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LA Sheriff's deputies arrested in jail abuse probe; 18 indicted

Eighteen current and former members of the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept were charged with federal crimes.
December 9, 2013 10:37:50 AM PST
Eighteen current and former members of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department were indicted for crimes including unjustified beatings of jail inmates and visitors, unjustified detentions and a conspiracy to obstruct a federal investigation.

The charges are the result of a two-year investigation and involve conduct by deputies assigned to both Men's Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

"This investigation started by focusing on misconduct in county jails, and we uncovered examples of civil rights violations that included excessive force and unlawful arrests," said United States Attorney Andr? Birotte Jr. "Some members of the sheriff's department considered themselves to be above the law."

Sixteen defendants have already been arrested, and most were arrested at various sheriff's department facilities, officials said. Three defendants no longer working for the sheriff's department were arrested at their residence without incident. Two defendants will be arrested at a later time but are not considered fugitives.

At least 14 of the defendants were in court Monday. Most entered pleas of not guilty and posted bail.

"This is a difficult day for law enforcement and for me personally," said Bill Lewis, assistant director in charge of the FBI's L.A. field office. "It's never a pleasant thing to arrest a fellow law enforcement officer who is alleged to have committed serious criminal violations."

Sheriff Lee Baca said during a news conference that his agency was cooperating with federal agents.

"While the indictments were not unexpected, it is nonetheless a sad day for this department. We do not tolerate misconduct by any deputies," Baca said.

Birotte said the abuse of power at the two jails demonstrated institutionalized behavior, saying the "incidents did not take place in a vacuum," but he stopped short of saying that Baca was involved in any of the alleged crimes.

Five criminal cases were unsealed that detailed the alleged criminal conduct:

United States v. Brunsting and Branum: Two deputies, Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum, are accused of violating the civil rights of two inmates through excessive force, and then creating false reports to cover up the abuse.

United States v. Gonzalez, et al: A sergeant and four deputies are charged with civil rights violations related to illegal arrests or detentions of five victims, including a member of the staff of the Austrian consul general, who were visiting inmates at Men's Central Jail. According to the indictment, Sgt. Eric Gonzalez fostered an atmosphere "that encouraged and tolerated abuses of the law, including through the use of unjustified force and unreasonable searches and seizures."

In one incident, the indictment alleges that a man who came to visit his brother suffered a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder that left him permanently disabled. The victim, Gabriel Carrillo, was also allegedly thrown into a refrigerator in the employee break room. He was then held for five days before being released.

Carrillo's attorney says the deputies made up a story that he was resisting arrest. Attorney Ron Kaye says the evidence showed Carrillo was handcuffed the entire time.

The four deputies named in the indictment are Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack.

United States v. Thompson, et al.: The FBI alleges that sheriff's deputies at Men's Central Jail hid an FBI informant, identified as Anthony Brown, and made him essentially unavailable to his FBI handlers for several weeks. Brown is a convicted armed robber who was working with the FBI on its investigation into allegations of abuse at Men's Central Jail. He bought a cellphone from a deputy, who has since pleaded guilty to bribery.

This six-count indictment charges seven sworn members of the sheriff's department: Lt. Gregory Thompson, Lt. Stephen Leavins, deputies Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo, James Sexton and sergeants Scott Craig and Maricella Long.

United States v. Piquette: Deputy Richard Piquette is accused of illegally building and possessing an assault rifle, an unregistered Noveske Rifleworks N-4 .223 caliber rifle with a barrel length of less than 16 inches.

United States v. Khounthavong, et al.: Three deputies, who are all brothers, are accused of mortgage fraud. The deputies named in the indictment are Billy Khounthavong, Benny Khounthavong and Johnny Khounthavong.


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