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L.A. County Sheriff’s Department accused of trumped up train-wrecking charges against protester

Emanuel Padilla is arrested after a protest outside Sheriff Villanueva's home in La Habra Heights Nov. 18.
Emanuel Padilla, 34, is arrested after a protest outside Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s home in La Habra Heights on Nov. 18.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has filed charges against a protester for allegedly attempting to wreck a train at the scene of a demonstration against the Sheriff’s Department — a case where the defendant’s attorneys have accused officials of gross exaggeration in retaliation for protest activity.

Emanuel Padilla, a 34-year-old toy designer who lives in Hawthorne, was charged Monday with one felony count of a train wrecking attempt, which carries a maximum sentence of life without parole, and one felony count of unlawful obstruction of a railroad track, which carries a two- to four-year sentence.

Padilla pleaded not guilty at an arraignment at the Compton courthouse Monday, where a judge denied bail.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, the alleged incident occurred Nov. 15 at the intersection of Compton Boulevard and Willlowbrook Avenue in Compton — the location of a largely peaceful protest organized that afternoon to urge justice for Andres Guardado, an 18-year-old killed by a sheriff’s deputy in Gardena this summer.

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Padilla helped drag a metal cable across train tracks near the intersection, shortly before railroad crossing signals lit up and an alarm alerted that a train was coming, according to the district attorney’s office.

A detective’s report on Padilla’s arrest describes how officials had placed a coiled wire barricade near the train tracks. As the protest drew to a close and most people had left, Padilla and two others began dragging the wire across the tracks, the report said.

When deputies tried to pull the wire back, the two other individuals let go but Padilla briefly continued pulling, according to the account. It describes how he eventually lost his grip to the deputies’ tug, then continued crossing the tracks. Shortly after, a train passed by, the report said, noting that Padilla must have been aware of its approach.

Padilla was arrested last Wednesday afternoon shortly after a small, peaceful protest near the home of L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva where demonstrators called for the department to release the names of deputies involved in the recent fatal shootings of Dijon Kizzee and Fred Williams. Department spokesman Lt. John Satterfield said deputies had recognized Padilla as being wanted on suspicion of attempted derailment of a passenger train. He was initially held on $1-million bail.

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The department would not comment on why Padilla had not been arrested on the date of the alleged train-wrecking attempt, referring the question to the district attorney’s office.

Jorge Gonzalez, Padilla’s attorney, alleged that the charges have been inflated and that his client is being retaliated against for his protest activity. He’s also representing Padilla on a pending class-action lawsuit that claims the Sheriff’s Department engaged in unlawful arrests and excessive use of force at protests this summer against police killings of people of color.

“It’s because they recognized him as a repeat protester,” Gonzalez said. “This is all about retribution.”

Satterfield denied that portrayal.

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“Padilla’s arrest was absolutely in no way connected to his participation in protests or any exercise of his First Amendment rights,” he said in a statement.

When asked about Gonzalez’s allegations, district attorney spokeswoman Pamela Johnson said in a statement, “we can’t discuss details until they are aired in open court.”

At Monday’s arraignment, a representative for the district attorney’s office said that Padilla had admitted to dragging a barricade onto the tracks, knowing that a train was approaching. He said that when Padilla was asked what he thought could have happened if a train had made contact with the barricade, Padilla responded that it could have caused an electrical issue.

The interrogation of Padilla was included in the detective’s report on the arrest. The account states that Padilla said he stopped pulling the cable when he realized it was on the tracks and could cause an accident.

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Gonzalez told The Times that Padilla’s alleged statement is “not proof of what his intent was.” While Gonzalez would not comment on whether Padilla had touched the cable, he said that it doesn’t appear there was “malicious” intent to derail a train.

“I think the charges are as exaggerated as I have ever seen, your honor,” he told the judge. “He’s been targeted.”

After learning from The Times that the alleged offenses occurred on the same day and location as a protest, Inspector General Max Huntsman said that he would request documentation from the Sheriff’s Department regarding the arrest.

”I believe this is a case which requires monitoring of LASD to ensure they are handling it in an objective and lawful manner,” he said in a statement.

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Padilla’s wife, Meagan Adams, alleges that an unexpected encounter she had with the Sheriff’s Department last Wednesday relates to her husband’s case, which she called “a farce.”

Sheriff’s officials pulled Adams over as she was driving to go see Padilla in jail the evening of his arrest. She was arrested on suspicion of engaging in misconduct related to motor vehicle documentation and released the next day with a citation.

The Sheriff’s Department would not comment as to the reason for the stop.

The department obtained a warrant to search the couple’s home Wednesday night for property that included eight guns registered in Padilla’s name. (Adams said Padilla goes shooting as a hobby.) The department referred a question about the outcome of the search to the district attorney’s office, which would not comment.

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More than 40 people, some holding signs that said “Free Eman” gathered in front of Compton City Hall during a press conference Saturday.

Maria Padilla, the defendant’s mother, spoke to the crowd.

“He was only protesting, he wasn’t doing anything wrong,” she said in Spanish. “That’s a right we all have in this country.”

Many friends of Padilla vouched for his character and described him, at more than 6 feet tall, as a “gentle giant.” Adams said that Padilla, who grew up in Compton, became particularly active in protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.


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