A Los Angeles County criminal grand jury has opened an investigation into the sheriff’s department’s handling of an altercation in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes, sparking comparisons to the fatal tactics used by Minneapolis police against George Floyd.
The altercation led to allegations of an attempted cover-up within the sheriff’s department, allegations that Sheriff Alex Villanueva has repeatedly and vehemently denied. In a statement late Monday, Villanueva acknowledged the grand jury investigation, and said his office is fully cooperating.
“On Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, the sheriff’s department received notification of a criminal grand jury subpoena for records regarding a use of force incident in the San Fernando Court lockup from March of 2021,” Villanueva said in the statement. “Any allegation of misconduct is of deep concern to the department, and this one is no exception. Hence, we are conducting a thorough internal investigation, and we are fully cooperating with this subpoena.
“To date, our investigation indicates that the allegation of misconduct was orchestrated by involved department executives to falsely portray themselves as whistleblowers in order to avoid discipline, up to and including termination. The district attorney has been given this and all other relevant information.”
The Los Angeles Times, which first reported the grand jury probe, reported Monday that several subpoenas have been served directing department officials to testify beginning later this week.
The investigation focuses on the department’s handling of a March 10, 2021, altercation that was caught on surveillance video between a handcuffed inmate and deputies at the San Fernando Courthouse. A 24-year-old inmate named Enzo Escalante allegedly punched sheriff’s Deputy Douglas Johnson in the face. Johnson and other deputies wrestled Escalante to the ground, with Johnson putting his knee on the inmate’s head.
Security video of the altercation, first obtained by The Times, shows Johnson keeping his knee on Escalante’s head for three minutes after he was handcuffed and did not appear to be resisting.
After the Times published the story and video, Villanueva held a news conference and denied any effort to cover up the incident. He acknowledged that there were internal failures in the department, saying a criminal investigation should have begun immediately after the altercation, but only an administrative probe was launched. He insisted he didn’t see the video until November, and immediately launched the criminal investigation.
Villanueva has stuck with that timeline, but some department executives have challenged his assertions, contending that the sheriff actually saw the video shortly after the altercation occurred but worked to cover up the incident to avoid bad press for the agency.
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Allen Castellano filed a damages claim alleging retaliation as part of an effort to downplay Villanueva’s knowledge of the use-of-force case. Former Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon also filed a damages claim. Both contend that Villanueva watched the video of the altercation shortly after it occurred. Limon said she physically brought a DVD video of the altercation to Villanueva’s office and watched it with him five days after it occurred.
Others in the department, however, have backed Villanueva’s version of events, including Undersheriff Timothy Murakami, who denied seeing the video when Limon claims he and the sheriff watched it.
The dispute made widespread headlines when Villaneuva — during a news conference to discuss the case — said Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian was one of three people under criminal investigation over the leak of the courthouse surveillance video. After coming under fire from the Times, members of the Board of Supervisors and other journalism groups, the sheriff walked back his statements, denying that he ever said Tchekmedyian was under criminal investigation.