He was already one of the central figures in Los Angeles County’s jail scandal when he dropped a bombshell allegation.
Weeks after sheriff’s officials discovered a cellphone he had smuggled to an inmate who was helping federal authorities investigate alleged deputy abuse, Deputy Gilbert Michel told a sheriff’s investigator he knew of four instances of excessive force against inmates. In two of those cases, he implicated himself as an aggressor.
Two years later, district attorney’s records show that authorities have concluded there is no evidence to corroborate Michel’s claims of inmate abuse, and prosecutors have decided against filing charges against the deputies he accused.
Three inmates identified by Michel as victims said they were beaten by deputies but gave accounts that prosecutors said were at odds with Michel’s, identifying different deputies as their assailants or giving different details about the violence used, according to the records. A fourth inmate denied having been assaulted, a sheriff’s spokesman said.
“The information which [Michel] provided regarding unlawful uses of force by deputies has not been corroborated by any other sources, including the inmate victims,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Fernando Guzman wrote in one memo explaining why charges would not be filed.
In the memos, Guzman also raised a question about Michel’s credibility, noting that he was facing serious criminal charges when he made his allegations.
Michel admitted taking $1,500 to bring the cellphone to the inmate, not knowing that the person giving him the money was an undercover FBI agent or that the inmate was working as a federal informant. In January 2012, four months after he told authorities about the four force incidents, he pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of bribery.
Michel’s attorney, Robert Brode, contested the suggestion that his client might have lied about the force incidents. Other deputies Michel accused of using excessive force declined to talk to investigators, the attorney noted, adding that Michel told the truth despite facing more potential charges.
“He only hurts himself by telling people about this,” Brode said. “He’s not going to gain something.”
Guzman declined to comment.
As part of an agreement with U.S. prosecutors, Michel is cooperating in the federal probe of the jails. His sentencing has been repeatedly delayed while the investigation continues.
Allegations of abuse in the jails go well beyond Michel’s claims.
Sheriff’s supervisors raised alarms about excessive force and deputies inflicting “jailhouse justice” on inmates in internal memos written more than a year before Michel smuggled in the cellphone. More recently, other sheriff’s officials have come forward with tales of beatings. Last year, a blue-ribbon county commission concluded that Sheriff Lee Baca and his top assistants had fostered a culture in which deputies were permitted to beat and humiliate inmates, cover up misconduct and form aggressive deputy cliques. The commission did not cite Michel’s claims in its findings.
Still, Michel’s specific accounts of alleged brutality helped fuel the jail scandal. Baca cited the deputy’s allegations among the reasons he created a task force to investigate brutality claims.
Michel said he was one of two deputies who beat inmate Leroy Bragg, who was charged with kidnapping two teenage girls for prostitution, according to a district attorney’s memo.
A neighbor, Michel said, told him on Halloween in 2010 that her daughter had been kidnapped by Bragg. Michel said he and other deputies took Bragg to a shower area of Men’s Central Jail, where Deputy Joey Aguiar slapped him in the face and Michel punched him about five times in the stomach. Michel said he punched the inmate twice more in the ribs before he and Aguiar kicked Bragg several times in the legs.
In an interview with sheriff’s investigators, Bragg said he was attacked on three occasions, but Guzman concluded that Michel’s account “does not closely resemble any of the three incidents described by Bragg.”
Bragg said the first beating took place the day he arrived at Men’s Central Jail, several weeks before Halloween. In describing a second assault, the inmate said he was taken to an area outside the jail’s showers and punched several times, but he never mentioned being kicked.
After looking at photographs of jail deputies, he identified Aguiar as a deputy who punched him but also identified two other deputies Michel had not mentioned and did not identify Michel as being present. Bragg did not identify either Michel or Aguiar as being involved in a third assault.
Michel’s neighbor, whose daughter was kidnapped by Bragg, denied knowing Michel or talking to him about the case.
“Michel cannot be considered a corroborating witness,” Guzman wrote.
In another incident described by Michel, the deputy alleged he saw two other deputies attack an inmate, Eduardo Villareal, who had been arrested on suspicion of murdering his girlfriend and young child, according to a district attorney memo.
In that case, a relative of Villareal complained about a use of force, and the inmate was interviewed for the department’s investigation into the complaint. Later, Villareal provided a declaration to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California about the incident and spoke again to sheriff’s investigators.
Guzman wrote that Villareal repeatedly changed his story. Among the differences in his accounts was that Villareal initially reported that one deputy struck him on the right side of his rib cage. In his second version, he added that another deputy also struck him twice in the head. In his third, Villareal reported that a deputy lifted him into the air by the back of his shirt and swung him from side to side.
“Each version of the incident contradicts the other two,” Guzman wrote.
The prosecutor noted that Villareal, like Bragg, identified different deputies from the ones named by Michel as being involved in the incident. Michel’s account also contradicted the inmate’s in other details, such as whether Villareal was handcuffed, Guzman wrote. Michel said he was handcuffed; Villareal said he wasn’t.
In describing a third incident, Michel said deputies assaulted inmate Frederick Bruno. Bruno had no recollection of the episode Michel described and instead accused a different deputy and a custody assistant of using excessive force on him, Guzman wrote. Other inmates described Bruno as someone who fabricated stories, spoke about filing complaints against deputies and wanted to sue the county.
In the fourth incident detailed by Michel, the deputy said he repeatedly slapped an inmate. Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the inmate denied he was assaulted and investigators were unable to find any witnesses who could corroborate Michel’s claims, which the department determined to be unfounded.