IT NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE
As most readers are aware, a seven-woman five-man jury deliberated for just about four hours last Wednesday before finding former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sergeant Eric Gonzalez, and LASD deputies Sussie Ayala and Fernando Luviano guilty of a string of civil rights abuses for delivering a vicious beating to jail visitor Gabriel Carrillo, then conspiring to falsify criminal charges against Carrillo in order to cover up the abuse.
In order to arrive at their verdict, the jury was appropriately only exposed to the facts and testimony having directly to do, or leading up to, that beating and phony report writing.
As a consequence, when defense attorney Joseph Avrahamy said multiple times in his closing arguments, “This has never happened before!”— meaning, one assumed, that the beating of someone for no reason in the jail or its visiting center, and the falsifying of charges to cover for such a beating, was all quite anomalous—the jury had no way of knowing that the statement was extravagantly untrue.
“Someone just mouthing off would never cause [these deputies] to use excessive force,” continued attorney Avrahamy. “Why would these deputies and their sergeant risk their careers and criminal charges by beating up a suspect and falsifying reports?”
Why, indeed? Well, perhaps it was because the defendants felt, quite rightly, that they were not risking much of anything—which would almost surely have been the case had the feds not stepped in. The truth was, in February 2011, when the beating of Gabriel Carrillo occurred, jail personal who engaged in such behavior were very, very unlikely to be held even the tiniest bit accountable for their actions.
This sad fact was documented in detail in such quarters as the department’s own internal reports, by testimony of department supervisors at the public hearings held by the Citizens Commission for Jail Violence, in the CCJV’s scathing final report– and in WitnessLA’s own reporting.
In answer to the spurious claim that “this has never happened before,” there are myriad accounts of similarly senseless beatings having taken place in the county’s jail system, often accompanied by the fabrication of charges against the beating victims to cover the brutality.
The ACLU’s massive class action suit, Rosas v. Baca, featured 70 signed declarations by victims of—or witnesses to—such incidents. The abuse described in the declarations was deemed credible enough that it forced a landmark settlement that was approved by the LA County board of supervisors last December, and then given final approval in April 2015 by U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson. (The settlement, just to remind you, was not for money, but to force a system of jail oversight that is intended to help prevent such incidents from happening in the future.)
Moreover, the name of Fernando Luviano, one of the just-convicted defendants, is featured prominently in several of the Rosas declarations, plus in the accounts of still other former inmates who were not part of the lawsuit.
At WLA we have read declarations by eight different former jail inmates, some of them also witnesses, who described beatings, pepper spraying, outsized threats of retaliation, and similar actions in which Luviano allegedly took part. In the majority of cases, he was the main player, or at least one of them.
This spring I spoke to one of the Rosas victims, a 35-year-old named Michael Hoguin, who works for a car auction company. Holguin explained how he was badly beaten in 2009 by several deputies, Luviano prominently among them.
Holguin was, at the time, in jail on a charge of possessing an illegal weapon—-namely a cop baton, which was inside the compartment on his motorcycle, where he’d reportedly stashed it, then forgotten about it.
According to Holguin’s civil complaint, in October of 2009, he and the other inmates of the 3500 unit of Men’s Central Jail, where Holguin was housed, had not been allowed showers for more than two weeks. “We had to bird-bath out of the sinks in our cells,” Holguin told me.
On October 18, however, along with others in his unit, he was finally let out of his cell for a shower. “It was odd cells one day, even cells the next day,” he said. But, after he was moved toward the shower area, at the last minute, Holguin was informed that he would not be allowed a shower after all. When Holguin asked why and protested that we wanted his scheduled shower, Luviano reportedly replied, “Turn around and I’ll tell you why.” At this point Holguin was handcuffed with his hands behind his back, then moved to a “nearby area,” where he was allegedly beaten severely, kicked, slammed repeatedly in the head and body with a hard object, presumably a flashlight, while the deputy chanted the requisite “stop resisting,” over and over, even long after inmate Holguin had been knocked—still handcuffed—to the ground.
“But I wasn’t struggling, except to kind of brace myself for the blows,” he said. “I was mostly trying to curl myself into a fetal position.”
At some point two other deputies reportedly joined in, spraying Holguin with a long stream of pepper spray. Then Luviano allegedly rubbed the spray in Holguin’s closed eyes, a description that now sounds creepily similar to Luviano’s close range and entirely punitive and gratuitous spraying of the handcuffed Gabriel Carrillo, who by then had open wounds on his face.
Although he declines to disclose the dollar amount, Holguin has already won what is thought to be a decent sized sum of money in the settlement of a civil suit against the county that concluded in the fall of 2013.
According to the diagrammatic record made by LASD’s Medical Services (see above), Holguin suffered extensive cuts and bruising requiring seven staples in the center of his scalp, plus four stitches over his right eyebrow. His knee was deeply lacerated, his tibia was broken in two places requiring a “short leg cast.”
But, again, Holguin’s report is only one of eight we read. There are also declarations by Robert Dragusica (2009), Antonio Candelario (2010), William Littlejohn (2011), Jonathan Goodwin (2011), Alex Rosas (2011), Jabaar Thomas (2011), and Arturo Fernandez (2011)—all naming Luviano.
And, yet, despite these reports, at least two of which have resulted in high ticket civil settlements, when Luviano was convicted by the jury last week, incredibly he was still employed by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (albeit relieved of duty, as was required once he had been indicted).
THE DAN CRUZ FACTOR
Part of the reason that department members like Gonzalez, Luviano, and Ayala were so rarely disciplined for excessive uses of force in Men’s Central Jail can be laid at the feet of Dan Cruz, the man who was the captain of Men’s Central jail from April 2008 until December of 2010—in other words, during the years immediately before Gonzalez, Luviano, Ayala and three other deputies pounded and pepper sprayed Carrillo on February 26, 2011.
During his tenure as captain, Cruz—and those below him—okayed questionable uses of force after only the most cursory review. As a consequence, during the first year of Cruz’s watch, force jumped from 273 to 330 incidents. Concerned about the spiking numbers, Cruz’s direct supervisor, then-commander Robert Olmsted, asked one of his lieutenants, Steven Smith, to randomly pull 30 force reports and then to start looking for some commonality.
When a stunned Smith came back, he told Olmsted that, out of the 30 randomly yanked force reports, all of which had been approved by higher-ups as essentially fine, he found that 18 were clearly out of policy. In other words, nearly two-thirds of the sampling of force reports that had been approved by supervisors—in some cases as high up as Cruz—had something obviously wrong with them.
What Olmsted didn’t know at the time was the fact that the bad approvals were not the worst of the matter. It turned out that, even more alarmingly, in many instances neither Cruz nor anyone else ever reviewed the force cases at all. Instead, he buried the force reports in drawers or on shelves until the year-long statue of limitations expired, and the reports were useless.
This report burying finally became very public when now-captain, then-lieutenant Michael Bornman testified before the Citizen’s Commission for Jail Violence and described what he found when he was transferred into MCJ to work under Cruz.
Here’s a relevant excerpt from the CCJV’s report:
The most disturbing examples of a systemic breakdown occurred at MCJ in 2010 when LASD Lieutenant Michael Bornman analyzed approximately 100 unprocessed and incomplete use of force reports spanning several years that had not been entered into the Department’s data tracking systems. As Bornman acknowledged in testimony before the Commission (discussed in greater detail in the Discipline Chapter), dozens of use of force cases were deemed unfounded years after the fact to simply close cases that had missing files, no witness statements, missing video tapes, and incomplete information upon which to assess deputy performance.
When Bornman tried to question all the deep-sixed reports, he said he was told to back off, that then-assistant sheriff Paul Tanaka, who was the man who had put Cruz in as captain, had no problem with what his protege was doing.
Here a clip from WLA’s 2012 story by Matt Fleischer regarding what Bornman told the CCJV:
Bornman testified that despite having three immediate supervisors in the chain of command between Cruz and Paul Tanaka—Commander Olmsted, Chief Dennis Burns and the assistant sheriff in charge of custody, Marvin Cavanaugh—bizarrely Cruz felt he needed to be accountable only to Tanaka who, as the assistant sheriff in charge of patrol, technically had no control over the jails at all.
In fact, in one instance, when Bornman suggested Cruz’s supervisor Bob Olmsted needed to be briefed on the massive backlog of administrative investigations at CJ that had been allowed to slide, Cruz told him: “Fuck Bob Olmsted. I don’t work for him. Lee Baca is my sheriff, but I work for Paul Tanaka.”
Cruz’s contempt for the chain of command went so far that, incredibly, he had a side access door to CJ alarmed so that Olmsted couldn’t make a surprise inspection. If Olmsted wanted to visit the facility, he had to check in through the front entrance.
And yet when Olmsted or anyone else tried to go over Tanaka’s head to Lee Baca about the use of force problem, they were roundly ignored.
For more on the Cruz-Tanaka era at Men’s Central Jail see WLA’s reports here and here and here and here.
GONZALEZ AND FRIENDS
Another document that the jury didn’t see was the original indictment, which got trimmed down after two of the five indicted department members—former deputies Noel Womack and Pantamitr Zunggeemoge—made deals with the feds.
If they had seen the lengthier indictment, the jury would have been aware of three additional incidents of alleged abuse against people who came to the jail to see friends or loved ones, including the beating of a jail visitor who was slammed around by deputies to the point that his arm was fractured, all reportedly because he asked to see a supervisor when his combat veteran brother repeatedly couldn’t be located in the jail. (And, yes, that incident has resulted in potentially high dollar a civil lawsuit.)
Knowledge of the original indictment would also have informed jurors of additional charges against Sussie Ayala for allegedly helping to falsify records against the victims of some of these other visitors center beatings, in addition to reportedly engaging in aggressive behavior herself.
Plus they would have seen the allegation by the feds that former Sergeant Gonzalez would “maintain, perpetuate and foster an atmosphere and environment” in the visiting area “that encouraged and tolerated abuses of the law, including the use of unjustified force….” among other abuses.
According to the indictment, Gonzalez “would reprimand deputy sheriffs he supervised for not using force on visitors to the MCJ if the visitors had supposedly ‘disrespected’ these deputy sheriffs through the visitors’ words or conduct.” He allegedly would “praise overly-aggressive behavior by deputy sheriffs and criticize” deputy behavior “that was not aggressive” and would “encourage deputy sheriffs under his command to make unlawful arrests, conduct unreasonable searches and seizures, and engage in excessive force,” according to information the FBI and the prosecutors gathered.
ABOUT THOSE FUN-LOVING TEXTS
The jury did hear that Robert Carrillo, the younger brother whom Gabriel Carrillo had come to visit in MCJ on the day of his beating, had also been beaten a few days at the time that he was arrested.
Then the jury heard that, the day after Gabriel’s beating, there had been an exchange of texts between defendant Eric Gonzalez and a deputy out in the field named Julio Martinez, who was the primary officer who had arrested Robert Carrillo.
In a screen shot taken of Gonzalez’ cell phone, the jury and the rest of the trial watchers, saw that Martinez—whom Gonzalez had known since the days when the two worked together at Century station—had texted Gonzalez a photo of Robert Carrillo’s bruised and swollen post-arrest face. In return, Gonzalez texted to Martinez a booking photo of Gabriel Carrillo’s grotesquely swollen, lacerated and elaborately discolored face, with the following message: LOOKS LIKE WE DID A BETTER JOB. WHERE’S MY BEER BIG HOMIE.
Gonzalez’ lawyer, Avrahamy, tried to dismiss the text exchange, first as a joke, then as a legitimate search for information by Gonzalez from his colleague, Martinez, who was a member of the department’s gang detail, Operation Safe Streets, or OSS.
The jury bought neither explanation for the gleeful exchange of images of the brothers’ damaged faces.
What the jury did not know is that, Martinez is a member of the deputy gang called The Jump Out Boys, and that, together with his OSS partner, Anthony Paz, also a Jump Out Boy, in April of this year, Martinez was charged with conspiracy, perjury and altering evidence, in relation to the alleged planting of guns at a marijuana dispensary in order to make an arrest. (For the details see the LA Weekly story by Gene Maddaus and this LA Times story by Kate Mather).
Martinez and Paz are involved in another case where there are allegations of a planted gun to justify a fatal shooting by Paz of an unarmed 22-year old, killed at his South LA home. In June 2014, the 22-year-old’s family was awarded $1.2 million in a settlement with LA County.
Yet, despite all the information the jury did not have, they still arrived with a cross-the-board guilty verdict—reportedly without any doubts or dispute whatsoever.