18 L.A. Sheriff’s Deputies Arrested by Feds

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18 current and former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies are accused of beating jail inmates and visitors, attempting to intimidate an FBI agent and other charges in the wake of an investigation of violence and corruption inside the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in five cases brought by federal authorities. Prosecutors allege a “wide scope of illegal conduct” by deputies and supervisorial officers that went beyond simply mistreating inmates. They also allege that deputies actively tried to thwart an FBI investigation. The arrests by federal authorities is the largest mass arrest of sheriff’s officials in more than twenty years and is yet another indictment of a department that has recently been accused of cronyism, ineffective screening of new hires with troublesome backgrounds and racially biased policing.

In a statement to the press, U.S. Atty. 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.  These incidents did not take place in a vacuum — in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized.  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 grand jury indictments charge two assaults on inmates and three on people who visited the jail. They also include charges that deputies conducted illegal arrests and searches of jail visitors and then wrote false reports to justify their actions.  A supervising sergeant in the visiting area of Men’s Central Jail was accused of encouraging violence and criticizing underlings “for not using force on visitors … if the visitors had supposedly ‘disrespected’” jail deputies, according to the indictment.  One incident actually involved an Austrian consular official who was trying to visit an Austrian inmate.

Sheriff Lee Baca spoke at a Monterey Park news conference as 13 deputies, three sergeants and two lieutenants were being arraigned at the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles:

“Please know that I respect the criminal justice system and no one is above the law… 99.9% of our employees are on the right track…. There is no institutional problem within the Sheriff’s Department when it comes to correcting itself.”

But some people disagree with Baca’s view that the problem is not systemic.  Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said:

“The federal indictments today … suggest the entire tree may be rotten.”

Some of the officers named in the indictments are Sgt. Eric Gonzalez and Deputies Sussie Ayala, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge, Noel Womack, Richard Piquette  and three brothers, Billy, Benny and Johnny Khounthavong.

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