First eyewitness account of Sheriff Villanueva lying in a cover-up revealed in filing
A former top-ranking Los Angeles County sheriff’s official filed a legal claim Thursday that offered the first eyewitness account of Sheriff Alex Villanueva allegedly lying about his involvement in a cover-up and also made allegations about retaliation and other improprieties in the Sheriff’s Department.
The filing by former Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon, once one of Villanueva’s closest advisors, alleges that she personally brought a DVD containing a video of a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s neck to Villanueva — and watched it with him and two others five days after the incident happened.
Her account calls into question Villanueva’s claim that he learned of the March 2021 incident eight months after it happened and took swift action.
After The Times last month reported on the cover-up, Limon’s claim said, Villanueva demanded that she retire or she would be demoted four ranks — from assistant sheriff to lieutenant.
“The reasons for the Sheriff’s misconduct were twofold, to retaliate against the Complainant for being a whistleblower on several instances of illegal and other wrongful conduct and to further his cover up of an excessive use of force incident,” her claim said.
Officials were worried about the optics of the kneeling, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force,” a commander who was critical of the coverup wrote in an internal force review.
She chose to stay on the job. Villanueva said earlier this week that Limon had taken a leave of absence.
“He’s actually framed her to make it look like she’s the one who did the cover-up, and not himself,” said Limon’s attorney, Vincent Miller.
Villanueva did not immediately respond to a request for comment. His chief of staff, John Satterfield, said in a statement: “Due to multiple active investigations, and two civil lawsuits, we are unable to comment further at this time. We look forward to presenting the facts in court.”
On the morning of March 10, 2021, deputies were conducting routine searches of inmates before their court appearances at the San Fernando Courthouse when deputies told two inmates to be quiet.
Security video obtained by The Times shows Deputy Douglas Johnson walking closely behind inmate Enzo Escalante through a hallway before ushering him toward a wall.
Escalante turned around and punched Johnson in the face multiple times. Johnson and other deputies then took Escalante to the ground, positioning him facedown. After he was handcuffed, Johnson kept his knee on Escalante’s head for three minutes.
According to Limon’s claim, Cmdr. Allen Castellano notified his chief of the incident shortly after it happened, and the pair showed the video to Limon, who agreed to show it to Villanueva. Limon and the others “wanted the Sheriff to be aware of this very serious matter” and that it was being referred to the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, which investigates criminal allegations against deputies.
Limon’s claim said that, about five days after the incident, she took the video to the sheriff and two others — Undersheriff Tim Murakami and the sheriff’s aide, Anthony Blanchard.
Full Coverage: Sheriff’s Department cover-up of incident where deputy knelt on inmate’s head
L.A. County sheriff’s officials attempted to cover up an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of an inmate, according to records reviewed by The Times.
She said Villanueva even removed one of the supervising deputies from a promotional list for sergeant because he was being investigated administratively for failing to intervene when Johnson was pinning down the inmate.
Murakami said at a news conference this week that the allegation that he saw the video in March 2021 was false. Blanchard said that “the video was never seen in March the way it was presented.”
Limon is the third person suing over fallout from the incident. Earlier this week, Castellano, who has been critical of alleged efforts by the department to cover up the use of force, accused Villanueva in a legal claim of obstructing justice and retaliating against those who blew the whistle. And the inmate whose head was kneeled on filed a civil rights lawsuit.
Limon’s filing also contains disturbing allegations unrelated to the kneeling incident, including details about Villanueva and his subordinates participating in political campaign activity while on duty. It alleges that Villanueva’s wife, a retired deputy, approved or denied promotions for Sheriff’s Department personnel and that his reelection campaign manager, Javier Gonzalez, meddled in Sheriff’s Department contract negotiations.
When reached by phone for comment, Vivian Villanueva referred a Times reporter to her attorney. Greg Smith, an attorney representing her, said he is reviewing the claim.
Limon’s claim said Villanueva told her that he and his wife would select people for advancement as they saw fit because she “is a very good judge of character.” It said Limon witnessed Villanueva take photos of promotional lists and send them to his wife for approval or disapproval. Vivian Villanueva worked as a deputy for 23 years before retiring in 2018.
The claim said Limon pushed back against several promotions that Villanueva had insisted on, including of one lieutenant who had been found guilty in administrative proceedings of sexual misconduct and another who was the subject of a criminal investigation. Both were promoted to captain.
In another instance, Villanueva allegedly pressured Limon to bring back to work a new lieutenant who had been arrested on suspicion of domestic violence in Beverly Hills. Limon said she argued that the department should wait until the criminal and administrative investigations were complete.
An L.A. County sheriff’s commander filed a lawsuit accusing Sheriff Alex Villanueva of obstructing justice and retaliating against those who blew the whistle.
According to the claim, Villanueva dismissed her concerns and said that his wife had “talked to the employee’s wife and it was now ‘a big nothing.’”
Villanueva ordered Limon to bring the employee back before the administrative investigation was complete, according to the claim.
Limon described another episode where she was tasked with renegotiating the Sheriff’s Department’s contract with the Los Angeles Community College District. Based on the cuts the district requested, Limon recommended terminating the contract over concerns about the staffing model and employee safety.
Villanueva initially agreed, the claim said, but then changed course when campaign manager Gonzalez took over discussions with a district board member. Villanueva sent Limon a text referencing Gonzalez weighing in on the community college bureau, the claim said.
In another text to Limon, he wrote: “Until we win our re elect ppl will test us. Can I tell them you all will counter propose and maybe set some triggers? He said cut a bit and they will sign it,” according to the claim.
In an interview Thursday, Gonzalez denied meddling, saying that he was merely “helping along a conversation that seemed to have been headed toward a fight” by passing along information from the board member.
The claim also alleges that Gonzalez helped come up with the idea to send deputies into Venice and Hollywood, neighborhoods in the city of L.A. that are not patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department, to clean up homelessness, and that it would “help with raising money for his reelection campaign and secure votes.”
Gonzalez said he never talked to the sheriff about homelessness before he showed up in Venice last June. “I found out about Venice when you found out about Venice — on the TV,” he said.
Limon’s claim said she opposed this practice, which she felt was “depleting resources from contract cities and county areas, where LASD [the Sheriff’s Department] was supposed to be using its resources to protect residents.”
Several people, including candidates from both inside and outside the department, are running to unseat Villanueva in the June 7 primary.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.