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Three Whistleblower Claims Filed Over Leaked Video of LA Deputy Kneeling on Detainee’s Head, Sheriff Forced to Walk Back Threats Against Reporter

By Chuck Sharman

On April 26, 2022, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva walked back comments made at a press conference hours earlier, when he suggested a journalist was under investigation for covering a leaked video showing one of his deputies kneeling on a restrained detainee’s head.

“All parties to the [leak] are subject to investigation,” Villanueva said at the press conference, where he stood next to a blown-up photo of the Los Angeles Times reporter who broke the story published the day before, Alene Tchekmedyian.

The video in question was made at the county courthouse on March 10, 2021, capturing a detainee from the county jail, murder suspect Enzo Escalante, as he took a swing at a deputy escorting him, Douglas Johnson. Three other deputies then swarmed Escalante to take him down and handcuff him. But once he was restrained, Tchekmedyian reported, the video showed Johnson kept his knee on Escalante’s head for more than three minutes, leading to a public outcry against the apparent excessive use of force.

Escalante, 24, was treated at a hospital for minor injuries and released. With the aid of attorney Stephen Yagman of Yagman and Reichmann LLP in Venice Beach, he filed a civil rights lawsuit over the incident in federal court for the Central District of California on April 19, 2022. See: Escalante v. Villanueva, USDC (C.D.Calif.), Case No. 2:22-cv-02590.

Nine days later, on April 28, 2022, Tchekmedyian reported a whistleblower claim filed in advance of a lawsuit by Cmdr. Allen Castellano, who directly contradicted Villanueva’s public statements that he didn’t learn of the incident involving Escalante for many months. Castellano’s suit says the Sheriff knew within five days and decided to cover up the news by preventing assault charges from being filed against Escalante, so that his attorney wouldn’t uncover the video during discovery before trial.

That same day, another whistleblower claim was filed by former Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon, who said she was forced to retire after clashing with Villanueva over his alleged coverup of the video, which she claims she watched with the Sheriff in the days immediately following the incident.

Then on May 4, 2022, a third whistleblower came forward, former Chief Lajuana Haselrig, who filed a claim accusing the Sheriff of growing so “desperate and panicked for a cover story” that he “turned around and illegally fabricated” allegations that she and Limon were responsible for the video’s coverup, a charge for which Haselrig was then demoted several ranks to Lieutenant.

Castellano, Limon and Hasdelrig are represented by attorney Vincent Miller and two other lawyers with his Encino firm, Michael Miller and Nick Sage.

As for Tchekmedyian, she is apparently off the hook with the Sheriff. Hours after the press conference at which he threatened her, Villanueva tweeted that he had been the victim of “a frenzy of misinformation,” insisting his office has “no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters.”

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s finger-pointing found a new target on May 6, 2022, when he took aim at county District Attorney George Gascon, in whose office Villanueva said a case his deputies have carefully prepared frequently “all falls apart.” 

Though homicides are down in the county almost 38% in 2022, robberies and aggravated assaults have risen 11%, leading to a petition for Gascon’s recall that has collected 400,000 of 567,000 signatures it needs by July 6, 2022. 

Additional sources: KTTV, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Times, New York Post

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