A federal grand jury has indicted two more L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputies as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the county jail system. Deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez are accused of repeatedly beating an inmate in February of 2009.
The indictment alleges: “Defendants Aguiar and Ramirez, along with other known and unknown to the Grand Jury, would strike; kick; use Freeze +P spray...also known as pepper spray; strike with a flashlight; and otherwise physically assault victim-inmate BP without justification.”
The indictment also accuses the deputies of trying to conceal their conduct by falsely claiming the inmate had assaulted them.
A volunteer jail chaplain who says he witnessed the alleged beating confirmed to KPCC on Friday that he was interviewed by federal authorities about the case.
The account of that chaplain, Paulino Juarez, was cited in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2012 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The lawsuit accused then-Sheriff Lee Baca of failing to stop a “pattern and practice of deputy-on-inmate violence” inside L.A. County jails.
"I see these three deputies beating this person, an African American,” Juarez told the ACLU in a video. “I never see his hands trying to protect himself. He was just saying, ‘Stop, please stop.’"
Juarez said he witnessed several violent incidents, but this beating was particularly disturbing.
"I saw the body lying on the floor with blood around his neck, the shoulders,” he said.
The inmate at the center of the alleged beating is identified in a Los Angeles District Attorney's Office memo as Brett Phillips. According to the memo, four deputies "wrote incident reports justifying the use of force based upon Phillips' attempt to assault Deputy Aguiar and continued resistance of three other deputies."
The memo says according to their reports, "Deputies Aguiar and Ramirez punched Phillips 5-8 times in the rib area. Ramirez struck him 2-3 times on the leg and elbow with a flashlight."
Sergeant Ernie Barbosa "corroborated the deputies by stating that he observed the inmate attempt to kick them."
After the incident occurred in February, 2009, it remained under wraps until September of 2011 when the ACLU filed a declaration that included Juarez's statements. One week later the Sheriff's Department began an investigation. By the time the investigation was completed and the case was submitted to the District Attorney's office in January, 2013, the statute of limitations had passed, precluding the D.A. from pressing charges.
Juarez told the ACLU that he wrote a report of the incident, which he gave to a sheriff's sergeant and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. According to an ACLU report on the incident, "two years passed before [Juarez] heard anything from the [Sheriff's Department] about the beating."
In a meeting between archdiocese employees and the Office of Independent Review, the report says "Chaplain Juarez was told that the case had been resolved internally and that news of the beating had never reached Sheriff Lee Baca."
At a later meeting with the sheriff, the report says, "Sheriff Baca told Chaplain Juarez that the report Chaplain Juarez had written and delivered to the LASD was not included in the LASD's file on the incident. The file that Sheriff Baca read aloud from described Chaplain Juarez as 'exaggerating the details of the beating.'"
Soon after the incident, the alleged beating victim was referred to the D.A. for possible prosecution on misdemeanor battery upon an officer and emergency personnel, but the District Attorney quickly rejected the case.
Aguiar, 26, and Ramirez, 38, are being relieved of duty without pay, according to the sheriff's department.
In a statement issued Friday, the ACLU of Southern California said, "Many civilian witnesses gave accounts of the horrific beatings they saw, yet this jail system afforded sheriff’s deputies complete impunity for their using unnecessary and brutal force."
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said this case illustrates "how bad it was" in the jail system in 2009.
"I think improvements have been made, but it was horrible," Eliasberg said.
Interim Los Angeles County Sheriff John Scott issued a statement that said: “As I stated when I took office last week, my number one priority is to ensure that the Department continues the substantial progress it has made in reforming and improving our jail system and culture. Although today’s indictment should not be taken as a reflection of the outstanding work that the overwhelming majority of deputies perform every day, it does underscore that everyone in this Department should and will be held accountable for their actions. Abuse of authority will not be tolerated.”
In December, the grand jury indicted 18 current or former Sheriff’s deputies on civil rights and corruption charges. Thirteen of those deputies allegedly beat jail inmates or visitors, failed to report such beatings, or were involved in a scheme to block the FBI investigation into L.A. County jails.
The other deputies allegedly were involved in misconduct outside the jails. The highest-ranking official to be charged is a lieutenant. All have pleaded not guilty.
The ongoing FBI investigation into the jails is one reason Baca resigned last month. He was up for re-election this year.
"The reasons for doing so are so many," Baca said at the time. "Some are most personal and private, but the prevailing one is the negative perception this upcoming campaign has brought to the exemplary service provided to the men and women of the Sheriff's Department."
The Citizens Commission on Jail Violence issued a report in 2012 that blamed Baca and his then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka for a “persistent pattern of unreasonable force” by Sheriff’s deputies against inmates that “dates back many years.”
According to the report: “Both Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff [Paul] Tanaka have, in different ways, enabled or failed to remediate overly aggressive deputy behavior as well as lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct.”
Tanaka did not oversee the jails at the time of the February, 2009 incident.
He retired from the department last year and is now a candidate for sheriff. There are six other candidates, including Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, current Assistant Sheriffs James Hellmold and Todd Rogers, former Commander Bob Olmsted, former Lieutenant Patrick Gomez and LAPD Sgt. Lou Vince.