Third top official disputes Sheriff Villanueva’s account in cover-up
A third high-ranking Los Angeles County sheriff’s official has filed a legal claim contradicting Sheriff Villanueva’s account of how he handled an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes.
Former Chief LaJuana Haselrig said in the filing, which is a precursor to a lawsuit, that she gave a DVD containing a video of the incident to Asst. Sheriff Robin Limon and Limon told her she was “heading immediately from there to Villanueva’s office to show him the video.”
Limon, who was a close advisor to Villanueva until he demoted her over the incident, filed her own claim last week alleging she showed the video to Villanueva and two other people five days after the incident happened.
Those accounts are at odds with the one offered by Villanueva, who has claimed that he learned of the March 2021 incident eight months after it happened and promptly ordered an investigation into it.
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.
The two other people who Limon said viewed the recording alongside the sheriff are Undersheriff Tim Murakami and Villanueva’s aide, Anthony Blanchard. Murakami said at a news conference last 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.”
In response to questions about the new claim Villanueva said that the litigation was being brought by people who “by their own admission, did not take the actions they were supposed to take, which is to initiate an administrative investigation and a criminal investigation at the point where they had knowledge of this.”
He continued: “They failed to do that. And the fact is, by Nov. 18, when I had knowledge of this incident, the administrative investigation had already been initiated, the criminal investigation had already been initiated, so there is no whistle to be blown.”
That statement contradicted one the sheriff gave last week, when he said he had initiated the criminal investigation after he became aware of the incident on Nov. 18.
After The Times first reported on the violent detention and an effort by sheriff’s officials to keep it secret in March, Undersheriff Tim Murakami visited Haselrig’s home while she was out on medical leave and forced her to retire, her claim alleges. Limon, meanwhile, was demoted several ranks.
Haselrig’s claim also alleges that Villanueva targeted her because she is Black. She alleged in the filing that she once told the sheriff that she hoped there would be opportunities for qualified Black employees to promote and that he replied: “We have enough of you.”
She also alleges that Villanueva threatened several times to “get” whistleblowers for sharing information about misconduct. Haselrig’s claim said she advised him that it’s illegal to retaliate against whistleblowers.
The kneeling incident occurred on the morning of March 10, 2021, when deputies were conducting routine searches of inmates before their court appearances at the San Fernando Courthouse.
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.
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 turns around and punches Johnson in the face multiple times. Johnson and other deputies then take Escalante to the ground, positioning him facedown. After Escalante is handcuffed, Johnson keeps his knee on the inmate’s head for three minutes.
Haselrig is the fourth person to have initiated a lawsuit over the incident. Along with Limon, Allen Castellano — a commander who was critical of efforts by the department to keep the incident under wraps — accused Villanueva in a legal claim of obstructing justice and retaliating against those who blew the whistle. The inmate whose head was kneeled on also filed a civil rights lawsuit.
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