3 San Bernardino County deputies charged in televised beating


It began in an Apple Valley neighborhood, when Francis Pusok fled from authorities who chased him for three hours, pursuing him down tapered trails and over desert terrain — even as he ditched his car and mounted a stolen horse.

But Pusok’s role as the suspect shifted when things turned violent on a rugged hillside near the San Bernardino National Forest. As a news helicopter trained its camera on the confrontation, a group of deputies appeared to kick and punch Pusok as he lay with his face in the dirt.

Soon after the April 9 incident, the county approved a $650,000 settlement to be paid to Pusok, the FBI launched a civil rights investigation and 10 San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies were put on administrative leave.


Three of those deputies have now been charged with assault by a peace officer in connection with that beating. Nicholas Downey, 33; Charles Foster, 34; and Michael Phelps, 29, could face up to three years in prison.

“I believe the deputies that were filed on today crossed the line under the color of authority,” San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos said Tuesday.

Ramos said the decision to prosecute was bolstered by the KNBC-TV video, which staff members examined frame by frame. One still — enlarged and on display in the district attorney’s office — showed Pusok lying on the ground with his hands behind his back as a deputy kicked him in the groin, Ramos said.

Downey and Phelps were among the first deputies to arrive. Foster arrived after Pusok had been handcuffed, prosecutors said.

The deputies each posted $50,000 bail Tuesday and were expected to be arraigned next week. Their attorneys said their clients used the appropriate amount of force. One said that it was important to note that the video showed only an aerial view of the incident.

“The officers had a head-on view, so to speak,” said Steven D. Sanchez, who represents Phelps. “Their vantage point is a lot different than what is seen on the helicopter camera.

“What you don’t see in the video is the terrain, the bumps, the hills, the shrubbery, the dust that’s flying in the air from the propellers of the helicopter — there’s a lot of moving parts that are affecting the ability of the officers to perceive what’s going on.”

Prosecutors said other evidence was also considered, including belt recordings made by at least two of the accused deputies. Ramos indicated that information relayed by deputies on those recordings, which were also being broadcast to arriving officers, was misleading.

The seven other deputies who were not charged, he said, had the right to presume that the officers already at the scene were acting lawfully.

“The use of force that they showed was reasonable under the circumstances,” Ramos said.

All 10 deputies involved in the incident remain on paid administrative leave while a separate internal investigation continues, Sheriff John McMahon said. McMahon noted shortly after the beating that he was troubled by the images, which did not “appear to be in line with our policies and procedures.”

He also pointed out that there were moments in the video when Pusok, 30, appeared to struggle.

Pusok faces multiple charges stemming from the April incident, including charges of evading a police officer, resisting arrest, stealing an animal, cruelty to the animal and being under the influence of drugs.

He was also charged with three counts of vehicle theft and three counts of receiving stolen property. That case is pending in San Bernardino County Superior Court.

Before the beating, Pusok had been arrested at least six times in recent years and faced multiple counts of resisting arrest or being aggressive toward officers. Many of those charges were later dismissed or reduced through plea deals. His record also includes an attempted robbery conviction. On a domestic call, Pusok threatened to kill a deputy and shot a puppy in front of family members, McMahon said.

Pusok and his attorneys say the arrests show a pattern of misbehavior and aggression on the part of law enforcement that culminated in the April beating.

That day, deputies went to a house in an unincorporated area of Apple Valley shortly after noon to serve a search warrant in an identity theft case. Pusok, who was not a suspect, was in a nearby car and fled at the sight of them.

In the recording by KNBC-TV, Pusok appeared to be surrendering when one deputy kicked him in the groin and another punched him in the head. Both deputies continued to strike him and were later joined by additional deputies who pummeled him for about a minute before placing him in handcuffs.

Pusok was treated at a hospital for cuts and bruises. He received the settlement from the city several months ago, his attorney said.

The federal civil rights case is ongoing and no charges have been filed, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said Tuesday.

One of Pusok’s lawyers was outraged that more deputies were not charged and said it was preposterous there were not more counts involved.

“Each time they put their foot down they had time to think, they had time to strike him and kick him and injure him,” said James Terrell, who represents Pusok along with attorney Sharon Brunner. “Thank God for the news media capturing it on camera.” Terrell said the fact that his client chose to run that day saved him.

“If he would have surrendered, the chopper wouldn’t have caught it and I think my client would be dead today,” Terrell said.

Twitter: @PalomaEsquivel

Twitter: @CorinaKnoll


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