A damning indictment
Feds accuse 18 low-level deputies over jail violence and other alleged crimes
By André Coleman 12/12/2013
This week’s federal grand jury indictment of 18 mostly low-level deputies with the county Sheriff’s Department was “disappointing but not surprising — and, in some ways, expected,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich wondered if there were more charges to come following the arrest of 16 of the 18 deputies indicted on federal charges that include civil rights violations, use of excessive force, obstruction of justice and mortgage fraud.
“While we are pleased that the United States Attorney’s Grand Jury investigation of the Sheriff’s Department is coming to an end with these 18 indictments, what we don’t know is whether this represents the tip of the iceberg or whether there will be more, including higher-ups,” Antonovich said in a statement issued shortly after Monday’s announcement in Los Angeles by US Attorney André Briotte Jr.
The US Justice Department action comes nearly two years after the filing of a civil lawsuit by the ACLU of Southern California, which alleges Sheriff Lee Baca and his top staff condoned “a longstanding, widespread pattern of violence by deputies against inmates in the Los Angeles County jails,” according to a statement issued by the ACLU.
The ACLU lawsuit in January 2012 was preceded by the formation of the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, appointed by the county Supervisors in October 2011 in response to a number of news reports on inmates being beaten up by deputies. The panel consisted of a police chief, three former federal judges and a retired state Supreme Court associate justice.
In September 2012, that board found there was a pattern of abuse of inmates by deputies and that the department lacked leadership under the command of Baca, who is running next November for a fifth term as sheriff.
Speaking at a news conference Monday, Baca said that while the indictments were not unexpected, “it is nevertheless a sad day for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.”
Baca went onto to say the department does not tolerate misconduct by 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,” the sheriff said. “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 indictment handed down Monday morning alleges deputies broke federal law in five separate cases.
In the first case, Deputies Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum are accused of violating inmates’ civil rights and making false statements in their reports. Brunsting is also charged in an assault on an inmate resulting in great bodily injury.
In the second case, Sgt. Eric Gonzalez and Deputies Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack are charged with violating civil rights violations for arresting visitors at the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in 2010 and 2011.
Perhaps the most serious charges have been levied against, Lt. Gregory Thompson, Lt. Stephen Leavins and Deputies Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo, James Sexton, Scott Craig and Maricella Long. They are accused of a broad conspiracy to obstruct justice by allegedly hiding an FBI informant who had bribed a deputy to smuggle him a cell phone. The deputies in that case allegedly moved the informant and claimed he had been released from custody after the FBI and the United States Marshals Service ordered the Sheriff’s Department to deliver him to a federal grand jury in response to an order issued by a federal judge.
In the fourth case, Deputy Richard Piquette is charged with illegally building and possessing an assault rifle.
In the final case, deputies and brothers Billy Khounthavong, Benny Khounthavong and Johnny Khounthavong are accused of conspiracy to make false statements to two banks in connection with a “buy-and-bail” mortgage fraud scheme. According to the complaint, the Khounthavongs made false statements and reports to Flagstar Bank to purchase a 3,900-square-foot residence in Corona. The mortgage ended up under water, meaning they owed substantially more than the residence was worth.
“The five cases allege a wide scope of illegal conduct,” Briotte said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “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,” Briotte continued. “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.”
The ACLU has been litigating abuse cases in the Los Angeles County Jails since the mid 1970s. In 1985, the organization was appointed monitor MCJ and other facilities that comprise the Los Angeles County jails system.
“If proven, today’s indictments by the US Attorney’s office, alleging that sheriff’s deputies, and supervisory personnel, specifically sergeants and lieutenants, attempted to thwart a federal investigation and that deputies and a sergeant were involved in repeated beatings of jail visitors and covering up those beatings, are a culmination and the epitome of a culture of abuse and corruption in the LA County Sheriff’s Department,” Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement.
“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.”
“Saying you embrace change is not enough,” Molina said of Baca, who told the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence that he would initiate all 77 of its recommendations for reform.
“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.”