Sheriff Lee Baca names new jails boss as FBI probe expands

Former state prison official Terri McDonald will oversee Los Angeles County's jail system, the nation's largest.
(Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times)

As the FBI broadened its probe into violence in the L.A. County jails, Sheriff Lee Baca this week brought in an outsider with a reform background to run the troubled lockups.

Baca’s decision to hire Terri McDonald to manage the nation’s largest jail system marks a major milestone in his reform effort, which was sparked by the federal investigation into allegations that jailers beat inmates and visitors.

McDonald, who started Monday, left her post with the state prison system to oversee Baca’s jails, where her annual salary is $223,087. Sheriff’s officials say her reputation as a tough manager who helped reform the prisons makes her a good fit for the jails post.


At the prisons, McDonald most recently helped oversee realignment, the process of keeping thousands of would-be state prisoners in local county jails. She’s also been noted for helping to improve training for prison guards.

McDonald this week acknowledged the daunting challenges the Sheriff’s Department faces as she starts her tenure, but put a positive spin on it: “It is exciting times for this organization, and I’m proud and honored to be part of the leadership team moving the organization forward.”

She endorsed the reforms recommended by a blue-ribbon panel examining jail violence, saying she was particularly pleased with efforts to strengthen deputy training.

Baca said his pick would be “bringing a great amount of wisdom into the system.”

McDonald’s hiring comes as the FBI continues to press ahead with its investigation into jail violence. The probe has been underway for at least 1 1/2 years.

So far, federal authorities have secured a bribery conviction against one deputy, but the probe continues. Sources with knowledge of the federal investigation say it recently has expanded to include two new cases in which deputies allegedly took part in unprovoked beatings.

One case involves a jailhouse visitor who says deputies broke his arm after he asked to speak with a supervisor, and the other centers on a top sheriff’s recruit who resigned weeks into the job, alleging that his boss made him beat up a mentally ill inmate, the sources said.

The two new cases provide further evidence that federal authorities are trying to build cases using witnesses other than jail inmates, who often have credibility problems in court. Federal investigators have tried to overcome that hurdle by securing recordings, internal documents and interviews with civilian jail monitors and officials within the sheriff’s own ranks.

Federal authorities have remained tight-lipped about the jails probe, but a source close to the case who asked to remain anonymous said agents are investigating allegations made by the rookie deputy, a case detailed by The Times. In that incident, the young deputy who graduated at the top of his recruit class resigned after only a few weeks on the job, alleging that a Twin Towers jail supervisor made him beat up a mentally ill inmate. The deputy, Joshua Sather, said that shortly before the inmate’s beating, his supervisor said, “We’re gonna go in and teach this guy a lesson,” according to records. The attack, Sather said, was then covered up.

After the incident, the muscled, tattooed rookie called his uncle — a veteran sheriff’s gang detective — crying and distraught. He abruptly resigned soon after, citing “family issues.”

Law enforcement records revealed that the incident caused tensions in the Sheriff’s Department. Sather’s uncle angrily confronted the supervisor about making his nephew “beat up ‘dings,’ ” slang for the mentally disabled. He then allegedly threatened to “put a bullet” in the supervisor’s head.

Sheriff’s officials launched an investigation and determined that an uncooperative inmate had been subdued by force but concluded that no misconduct had occurred. “The appropriate action was taken in this case, which was no action,” said sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore.

In the second case, a man came to Men’s Central Jail to visit his brother — an Army veteran — in July 2010. Leocadio Figueroa, 43, had gone to the lockup several times before to try to find his brother but “got the runaround each time,” his attorney said. On his last visit, his attorney said, he told the deputies he wanted to see their supervisor.

That’s when, according to Figueroa’s lawsuit, a deputy lunged at him, knocked him to the ground and handcuffed him.

Figueroa alleged that while lying facedown on the ground, the deputies beat him. Even though he was quiet and not resisting, he said deputies ordered him to “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” as they struck him.

His body was bruised, and his left arm was broken. Deputies arrested him for resisting but prosecutors never filed charges. A sheriff’s spokesman said Figueroa was combative and the force used against him was found to be within policy.

Figueroa’s attorney, Gary Casselman, told The Times that late last year FBI agents interviewed Figueroa for several hours. He was then subpoenaed by a federal criminal grand jury investigating jailhouse abuse, and in January, he testified during the secret proceedings.

His case is the second alleged beating of a jailhouse visitor that had drawn the interest of federal authorities. The other visitor was also at the jail to see his brother but before he could he was detained by deputies who caught him with a cellphone, a violation of jailhouse rules. He alleges he was then beaten and pepper-sprayed while handcuffed.

In both cases, the supervisor was Eric Gonzalez — a sergeant who was put on leave for trading photos of bloodied suspects with another deputy. Investigators are trying to determine if the text messages were boasts.

Whitmore said the department has investigated the cases and welcomes further scrutiny from the FBI.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor, said she’s not surprised by the interest federal authorities have taken in cases that don’t hinge on inmate witnesses.

“You want to use basically the most likable, believable witnesses,” she said, “and inmates don’t usually fit that bill.”

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment about the ongoing probe.