Orned (Chicken) Gabriel, a martial-arts expert whose complaints about inmate abuse at the El Cajon jail exposed the so-called "Rambo Squad" of deputies, has accepted a $40,000 settlement from the county for what he said was a severe beating by jail deputies nearly three years ago.
Gabriel, 40, jailed between February and September 1988 for failing to pay child support, contacted reporters and the American Civil Liberties Union shortly after he entered jail and complained about numerous civil rights violations, from inmate beatings to illegal lockdowns.
His allegations sparked investigations by the Grand Jury and the FBI, and eventually led Sheriff John Duffy to discipline 10 deputies, including several high-ranking officers, as part of what inmates called the "Rambo Squad." Duffy at first contended that Gabriel made up the story.
Gabriel's lawsuit against the county alleged that deputies grabbed him from his jail cell in March 1988, handcuffed him, pushed his face into a wall and pulled him by handcuffs down several flights of stairs into solitary confinement, where they ran his head into a bedpost. Gabriel said that, although seven deputies were involved, three actually were responsible for the beating.
"They told me they'd wipe the smile off my face, (but) I'm still smiling," Gabriel said Thursday. "They told me the most I could hope for was $20,000. I got $40,000. They told me I couldn't beat the county. I beat the county."
Three county attorneys, all involved with the case, did not return several telephone calls left at their offices Thursday. Duffy also did not return telephone calls.
Sheriff-elect Jim Roache, who takes office Jan. 7., said the settlement was good for the county.
"We got off quite cheap, frankly," he said. "Undoubtedly, protracted litigation would have cost us more than $40,000. I'm sure the county felt it was more expeditious and less costly to settle out of court."
Gabriel's settlement with the county Wednesday came during the third federal magistrate's hearing to seek a resolution before the case went to trial next month. County attorneys, arguing that Gabriel greatly exaggerated the extent of his injuries, offered him $20,000. Gabriel had asked for $70,000.
A black-belt karate expert who once operated five martial-arts studios in the county, Gabriel saw the popularity of the sport diminish in the 1980s. During that time, Gabriel said he became heavily involved with drugs and could not meet about eight months of child support payments, which landed him in jail.
Almost from the moment he entered jail, Gabriel said, he was harassed by deputies, who knew he was skilled in karate. Shortly after he contacted the ACLU, Gabriel said some of his mail was intercepted and opened. Gabriel also sought to contact Sagon Penn, a former student and family friend, who was twice tried and acquitted in the 1985 slaying of a San Diego police officer and the wounding of another officer and a civilian ride-along.
Betty Wheeler, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union who helped investigate Gabriel's claims, praised the settlement.
"I think $40,000 is a substantial amount of money in many respects," she said. "It is one more reminder of the substantial cost government officials must pay when they don't comply with the Constitution and don't make sure that the civil liberties of inmates are protected."
"Mr. Gabriel played a very important role in bringing to light what was happening in the El Cajon jail and the jail system overall," she said. "He took on quite a great deal of risk and was publicly held up to ridicule by Sheriff Duffy to make Mr. Gabriel look like a liar and a bad person when, in fact, his complaints were validated by the Grand Jury."
In May, 1988, two months after Gabriel filed his claim, Duffy announced that Gabriel and other inmates had "deliberately contrived" their story for publicity. At the time, Duffy released a five-page summary of the Sheriff's Department's internal affairs investigation into the matter, concluding that deputies used no excessive force.
Gabriel would not have been entitled to punitive damages against the deputies involved with the "Rambo Squad" because his former attorney did not file the lawsuit naming the deputies before the statute of limitations expired, George de la Flor, Gabriel's attorney, said. Gabriel, therefore, was limited in suing only the county, and, by law, could not collect punitive damages. De la Flor said he has filed a malpractice lawsuit against Gabriel's former lawyer.
During previous settlement hearings, De la Flor said county attorneys questioned Gabriel's injuries because he had only $500 in medical bills and participated in karate tournaments after he left jail. De la Flor argued that Gabriel received free medical care. Gabriel said he was forced to enter tournaments to make money.
Gabriel was reluctant to go to trial, he said, because he did not have the money it took to hire an orthopedic surgeon who might substantiate his injuries to a jury. The county already had hired its own expert, who was willing to testify that Gabriel was not severely hurt.
Gabriel said he would take $30,000 of the settlement and pay $10,000 to De la Flor. De la Flor said he is entitled to one-third of the settlement, or $13,333. Both said they could work out the disagreement.