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Widespread Corruption in L.A. County Jails Leads to Federal Investigation, Indictments

by David M. Reutter and Rod L. Bower

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy David “Lee” Baca faces up to six months in prison after pleading guilty on February 10, 2016 to charges that he lied to federal investigators in an attempt to cover up a conspiracy to thwart an FBI probe into brutality and excessive use of force by deputies in the county’s sprawling jail system.

In a plea agreement filed in federal court, Baca admitted to twice lying about his involvement in hiding a prisoner-turned-informant from FBI agents. In fact, according to the agreement, Baca ordered the prisoner, Anthony Brown, to be moved from facility to facility under different names, and placed then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in charge of executing that plan, dubbed “Operation Pandora’s Box.”

Baca also acknowledged that he lied when he told investigators he was unaware that his subordinates planned to contact FBI Special Agent Leah Marx at her home. Deputies confronted Marx and, in an effort to intimidate her, falsely threatened her with arrest. Baca admitted that he directed the deputies to approach Marx, telling them they should “do everything but put handcuffs” on her, according to his plea agreement.

The guilty plea marks a stunning reversal for the former sheriff, who has maintained since his retirement in January 2014 that he played no role in obstructing the FBI probe – even though his employees have testified in court that he was present at key meetings where the conspiracy was planned and had, in fact, directed part of its implementation.

U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Eileen Decker told a news conference that as part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to seek a prison term of more than six months.

The plea agreement “demonstrates that the illegal behavior in the Sheriff’s Department went to the very top of this organization,” she said. “More importantly, it illustrates that those who foster and then try to hide a corrupt culture will be held accountable.”

According to federal officials, Baca lied to investigators from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office during an interview on April 12, 2013.

“When Mr. Baca was interviewed, he denied some things,” said David Bowdich, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office. “And he continued with those denials even when some in the rank-and-file were under the gun. He had the opportunity to lead, and he did not lead.”

“You know what the government is claiming you did in this case?” U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick J. Walsh asked Baca at his plea hearing.

“Yes,” the former sheriff replied.

Decker said prosecutors had been negotiating with Baca for several months, but it became clear in early February 2016 that criminal charges were imminent.

“It’s time to put this behind him,” said Baca’s attorney, Michael Zweiback. Baca “doesn’t want the men and women of the Sheriff’s Department to be under this cloud,” Zweibeck added. “He is ready for whatever outcome is deemed appropriate by the court.” See: United States v. Baca, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:16-cr-00066-PA.

Although more former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) officials face prosecution, Baca’s guilty plea signals the beginning of the end of the saga that began with a cell phone and a wad of cash surreptitiously passed to a deputy by an FBI agent in the summer of 2011.

Obstructing an FBI Investigation

The most far-reaching criminal investigation into the LASD to date grew out of a sting operation conducted by the FBI as the agency was reviewing claims of brutality and excessive use of force by deputies against prisoners. The resulting scandal continued to spiral upwards, leading eventually to Baca’s guilty plea and criminal charges filed against his former right-hand man as well as other Sheriff’s Department employees.

According to testimony presented in court, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and former Captain William “Tom” Carey, the two highest-ranking officials charged at the time, were at the center of a conspiracy to thwart the FBI investigation by illegally shuffling Brown, the prisoner-informant, to different locations under different names and various physical descriptions in order to make him inaccessible to FBI agents. Members of the Sheriff’s Department also violated the law, officials said, by going to the home of FBI agent Marx to intimidate her by threatening her with arrest.

In 2011, then-LASD deputy Gilbert Michel, 40, was sitting in his car when another vehicle pulled up and an undercover FBI agent handed him a cell phone and sunglasses case stuffed with cash. To Michel, it seemed like just another contact with a prisoner’s associate helping to smuggle contraband into the jail; he kept the money and passed the cell phone along to prisoner Anthony Brown.

Brown, who had been arrested as early as 2009 for robbing downtown L.A. banks, drug stores and restaurants, was on his third strike and serving a 423-year prison term. He was being held at the L.A. Men’s Central Jail when he agreed to become an informant for the FBI as part of the agency’s investigation into violence and excessive use of force by guards. Brown intended to use the cell phone to update the FBI about incidents he witnessed at the lock-up.

To add to the intrigue, FBI agents confronted Michel at his home a few weeks later, showing him a video of the cell phone bribe exchange. Once he had been advised that he was caught in a sting operation and that Brown was actually an FBI informant, Michel was asked by the agents to cooperate by providing information about corruption and violence involving other LASD deputies. Michel agreed.

Brown had the cell phone for less than three weeks before it was discovered and confiscated by jail staff. Under questioning, he eventually admitted that he was working as an undercover informant for the FBI and intended to gather evidence using the phone to report on abusive behavior by guards. He told LASD officials that he had used the phone to record video and take photos of unprovoked beatings of prisoners.

Once the phone was linked to the FBI, then-Sheriff Baca called an emergency Saturday meeting at LASD headquarters in August 2011. Attendees included Baca, Undersheriff Tanaka, Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau Supervisor Lt. Stephen Leavins, Captain Carey and several others.

“I remember because I was not too happy to work on a Saturday,” Leavins testified at his June 13, 2014 federal trial. During another meeting, he recalled, “Baca gave the order.... He ordered me to relocate Anthony Brown safely and approved that location to be a station jail.”

No longer able to contact Brown by cell phone, FBI agents Leah Marx and David Lam arrived at the jail on August 23, 2011 to interview him. However, Lt. Gregory Thompson, who headed up the Operation Safe Jails Program, terminated the interview and secretly transferred Brown to the facility’s medical ward.

Brown was later moved to “dark corners” of the jail; deputy James Sexton, 26, a three-year LASD veteran, was chosen to spearhead Brown’s booking under false names and descriptions due to his knowledge of the department’s booking operations.

According to Leavins’ testimony, a meeting was convened in Undersheriff Tanaka’s office to decide where Brown should be sent next. Leavins testified that those present included Baca, Tanaka, Carey and himself. It was at that meeting that Baca ordered Brown to be relocated to a jail station, Leavins told the court. He maintained that he was not involved with, but “didn’t disagree” with, a decision to book Brown under various aliases, bogus charges and phony physical descriptions to prevent the FBI from locating him.

“It was yet another layer of safety for Anthony Brown, so corrupted cops couldn’t go on a computer, find his name and arrange for some kind of intimidation or retaliation,” Leavins claimed.

While deputies Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo stood guard over Brown in the jail’s medical ward, Lt. Thompson ordered Sexton to falsify entries in the LASD database, indicating that Brown had been released. Thompson held Brown under the false name of “John Rodriguez” before transferring him to the San Dimas sheriff’s station – the LASD facility located farthest from the FBI’s downtown L.A. field office.

On August 25, 2011, a federal judge granted the FBI a writ requiring the Sheriff’s Department to surrender Brown to the U.S. Marshals Service; according to the FBI, the writ mysteriously disappeared after agents served it on LASD officials.

“Break out the smoke and mirrors. Let’s hide him,” Sexton said supervisors told him, referring to Brown. When asked by a grand jury if Brown’s rights had been violated when he was transferred from jail to jail, Sexton testified, “I don’t know about rights, I use the word kidnapping. We had him in places that we did not have the legal authority, in my opinion, to have him.”

Meanwhile at the San Dimas sheriff’s station, Brown found Sexton standing guard outside his cell to prevent any outside contact. At the same time, Leavins, Sgt. Scott Craig and Sgt. Maricella Long with the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau initiated surveillance on deputy Michel. Leavins and Craig were heard in recorded interviews attempting to convince Michel to refuse to cooperate with the FBI.

Michel admitted to smuggling the cell phone to Brown when interviewed by Sheriff’s Department investigators. He was told the FBI was blackmailing him. In the recorded interview, Craig told Michel, “we’re all part of this department and we’re all one big happy dysfunctional family, and ... they’re going to ... manipulate you like you’re a puppet? I don’t think so.”

By the end of the interview, Leavins asked Michel to consider: “What’s this all about? Open your mind up here a little bit.”

“It’s about, they’re trying to bring down the department and find information,” responded Michel. In lieu of being fired, he resigned a month later.

Sexton, acting under orders from Thompson, falsified Brown’s name in the jail database yet again, listing him under the name “Chris Johnson.” Meanwhile, Leavins testified, Sheriff Baca ordered Craig and Long to begin surveillance on FBI agents Marx and Lam, going so far as to confront Marx at her home in an effort to intimidate her.

“The sheriff instructed us to contact Marx at her residence and conduct an interview on the introduction of the cell phone,” Leavins said. During the encounter Craig lied to Marx, telling her she was a suspect in a felony complaint and threatening to obtain a warrant for her arrest.

The incident sparked a phone call a few hours later from Marx’s FBI supervisor, Special Agent Carlos Narro, to Sgt. Long at the Sheriff’s Department. Narro asked Long if Sheriff Baca knew about the arrest warrant issued for Marx, and Long affirmed that Baca was aware of the warrant. When Narro inquired what specific charges were being filed against Marx, he was told he would have to speak with Undersheriff Tanaka.

In May 2015, Tanaka and Captain Carey were charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. Carey was also charged with two counts of lying during his testimony in 2014 trials for Sexton and other defendants; he pleaded guilty on August 19, 2015 to a lesser charge of lying on the witness stand after agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors. As a result, he faces a prison term of not more than 16 months when he is sentenced later this year.

Then-acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Yonekura said in May 2015 that as head of the Sheriff’s Department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, Carey’s job was to “root out the very corruption” that he was charged with committing himself.

“[Tanaka and Carey] knew there was rampant inmate abuse” and “did not want the FBI and federal investigators to know,” Yonekura stated. According to the indictment, the defendants were well aware of “problem deputies” at LASD jails.

Leavins, Thompson, Craig, Long and deputies Mickey Manzo and Gerard Smith were all convicted, and sentenced in September 2014 on charges stemming from the conspiracy and cover-up. The six “endeavored to obstruct justice in a misguided attempt” to protect the Sheriff’s Department from outside scrutiny, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson noted.

Convicted of participating in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, Leavins was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison, while Thompson received 37 months plus a $7,500 fine. Judge Anderson sentenced Craig to 33 months, and Long and Manzo were each sentenced to two years; Smith was ordered to serve 21 months and Sexton was sentenced to 18 months.

“You don’t serve the public by using your position to conceal wrongdoing in the jails,” Judge Anderson remarked. “You don’t serve the public by hiding witnesses. You don’t serve the public by tampering with witnesses, and you don’t serve the public by threatening to arrest an FBI agent in some misguided effort to get her to reveal the details of her investigation.”

Michel, who faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2012 to accepting a bribe for smuggling the cell phone into the jail, began cooperating with the FBI and testifying against other guards. He described beating prisoners, subjecting them to rape and shooting them with Tasers without provocation. Such incidents were part of a widespread culture of corruption at the LASD that resulted in lawsuits, federal prosecutions and eventual reforms. [See: PLN, March 2013, p.1].

Michel admitted that after such incidents he would huddle with other guards to get their stories straight and write reports with bogus scenarios to justify their brutality. If a prisoner had no visible injuries, Michel testified, deputies would not write a report. Such violence could be done with impunity because the incident reports “wouldn’t go anywhere.” Michel’s sentencing hearing in federal court is scheduled for June 6, 2016.

Los Angeles Agrees to Federal Monitoring

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has submitted to the watchful eye of a federal monitor under an agreement designed to ensure that the nation’s largest jail system curbs rampant prisoner abuse and improves conditions for mentally ill detainees, who comprise an estimated 20% of the jail system’s approximately 17,000 prisoners. The agreement, reached on August 5, 2015, came as prosecutors continued to press charges against deputies and high-ranking officials stemming from years of excessive force and cover-ups.

The LASD’s jail system has been at the forefront of a two-decades-old saga of brutality, physical abuse of mentally ill prisoners, sexual misconduct, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. In the fall of 2011, both the Los Angeles Times and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued scathing reports on the overwhelming problem of excessive use of force by guards in the county’s jails.

A year later, a 200-page report issued by the L.A. County Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence – a panel comprised of 85 community leaders, legal advocates and volunteers brought together by the county’s Board of Supervisors – determined that the majority of excessive force incidents were not in response to prisoner violence.

The Commission found that “LASD personnel have used force against inmates when the force was disproportionate to the threat posed or there was no threat at all,” including against confined or restrained prisoners who purportedly “behaved in a lewd or disrespectful (but nonviolent) way.”

“In one instance,” according to the report, “an inmate was grabbed by the throat, pushed into a glass window and thrown onto the ground for smirking at deputies. Another inmate was taken to an isolated recreation area and beaten with a flashlight for insulting a deputy. In another incident, a deputy who thought an inmate mumbled something disrespectful repeatedly punched the inmate in the head and did not stop even though his sergeant yelled at him to cease.”

The report noted that “Although lewd and disrespectful behavior by inmates is unacceptable, LASD’s own policies forbid the use of force to impose discipline on inmates to remediate such behavior.”

According to the Commission’s findings, from January 2006 to December 2010, L.A. County jails recorded an average of 84 use-of-force incidents by guards each month, with 51 of those classified as “significant force” that included factors such as injury to a prisoner, potential misconduct in the application of force or “an application of force greater than a [LASD]-approved control hold, come-along, or take down.”

When the Commission reviewed disciplinary actions taken by the Sheriff’s Department, however, it found that from 2006 to 2011 only 36 out of a total of 5,630 use-of-force incidents – just 0.6% – “were deemed to be unreasonable” by the department’s internal supervisors. The Commission wrote that its findings, “when compared with the [LASD’s] determination that 99.4% of its force incidents are ‘reasonable,’ paint a picture of an inadequate investigatory and disciplinary system.”

Further, as recently as June 6, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report faulting the county’s jail system for failing to take corrective action in the handling of mentally ill prisoners.

“The department concluded that, despite progress in some areas..., the county of Los Angeles fails to provide sufficient suicide prevention practices to protect prisoners from self-harm,” the DOJ report stated. “The department also found that other serious deficiencies in the mental health care delivery system remain and combine with inadequate supervision and deplorable environmental conditions to deprive prisoners of constitutionally-required mental health care.”

“The Los Angeles County Jails have an obligation to provide conditions of confinement that do not offend the Constitution and to take reasonable measures to protect inmates from harm,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels. “Although the county has consulted with the Justice Department for years, our latest assessment reveals serious deficiencies that require further corrective action.”

A federal probe into the use of excessive force by guards and conspiracy to obstruct the FBI investigation, which led to Baca’s guilty plea, prompted criminal charges against more than 20 other Sheriff’s Department officials and deputies. At least a dozen former LASD employees have been convicted; it was in the midst of this scandal, on January 9, 2014, that Baca abruptly announced his retirement.

“I don’t see myself as part of the future” of the Sheriff’s Department, he said at the time of his announcement. “I see myself as part of the past.”

The settlement agreement establishing federal oversight over L.A. County jails created an independent monitor position to ensure that reforms are carried out; Richard E. Drooyan, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and a member of the blue-ribbon panel that was highly critical of the Sheriff’s Department’s operation of the county’s jail system, was appointed as the monitor.

In the midst of the scandal and indictments of LASD officials, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to proceed with a controversial plan to replace the violence-ridden Men’s Central Jail, as well as the overcrowded women’s jail in Lynwood. The September 1, 2015 vote came despite opposition from a host of civic leaders and the county’s newly-elected sheriff, Jim McDonnell – who argued that the proposed new 3,885-bed men’s jail would be “grossly insufficient” and lead to continued overcrowding.

New Sheriff Welcomes Oversight

McDonnell, who took over as Los Angeles County’s Sheriff in December 2014 following a landslide election victory, said he welcomed federal oversight of the jail system.

“This agreement presents an opportunity to close the book on the challenges of the past and to write a new chapter in the treatment and care of those suffering from mental illness who end up in our jails and will eventually return to our community,” McDonnell said. He added that many of the reforms required by the settlement were already underway.

The agreement calls for greater scrutiny of jail operations, as well as additional training for deputies and supervisors. Mentally ill prisoners will receive more time out of their jail cells and more frequent monitoring – just two of a wide range of reforms contained in the 58-page settlement agreement that are designed to improve conditions for mentally ill prisoners.

In the wake of the June 2014 DOJ report that decried a spike in “preventable” jail suicides, the agreement also calls for expanded training for deputies and supervisors on how to handle mentally ill prisoners, how to better identify warning signs of suicide and how to respond to prisoners who have already attempted suicide. The settlement also spells out circumstances when mentally ill prisoners may be physically restrained, where they may be housed and how often they should be checked.

Additionally, the agreement details changes in how detainees are evaluated when first booked into the jail, and how those who are believed to be seriously mentally ill are to be kept safe until they can be examined by a mental health professional. The settlement further requires that mentally ill prisoners receive a supply of any necessary medications and be provided with access to psychological services upon their release. See: United States v. County of Los Angeles, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:15-cv-05903-DDP-JEM.

In the DOJ report, federal officials criticized LASD jail cells as being “dimly lit, vermin-infested, noisy, unsanitary, cramped and crowded,” which exacerbated prisoners’ mental health problems. The report noted that some prisoners with long histories of mental illness were never assigned to mental health housing and later killed themselves. The Sheriff’s Department was faulted for failing to conduct frequent safety checks, including one case in which a mentally ill prisoner hanged himself after guards did not check on him for hours.

In the settlement, the Sheriff’s Department also agreed to revise its policies on use of force against prisoners – changes that federal officials said “should significantly reduce the use of excessive force, with added protections for use of force against prisoners with mental illness.” The agreement extends a previous use-of-force settlement reached with the ACLU for downtown L.A. jails, which will now cover the entire county jail system.

ACLU of Southern California legal director Peter Eliasberg said the settlement “thoroughly addressed many of the issues” relating to care for mentally ill prisoners, though he added the county should have improved its jails many years ago. Others were more lavish in their praise for the agreement.

U.S. Attorney Decker indicated the settlement would “usher in a new era” for L.A. County jails. “This agreement will serve as a road map for restoring public trust and confidence in the county jail system and in the dedicated public servants who work there every day to provide essential services, and ensure both the safety of the prisoners and the staff who work there,” he added.

County officials said they were pleased with the agreement and will ensure the reforms are funded, but cautioned that the agreement cannot be fully implemented until the dilapidated Men’s Central Jail is replaced with a new facility that includes space for mental health and substance abuse treatment, because the settlement includes measures related to the cleanliness of cells, pest control and removing items from cells that can be used to commit suicide.

Sheriff McDonnell noted that county officials are now under pressure to come up with the money to pay for the cost of the reforms.

“When you look at anything in the county, because of the scale of it, everything is very expensive,” he said. “When you do the cost-benefit, you can’t put a price on the humane treatment of those in our charge.”

Except, of course, you can place a price on running a humane jail system, and in the past the LASD simply hasn’t been willing to pay that price.

“We know our issues are significant in trying to reform this whole system,” said L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe. “It’s going to take more money, and we’ll have to work hard to find those dollars.” Knabe indicated the county has already spent millions of dollars fixing the jails – including providing funds to hire hundreds of additional employees.

The original ACLU settlement that was extended by the federal monitoring agreement was originally announced on December 16, 2014, and resolved a federal class-action lawsuit that alleged Baca and his top staff condoned what the civil liberties group termed “a long-standing and widespread pattern of violence and abuse by deputies” against prisoners.

“Today’s settlement is the culmination of an extraordinary campaign to bring daylight into a very dark place – the L.A. County jails,” Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said at the time. “Exposing the culture of savage abuse by deputies has been half the battle in putting an end to it – and the federal decree mandated by today’s settlement will take the parties the rest of the way towards a long-lasting and far-reaching change.”

The settlement marked the culmination of a nearly three-year lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin, two pretrial detainees who “were viciously beaten by deputies.” The suit alleged that the LASD had violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, as well as the right of pretrial detainees not to be punished prior to conviction.

Included in the milestone settlement’s provisions were elements requiring the L.A. County jail system to implement “robust policies to prevent abuse of detainees with mental illness,” as well as enhanced training for all deputies in use of force, which the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence had determined was “far below both industry best practices and training standards in other corrections systems.” The agreement also included improved methods for tracking and reviewing use-of-force incidents as well as complaints and grievances filed by prisoners.

“For decades, the sheriff’s department has run the jails without any accountability or transparency,” said Eliasberg with the ACLU of Southern California. “This agreement addresses those problems by establishing clear policies and practices the department must implement, and creating an enforcement mechanism to ensure it does.”

The settlement in the ACLU’s lawsuit was approved in April 2015, with the district court awarding $950,000 in attorney fees and costs against the county. See: Rosas v. Baca, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00428-DDP-SH.

A Long-standing, Widespread Pattern of Abuse

The FBI investigation into the “persistent pattern of unreasonable force in the Los Angeles County Jail” has thus far culminated in criminal charges against at least 21 LASD officials and a dozen convictions. While some of the convictions resulted from the conspiracy to block the FBI’s probe into jail violence, others stemmed from beatings by deputies.

In one of the most egregious cases, a federal judge imposed harsh prison sentences on two former guards who beat a visitor who was at the jail to see his incarcerated brother.

On November 30, 2015, U.S. District Court Judge George H. King sentenced deputy Sussie Ayala, 30, to six years in prison and deputy Fernando Luviano, 37, to seven years. Earlier that month, Judge King had sentenced LASD Sergeant Eric Gonzalez, 46, to an eight-year prison term. The three former deputies were among six jailers involved in the February 26, 2011 beating of Gabriel Carrillo, who had allegedly “mouthed off” to LASD staff who detained him and his girlfriend for bringing cell phones into the jail’s visitation lobby area – a misdemeanor offense.

Prosecutors alleged that the guards took Carrillo to a back room and threw him to the floor, then kicked and punched him before pepper-spraying him in the face, all while he was handcuffed. After the beating, which left Carrillo with a broken nose, bruises and cuts on his face, authorities said the deputies concocted a story which accused Carrillo of instigating the fight by trying to attack them when they uncuffed one of his hands to take fingerprints. Based on the fabricated account, Carrillo was charged with assaulting the deputies.

The charge was dropped suddenly before the case went to trial, and after years of maintaining their silence two of the deputies involved in the beating, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Neal Womack, came forward to reveal the truth – that the jailers had viciously beaten Carrillo because he “mouthed off” to them. In return for their cooperation, Zunggeemoge and Womack were spared jail time but barred from ever working in law enforcement again.

A sixth deputy no longer employed at the jail, Byron Dredd, was indicted in October 2015 and also faces charges related to Carrillo’s beating. Prior to the beating incident, Luviano had been involved in 18 use-of-force incidents within a two-year period, but had not been disciplined by the Sheriff’s Department.

“There are real consequences for the type of gross misconduct we have here,” Judge King said after sentencing Gonzalez. “It was a blatant crime, no different than one committed by a street criminal. But it was different because it was committed by a law enforcement officer.” The judge also rejected defense arguments that the beating was a one-time incident.

“It suggests it was a known course of conduct that has played out before,” he said of the quick decision by Gonzalez and the other deputies to falsify reports in an effort to cover up the beating.

 “They kept trying to portray me as a bad person,” Carrillo stated. “They were the aggressors, they were the liars, they were the criminals and for them to keep bringing it up as if I haven’t proven my innocence still ... I mean I didn’t understand it.”

Carrillo filed a civil lawsuit against Los Angeles County in federal court, and settled the case for $1.175 million in February 2014. See: Carrillo v. Zunggeemoge, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:12-cv-02609-DSF-PJW.

LASD deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez took advantage of the institutional culture of violence in the jail system when they assaulted Bret Phillips, a mentally ill prisoner, on February 11, 2009. They wrote a report stating they had used force – with Aguiar punching Phillips in the ribs while Ramirez struck him with a flashlight in the legs and elbow – after Phillips allegedly attempted to assault Aguiar. Sgt. Ernie Barbosa corroborated the account with a memo stating he saw Phillips try to kick the guards.

But one day after the incident, jail chaplain Paulino Juarez, a Catholic deacon, wrote a report saying he witnessed the guards using unnecessary and excessive force. According to Phillips’ subsequent civil rights complaint, Juarez observed “nothing to justify [Phillips] having been beaten, [he] did not resist, did not present any risk of harm.”

“He was just saying, ‘Stop, please stop, stop. I did nothing wrong,’” Juarez stated. “I felt I had witnessed a crime.”

Nonetheless, the guards’ actions were deemed appropriate by LASD supervisors. Federal prosecutors disagreed and indicted Aguiar and Ramirez for violating Phillips’ civil rights; they pleaded not guilty before being released on bond in March 2014. A jury trial was held in January 2016, and both Aguiar and Ramirez were found guilty of falsifying records. They waived their right to appeal in exchange for the dismissal of other charges, and will be sentenced in April 2016.

Meanwhile, on May 7, 2014, Phillips, represented by attorney Gloria Allred, filed suit against the Sheriff’s Department over his 2009 beating. “This county has been aware for quite a long time about the vulnerability and the needs and perhaps even the abuse at L.A. County jails of mentally impaired inmates,” Allred stated. The suit remains pending. See: Phillips v. LASD, Superior Court of Los Angeles County (CA), Case No. BC544887.

In another case, guard Jermaine W. Jackson was charged with three counts of assault by a public officer and three counts of filing a false report for attacks on prisoners in 2009, 2010 and 2011. His case was merged with that of guards Karin Ann Cring, 32, and Jayson D. Ellis, 26, who were also charged with participating in a 2010 assault.

Prosecutors allege that on New Year’s Eve in 2009, Jackson, 36, assaulted Cesar Campana, a prisoner at the Compton courthouse lockup. Then on Christmas Day 2010, Jackson allegedly kicked and injured prisoner Derek Griscavage at the Twin Towers jail in downtown L.A. In a sworn statement, Griscavage said he suffered a broken nose, black eyes, a cut to his ear, a swollen head and a chipped tooth. According to prosecutors, Jackson was also involved in a third assault in June 2011, naming Jonathan Murray, 25, a prisoner at the Twin Towers jail, as the victim.

Following an internal investigation, Jackson was charged with three counts of assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury, three counts of assault by a public officer and three counts of filing a false report. Cring was charged with filing a false report in connection with the Christmas Day incident, while Ellis was charged with assault in the same case.

Sexual Harassment Investigation

In November 2015, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office released a memo that described an investigation into allegations that a sheriff’s deputy had routinely sexually harassed and assaulted female prisoners at the courthouse where he worked as a bailiff.

According to the memo, the claims against Hermann Kreimann, Jr. were first raised by a prisoner who reported that the deputy asked her to partially undress, handcuffed her to a wall and asked her to perform oral sex after he escorted her back to a cell in the downtown courthouse. She said she complied, fearing that if she didn’t Kreimann might “put another case” on her. Afterward, she said, he promised to put $20 on her jail account.

The memo detailed how investigators tracked down other female prisoners who made similar allegations. One prisoner said Kreimann exposed himself to her in an attorney interview room and suggested that she perform oral sex, but she declined. On a separate occasion, Kreimann suggested that he would allow her to visit another prisoner if she had sex with him. The prisoner told investigators Kreimann masturbated in front of her.

Another woman said that in February 2014, Kreimann stopped her in a stairwell and fondled her. A third prisoner claimed that Kreimann asked her to show him her breasts, according to the D.A.’s memo, while a fourth told investigators she believed Kreimann was asking her to provide oral sex when he handcuffed her to a wall, stood in front of her, placed his hand on the zipper of his pants and said, “Are you ready?”

“A lot of these women are very fearful of being retaliated against,” stated Esther Lim, with the ACLU of Southern California. “It’s definitely a population that is very, very vulnerable.” She said many incarcerated women who have experienced physical or sexual abuse are unwilling to come forward to report abuse by a jailer.

Deputy L.A. District Attorney Rosa Alarcon wrote in the memo that prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges against Kreimann because the two prisoners whose testimony would provide key evidence refused to cooperate. Had they been willing to testify, Alarcon noted, “their statements would corroborate one another and would likely support a filing of criminal charges.”

The memo also indicated that DNA evidence collected from the attorney interview room was linked to Kreimann, which “at a minimum indicates that Kreimann was engaged in some form of inappropriate sexual activity while on duty as a bailiff, which also tends to bolster the accusations made by the women against him.”

Although the D.A.’s office declined to press charges against Kreimann, LASD officials launched an internal affairs investigation according to Sheriff’s Department spokesman Keith Swensson, who said department policy prohibits male deputies from being alone with female prisoners in areas with no security cameras.

“It’s out of policy for a reason, specifically to prevent things like this from happening,” Swensson said. “We would not allow female inmates to go with male deputies by themselves.... You just don’t do that.”

The sexual misconduct allegations against Kreimann are just the latest to surface against the LASD. Several years ago, a civilian watchdog group detailed more than a half-dozen investigations into sexual misconduct claims, including one deputy who was prosecuted for sex crimes involving a 16-year-old girl in the Sheriff’s Department’s Explorer Program, and another who was fired after being accused of having sex with a wheelchair-bound prisoner.

The Cost of Misconduct

With a growing number of LASD employees facing the prospect of serving time for brutalizing prisoners, the County of Los Angeles has found itself on the hook for settlements and verdicts in resultant lawsuits. The Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence reported in September 2012 that the county had paid $9.47 million over the previous 20 years as a result of such litigation.

At a November 2013 meeting, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $722,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Dion Starr, 44, a black man who was stabbed 23 times in 2006 by Latino gang members at the Men’s Central Jail. Starr, who was not affiliated with a gang, alleged the jail had failed to fix security deficiencies, leaving him in dangerous conditions at the lock-up. [See: PLN, May, 2012, p.34].

A month earlier, in October 2013, former Sheriff Baca was found personally liable by a federal jury in a case filed by prisoner Tyler Willis, who claimed he was severely beaten by jail guards. The jury awarded $100,000 in damages.

Attorney R. Samuel Paz, who represented both Starr and Willis, said in a statement that Starr’s “courage has clarified the law that high officials cannot collect their paychecks and shirk their duties to supervise. It is simply basic accountability.”

 “Sheriff Lee Baca is responsible for making sure his subordinates do not engage in unspeakable acts against inmates,” said Starr, who added that he believed his case had helped focus public attention on prisoner abuse in the LASD’s jail system.

On February 20, 2013, the Los Angeles County Attorney’s Office recommended a $475,000 settlement in a federal civil rights suit brought by a prisoner who was beaten by two jailers. Michael Holguin was being escorted by a sheriff’s deputy on October 18, 2009 when a confrontation erupted, reportedly because Holguin had been denied a shower. During the ensuing fight the deputy struck Holguin in the stomach, forced him to the ground and pepper-sprayed him; at that point, a second deputy joined in. Holguin, who was handcuffed during the beating, required stitches and suffered a broken kneecap. His suit settled in March 2013. See: Holguin v. County of Los Angeles, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:10-cv-08011-GW-PLA.

Anthony Brown, the prisoner-informant who received a cell phone from the FBI to report excessive force incidents at the jail, filed suit in federal court in March 2015 against Los Angeles County, Sheriff Baca, Tanaka, Carey and several deputies, seeking damages for cruel and unusual punishment, municipal and supervisory liability, failure to provide adequate medical care, retaliation and civil conspiracy. His lawsuit has been stayed pending the outcome of the criminal charges against the defendants. See: Brown v. County of Los Angeles, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:15-cv-02162-DDP-FFM.

Other cases against the LASD have involved prisoners who died due to inadequate medical care, including a $1.6 million settlement in August 2015 in a lawsuit filed by the family of Austin Losorelli, 23, who committed suicide at the Men’s Central Jail two years earlier. Losorelli, the son of an L.A. police lieutenant, had reported mental health problems – including hallucinations and prior suicide attempts – to jail staff, but was kept in general population and placed in a single-man cell, where he hanged himself with a sheet.

Not every member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agrees that the county should continue to pay settlements stemming from misconduct by LASD employees.

“I feel the board needs to stop enabling the Sheriff’s Department to continue to see its excessive force claims as just another cost of doing business,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who cast the only vote in opposition to settling Starr’s lawsuit.

The cost of all court settlements combined, however, pales in comparison to the estimated $2 billion cost of replacing the dilapidated Men’s Central Jail and renovating the now-vacant Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster, California into a 1,600-bed women’s facility to replace the aging women’s jail in Lynwood.

Moving Forward: New Jail, Same Old Problems?

The Board of Supervisors reaffirmed its intent to move forward with the controversial jail replacement and renovation plans despite opposition from dozens of community leaders and other concerned citizens who argued the money was being misspent.

“If our county has $2 billion to spend, we want that $2 billion to go toward the kind of work to make our communities functional and livable places for people to live so they don’t end up in the prison system,” stated community activist Kwazi Nkrumah, president of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council.

Critics instead favored the creation of a multimillion-dollar program designed to divert mentally ill offenders from incarceration, as a way of downsizing the jail system and avoiding new jail construction.

Sheriff McDonnell told the Board that “only time will tell how effective diversion will be,” and encouraged the supervisors to instead provide his department with the flexibility to accommodate 3,900 to 4,900 jail beds.

Former District Attorney Steve Cooley, now a consultant for developers planning to build a new jail in Adelanto in San Bernardino County, urged the Board of Supervisors to rent beds at the Adelanto facility in an effort to downsize the downtown Los Angeles jail.

After considering various options, however, the Board voted on September 1, 2015 to build a 3,885-bed detention facility focused on psychiatric treatment. The new jail would be smaller than recommendations by consultants, officials said, due to the expectation that at least 1,000 mentally ill offenders will be diverted to treatment programs, thereby reducing the need for more jail space.

The Board of Supervisors also reaffirmed its plan to create an Office of Diversion and Reentry intended to shift mentally ill offenders into treatment and housing programs, using $30 million in county money and potentially tens of millions more in state funds.

“I believe that diversion is the right thing to do, and it puts taxpayers’ money to much better use than incarceration,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who proposed the diversion plan along with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

With respect to the planned women’s jail, the supervisors agreed to establish a “gender-responsive advisory board.” Among the issues the board was expected to tackle was how to ease hardships for family members traveling to the northern L.A. County facility to visit prisoners.

As the county moves forward with plans to replace the Men’s Central Jail – which is viewed as critical for compliance with the federal monitoring settlement – questions remain about the fate of those still to be held responsible for decades of brutality and excessive force employed by LASD staff against prisoners.

That federal officials were considering charges against former Sheriff Lee Baca became evident when a prosecutor asked Undersheriff Tanaka at the September 2014 trial of six deputies involved in “Operation Pandora’s Box” if he was familiar with the common prosecutorial tactic of starting with low-level criminals and then going after their bosses.

Baca and Tanaka had both argued that hiding prisoner-informant Anthony Brown from FBI agents was not obstruction of justice but rather the result of a turf war between the Sheriff’s Department and the FBI, though Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox disagreed.

“This was no turf battle, this was a conspiracy,” he argued, saying LASD officials wanted to “keep the lid on [Operation] Pandora’s Box ... so nobody else knows the evils within Men’s Central Jail.”

Tanaka retired from the LASD in March 2013. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.15]. He still faces federal charges arising from the conspiracy, with a trial scheduled to start in late March 2016. His attorney, H. Dean Steward, conceded that the decision by former Sheriff’s Department Captain William Carey to cooperate with prosecutors complicates the case for his client, but he did not expect Carey to testify at Tanaka’s trial.

“Once you’ve admitted to lying on the stand, who can believe anything you say?” Steward noted. For example, he said, the version of events described in Carey’s plea agreement was “90%” accurate, but parts that implicated Tanaka as being present at certain meetings and giving orders regarding what to do with Brown were false.

However, Laurie L. Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said Carey’s knowledge of high-level deliberations at the jail could be cause for concern for Tanaka.

“Now you have someone from the higher echelons who can tell prosecutors what was happening and what people at the top did or should have done,” she observed.

Those people at the top include former Sheriff Baca, whose sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 16, 2016 and who might be called to testify against Tanaka.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department remains roiled in controversy. On October 13, 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported the sudden retirement of LASD Assistant Sheriff Michael Rothans, 53, amid an investigation into his purchase of a stolen car with an altered VIN number from a towing company that had a contract with the department. Rothans has denied any wrongdoing.

Sources: Los Angeles Times;;;;; Wall Street Journal;;;;; “Report of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence,” Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (September 2012);;

Related legal cases

United States v. Baca

United States v. County of Los Angeles

Brown v. County of Los Angeles

Rosas v. Baca

Carrillo v. Zunggeemoge

Phillips v. LASD

Holguin v. County of Los Angeles