The County of Los Angeles and Sheriff Alex Villanueva were sued Wednesday by a former assistant sheriff who alleges that she was demoted in retaliation for complaining about the alleged involvement of a deputy in the beating of an inmate a year after he took photos of the late Kobe Bryant following his fatal helicopter crash in Calabasas in 2020.
Plaintiff Robin Limon’s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit alleges retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation and violations of the Public Safety Officer’s Bill of Rights. She seeks at least $3 million in damages.
An LASD representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Villanueva retaliated against Limon and other whistleblowers after they exposed Villanueva’s cover-up of the use of excessive force by Deputy Douglas Johnson against an unruly inmate, Enzo Escalante, that was recorded on video in March 2021 at the San Fernando Courthouse, according to the suit.
“Unfortunately, for about three minutes after Escalante was restrained and passive, Johnson held his knee onto Escalante’s neck and restricted his breathing in a fashion like (former Minneapolis police Officer) Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd,” the suit states.
The year before, Johnson achieved “infamy” for having taken photos of the body parts of basketball star Kobe Bryant after he and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a January 2020 helicopter accident, the suit states.
Instead of punishing Johnson, Villanueva promised he would not discipline the deputy if he destroyed the photos, according to the suit. . Johnson was later investigated by the LASD Internal Criminal Affairs Bureau for alleged involvement in a gambling and prostitution ring, but he was not fired, according to the suit.
Limon knew that for the sake of the safety of residents, it was imperative for the sheriff to address the Escalante incident immediately and reinforce policies against deputies using excessive force, the suit states.
After viewing the video, Villanueva said, “We do not need bad media at this time,” the suit states.
When Villanueva stated that he wanted to avoid “bad media,” he was thinking about the optics of his deputy committing the same type of excessive force used by Chauvin to murder Floyd and he was concerned about the public fallout for not holding Johnson accountable for previously taking photos of Bryant’s remains, the suit states.
Villanueva blocked a criminal investigation into the Escalante matter, lied about the incident and later claimed he did not watch the video until last November in order to “fit a fake timeline,” the suit states.
“Whistleblowers are supposed to be protected by state and federal statutes and are supposed to be safe from retaliation,” the suit states. “However, the whistleblowers are not safe in LASD and are not protected by the county.”
Rather than focusing on criminals and keeping the streets safe for residents, Villanueva and the LASD have been focused on fighting whistleblowers, the suit alleges.
On March 29, Villanueva told Limon to retire within an hour or be demoted — with either choice assuring her career would end — and the plaintiff has not returned to work for months, according to the suit.
“Villanueva’s legacy as sheriff will be known as much for incompetence as corruption,” the suit states. “It will take years for any future sheriff to clean up the mess.”