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Crime & Justice

28 LA Sheriff’s officials face allegations of jail inmate abuse

A lawsuit filed by five former LA County jail inmates alleges deputies used excessive force as supervisors looked on in a 2008 incident.
A lawsuit filed by five former LA County jail inmates alleges deputies used excessive force as supervisors looked on in a 2008 incident. "Deputies kicked and punched plaintiff until he was choked into unconsciousness," the lawsuit alleges.
Courtesy Los Angeles County

Dramatic video of L.A. County sheriff’s deputies firing concussion grenades and pulling bloodied and limp inmates out of their cells at Men’s Central Jail highlight a civil trial now underway in a downtown federal courtroom. On the video, some inmates can be heard screaming in pain.

Deputies extracted prisoners “with such extreme and excessive force that eight inmates had to be hospitalized,” reads a complaint naming a sheriff’s captain, a lieutenant, three sergeants and 23 deputies allegedly involved in the August, 2008 incident.  The civil lawsuit by five inmates, which also names Los Angeles County, plays out amid a federal investigation into a possible pattern of inmate abuse at the lockup.

The inmates suffered injuries including a broken ankle, a broken vertebrae, an orbital fracture to the eye area, head trauma and seizures – all as a result of deputies allegedly hitting, kicking and kneeing them, according to the lawsuit and testimony. Deputies struck the inmates more than 100 times, the lawsuit alleges.

“I remember losing consciousness,” said plaintiff Carlos Flores. He said he opened his eyes again when deputies used a Taser gun on him. “The shock woke me up.”

One video shows paramedics treating Erick Nunez, who explained at the time that he suffered his injuries after he “slipped and fell.” In testimony, Nunez said he was afraid to say deputies had struck him.

“When you complain, you’re going to get beat up again,” he said.

The confrontation started when inmates refused to leave their cells in a protest over how deputies treated them. “I wanted to make them think twice about them putting their hands on me,” testified Juan Carlos Sanchez, who admitted he taunted deputies and refused to leave his cell.

August of 2008 was a tense time at the jail. Earlier in the month, a gang member had murdered a deputy who worked at the jail outside his Cypress Park home. He mistook the deputy for a rival.

Deputies involved in the confrontation at the jail say the use of force was necessary to remove dangerous inmates from their cells. Video shows helmeted deputies firing less-than-lethal 40-millimeter shotgun rounds and rushing through smoke into the one-man cells in the high security unit of the facility.

“The inmates in the 3100 and 3300 units are the most violent in the L.A. County Jail system,” testified Sgt. Matt Onhemus, one of the defendants in the case.

The inmates have admitted to breaking porcelain sinks and throwing jagged pieces at deputies, starting fires and flooding their cells before the clash. Many of the inmates had covered themselves with their mattresses.

“I was worried inmates had weapons,” Onhemus said. He said inmates struggled with deputies as they ordered them to “cuff up” – jail language for handcuffing prisoners.

One deputy said he saw nothing unusual in the use of force. “Nothing stands out from that day,” said deputy Andrew Lyon.

One of the last witnesses for the plaintiffs was former sheriff’s commander Robert Olmsted, who is challenging Sheriff Lee Baca in next year’s election. He has spoken out publicly about excessive use of force at the jail.

Olmsted directly oversaw Men’s Central Jail in the year-and-a-half leading up to the 2008 clash, but not at the time of the incident. He said department brass worried about the use of force and asked him to “clean things up.” He testified he became particularly concerned about Captain Daniel Cruz.

“I felt he was condoning and allowing inappropriate force to be applied,” Olmsted said.  Cruz is seen in video supervising the 2008 incident.

The defense has yet to present its case.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall has admonished the sheriff’s department for failing to turn over all videos of the incident.

“The Court finds that that fact that these videos clearly existed and are now ‘missing’ is evidence of spoliation,” Marhshall ruled. She found the sheriff’s department willingly destroyed the evidence. “Defendants violated their own video preservation policy.”

The trial is expected to last until the end of the month.