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Charges dropped against L.A. County jail guard accused of allowing inmates to beat up a man

Inmates at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic in October. An assault charge against Jonathan Grijalva, a former L.A. County sheriff's jail guard, was dismissed last week after prosecutors said they could not locate the man who had been attacked as a witness.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Prosecutors have dropped an assault charge against a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s jail guard who was accused of allowing a man to be beaten by other inmates.

The case against Jonathan Grijalva, 29, was dismissed on the first day of trial last week after prosecutors said they could not locate a key witness — the man who had been attacked.

Grijalva, a custody assistant, was working at the North County Correctional Facility in 2014 when an inmate asked him to walk to another area of the lockup so that another man could be assaulted, prosecutors alleged.

The guard at the Castaic lockup was also accused of refusing to arrange for medical care after the targeted inmate, Saul Lira, was beaten by three other men and suffered a broken nose and jaw.

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Grijalva, who has been relieved of duty without pay since October 2014, was charged with one count of assault in November 2016.

Angel Navarro, Grijalva’s attorney, said his client did nothing wrong and was “a victim of the times” in an era when the Sheriff’s Department is trying to reform itself after a jail abuse scandal.

The case followed a string of prosecutions against Los Angeles County deputies accused of assaulting inmates, lying to cover up the beatings or conspiring to obstruct an FBI investigation into misconduct by jailers. The scandal resulted in the conviction of more than 20 department officials, including former Sheriff Lee Baca.

But the charge against Grijalva marked the first time since the jail abuse scandal began in 2011 that a county jail guard was charged with a crime after being accused of looking the other way while inmates ambushed someone else.

“I think this case is an example of overreaching. We’ve seen cases where deputies beat people up. This is not one of those cases,” Navarro said.

Greg Risling, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said in an email that prosecutors were convinced the evidence would prove Grijalva was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Risling said “a necessary witness” failed to appear in court.

Risling would not identify the witness, but Lira is named in court documents as the person who could not be located.

The assault on Lira, 35, was coordinated by powerful inmates known as “shot callers” associated with the Mexican Mafia, a gang network within the jails, according to the district attorneys’ office.

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Last week, federal and local authorities revealed a sweeping investigation into the Mexican Mafia and its control within the Los Angeles County jail system.

After being held at the Castaic jail, Lira spent time in state prison on charges including firearm possession by a felon. He was released in May 2017 and placed on probation in Los Angeles County, said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the state prison system.

A county probation spokeswoman, Kerri Webb, said she could not confirm whether Lira has ever been under supervision by her agency.

Lira’s sister, Ida De La Cruz, did not respond to queries by The Times.

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Grijalva could still face trial if prosecutors decide to charge him again, Navarro said.

maya.lau@latimes.com

Twitter: @mayalau


UPDATES:

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4:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from the district attorney’s office.

This article was originally published at 3:45 p.m.


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