According to a new civil rights lawsuit, in October 2019, Los Angeles County Probation was again unprepared for a wildfire that was speeding in the direction of one of its youth facilities. That unpreparedness, the lawsuit alleges, combined with the decision to ignore the order of a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, caused a 14-year-old boy to be subjected to a lengthy and horrific physical assault.
The cost of LA County Probation not being prepared for wildfires was made clear the year before, in November 2018, when the deadly Woolsey Fire was racing through the Santa Monica mountains where a county youth facility known as Campus Kilpatrick was located. At that time, probation higher-ups appeared to have no usable emergency plan available to the staff on the ground at Kilpatrick. Then management turned a difficult situation into a potentially deadly one, when those with the power to order a timely evacuation of the youth camp inexplicably failed to act.
As a result, 22 children and 13 staff were not able to evacuate safely, but were instead forced to “shelter-in-place” with the help of a local fire captain and two firefighters, as LA County’s most destructive fire in the last 100 years raced in their direction.
(You can find WitnessLA’s probe into Kilpatrick and the Woolsey Fire here.)
So, when the 2019 fire season rolled around a year later, and LA’s probation department faced another evacuation of another youth facility due to another big fire, youth advocates and others hoped that, having learned from the near catastrophe of at Kilpatrick, this time probation’s leaders would be far better prepared.
Yet, according to the new complaint, and WitnessLA’s own reporting, on October 10, 2019, when the Saddle Ridge Fire forced the evacuation of approximately 300 kids from Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, located in Sylmar, CA, LA County Probation was not prepared.
And a 14-year-old boy paid the price.
Ignoring a judge’s order
For the boy, who is identified as “J.M.,” the sequence of institutional failures reportedly began ten days before the fire on October 1, 2019, when J.M. and his defense attorney were in the courtroom of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Christina Hill who, after talking to the teenager, issued an order telling probation to move the boy out of Barry J, as the Sylmar facility is commonly called, and transfer him instead to Central Juvenile Hall.
“Due to safety concerns,” the judge wrote.
According to civil rights attorney Justin Sterling, Judge Hill issued the Oct 1 order because J.M., who is not a large kid, had been beaten up multiple times by other teenagers at Barry J.
(Sterling and fellow civil rights attorney Erin Darling are representing the teen in the lawsuit.)
For some reason, however, probation officials did not comply with the judge’s order.
As a consequence, ten days after Judge Hill’s order, when the Saddle Ridge Fire broke out on October 10, , J.M. was still living at the Sylmar facility where he’d been repeatedly bullied.
In the ensuing Saddle Ridge evacuation, Judge Hill’s safety concerns were tragically borne out, the complaint states, when J.M. “was violently beaten by numerous older boys without provocation.”
Where were the adults?
The Saddle Ridge Fire began at approximately 9:02 p.m., at a spot that is exactly .8 miles from Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall.
By around 10:30 p.m. probation higher-ups had concluded that the 278 kids residing at the facility would need to be evacuated along with staff members and others working with the kids that night.
The actual evacuation began well after midnight, or perhaps as late as 1:30 a.m., on October 11, by which time the fire had arrived at the wall surrounding the youth facility. (See photo above.)
According to those we spoke with who were working that night, the evacuation reportedly went quite smoothly in the beginning, despite the close proximity of the fire. When they received their orders, the detention officers and other night staff who were on duty operated quickly and professionally to get the kids up, out of their beds, dressed, fed – when possible – then lined up to exit the facility’s various units and buildings.
When kids started to panic, or to funnel their anxiety into belligerence, the staff calmed them down.
Finally, the bleary-eyed kids were gradually loaded into a series of seven Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department buses and driven to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, which was located in Downey.
Because Los Padrinos, known as LP, had been shuttered and empty since the summer of 2019, it could house the Barry J. kids without too much preparation.
Probation reportedly made use of the LA County Sheriff’s Department buses, in part, because, for some reason, the probation department didn’t have a surfeit of large vehicles suitable for an emergency evacuation, whereas the LASD was ready and willing to get the needed number of large buses to Sylmar fairly quickly.
All this seemed fine until it was time to actually load the kids onto the LA County Sheriff’s buses, which is when things reportedly began to go awry.
Most of the buses had at least one probation staff member present as a chaperone.
But on one or perhaps two buses, one of them the bus that J.M. boarded, there was no adult to supervise the crush of jittery teenagers crammed on to the LASD buses designed for the transport of adult lawbreakers.
The bus that J.M. boarded, according to the lawsuit, was divided into three holding cells. And, J.M. — the 14-year-old who was already known to have been bullied — was crammed into one of those traveling cells with fourteen or fifteen older boys who, like many of the Sylmar kids, had grown restive in the face of the middle-of-the-night evacuation.
According to the civil complaint (and WLA’s reporting), the only actual adult on the bus at all was the LASD driver who was in the cab of the vehicle, thus completely physically separated from the several dozen kids in the three cages that filled the rest of the vehicle.
So, when everything began to go alarmingly wrong in at least one of the mobile jail cells, the driver reportedly just kept on going, and hoped for the best.
Meanwhile, according to the complaint, J.M. was first verbally taunted and then “viciously assaulted” by other boys in his cell.
Before boarding the buses, all of the kids were handcuffed with plastic zip ties for the approximately 90-minute drive between Barry J and the recently decommissioned Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, where the Sylmar kids were scheduled to stay once they were successfully evacuated.
On J.M.’s bus, however, the older boys managed to break their zip ties fairly early in the journey.
But, J.M. wasn’t strong enough to snap them, so his hands were literally tied during the entirety of the trip and his assault. With his wrists bound, he had no way of covering his face or head, much less defending himself.
According to the complaint, and the reports of WLA’s sources with knowledge of the matter, the attack was lengthy and vicious. The older boys broke J.M.’s glasses, kicked him in the head repeatedly, and stripped him of his clothing. They also reportedly threw urine at the younger boy, and some of the older boys “spit in J.M.’s face,” making the assault one of emotional abuse as well as physical.
It didn’t help that, after his glasses were broken, J.M. could reportedly barely see out of his left eye in the absence of the corrective lenses.
Once the physical attacks began, they reportedly continued until the bus arrived at Los Padrinos facility.
It was only when, between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., the seven sheriff’s buses began to unload their teenaged charges at the Downey facility, that staff members realized something really awful had transpired on at least one of the buses.
But, even after he was released from his rolling cell, according to the lawsuit, LA County Probation continued to fail 14-year-old J.M.
A very angry judge
The boy’s physical condition, and the fact that he was not wearing most of his clothing, made clear right away that J.M. had been attacked.
But, although the boy reportedly complained of severe head pain and eye pain, and that he was having trouble seeing out of his left eye, he was not taken to an emergency room to be scanned for a possible concussion, nor was he seen by a physician. Instead, he was reportedly examined by a nurse in the Los Padrinos medical unit.
Two days after the fact, J.M. finally did see a doctor. But, even then, no one at Probation contacted the boy’s mother to let her know what had happened to her son.
Finally, days after the beating, J.M. was permitted to call his mom himself. According to the legal complaint, it was only then that his mother learned about the assault her son had endured during the still-spreading wildfire.
While he was waiting to be able to call his mom J.M. wrote a letter to Judge Christina Hill, describing what had happened to him during the fire.
A few days later, when J.M. appeared before Judge Hill on October 17, 2019, Hill was spitting mad.
Not only did she release J.M. “forthwith,” telling him he could go home, Judge Hill, who was appointed to the bench in 2005 by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, had a few other things she wanted to say on the record.
“Well, once again, Probation did not follow the Court’s order,” said Hill. Instead, [J.M.] was kept at Sylmar, “even knowing that there were safety concerns.”
Hill was reportedly very unhappy that the 14-year-old was not given appropriate medical treatment immediately after his evacuation assault.
She also had several things to say about the sheriff’s department’s handling of the matter, according to the lawsuit.
“[J.M. is] not in the custody of the sheriff,” she said. “He’s in the custody of the probation department. And only because of an act of God, so to speak, the wildfire, did this transportation by the sheriff’s department occur.”
But if somebody undertakes to do a task, continued the judge, “they have to do it correctly. And so the sheriff’s department, by undertaking that, should have either insisted that probation officers be present to do their job or provide some other security.”
Investigations, et al
Last October, word of what had happened to J.M., and another boy, spread quickly among juvenile public defenders, juvenile court judges, youth advocates, and others, including WitnessLA.
Sensing there was possible storm brewing around the news of J.M.’s evacuation assault, and that of another boy, on October 16, then probation chief Terri McDonald sent a private email to each member of the LA County Board of Supervisors to warn the board members about what they might soon be hearing.
“I wanted to alert you to an investigation that we opened concerning several youths who may have been in a fight or hazed while in transport in two separate bus transports,” McDonald wrote. “While there were no reported or observed serious injuries to youth and they received medical attention upon arrival to LP, we are taking this issue very seriously.”
But she admitted that two young people “exited the bus in restraints but with their pants off while holding their clothing in front of them.”
Probation was treating the situation “as PREA investigation,” she wrote, “although there was no evidence of sexual abuse.”
(Of course, having one’s clothing forcibly stripped off would likely be considered sexual abuse, legally speaking, but never-mind. We understand the point.)
According to the lawsuit, despite the purported seriousness of the investigation, J.M. was interviewed on the topic of his assault only once.
The interview occurred on October 22, 2019, when two probation investigators visited the teenager at Jefferson High School, during the boy’s lunch hour, ostensibly to talk to him about what happened.
Yet, early in the interview (which was recorded), according to the legal complaint, the questioning seemed designed to talk the teenager out of his perceptions, rather than discover them, such as when Investigator #1 asked J.M. if he had “reason to believe that the probation department knew” he was going to get beat up on the bus.
“What I mean is,” the investigator continued, “did the probation staff intentionally allow the minors to beat you up?”
Then the investigators began questioning J.M. about whether or he had a gang affiliation and various other personal questions, which he took to mean that additional complaints to the Court, or anyone else, would be unwise.
In any case, the boy was never contacted by county investigators again.
Photo above of Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, October 11, 2019, as fire approaches.