The feds charged 18 former and current Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies for corruption and civil rights violations stemming from inmate abuses.
By H. Nelson Goodson
December 10, 2013
Los Angeles, CA – On Monday, André Birotte Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California announced that 18 former and current Los Angeles County Sheriff’s (LASD) deputies were indicted for alleged corruption, and abusing inmates and visitors. 16 of the deputies were taken into custody on Monday at Los Angeles County Sheriff’s facilities and the rest voluntarily surrendered to the FBI.
All of the deputies indicted in five separate cases appeared in a federal court on Monday to face charges of corruption, obstruction, making false arrests and abusing inmates and visitors. Birotte described, that deputies were allowed to beat and humiliate inmates, including visitors.
A two year investigation involved five cases that revealed Sheriff Lee Baca did nothing to prevent such abuses and corruption within the department after a commission criticized him for a lack of oversight and allowing deputies to act like if they were about the law.
Baca denied the allegations, but the FBI probe found that deputies thought they were above the law and continued to abuse inmates.
Two Lieutenants, Gregory Thompson and Stephen Leavins are accused of hiding an FBI informant and changing department records by housing the inmate in another section of the downtown jail. The inmate was testifying against deputies involve in abuses of inmates.
Several Sergeants, Scott Graig and Maricella Long are accused of trying to intimidate an FBI agent into providing information about the probe against the rest of the deputies and supervisors.
In one case, United States v. Brunsting and Branum, CR13-573
Two deputy sheriffs – Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum – are charged in a six-count indictment with civil rights violations and making false statements in reports. Brunsting, who was a training officer, is charged in relation to an incident in which an inmate allegedly was assaulted and suffered bodily injury. Both Brunsting and Branum are charged in another assault. The victims were inmates at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where both deputies worked. Following the two incidents, the indictment alleges that Brunsting used deputies he was training to file reports that covered up the abuse.
Second case, United States v. Gonzalez, et al., CR13-574
This indictment charges a sergeant and four deputies with civil rights violations that allege they arrested or detained five victims – including the Austrian consul general – when they arrived to visit inmates at the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in 2010 and 2011.
The lead defendant in this indictment – Sergeant Eric Gonzalez, who was a supervisor in the MCJ visiting center, but no longer works for LASD – fostered an atmosphere “that encouraged and tolerated abuses of the law, including through the use of unjustified force and unreasonable searches and seizures by deputy sheriffs he supervised,” according to the indictment.
Each of the four deputies – Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack – are charged with participating in at least one of the four incidents in which victims allegedly suffered civil rights violations. In one incident, a man suffered a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder that has left him permanently disabled. In another incident, the Austrian consul general and her husband were handcuffed and detained.
Third case, United States v. Thompson, et al., CR13-819
This six-count indictment that alleges a broad conspiracy to obstruct justice charges seven sworn members of the LASD. This case developed when deputies assigned to the Men’s Central Jail – including Lieutenant Gregory Thompson, who oversaw LASD’s Operation Safe Jails Program, and Lieutenant Stephen Leavins, who was assigned to the LASD’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau – learned that an inmate was an FBI informant and was acting as a cooperator in the FBI’s corruption and civil rights investigation.
After learning that the inmate received a cellular phone from a deputy sheriff who took a bribe and that the inmate was part of a civil rights investigation, those allegedly involved in the obstruction scheme took affirmative steps to hide the cooperator from the FBI and the United States Marshals Service, which was attempting to bring the inmate to testify before a federal grand jury in response to an order issued by a federal judge. As part of the conspiracy, the deputies allegedly altered records to make it appear that the cooperator had been released. They then re-booked the inmate under a different name, and then told the cooperator that he had been abandoned by the FBI.
Over the course of several weeks, the deputy sheriffs allegedly also attempted to obtain an order from a Los Angeles Superior Court judge that would have compelled the FBI to turn over information about its investigation to LASD. After the judge refused to issue such an order, according to the indictment, two LASD sergeants who are charged in this case nevertheless confronted an FBI special agent at her residence in an attempt to intimidate her into providing details about the investigation. The sergeants falsely told the special agent and her supervisor that they were obtaining a warrant for her arrest, according to the indictment.
Thompson no longer works for LASD. The other deputies named in this indictment are Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo, and James Sexton, who were assigned to the Operation Safe Jails Program; and Scott Craig and Maricella Long, who were LASD sergeants within the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau.
The fourth case, United States v. Piquette, CR13-821
Deputy Richard Piquette is charged in the fourth indictment with illegally building and possessing an assault rifle. The indictment charges Piquette with possessing an unregistered Noveske Rifleworks N-4 .223 caliber rifle with a barrel length of less than 16 inches. The second count in the indictment charges Piquette with manufacturing the Noveske rifle. Piquette, who is currently on leave with LASD, was previously assigned to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. The investigation in this case was conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The fifth case, United States v. Khounthavong, et al., 13-3105M
The fifth case unsealed on Monday is a criminal complaint that charges three LASD deputies, all of whom are brothers, with conspiracy to make false statements to two banks in connection with a “buy-and-bail” mortgage fraud scheme. The complaint alleges that the three deputies – Billy Khounthavong, Benny Khounthavong, and Johnny Khounthavong – made false statements and reports to Flagstar Bank to purchase a 3,900-square-foot residence in Corona. The brothers then made additional false statements and reports to Bank of America in relation to another large residence they owned. The brothers walked away from – or “bailed” on – that home in which they were “under water,” meaning they owed substantially more than the residence was worth. As a result of the scheme, the brothers allegedly avoided more than $340,000 of unpaid mortgage debt. Benny Khounthavong and Johnny Khounthavong are assigned to LASD jail facilities.
The five cases announced on Monday are part of an ongoing investigation being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to Birotte.