A retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide detective recently rehired by Sheriff Alex Villanueva to investigate public corruption was temporarily banned from the jails last year after posing as a deputy and bringing contraband for an inmate, according to county records and interviews.
Jail officials were so concerned about what authorities described in a memo as numerous policy violations that they posted Mark Lillienfeld’s photograph inside Men’s Central Jail and directed employees to alert a supervisor if he showed up.
“He was impersonating a deputy,” said former Assistant Sheriff Kelly Harrington, who oversaw the jails at the time under then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell. “Then he dropped off unknown contraband items to an inmate, which breaks every protocol in the jail or prison. It’s very serious; that’s why we took it very serious.”
Lillienfeld was working at the time on a murder investigation for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, according to records and the Sheriff’s Department.
The inmate who found the items later described them to investigators as a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee.
“We don’t know what was in there. He’s saying a McMuffin — could’ve been any type of contraband,” Harrington said. “We have no idea, because we were never able to get the contraband back.”
Lillienfeld did not return a call and text seeking comment about the incident. Assistant Sheriff Bob Olmsted, who now oversees the jails, said Lillienfeld is no longer banned from the facilities.
Villanueva declined to comment on the case, but his office released a statement Wednesday morning:
“Because this is an active ongoing murder investigation, we are unable to elaborate on this case,” the Sheriff’s Department said in a statement. “However, it should be noted that this individual is a retired L.A. County sheriff’s homicide detective who was working as one of the lead investigators for the D.A.'s office and that the alleged contraband in question taken into jail was a cup of black coffee and an Egg McMuffin.”
Villanueva rehired Lillienfeld 10 months after the incident and gave him the task of investigating public corruption. The move comes as Villanueva, who upset incumbent McDonnell last year, faces scrutiny for other hiring decisions.
Undersheriff Tim Murakami said Tuesday that Lillienfeld was rehired because of his expertise as an investigator. Murakami said that he’d only heard rumors regarding the jail incident and that Villanueva was not aware of what happened until he was briefed about it Monday, after The Times began asking questions.
The incident was documented in an 11-page Sheriff’s Department memo dated September 2018 that was reviewed by The Times.
Lillienfeld built a reputation as a bulldog homicide detective who solved high-profile cases during his more than three-decade career. Most recently, he helped secure a conviction for Michael Gargiulo, dubbed the “boy next door killer,” who was found guilty in August in three knife attacks on young women across L.A. County. When he retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2016, Lillienfeld registered as a reserve deputy, but he hadn’t been active since then because he had not worked the required hours, according to the memo.
Last year, Lillienfeld went to work for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office to help in an investigation, according to the memo. A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said Lillienfeld was retained in 2017 and 2018 to work as an expert on homicide investigations, with an emphasis on cold cases, in three cases investigated by the Conviction Review Unit.
The investigation in September 2018 included an operation at Men’s Central Jail involving a confidential informant who was an inmate, the memo said.
Stephen Johnson, chief of the Sheriff’s Department’s Detective Division at the time, said that when he was briefed on the operation, he asked the district attorney’s office that Lillienfeld not be involved or allowed inside the jail because he was not a member of the Sheriff’s Department. The district attorney’s office agreed, he said.
The operation began Sept. 10, according to the memo.
Nine days later, security cameras recorded Lillienfeld coming in and out of the jail — in a tan and green deputy uniform. According to the memo and security footage reviewed by The Times, Lillienfeld moved past security, rode an escalator to the third floor and walked into the inmate chapel.
After looking around, he set a plastic bag and coffee cup in the choir area just before 6:30 a.m. About three hours later, an inmate unrelated to the operation walked into the chapel and spotted the bag, according to the memo. He stuffed whatever was inside in his pants pocket. Soon after, he grabbed the coffee cup.
Walking back to his dormitory, the inmate handed a second inmate something from his pocket. He told investigators he shared his prescription psychiatric medication, which he picked up during the morning pill call, not from the plastic bag, the memo said.
Eight minutes after he retrieved what Lillienfeld had left behind, the first inmate was recorded drinking from the coffee cup and eating a sandwich. He later told investigators he found an Egg McMuffin in the bag. He said he wasn’t sent to the chapel to pick up the bag of food, which he figured someone had left behind because they didn’t want it, the memo said.
The confidential informant involved in the operation was not seen entering the chapel, the memo said. The author of the memo did not interview the informant, because of the ongoing operation, or Lillienfeld.
After the incident, an email was sent to custody captains and commanders letting them know about a security concern. It included a photo of Lillienfeld and a message: He shouldn’t be allowed through security, and employees should notify the watch commander if they see him. The same message was forwarded to sergeants and lieutenants and eventually relayed to jail staff, the memo said.
The memo was addressed to Joseph Dempsey, a commander at the time in the Custody Services Division. Dempsey declined to comment for this story.
Lillienfeld was rehired by the Sheriff’s Department to work for 120 days, or 960 hours in a year, which the Sheriff’s Department routinely does when it needs a former employee with specific expertise, said Capt. John McBride, who heads the department’s personnel administration bureau.
It’s unclear exactly which cases Lillienfeld is taking on. In an interview with The Times on a downtown L.A. courthouse elevator, he said he reports to Murakami and is assigned to investigate public corruption such as, he said, if a coroner’s official were to steal something off a body.
Two days later in a courthouse hallway, Lillienfeld declined to comment when asked if he thought it was appropriate for someone who was banned from L.A. County jails for bringing in contraband to be rehired to investigate public corruption. He did not return a subsequent call and text for comment.
Murakami said Lillienfeld is involved in several cases that involve people who work inside the Sheriff’s Department and those who do not. He would not elaborate.
Lillienfeld has faced scrutiny before. Sheriff’s Department officials launched a probe to find out whether Lillienfeld dug into the background of a woman to help a friend — a Superior Court judge — accused of battering her in 2013. The woman had suffered bruises and cuts to her face during a confrontation over dog waste months earlier in a Chatsworth neighborhood. The judge was acquitted of battery after a trial.
Lillienfeld maintained that then-Sheriff Lee Baca was worried about the judge’s safety and ordered him to complete a threat assessment, a task usually done by a different unit within the agency, according to a 2014 memo by the district attorney’s office.
L.A. County prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Lillienfeld with a misdemeanor count of releasing information without authorization.
Villanueva has clashed with Los Angeles County supervisors since taking office over hires they consider questionable and his attempts to pull back on deputy discipline reforms imposed in the wake of a scandal that brought down longtime Sheriff Baca and other top leaders in the department.
The Times reported this year that Villanueva rehired a former deputy, Caren Carl Mandoyan, who had been fired in connection with domestic abuse and stalking allegations. Mandoyan denied any wrongdoing.
The supervisors sued to reverse the sheriff’s hiring of Mandoyan, saying the rehiring was unlawful while citing claims that the deputy had abused, harassed and stalked a woman. The department’s review of the evidence in the case prompted his firing under McDonnell in 2016, a move that was later backed up by the Civil Service Commission.
In August, a judge overturned Villanueva’s decision to reinstate Mandoyan and directed him to return county property, including his gun and badge.