Originally published on January 8, 2014, at WeAreChange.org
In an effort to expose police corruption, 18 Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies have been charged with various reports of inmate abuse, assaulting visitors, obstructing an FBI investigation, and threatening an FBI agent.
While investigating claims of Sheriff’s Deputies using excessive force on inmates and smuggling contraband into jail in exchange for bribes, an FBI informant allegedly paid Deputy Gilbert Michel to smuggle a cell phone into the jail.
After terminating an interview with the informant and FBI agents, Lieutenant Gregory Thompson, who oversaw Operation Safe Jails Program and its Jail Investigations Unit, secretly transferred the FBI informant to a cell in the medical ward. The indictment stated Deputies Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo carried out the orders and stood guard over the FBI informant while Lt. Thompson falsified entries into the database claiming he had been released. Instead, Lt. Thompson held the FBI informant under the false name “John Rodriguez” before transferring him to the San Dimas station.
Upon his arrival at the San Dimas station, the FBI informant found Deputy James Sexton standing guard outside his cell preventing any outside contact. Meanwhile, Lt. Stephen Leavins, Sgt. Scott Craig, and Sgt. Maricella Long of the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau allegedly began conducting surveillance on Deputy Michel. According to testimony, Leavins and Craig attempted to coerce Michel into refusing to cooperate with the FBI investigation.
As Lt. Thompson reportedly falsified the informant’s name in the database to “Chris Johnson”, Sergeants Craig and Long began conducting surveillance on an FBI Special Agent referred to as “LM” in court documents. Craig and Long confronted Special Agent LM at her house in an effort to intimidate her. Sgt. Craig threatened to obtain a warrant for her arrest in a false felony complaint.
Another indictment accused Sgt. Eric Gonzalez, the visiting center supervisor at the Men’s Central Jail, of ordering his deputies to beat and illegally detain visitors. In one instance, an Austrian consulate official and her husband were improperly arrested while visiting a prisoner who was an Austrian national. The indictment stated she had committed no crime and would have been immune to prosecution.
In another incident, Gabriel Carrillo was arrested while attempting to visit his incarcerated brother. According to statements, Carrillo was handcuffed, taken to a break room, assaulted and pepper sprayed in the face by Deputies Sussie Ayala, Noel Womack, and Pantamitr Zunggeemoge. The deputies gave false testimonies and misleading reports to charge Carrillo with battery, but prosecutors dropped the case. Deputy Fernando Luviano was also charged in that incident.
Deputy Bryan Brunsting was accused of assaulting inmates and using his trainees to falsify reports. While supervising a rookie, Brunsting ordered him to beat a mentally ill inmate and cover up the incident. The rookie was later contacted by FBI agents. Deputy Jason Branum was also charged with assaulting a prisoner along with Brunsting.
In other cases, Deputy Richard Piquette was charged with possessing and illegally modifying an assault rifle. Deputies Benny, Billy, and Johnny Khounthavong were charged with conspiracy to make false statements in a mortgage fraud scheme. The three brothers avoided more than $340,000 of unpaid mortgage debt.
All have been released on bond.
“These incidents did not take place in a vacuum – in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized,” US Attorney Andre Birotte, Jr. said in a statement. “Some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law.”
“99.9% of our employees are on the right track,” defended Sheriff Lee Baca. “There is no institutional problem with the Sheriff’s Department when it comes to correcting itself.”
Retired sheriff’s Commander Bob Olmsted stated he tried several times to report abuses and misconduct at Men’s Central Jail to his superiors, but they repeatedly ignored him.
“I knew I had to act,” admitted Olmsted, “And as a result, I notified the FBI of the department’s culture and acceptance of excessive force, inmate abuse, sheriff’s gangs, and corruption.”
Olmsted was planning to run against incumbent Sheriff Baca in this year’s election, but Sheriff Baca suddenly announced his resignation at the end of this month.