Politics, government and public life for Southern California

18 current or former LA Sheriff officers charged in jail abuse case (update)

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The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday unsealed five cases that charge 18 current or former members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department with a wide range of crimes — 38 charges in all.

Update 5:24 p.m.: LA County Supervisor Molina reacts to LASD charges 

LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina released the following statement Monday:

This morning’s Department of Justice arrests are disappointing but not surprising – and, in some ways, expected.  These arrests reveal that Sheriff Lee Baca’s claim “there is no institutional problem within the Sheriff’s Department when it comes to correcting itself” is untrue – especially since 18 current or former Sheriff’s Deputies were arrested.  Saying you embrace change is not enough.  Reform starts at the top, and strong leaders don’t simply embrace reform – they initiate it.  Unfortunately, strong management has been absent from the Sheriff’s Department for years.  These indictments taint Los Angeles County and the many hard-working, honest, and dedicated Sheriff’s Deputies of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

RELATED: Sheriff's indictments: Can Baca survive latest challenge facing his department?

Update 5:07 p.m.: LA County Supervisor Ridley-Thomas reacts to LASD charges

LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas released the following statement Monday afternoon:

When those who are sworn to protect the public violate their oath, our system has failed and public confidence in law enforcement erodes.  The arrests this morning of several Sheriff’s Department officials for alleged criminal conduct at the Los Angeles County jails are the most serious response to date in an ongoing investigation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.  The indictments speak to a culture of unlawful behavior within the department that must end.

Undoubtedly, some strides have been made to increase accountability with the implementation of the recommendations by the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, as well as the appointment of Inspector General Max Huntsman and the departure of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.  However, it is clear that structural reform of the Sheriff’s Department is necessary in order to address a culture that tolerates, at best, and promotes at worst, abuse and corruption.  Full reform will not occur until a permanent Sheriff’s Department Oversight Commission is created.  Consistent public vigilance, coupled with strong leadership, is the only way to ensure that the policing of the department is an ongoing process and that respect for the law and transparency will prevail.  

Update 3:56 p.m.: Sheriff Lee Baca addresses LASD charges

LASD Sheriff Lee Baca said the following at a press conference Monday afternoon:

The announcement of the F.B.I. arrests of 17 sworn members of the Sheriff’s Department occurred with the cooperation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. While the indictments were not unexpected, it is nevertheless, a sad day for this department. We do not tolerate misconduct by any deputies. This department is grounded in its core values, namely to honorably perform our duties with respect for the dignity of all people, and integrity to do right and fight wrongs. We have cooperated fully with the federal investigation, and will continue to do so.

Please know that I respect the criminal justice system. No one is above the law. 

The FBI said 16 were arrested; it's not clear why Baca offered a different figure.

From KPCC's Rina Palta

Previously: One indictment charges two lieutenants and five deputies with conspiracy to obstruct a federal investigation looking into misconduct at Men's Central Jail. Among the allegations in the indictment:

  • Defendants hid an FBI informant who was tasked with assisting in the federal investigation of the jails by moving the inmate from jail to jail. 
  • Defendants allegedly doctored records to make it look like the inmate had been released from jail and told him he'd been abandoned by the FBI.

Three defendants — Stephen Leavins, Scott Craig and Maricella Long — allegedly petitioned the L.A. Superior Court for an order that would give them the FBI's investigative records involving the jails, and they also allegedly confronted an FBI agent involved in the investigation outside her home and falsely told her she was about to be arrested.

Another defendant in that case, James Sexton, filed a lawsuit last month (see below), along with former deputy Michael Rathbun, claiming they were ordered by other sheriff’s personnel to hide the FBI informant. Both claim they believe Sheriff Lee Baca and former undersheriff Paul Tanaka knew about the order.

When the deputies complained about various problems within the jail, they say they were retaliated against. Rathbun was fired last summer after receiving a misdemeanor DUI; Sexton is still employed but claims he’s been passed over for other assignments, has been subjected to multiple drug tests, and recently had his computer seized and his timecards audited by LASD personnel. 

According to the lawsuit, Rathbun and Sexton testified before a federal grand jury in August, 2012.  A few months later, according to the lawsuit, a fellow deputy cornered  Sexton and said he and Rathbun would “answer” for their grand jury testimony. This fellow deputy also indicated Sexton and Rathbun would be  physically harmed if they continued to cooperate with law enforcement and/or the media, according to the suit. 

Another indictment charges unjustified beatings and detainment of jail inmates and visitors at downtown Los Angeles jail facilities. In one incident involving deputy Sussie Ayala, the Austrian consul general and her husband allegedly were handcuffed and detained. They were visiting an Austrian citizen who was an inmate in the jail. (The Austrian consulate in L.A. said Monday its employee who was detained was actually a consul, one level below the consul general.) 

The same set of deputies, led by Sgt. Eric Gonzalez, allegedly participated in other incidents in which visitors were detained, beaten, arrested and never charged with crimes.

Federal authorities released the information after 16 of the defendants were taken into custody on Monday. The two not in custody have been in contact with investigators and are not considered fugitives. 

Baca held a press conference outside LASD headquarters in Monterey Park Monday afternoon, saying it was "a sad day" for the department. Baca said the department has fully cooperated with the federal investigation and would continue to do so. He also said the defendants who are still with the department would be suspended. 

The indictments come about 18 months after a blue ribbon commission investigated conditions and practices at the jails. Both Baca and his former deputy, Tanaka, were strongly criticized in the process.

The commission's final report, issued in September of 2012, said “Both Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff [Paul] Tanaka have, in different ways, enabled or failed to remediate overly aggressive deputy behavior as well as lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct.” 

Neither Baca not Tanaka were named in Monday's indictments. Tanaka retired from the department this year and is challenging Baca in next year's election for sheriff. Another former Sheriff's Department commander, Robert Olmsted, is also running. Olmsted appeared before the blue ribbon commission, providing damning testimony about Baca and Tanaka. 

Tanaka was once in charge of the jails and Baca has said his former deputy shares the blame for any misconduct that may have occurred there. Tanaka declined to comment on Monday.

During a press conference Monday afternoon, United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. said:

“The five cases allege a wide scope of illegal conduct. This investigation started by focusing on misconduct in county jails, and we uncovered examples of civil rights violations that included excessive force and unlawful arrests. Our investigation also found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum – in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized. The pattern of activity alleged in the obstruction of justice case shows how some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law. Instead of cooperating with the federal investigation to ensure that corrupt law enforcement officers would be brought to justice, the defendants in this case are accused of taking affirmative steps designed to ensure that light would not shine on illegal conduct that violated basic constitutional rights.”

Court documents show one investigation involved trying to see if a deputy would accept a bribe to provide the inmate with a cell phone.

The five cases announced Monday are part of an ongoing investigation being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Of the 18 defendants, 14 currently work for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, two are on leave and two no longer work for the department. 

The Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has long complained about practices at the jails, issued a statement Monday that said, in part: "Sheriff Lee Baca and department officials have said repeatedly that excessive force was the fault of ‘a few bad apples.’ The federal indictments today, coupled with the findings of the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence and numerous juries that a number of high level sheriff’s officials are also responsible, suggest the entire tree may be rotten." 

When the Los Angeles Times posted its first story Monday morning about the arrests, the web page included a Google ad for Tanaka's campaign. Google uses an algorithm that places ads based on the habits of readers.

Baca is scheduled to have a campaign fundraiser Monday night. Co-chairs of the event include former California Governor Gray Davis, former City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, and prominent defense attorney Mark Geragos.

List of cases and information from U.S. Attorney's office press release:

United States v. Brunsting and Branum
Two deputy sheriffs – Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum – are charged in a six-count indictment with civil rights violations and making false statements in reports. Brunsting, who was a training officer, is charged in relation to an incident in which an inmate allegedly was assaulted and suffered bodily injury. The victims were inmates at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where both deputies worked. Following the two incidents, the indictment alleges that Brunsting used deputies he was training to file reports that covered up the abuse. 

United States v. Gonzalez, et al.
This indictment charges a sergeant and four deputies with civil rights violations that allege they arrested or detained five victims when they arrived to visit inmates at the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in 2010 and 2011. In one incident, a man suffered a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder that has left him permanently disabled. In another incident, the Austrian consul general and her husband were handcuffed and detained.

United States v. Thompson, et al.
This six-count indictment that alleges a broad conspiracy to obstruct justice charges seven sworn members of the LASD. This case developed when deputies assigned to the Men’s Central Jail – including Lieutenant Gregory Thompson, who oversaw LASD’s Operation Safe Jails Program, and Lieutenant Stephen Leavins, who was assigned to the LASD’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau – learned that an inmate was an FBI informant and was acting as a cooperator in the FBI’s corruption and civil rights investigation. 

United States v. Piquette
Deputy Richard Piquette is charged in the fourth indictment with illegally building and possessing an assault rifle. The indictment charges Piquette with possessing an unregistered Noveske Rifleworks N-4 .223 caliber rifle with a barrel length of less than 16 inches. The second count in the indictment charges Piquette with manufacturing the Noveske rifle. Piquette, who is currently on leave with LASD, was previously assigned to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. The investigation in this case was conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

United States v. Khounthavong, et al.,
This is a criminal complaint that charges three LASD deputies – Billy Khounthavong, Benny Khounthavong, and Johnny Khounthavong – with make false statements and reports to Flagstar Bank to purchase a 3,900-square-foot residence in Corona. The brothers allegedly then made additional false statements and reports to Bank of America in relation to another large residence they owned. The brothers walked away from – or “bailed” on – that home in which they were “under water,” meaning they owed substantially more than the residence was worth. As a result of the scheme, the brothers allegedly avoided more than $340,000 of unpaid mortgage debt.

Read the indictments: 






Gage lawsuit


With contributions from Oscar Garza, Michelle Lanz, and Karen Foshay

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