Did Incriminating Evidence End Sheriff Baca’s Career?

Sheriff Lee Baca stepped down from Los Angeles County Sheriff amid accusations of prisoner and visitor abuse in his department. Were the too much for even Baca to bear?

By Aura Bogado Jan 14, 2014

By the time Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced his retirement last Tuesday, change was already in the air. Just one day earlier, Baca announced his support for a civilian oversight board–which surprised supporters and critics alike. Baca called his choice to leave the department he’s run for 15 years a retirement rather than a resignation, and stated that he would be leaving "on [his] own terms." The exact reasons for his departure, however, remain unclear.

What is clear is that Baca’s announcement came at a time of intense controversy for the sheriff. In October, a federal civil jury found Baca personally and legally liable for the horrific beating of an inmate at Men’s Central Jail, a first for the sheriff. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had already been investigating his jails as part of a different probe. And a series of grand jury indictments released in December seem to point to a pattern of widespread physical abuse, intimidation and profound corruption.

Steve Whitmore, Baca’s public information officer, explains that his boss, who was preparing to run for reelection on November’s ballot, didn’t want to be the focus of negative accusations that, he says, would only hurt the department. "The investigations have nothing to do [with his retirement]," says Whitmore. "It’s just not relevant."

The details provided in grand jury documents tell a shocking story of abuse of inmates–and even their visitors.

One indictment alleges that two deputies working at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum, trained a junior deputy how to beat an inmate with impunity. According to court documents, Brunsting and Branum picked an inmate that they deemed disrespectful and directed him to a hidden area in the facility. The inmate was then struck, kicked and pepper-sprayed. The indictment alleges that the deputies conspired to keep their stories straight, and authored false reports that the inmate initiated the violence. If nothing else, the indictment is remarkable in that it refers to the person who was physically assaulted as "victim-inmate," revealing that a jury was capable of recognizing someone behind Baca’s bars as someone who can also be victimized, regardless of whatever charges they may be facing.

Court documents also explain how visitors were systematically victimized at the hands of Sheriff Baca’s deputies. An indictment separate from the one outlined above alleges that one of Baca’s sergeants, Eric Gonzalez, encouraged several deputies to beat visitors without cause as they waited to see their loved ones at Men’s Central Jail. It’s alleged that deputies routinely directed visitors to a break room, where they then attacked them, going as far as to fracture the arm of one of the visitors who’s identified only as UF. When UF’s spouse, identified as EF, inquired about him, she was arrested–despite the fact that EF had not committed a crime. As it turns out, EF was an Austrian diplomat and, as such, held diplomatic immunity. Baca’s deputies’ abuse against her could have easily sparked an international scandal. 

The FBI secured a lot of information during its jail investigation from informants but even they weren’t exempt from Baca’s deputies. Yet another indictment explains how seven deputies allegedly altered records through the use of databases to essentially disappear a witness. Aside from discouraging "potential witnesses and informants" from cooperating with federal investigators, it’s alleged that Baca’s deputies attempted to bury an informant identified as AB within the jail system after they figured out that he was a informant. Court documents indicate that AB was transferred to a medical ward while his record was destroyed. He was then rebooked under a false name, with a false race and birthdate to match–twice. It’s believed that deputies did so in order to keep federal investigators from tracking down their informant.

The indictments point to a department in which Baca either had no control of his deputies, knew of their countless abuses but was unable to stop them, or simply sanctioned them to behave this way. None of these options are acceptable for the man charged with overseeing the largest county jail system in the United States.

Of course not every case of alleged abuse is included in the grand jury indictments. Although additional formal indictments are expected soon, many former Los Angeles jail inmates have their own horror stories to tell about Baca and his deputies.

"Flashlight Therapy"
Los Angeles County jails are part of a massive system that holds more than 20,000 inmates daily. The vast majority of those behind bars–80 percent–are people of color. And black inmates are especially overrepresented in the system. As demographics continue to shift in Los Angeles, black residents count for less than 10 percent of the county’s population, but more than 30 percent of inmates. The county’s Latino population is 47.5 percent, and make up 49 percent of those in its jails. White residents, meanwhile, make up more than 52 percent of the population in Los Angeles, yet only 15 percent of jail inmates. People behind bars and their loved ones have long complained about the treatment they endure at the hands of deputies. And their stories are finally getting some attention. 

Jermond Davis was only 17 years old when he was involved in a robbery. That was in 2004. Two years later, he was tried as an adult, and was sent to Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) while he awaited trial. Davis, who is black, had long heard stories about the terror inside that jail–even from his own grandfather who had once spent time there himself as a youth.

During his first few days at MCJ, says Davis, he witnessed countless beatings until finally, he saw a handful of deputies beating up a fellow inmate, small in stature, for no apparent reason. He spoke up in protest. A deputy angrily responded that he should mind his own business. The two exchanged words before another deputy punched him in the face. David spit in retaliation. As a result, he was attacked and beaten badly.

"You heard of flashlight therapy?" Davis asks, before explaining that the routine beatings at Baca’s jails are called this because they often involve deputies’ big flashlights, bloodied from beating inmates. "It’s a misnomer. You’re not getting any therapy."

Like so many others, Davis was moved to a medical ward and put under observation. He says he was placed in solitary confinement and was only allowed to leave his tiny cell once every other day to take a shower. Although he says he didn’t feel suicidal, he was placed on suicide watch, which meant he couldn’t make his court dates. That was done, says Davis, so that the public couldn’t see the multiple bruises he got as a result of his beating. He wasn’t allowed access to phone calls, and the only visitor he saw for two months was his lawyer. When asked whether he explained what happened to his lawyer, he takes pause.

"No," he answers, before struggling to explain the kind of fear and vulnerability inmates feel in Baca’s jails. "These people can beat you to death, and no one can do anything about it."

For Davis, choosing to remain silent about what happened became a survival skill. When he finally told his family, they weren’t surprised. After all, his own grandfather had experienced the abuse firsthand. "I knew what the culture was in there since I was a kid," says Davis.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Davis never filed a lawsuit, but some former inmates have. Sandra Neal is a registered nurse whose son was stopped while walking down the street in East Los Angeles almost three years ago. Her son didn’t have any previous run-ins with the law, but deputies accused him of public intoxication and arrested the 26-year-old. That was a Wednesday. And although his urine test indicated he was not under the influence, he was held at a local sheriff’s station before being transferred to the Twin Towers facility the following day.

Her son, whom Neal prefers not to name, lived at home and so she became worried when she didn’t see or hear from him on Wednesday night. By Friday, she began seeing letters and postcards from bondsmen and defense attorneys addressed to her son, and realized he must have been arrested. She began calling the sheriff’s department, which would only tell her that her son had been hospitalized. Little did Neal know then that her son’s life had already been turned upside down by deputies–and that he was lucky to even be alive.

According to Neal and to court records, her son was brutally attacked for no reason by deputies. As inmates lined up shoulder-to-shoulder at Twin Towers, her son was struck from behind and fell to the floor. Deputies then proceeded to punch him in the face with so much force that his four front teeth broke off to the roof of his mouth. He was then struck and kicked countless times before being pepper-sprayed directly in the face. Hardly conscious, Neal’s son was placed back in a cell and handcuffed Thursday evening. He pleaded for help, but deputies–who also interrogated him despite the fact he had not committed any crime and had a clean urine test–made fun of him, and even told him he was going to be deported.

Neal is a third-generation Mexican-American, making her son fourth-generation and definitely not legally eligible for deportation. She says he was psychologically traumatized and came close to death that Thursday night. Aside from being denied medical treatment, her son was deprived of food and water. Finally, on Friday morning, her son was forced to walk to the jail’s infirmary, although he had serious trouble standing up and even breathing.

He was handcuffed to a table and administered oxygen before doctors determined that he had a collapsed lung. A doctor had to insert a chest tube to allow Neal’s son to continue breathing, and finally washed his face for the first time, in an attempt to alleviate the burning from the pepper-spray.

Neal was unable to see her son until Monday. When she did, she could hardly recognize him. Neal was well qualified to help with her son’s physical recovery, but that’s the least of her worries.

"He’s physically healed, except for the dental problems," says Neal. "Three years later, it’s the psychological problems that he has to manage." Anxiety and slight paranoia now haunt her son, whom she describes as having posttraumatic stress disorder.

A New Sheriff in Town?
Both Neal and Davis work with a group called The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails. In some ways, they’re very different. Davis admits to committing a robbery as a teenager, when he was gang-affiliated. And his family has history with being targeted by the sheriff’s department. Neal is a mother to a young man who had never been accused of a crime, had any gang affiliation, and whose family always thought of sheriff’s deputies as helpful.

But they’ve come together, like so many others, because of the almost unbelievable violence they’ve experienced or know about in Baca’s jails. Although Davis declined to sue the department, Neal’s son did file. His case is now in mediation–after unmarked cars with what Neal believed were plainclothes deputies sat outside his home and sheriff’s deputies came to his job at a gym to question him about the lawsuit. Neal says she was personally intimidated by deputies.

But Neal didn’t want to have to sue. She says she was told that she would either have to sue or that nothing would come of her many questions. That’s why, along with Davis, she’s backing the formation of a civilian oversight board–the kind that Baca himself said he would back just before suddenly announcing his retirement.

Patrisse Cullors, who leads the coalition, has long been calling for an oversight board–and was as surprised as anyone else by Baca’s decision. "It’s a victory for us who have faced the terror of the department," she says.

Cullors has used grassroots and woefully underfunded organizing to bring survivors of Baca’s violence together, and it seems to finally be paying off. Representative of inmates inside the jails, the coalition is largely black and brown. And although Baca has made clear that he’s leaving on his own terms, Cullors and others believe that their work to expose the countless abuses under his watch have taken an embarrassing toll on the sheriff.

"You meet people, you organize, and one day, there’s an opening," says Cullors.

That opening, created in part by a community of people who were some of those most affected by Baca’s deputies’ violence, may serve Bob Olmsted extremely well. Olmsted served on the department for 33 years and eventually became a whistleblower. Three years ago, he went directly to the FBI with details of what he witnessed at Men’s County Jail. He’s also a candidate for sheriff for November’s election. 

"I went outside of the [sheriff’s department] when no one was willing to do anything," says Olmsted. Aside from FBI investigators, Olmsted talks to bloggers, journalists, and even groups like Cullor’s coalition. As a candidate, he agreed to a civilian oversight board weeks ago. He has solid grassroots support as a result, and turned into a much more viable candidate since Baca’s announcement. 

But a lot can happen between now and November.

The Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in L.A. County Jails, meanwhile, already appears to be an early winner. "Whenever the state is exposed for its abuses and throws the towel in, it’s a victory," says the coalition’s Cullors. "It’s a victory for us."