By FRED SHUSTER
City News Service
LOS ANGELES (CNS) – 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.
“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
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
The indictment alleges that an inmate identified only as “AB” was
working as an informant for the FBI in connection with a federal probe into
alleged misconduct by deputies and abuse of inmates. On Aug. 25, 2011, a
federal judge ordered the inmate — who was identified earlier by the Los
Angeles Times as Anthony Brown — to appear before a grand jury as part of the
investigation, according to the indictment.
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
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
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.
By FRED SHUSTER