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Brutality Behind the Orange Curtain

by W. Wisely

The FBI began its second civil rights investigation of the Orange County, California, sheriff's department following the beating of a diabetic prisoner asking for food to lower his blood sugar. Michael Gennaco, head of the civil rights division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times about the investigation into the October, 1999, incident which left John Kenneth Lolli with two broken ribs and other injuries.

Jonathan Slipp, the Newport Beach attorney representing Lolli in his civil rights lawsuit, told the Times , "He had a huge knot on his forehead. His scalp was cut. He lost hearing in one ear. All of this because he's diabetic and asked for food." According to the lawsuit, Lolli was arrested October 6, 1999, in Brea for failure to appear in court for a traffic ticket.

Booked into the Orange County jail, Lolli told sheriff's deputies he was diabetic and needed to eat or his blood sugar would drop too low. After being ignored for several hours, Lolli felt dizzy and again asked for food, but a deputy said, "What do you think this is, the Holiday Inn?"

After a short argument, Lolli was yanked from a booking cell by four deputies, thrown to the concrete floor, then kicked and beaten for several minutes. When they were done, deputies dragged Lolli to another cell. He received no medical care.

"He was in bad shape," Lauren Allee, Lolli's sister, said, when she picked him up the next day, "Most of the marks to his body were on the back of his body, which shows he was not fighting with the deputies." A short, badly focused video from the jail only showed several deputies struggling with someone on the floor.

A pattern of brutality, perhaps going back decades, is emerging as official scrutiny is turned on the Orange County jail. In March, 2001, Gennaco's office began an investigation of the June, 1999, beating death of a man arrested for drunk driving. And another case may become the keystone for increased civil damage awards against the sheriff's department because their own probe concluded that jail staff repeatedly punched and kicked Leonard Mendez on January 24, 1997.

Mendez, a 29 year-old laborer, wound up in the county jail for failure to pay a fine. According to records obtained by the Times , Mendez was held and punched by two jail clothing room staff because he asked them to put his prized Mighty Ducks jacket in a plastic bag with the rest of his property. Domingo Castro and Arnulfo Quintans called deputies, who put Mendez in a holding tank.

Next, using a method all too familiar to people held in Orange County jail, deputies told everyone but Mendez to leave the area. Four or five deputies came in, knocked Mendez to the cell floor, then beat and kicked him for several minutes.

What makes the Mendez case different is that the sheriff's department's own investigation found brutality. Mendez received $95,000 from the county to settle the lawsuit before trial. Costa and Quintans pled guilty to misdemeanor assault charges. Two of the four deputies identified on videotape entering the area where Mendez was beaten resigned without explanation.

The other two, Rick Baum and Joshua Beeney, both frequently named in other prisoner beatings, refused to cooperate with detectives and remain at the jail.

Slipp said the Mendez case, and dozens of other incidents, "shows that excessive force is ... used to control and intimidate the [prisoner] population." In addition to Lolli, Slipp represents 12 current or former prisoners beaten by deputies. The county is named in 20 civil rights suits alleging the use of brutality at the jail.

In the home of John Wayne, John Birch, Disneyland, the American Nazi Party and Richard Nixon, civil rights aren't a high priority. "The deputies have a real attitude at the jail," said a law school graduate who declined to be identified. The former ACLU investigator who interviewed hundreds of Orange County jail prisoners about abuse noted, "The deputies think they're above the law." A jail spokesman said the department does not tolerate brutality and their Mendez investigation proves it. Maybe the FBI investigations and private lawsuits will change business as usual behind the Orange Curtain.

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