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Grand jury investigating handling of case where deputy kneeled on inmate’s head

VIDEO | 01:56
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department use of force

Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials attempted to hide an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of an inmate for three minutes while the man was handcuffed.

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. This is Times staff writer Gale Holland coming to you from my sweaty redoubt in Echo Park, Week 2 without air conditioning.

A criminal grand jury is investigating the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s handling of a videotaped incident in which a deputy violently subdued an inmate by kneeling on his head for three minutes.

It’s unclear whom the grand jury is targeting, if anyone. But Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who faces a tough runoff election in November, has been accused by three high-level executives of trying to keep the March 2021 incident — exposed by The Times this year — under wraps.

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The incident took place two days after jury selection had begun in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who later was convicted of murdering George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. During routine searches at the San Fernando Courthouse, a couple of inmates kept talking and laughing after they were told to pipe down. Deputy Douglas Johnson ordered inmate Enzo Escalante, who was awaiting trial on multiple charges, including murder, to face a wall.

Security video obtained by The Times shows Johnson walking closely behind Escalante through a hallway and toward a wall. Escalante then turned around and punched the deputy in the face several times.

Johnson and other deputies took Escalante face down to the ground. After Escalante was handcuffed, Johnson kept his knee on the inmate’s head for three minutes. Records show Escalante was taken to a hospital for treatment of minor injuries, including contusions to both ears and abrasions on his neck.

In an internal force review, Cmdr. Allen Castellano wrote that department officials were worried about the optics of the kneeling, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force.” Officials decided not to pursue criminal charges against the inmate, despite the fact that he had repeatedly punched a deputy in the face, the report said.

Johnson is the deputy who took gruesome photos that were passed around of the scene of the helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others. He is expected to testify in Vanessa Bryant’s highly publicized trial over the photo breach against L.A. County, which is set to start this week.

In March, The Times published video of the kneeling incident and detailed efforts by department officials to keep it quiet. The incident drew national attention when Villanueva announced that the reporter who wrote the story was under criminal investigation. He quickly took back those remarks.

After The Times’ report, Villanueva said he first learned of the case in November, eight months after it occurred.

But former Asst. Sheriff Robin Limon, who was once one of Villanueva’s top advisors, alleged in a legal claim that she personally brought a DVD with a video of the incident to Villanueva five days after it happened. She also said she watched it with him and two other sheriff’s officials. Villanueva later demoted Limon. Los Angeles Times

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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L.A. stories

A man smiles in a closeup photo.
West Coast rapper Drakeo the Ruler outside an L.A. recording studio in March 2021.
(Wyatt Winfrey / Courtesy of Scott Jawson)

Rap music for “joints”: Starting at age 13, NeroYSL was in and out of Los Angeles juvenile hall before he started to pursue music. The 25-year-old Mid-City resident is now a rising talent in a style of L.A. rap introduced by the late Drakeo the Ruler. Nero explains the L.A. stereotype-busting genre is designed for “joints” — sophisticated, high-maintenance, rich, flashy, well-dressed people. “If you sign [to a label] right now, they gone try to throw a lowrider in the back and put you in a Dickie Suit, and that’s what we never been,” Nero says. Knock LA

Olivia Newton-John dies at her Southern California ranch: No cause was given for the death of the 73-year-old actor and singer, but she went through years of treatment after her 1992 diagnosis of breast cancer. The cancer returned in 2017. Already a star, she broke out of her innocent, clean-cut image with the meteoric success of the movie and soundtrack for “Grease.” Her duet with John Travolta “You’re the One That I Want” hit No. 1. Los Angeles Times

Jeanie Buss takes a turn at defining Lakers’ “Showtime”: With blood dripping from the hand he used to punch a mirror, former Lakers coach Pat Riley struggled to rally his 1990 squad for a playoff comeback against the Phoenix Suns. The team’s 63-win season nonetheless went down the tubes, but Riley’s account of this moment is a highlight from “Legacy: The True Story of the L.A. Lakers,” a forthcoming Hulu documentary, NBA writer Ben Golliver writes. The series, the latest in a Lakers TV sweepstakes that also included “Winning Time” and “They Call Me Magic,” was conceived by Jeanie Buss to provide a definitive account of her father Jerry Buss’ groundbreaking tenure as team owner and to introduce Laker “Showtime” greats to a younger generation of fans. It debuts Aug. 15. Washington Post

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Politics and government

Closeup of a man in suit and tie standing outdoors in the sun.
Assemblyman Kevin Kiley speaks to media outside Manual Arts High School, where he taught high school English.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Candidate calls California the place “everyone can’t wait to leave behind”: Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) also told the audience at the conservative CPAC convention in Dallas that our state is where people “walk down streets that double as restrooms and injection sites.” Kiley, from Placer County, nevertheless is asking voters in November to elect him to represent the state’s new 3rd District House seat. In the May primary, former President Trump endorsed Kiley, who received 3.5 % of the vote in last year’s unsuccessful recall of Gov. Gavin Newson. Sacramento Bee

Crime, courts and policing

Mercedes driver charged with murder in crash that killed 5 in Windsor Hills. Nicole Lorraine Linton, a registered nurse, is accused of reckless disregard for life in connection with Thursday’s multi-vehicle crash that killed a pregnant woman, a baby and three other adults. Prosecutors said investigators found Linton had a history of dangerous crashes and knew the threat posed by her driving behavior.

Echo Park Lake fence dismantled: Police said someone cut 300 feet of chain-link fencing erected more than a year ago following a police sweep to remove homeless encampments from the park. Hanging from a tree in the park was a piece of fence and a sign reading, “Community De-Fence!” Another sign read, “People’s Park LA Welcomes U.” Park rangers are opening a criminal investigation. Los Angeles Times

A man jogs along a path bordered by palm trees and alongside a body of water.
A jogger runs by fencing that was torn down around Echo Park Lake on Monday morning.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

What happened to Jack? When Texas Christian University student Jack Elliot went overboard and died in a lake near Austin, his college friends portrayed it as a tragic boating accident. Now, criminal charges allege a coverup by two of the Corona del Mar High School graduate’s friends, including his girlfriend, who went to Huntington Beach High School. OC Register

Beverly Hills Car Club and owner’s “Real Housewives” link: The classic car dealership’s lot is east of downtown and the railroad tracks, far from Beverly Hills. Some of the cars look like they belong in a museum, others in a scrapyard. This immense and varied inventory is one distinguishing feature of this upstart company, which has challenged the traditional business model of the classic car industry. The force behind the company is Alex Manos, 40, a telegenic entrepreneur of the internet age who is is engaged to Farrah Aldjufrie, daughter of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Kyle Richards. The dealership has grown into one of the nation’s biggest sellers, but over the years, customers have alleged in lawsuits that Beverly Hills Car Club sold them vehicles that had undisclosed damage or defective parts or were misrepresented by the company. Los Angeles Times

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Health and environment

A uranium ghost town, a California mining company: Neighbors built a “death map” plotting where residents of two New Mexico communities died of cancer. For decades, Homestake Mining Co. of California and federal regulators promised to clean up uranium pollution in these towns. Now, Homestake wants to buy out homeowners to avoid the costs of remediating the land and water. Los Angeles Times and ProPublica

How do pandemics end? Medical historian Charles Rosenberg says his research into 19th century cholera outbreaks in Venezuela suggests an epidemic may not have one endpoint but two: a celebrated conclusion when an authority declares it over, and a muted one when everyone loses interest. Zocalo

California culture

Agricultural titans war over a dry San Joaquin Valley pipeline: The controversial pipeline sits empty, caught in an angry feud between two of California’s largest land barons, Silicon Valley developer and farmer John Vidovich and Pasadena-based cotton king J.G. Boswell Co. Vidovich says he needs the pipeline. The Boswell company says the line threatens its own water supplies. Meanwhile, small farmers worry that both of the titans will sell precious water to the highest bidders, then ship it far away. The Mercury News

A group of young people in masks stand together beneath trees, clapping and holding posters.
Youth Climate Strike Los Angeles supporters demonstrate outside City Hall as part of a global day of climate action in March.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Young people are deeply worried over climate disaster: Many seek therapy, and a crop of specialists including “eco-therapists” has risen to help them cope with environmental fears. Some young people are finding relief working toward change with groups such as Earth Guardians and Youth Climate Strike Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times

Why fast-food restaurants can’t find workers: California’s fast-food workers are paid nearly $6,000 less a year than comparable employees in groceries, department stores, pharmacies and electronics outlets, according to a new report from UC San Francisco and Harvard. San Gabriel Valley Tribune

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California almanac

Los Angeles: mostly sunny, 88. San Diego: mostly sunny, 80. San Francisco: becoming sunny, 70. San Jose: becoming sunny, 78. Fresno: sunny, 96. Sacramento: sunny, 89.

And finally

Today’s California memory is from John R. McNicholas Jr.:

My folks were raising four kids in Glendale’s Glenoaks Canyon, back when the road ended in stables and an unsupervised rifle range. Just before the Red Cars were junked in 1955 — I was 6 — my mother took us to ride the trolley into downtown L.A. and back. At the L.A. end of the line, we stood and watched the conductor go through the car and turn all the seats around to face the opposite direction. He drove the return trip from what had been the back of the car. I was stunned and amazed.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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