A federal investigation into alleged abuses inside Los Angeles County jails came to a head today with the unsealing of indictments and charges against 18 current and former Sheriff's Department officials accused of crimes such as corruption, obstruction of justice and abuse of inmates and jail visitors.
The defendants, 16 of whom were arrested today, were named in four grand jury indictments and one criminal complaint. Several local cites rely on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and/or their facilities for law-enforcement services. Those cities include Lynwood, Cerritos, Artesia and Baldwin Park
"The five cases allege a wide scope of illegal conduct," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte said. "The investigation started by focusing on misconduct in county jails, and we uncovered examples of civil rights violations that included excessive force and unlawful arrests."
Birotte said the defendants believed they were "above the law," opting against cooperating with a federal investigation aimed at rooting out misconduct by deputies in the jails.
In one indictment, Deputies Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum are accused of assaulting a pair of inmates -- including choking one -- at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, then orchestrated the filing of phony reports to cover up the abuse.
Another indictment accuses former Sgt. Eric Gonzalez and deputies Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack of arresting or detaining five people -- including the Austrian consul general -- when they tried to visit inmates at the Men's Central Jail. The indictment alleges that Gonzalez fostered an atmosphere "that encouraged and tolerated abuses of the law, including through the use of unjustified force and unreasonable searches and seizures."
Birotte said in one case, a victim was "thrown into a refrigerator in an employee break room" and kept there for five days without being charged. He said another victim suffered a broken arm and dislocated shoulder and was left permanently disabled. The Austrian consul general and her husband, meanwhile, were handcuffed and detained at the jail, Birotte said.
"In all of these cases ... the deputes involved in the case fabricated reports designed to cover up the misconduct by deputies involved in civil rights violations," he said.
A third indictment accuses seven officials of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements in an alleged effort to interfere with the federal probe of the jails. That indictment names:
-- Lt. Stephen Leavins, who worked in a unit that investigates alleged wrongdoing by deputies;
- Sgt. Scott Craig, who worked in the unit
- Sgt. Maricella Long, who also worked in the unit
- Lt. Gregory Thompson, head of the Operation Safe Jails Program; and
- Deputies Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo and James Sexton, who all worked for Thompson
After learning of the federal probe, the defendants "knowingly conspired to corruptly influence, obstruct and impede, and endeavor to influence, obstruct and impede, the due administration of justice," the indictment alleges.
The indictment contends that after the informant's cover was blown, sheriff's officials moved him around the jail to keep him hidden from federal authorities, re-booked him using different names and even altered jail records to make it appear that he had been released.
The defendants also grilled the informant "to attempt to determine the manner and extent of the federal investigation," according to the indictment.
The indictment also alleges that Leavins, Craig and Long tried to dissuade potential witnesses from cooperating with the federal probe, unsuccessfully sought a court order to compel the FBI to provide explicit details of the jail probe and tried to intimidate an FBI agent by going to her home and threatening to arrest her.
"These incidents did not take place in a vacuum," Birotte said. "They demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized ... part of the culture."
A fourth indictment accuses Deputy Richard Piquette of illegally building and possessing an illegal assault rifle -- a Noveske Rifleworks N-4 .223-caliber rifle with a barrel length of less than 16 inches.
Birotte also unveiled a criminal complaint filed against three deputies, all brothers, who allegedly made false statements to a pair of banks in what prosecutors described as a "buy-and-bail" mortgage-fraud scheme. In what Birotte described as an off-shot of the original jails probe, Deputies Billy, Benny and Johnny Khounthavong are accused of lying to one bank to buy a 3,900- square-foot home in Corona, and lying to another bank to walk away from another home and avoid paying more than $340,000 in mortgage debt.
All of the defendants except Sexton and Gonzalez were arrested today.
"It's never a pleasant thing to arrest a fellow officer," said Bill Lewis, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office. He said the arrests "should not reflect on the department as a whole."
Sheriff's department officials had no immediate comment on the arrests and indictment, but Sheriff Lee Baca has scheduled a 3:30 p.m. news conference to discuss the case.
The issue of deputies' conduct in the jails has been a hot topic at the county Hall of Administration for the past two years.
Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman to a new position of inspector general, charged with scrutinizing the 10,000-member Sheriff's Department and authorized to conduct investigations inside troubled jails and elsewhere
Creating the office of inspector general was one of the key recommendations last year of a blue-ribbon commission that investigated allegations of violence inside the nation's largest jail system. The commission, which included several former judges and a police chief, concluded there was a pattern of excessive force by deputies in the county jails.
The panel called for an inspector general who would report to the Board of Supervisors and provide independent oversight of the Sheriff's Department, conducting its own investigations, monitoring jail conditions and reviewing the department's audits and inspections.