begged the deputies not to kill him.
A lawyer for Smith’s family, Leo Terrell, said no Los Angeles County authorities had contacted the family about Smith’s death.
He said the family did not hear of it until Smith’s live-in girlfriend, Nancy Canzoneri, went to visit him Aug. 3--two days after he died. The receptionist at the jail told her Smith had died, Terrell said.
“I know there is justice from God. When I hear that he couldn’t breathe, that hurts me,” Canzoneri said. “I’m hurt and angry. I walk around in a daze.”
She said she doesn’t know what to tell their 3 1/2-year-old child, Francesca.
“She already says she wants Daddy,” Canzoneri said.
Mann said that Smith, 34, was in the mental health observation unit of the jail and was on psychotropic drugs when the incident occurred.
Capt. Donald Mauro, head of the sheriff’s homicide bureau and a lead player in the in-house investigation into the matter, told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that his detectives had interviewed 34 inmates about Smith’s death and that the coroner had conducted an autopsy.
Mauro, who appeared with Mann before the board, said the results of the autopsy will be available in two to three weeks--not six to eight weeks as a coroner’s office spokesman said.
Sheriff Sherman Block, on vacation until Monday, could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, at Twin Towers, inmate James Woods, whose account of Smith’s death was quoted extensively by The Times, was told to pack up all his possessions and was escorted out of his cellblock Tuesday morning, according to fellow inmates.
Mann said it could have been a routine transfer, just like the one that caused Smith to be moved to a new cell the night of his death.
“We are constantly going through the mental observation floors and moving people when they no longer need the treatment,” Mann said. “It is a very likely possibility that [Woods] was moved to relieve crowding conditions,” Mann said.
Cordell Gaddy, another inmate, said the rest of the inmates could not speak to Woods as he left, and were left locked in on the cell block until 3 p.m.
The Metro section of The Times--which contained an account of Smith’s death--was missing from the copy of the newspaper that guards gave to the prisoners, Gaddy said.