Less than a week into his career as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, Josh Sather was summoned by his training officer to the sixth floor of the Twin Towers jail.
Sather, a promising rookie who had graduated at the top of his class of recruits, was told an inmate had left his cell without permission and mouthed off to jail staff. “We’re going to teach him a lesson,” Sather recalled his training officer telling him.
Testifying in the federal criminal trial of the training officer and another deputy, Sather told jurors how he and other deputies led the inmate into a hallway. Sather recounted tackling the man and punching him several times but then relenting because the inmate wasn’t resisting. Other deputies then set upon the inmate with a barrage of kicks and blows that culminated in them spreading the inmate’s legs and the training officer kicking him in the genitals, Sather said.
The inmate, Sather said, lay curled up on the ground throughout the assault, screaming and crying.
When they were done, he said, the deputies gathered privately to concoct a justification for the beating that they gave sheriff’s officials in falsified reports.
On Monday, the jury signaled they had been swayed by last week’s dramatic testimony. After deliberating only 90 minutes, the panel convicted the two defendants, Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum, of conspiracy, depriving the inmate of his civil rights and falsifying records to cover up the assault.
The case was one of the last in a series of prosecutions brought by the federal government against sheriff’s deputies accused of brutalizing inmates. In previous cases, seven deputies have been convicted or pleaded guilty to charges stemming from allegations of inmate abuse, while several others have been found guilty of obstructing a federal investigation into the county jails.
In his closing arguments Monday, Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox told jurors the lesson Brunsting and Branum had wanted to impart on the inmate, Philip Jones, was clear: Disrespect would be met with violent punishment.
But the pair, Fox said, were also looking to teach Sather.
“The second lesson was for Joshua Sather, the honor recruit, the future of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department,” Fox said. “That lesson was simple: This is how you beat an inmate. This is how things are done at Twin Towers. It was as much a lesson as much as it was a test."
During the four-day trial, attorneys for Brunsting and Branum tried to present jurors with a less flattering portrayal of Sather. He was, they said, an untrustworthy, biased witness who has given inconsistent accounts of the incident over the years in an attempt to avoid falling in the cross-hairs of prosecutors.
“He had his script, he told his story and made it as dramatic as he could,” Richard Hirsch, Brunsting’s attorney, said in his closing arguments. “But he was exposed for his past lies, deceptions, his lack of memory.”
Sather took the stand Thursday, one of only a few witnesses called by the government. He told jurors how, as a 23-year-old living in Colorado, he had grown unsatisfied with a paralegal job and set about for something more fulfilling.
“I wanted to do something that made a difference,” he said. “I wanted to help people.”
An uncle was a veteran detective in the department and encouraged him to apply. He was accepted to the training academy and thrived, emerging at the end as an honor recruit, a designation awarded to the top performer in each academy class.
As with nearly all rookies, Sather’s first assignment was in the county’s network of lock-up facilities, the largest jail system in the country. On his second day on the job, his training officer went on leave and Sather was re-assigned to Brunsting in Module 161 -- part of the sixth floor in the downtown complex’s first tower that houses mentally ill inmates.
A few days later, on March 22, Sather said he was on another floor helping to search cells for drugs and weapons when Brunsting called him back up to 161. Sather found Brunsting, Branum and a few other deputies gathered outside of a room where visitors met with inmates.
Jones, who suffers from schizophrenia, was in the visitation room without permission, Brunsting told Sather.
Sather recalled how Brunsting first gave an innocuous-sounding order for him to “take care” of Jones, which he thought meant he should return the inmate to his cell. He quickly understood Brunsting had something else in mind, however, when the training officer made the “lesson” comment and directed Jones into a narrow hallway that had a locked door at the other end and was out of sight from security cameras.
Jones turned back to see the group of deputies blocking his only way out. "I’m gonna get my ass kicked,” he said, according to Sather, before trying to run down the hallway.
Sather said he quickly tackled Jones and delivered a few blows to his legs and ribs.
Fox asked him why he struck the man.
“Because we were teaching him a lesson,” Sather replied. “That’s what we were doing.”
Sather described stepping away from Jones when it was clear the inmate wasn’t resisting. Another deputy handed him a pair of handcuffs but instructed him not to restrain Jones until a call for back up went out on the radio and other deputies arrived in the hallway, Sather recalled. He said he watched as Jones was punched and kicked.
Jones was also pepper-sprayed in the face. In the reports that he and the other deputies submitted on the incident, Branum acknowledged being the one who sprayed Jones.
Those reports, Sather testified, were full of lies. He said that shortly after the beating, he and the other deputies gathered in the module’s control booth “to get our stories straight.”
Jones, it was decided, would be portrayed as the aggressor, who ignored orders to return to his cell and instead walked into the hallway. When Sather followed, the story would go, Jones turned, took a swing at the deputy and violently resisted being taken into custody, Sather testified.
It was also decided that one of the other deputies involved would not be mentioned in the reports because his record already included several uses of force on inmates and he could not afford another, Sather said. That deputy and another who was involved in the incident were not charged in the case. Prosecutors declined to say why those deputies were not charged or called as witnesses.
At trial, Fox displayed the reports that Sather, Brunsting and Branum submitted about the incident, showing jurors how the language mirrored each other exactly in several sections. Sather testified that after Brunsting twice rejected his trainee’s attempts to write a report, he gave Sather his own and told him to copy it.
That night, he called his uncle.
“He was crying,” the uncle, Steven Sather, recalled. He drove to his nephew’s apartment and said he found him sitting on the couch in the dark.
“He told me he had been involved in an incident that never should have happened. He said he did something really bad.”
At the start of his dawn shift the next day, the rookie approached a lieutenant who supervised him and said he was resigning for personal reasons stemming from family issues.
“I didn’t want to be a snitch,” Josh Sather explained in court.
His uncle tried to persuade him to reconsider and took his nephew to Las Vegas to meet with his father. Sather described returning to Los Angeles still undecided. After a sleepless night mulling his options, he went ahead with the resignation.
Steven Sather, grimacing and shifting his body in pain from a back injury, told jurors how he drove to Twin Towers to check on his nephew, only to find him gone. He demanded to see Brunsting and told of how he unleashed an expletive-filled tirade on the training officer on the lawn outside the jail, threatening at one point to beat him up.
Several days later, at his uncle’s urging, Josh Sather said he met with the captain in charge of the jail and explained the real reason he left. His uncle, Sather said, told him he “owed it to him and the others who had helped me to tell the truth.”
Sather returned to Colorado and today works in one of the state’s oil fields.
During cross-examination, he withstood attempts by defense attorneys to rattle him by pointing out what they said were discrepancies in his testimony and various statements he had given over the years to federal investigators and sheriff’s officials.
For example, in one account Sather said that Jones had been “scooting” on the floor during the assault and in another that Jones may have been resisting the deputies slightly.
“You’ve heard so many stories, you can’t tell which, if any, are true,” Hirsch, Brunsting’s attorney, said Monday.
Hirsch suggested a different reason for why Sather left the department, telling jurors the rookie felt intense pressure from his uncle and others to succeed and when he was confronted with the ugly reality of sometimes needing to use force on belligerent inmates, “he couldn’t handle it.”
In the end, it was a line of attack that fell on deaf ears. The swiftness with which the jury reach its decision left no doubt about who they believed.
Prosecutors have declined to say why they didn’t call on the other deputies named in the reports to testify at the trial.
Brunsting, 31, and Branum, 35, who both remain with the sheriff’s department but have been relieved of duty, are scheduled to be sentenced in August. They face a maximum of 40 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Brunsting is expected to face trial later this year on additional civil rights charges in connection with another force incident at Twin Towers in August 2009.
Follow me at @joelrubin