18 arrests in jail probe
Federal authorities announced charges Monday against 18 current and former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies accused of beating jail inmates and visitors, trying to intimidate an FBI agent and other crimes following an investigation of corruption inside the nation’s largest jail system.
Prosecutors said they found a “wide scope of illegal conduct” by deputies and their supervisors that went beyond mistreating inmates to actively attempting to hinder an FBI investigation into jail misconduct.
The actions of federal authorities marked the largest mass arrest of sheriff’s officials in more than two decades and represents another blow to a department that recently has been accused of racially biased policing, hiring officers with tainted backgrounds and cronyism.
“These incidents did not take place in a vacuum -- in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized,” U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. said in a statement. “Some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law.”
The indictments allege two assaults on inmates and three on people who visited the jail. They also include claims that deputies wrote false reports to justify using force and conducted illegal arrests and searches of jail visitors.
A sergeant who supervised deputies in the visiting area of Men’s Central Jail was accused of encouraging violence and reprimanding employees “for not using force on visitors ... if the visitors had supposedly ‘disrespected’” jail deputies, according to an indictment.
In one case, prosecutors say, an Austrian consul official trying to visit an Austrian inmate was arrested and handcuffed even though she had committed no crime and would have been immune from prosecution, the indictment said.
Sheriff Lee Baca said at a Monterey Park news conference that he respected the findings of federal authorities but was saddened by them. “Please know that I respect the criminal justice system and no one is above the law,” Baca said.
Still, he defended his agency, saying “99.9% of our employees are on the right track.... There is no institutional problem within the Sheriff’s Department when it comes to correcting itself.”
Baca’s remarks came as his deputies were being arraigned at the federal courthouse in downtown L.A. Sixteen appeared in court, with at least some handcuffed and chained at the waist. Some pleaded not guilty. Others are expected to enter their pleas at a later date. All were released on bond, a U.S. attorney’s office spokesman said. The two who did not appear are expected to surrender in the future, he said.
In all, 13 deputies, three sergeants and two lieutenants were charged. Among the allegations are conspiracy to obstruct justice, making false statements and civil rights violations. Federal authorities said the investigation is ongoing.
Monday’s charges mark the biggest corruption scandal the Sheriff’s Department has faced since the late 1980s, when federal authorities accused deputies in an elite drug team of conspiring to steal from drug traffickers and money launderers. That investigation led to the convictions of more than two dozen deputies.
The latest indictments include allegations, first made public by The Times, against a deputy responsible for training new recruits in the jail.
Deputy Bryan Brunsting was the supervisor for a sheriff’s rookie who graduated at the top of his recruit class but resigned after a few weeks on the job. The rookie said Brunsting forced him and others to beat up a mentally ill inmate and then cover up their actions, according to interviews and law enforcement records.
Sheriff’s officials determined that no misconduct had occurred. After The Times’ report, however, the rookie deputy was contacted by FBI agents.
Federal prosecutors accused Brunsting of assaulting inmates on two occasions and using deputies he trained to write false reports to cover up the abuse.
The indictment did not identify the rookie deputy by name, but the date and circumstances of one incident detailed in the indictment match those reported in The Times. According to the indictment, Brunsting told a training deputy that they needed to teach a lesson to an inmate who had been disrespectful to another jailer. Brunsting, the trainee and a third deputy, Jason Branum, struck, kicked and pepper-sprayed the man, the indictment said.
Brunsting and the others then allegedly covered up the incident, “discussing how to keep their stories straight and coordinating the writing of reports” so they could subject the inmate to be falsely prosecuted for assault, prosecutors allege.
Brunsting’s attorney said he wasn’t prepared to address the allegations.
Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, dismissed any suggestion that excessive force was the fault of a few bad apples.
“The federal indictments today ... suggest the entire tree may be rotten,” he said.
Seven of the sheriff’s officials indicted Monday were accused of trying to hamper the federal investigation into alleged misconduct.
The Sheriff’s Department learned about the FBI probe in August 2011 when deputies discovered that a corrupt jailer had smuggled a phone to an inmate, not realizing the inmate was working as an informant for the FBI.
After the discovery, sheriff’s officials moved the inmate -- identified only as “AB” in the indictment -- and changed his name. They then altered the department’s internal inmate database to falsely say he had been released, prosecutors allege. Deputies continued to isolate the inmate even after federal authorities had told sheriff’s officials that a judge had ordered the inmate’s appearance before a grand jury, the indictment states.
The indictment accused Lt. Gregory Thompson of instructing a sheriff’s employee not to allow “outside” law enforcement to meet with the inmate and sent an email to employees saying that the FBI would need approval before interviewing any inmate. Indicted along with Thompson were Deputies Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo and James Sexton.
According to a sheriff’s memo earlier reported by The Times, the handling of the inmate informant was internally dubbed “Operation Pandora’s Box.”
Stephen Leavins, a lieutenant in the unit that handles allegations of criminal misconduct against sheriff’s employees, was accused of directing two sergeants to confront an FBI agent working on the investigation outside her home. The sergeants -- Scott Craig and Maricella Long -- falsely told the agent that a warrant was being prepared for her arrest, prosecutors said in court records.
Another indictment alleges that Sgt. Eric Gonzalez encouraged deputies he supervised at the visiting area of Men’s Central Jail to use excessive force. Three 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’s arm was fractured.
The indictment names Deputies Sussie Ayala, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack as preparing false and misleading reports to show that the use of force was justified.
Although prosecutors did 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. He was initially charged with battery against the deputies after the incident, but prosecutors later dropped the case. Also charged in that incident was Deputy Fernando Luviano.
“I feel like now people are starting to believe the cops aren’t always telling the truth,” Carrillo said Monday. “Don’t just take their word because they have a badge. Look at the facts.”
Two of the cases announced by federal investigators Monday appeared to have no connection to misconduct in the jails. In one, Deputy Richard Piquette was charged with illegally building and possessing an assault rifle. In another case, three deputies, all brothers, were charged with conspiracy to make false statements to two banks in connection with a mortgage fraud scheme. Billy, Benny and Johnny Khounthavong allegedly avoided more than $340,000 of unpaid mortgage debt.
Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.