Jail deputy told FBI agent of ‘unwritten rule’ on fights with inmates

Deputies walk past cells at the L.A. County Men's Central Jail. County jails house 19,000 inmates.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

On top of the many protocols and regulations he learned in training, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy William David Courson was taught one “unwritten rule”: If an inmate fights with a deputy, that inmate ends up at the hospital.

He learned the rule at a jail operations training session led by a sergeant and two deputies in a classroom full of about 50 deputies, Courson testified Wednesday. Courson, who has worked at Men’s Central Jail since graduating from the academy in early 2008, described violence and coverups among jail guards at the federal trial of six sheriff’s officials on charges of obstruction of justice.


Sheriff’s Department: An article in the June 7 LATExtra section about the obstruction of justice trial of six Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department officials misspelled the first name of one of the defendants, Maricela Long, as Maricella. The misspelling also occurred in articles Dec. 10, Dec. 17, May 20, May 28 and June 5.



The “unwritten rule” was among the things Courson told an FBI agent investigating the jails. He had asked the agent out on dates after seeing her at the jail facility. Over meals at a taco joint and a breakfast cafe, he talked to her about the jail’s culture and specific incidents — not realizing that all the while, she was wearing a wire and recording him as a potential target in the investigation into excessive force and corruption in the sheriff-run jails.

Courson said that during pill call one night not long after he started working at the jails, he saw a deputy come up from behind an inmate and start a fight. That same day, a senior deputy came up to him and asked him what he saw.

“I asked him, what did he want to hear,” Courson said. The senior deputy responded: “Say you were upstairs running the showers,” he recalled the senior deputy saying.

None of the five men and one woman on trial are accused of civil rights violations or excessive force; they faces charges of attempting to impede the investigation by hiding a federal informant and threatening the case agent with arrest.

Beginning in the summer of 2010, FBI Special Agent Leah Marx began frequenting the Men’s Central Jail to interview inmates. Courson, who worked in the area where she was often waiting for the inmates, said he found her attractive and asked for her contact information. Initially, she turned him down.

A few weeks later, she handed him her business card. Her personal Yahoo email address was scribbled across the back with a note: “E-mail me if you want.” Courson said he thought Marx didn’t want her partner to know.

The two began exchanging emails and text messages, and met for breakfast, lunch and sometimes drinks. The former Marine told her about his interest in motorcycles and his tattoos; she showed him one on her back. She would ask if there was anything “new and exciting” going on at work, and about incidents mentioned in the news involving the jails. He told her about an inmate strangling a cellmate, and about what are called “drive-bys” — deputies walking by during a beating and sneaking in a blow or two, then walking away, without any “paperwork.”


Courson said Marx didn’t appear to be interested in becoming romantically involved, and seemed to just want to be friends.

Then in August 2011, he learned that a cellphone connected to the FBI was found on an inmate, and heard her name mentioned. In a briefing, a captain told deputies about the FBI’s civil rights investigation and said that if anyone had any contact with the FBI, they should talk to him.

Courson did — and sat down for an interview with Sgts. Scott Craig and Maricella Long of the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau. In a recording of the interview played for jurors, he told them that their relationship never became intimate and that he gave her a copy of the department’s “defensive tactics” manual because she said she needed it for a school report.

“Now that I’m sitting here and saying it out loud, I’ve been played,” he said.


The deputy told Craig and Long that after he told her about incidents at work involving inmates, she would sometimes ask for their booking numbers, saying that she wanted to see if she and her partner had interviewed them. She once asked him about a specific deputy by name, saying that he had shot her a dirty look. Marx told him that she investigated human trafficking cases, Courson said.

“So I’m assuming I was told wrongly?” Courson asked in the interview.

“That would be my guess, that she lied to you, yes,” Craig said.

It was only when he was subpoenaed to testify before the federal grand jury two years later that he realized she had secretly recorded every word of their three or four meetings, Courson testified. During cross-examination by a defense attorney, Courson said he sometimes exaggerated things in his conversations with Marx because he was interested in her — but said that what he told her about the “unwritten rule,” and being told to lie about not having witnessed a beating, were true.


Marx also took the stand Wednesday and said that after she initially declined to give Courson her contact information, the deputy mentioned in casual conversation that he sometimes used his metal flashlight to subdue inmates because he wanted to, rather than out of need. Marx said she thought Courson would be a potential target in their civil rights investigation and talked to a supervisor before giving him her email address.

She said she eventually determined that he wasn’t involved in the types of conduct the FBI was investigating — beatings that inmates told her were occurring on an “almost daily” basis in some parts of the jail and resulted in severe injuries, including broken bones.