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Left Unguarded, L.A. Jail Inmates Watch as Pair Beat Man to Death

The latest in a string of killings at the site comes after Sheriff Lee Baca vowed to boost security.

November 18, 2005|Stuart Pfeifer and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Inmates at the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail beat and stomped another inmate to death after guards locked them in an unsupervised holding room this week, raising new questions about a system plagued in recent years by murders and attacks behind bars.

The incident was the eighth killing inside the jail in the last two years and came despite assurances by Sheriff Lee Baca last year that he was taking steps to increase security and improve segregation of violent inmates. It also came despite repeated warnings from the American Civil Liberties Union about the dangers of housing inmates without supervision.

The attack occurred Wednesday evening, when deputies placed about 30 inmates in a locked room to eat dinner while they searched nearby cells for weapons.

For reasons the Sheriff's Department could not fully explain Thursday, the inmates were left alone with no deputies either in the room or monitoring them from outside.

The room, which is about 700 square feet, has a concrete floor, steel benches, a urinal and a toilet. There are three windows, but they have been boarded shut, preventing deputies from seeing inside.

Left alone, two of the inmates attacked another inmate who they said cut in front of them to receive his dinner tray, authorities said. The attackers spent about 10 to 15 minutes beating and stomping the victim's head, at one point jumping off a steel bench onto the man while the other inmates watched in silence, officials said.

"We're going to be looking at everything from the time that those inmates entered that [room]: Why were they placed in that room? Was it the right thing? Was it the wrong thing? Were those windows boarded up for a reason?" Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka said. "You can be assured the sheriff's investigators are going to be looking at all of this. Our goal is to not have anyone die in our custody."

This is the second time in two years that an inmate has been killed while housed in a group setting with no direct deputy supervision. The Sheriff's Department disciplined 22 deputies after five inmates were killed in the jail from October 2003 to April 2004.

Over the last few years, the ACLU has sent correspondence to jail officials expressing deep concerns about holding inmates in day rooms without supervision.

"Anybody who goes into these facilities can see it's not safe to put inmates in there where they cannot be supervised," said Jody Kent, jails project coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Los Angeles.

Both suspects in Wednesday's slayings are gang members, one charged with murder, the other with carjacking and kidnapping. The victim was accused of being a felon in possession of a weapon, officials said.

In the aftermath of the killing, Baca said through a spokesman Thursday that the department will begin to segregate gang members charged with murder from the rest of the inmate population.

The 6,300-bed jail, the largest in the nation, has long grappled with massive overcrowding that has resulted in early release of inmates after serving only a fraction of their sentences. A county study completed earlier this year found that the jail is outdated, understaffed and riddled with security flaws, and that dangerous inmates are frequently mingled with the general population.

One sheriff's deputy, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Thursday that the department has trouble maintaining order at the jail because there are not enough deputies. Even if the room in which the inmate was killed had windows, there wouldn't have been enough deputies to watch them, the deputy said.

The Sheriff's Department has long maintained that it needs at least 9,000 deputies and can barely do the job with its staff of 7,800. The Board of Supervisors allocated additional money to hire more deputies earlier this year aimed at improving the jails. But officials said they have struggled to boost the department's ranks because of slow recruitment and heavy attrition.

In Wednesday's killing, investigators believe the attackers were angry because the victim cut in line to receive his dinner tray while the inmates were still being guarded. The suspects waited until jailers left to punish the inmate, who they felt had disrespected them, officials said.

While the attack was occurring, deputies searching nearby cells found three knives made by inmates, Undersheriff Larry Waldie said.

After 20 minutes, the deputies returned to the room and found the victim lying near the toilet, with blood covering the floor, walls and the bench from which the inmates jumped onto the victim, officials said.

"It was pretty gruesome," said Benjamin Jones, deputy chief of the sheriff's Office of Independent Review, which will monitor the department's internal investigation

One of the suspects, Christian Perez, 18, is awaiting trial on charges of murder. The other, Heriberto Eddie Rodriguez, 24, is an alleged San Fernando Valley gang member charged with a series of kidnappings and carjackings. The victim was identified as a 35-year-old Georgia native, but his name was withheld.

"They took upon themselves to teach him a lesson. And in this case, that beating turned to murder. This was a brutal crime," Sheriff's Capt. Ray Peavy said.

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