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Orange County

FBI to Probe Pepper Spraying

Inquiry begins Monday for case in which O.C. deputy is accused of dousing prisoners.

May 10, 2003|Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writer

FBI officials said Friday that they will open a civil-rights investigation next week into the case of an Orange County sheriff's deputy accused of pepper-spraying inmates.

Jerome Joseph Preston, 47, is accused of using the spray on 35 inmates who were on a bus he was driving March 5 after they failed to reveal who had spat on his driver's seat.

Preston noticed the saliva after prisoners left the bus at the James A. Musick Branch Jail. When no one would admit responsibility, Preston allegedly sprayed inside the bus, ordered the prisoners back on and demanded that coughing and teary-eyed inmates identify the culprit.

Preston released the inmates after 10 minutes, but another deputy who witnessed the alleged incident reported it. Preston was placed on paid administrative leave and a criminal investigation and internal Sheriff's Department probe were launched.

On Thursday, the Orange County district attorney filed misdemeanor charges against Preston in Superior Court. Free on his own recognizance, Preston is scheduled for arraignment June 18 at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana. He could face a year in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted of the misdemeanor charges

A sheriff's spokesman said the department has forwarded the results of an internal investigation to the county executive officer, who will decide if further disciplinary action -- including the possibility of dismissal -- is warranted.

Preston has had an excellent performance record at the Sheriff's Department, his lawyer, Paul Meyer, said. Meyer said the incident "appears to be more of an apparent violation of policy than a criminal violation."

The U.S. Attorney's office of the Central District of California asked the FBI to open a civil-rights investigation Friday, said FBI spokeswoman Laura Bosley. A decision whether to pursue charges against Preston in federal court will be made after their investigation is finished, Bosley said.

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