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Deputies in federal jail abuse case plead not guilty

March 06, 2014|By Robert Faturechi
  • Handcuffs dangle from a handrail in one of the open dorm areas of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility dedicated to mentally ill inmates.
Handcuffs dangle from a handrail in one of the open dorm areas of the Twin… (Los Angeles Times )

Two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies pleaded not guilty Thursday in connection with allegations that they assaulted a handcuffed inmate, according to a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

Deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez were the latest in a string of 21 current and former sheriff's officials charged by federal authorities in connection with the FBI's three-year investigation into brutality and other misconduct in the Sheriff’s Department.

Last month, federal authorities alleged that Aguiar and Ramirez violated the civil rights of the inmate by assaulting him Feb. 11, 2009, inside Men's Central Jail. Prosecutors contend that the man was handcuffed to a waist chain during the attack. The indictment accused the deputies of kicking the inmate in the head and upper body, striking him with a flashlight and pepper-spraying him in the face.

Both were released on $25,000 bonds, authorities said.

The alleged beating initially got public attention after a jail chaplain came forward to say that he witnessed the 2009 incident and believed the deputies assaulted a helpless inmate. But sheriff's officials had  rejected allegations that the deputies used excessive force, and the sheriff's watchdog signing off on the department's findings.

The indictment identified the inmate as BP, but a district attorney's memo identifies him as Brett Phillips.

According to that memo, four sheriff's deputies wrote reports explaining that the force was used after Phillips tried to assault Aguiar. Aguiar and Ramirez, the memo says, punched Phillips five to eight times in the rib area while Ramirez struck the inmate two to three times in the leg and elbow with a flashlight.

Sgt. Ernie Barbosa corroborated the deputies' account by saying that he saw the inmate try to kick the deputies, according to the memo, which identified the other deputies involved in the force as Mario Pinedo and Rene Madrid. (The federal indictment states that the grand jury knows of other people involved in the incident but does not identify anyone other than Aguiar and Ramirez.)

Medical records from the jail show that Phillips suffered two raised bruises on his forehead, including one with a cut, but no fractures. A nurse noted scrapes to both of the inmate's wrists and his left eyebrow, according to the memo.

Federal prosecutors say Aguiar and Ramirez submitted reports that falsely claimed the inmate tried to head-butt Aguiar and kick at deputies.

A day after the incident, a chaplain said, he came forward to say that he was a witness. In a report that he gave to the department days later, Deacon Paulino Juarez wrote that he watched in horror as deputies beat the inmate bloody as the victim shouted, "Please stop!" He said the deputies kicked and stomped on the inmate.

"I felt that I had witnessed a crime," he wrote.

Nevertheless, the department concluded that the force was within policy.

More than two years later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a sworn statement by Juarez about the incident in court, along with dozens of other declarations alleging mistreatment of other inmates in the county's jail system.

In his declaration, Juarez said he was fearful after witnessing the assault and said passing deputies would call him "rat" and other insults. After hearing nothing for two years, Juarez reached out to the department and was granted a meeting with then-Sheriff Lee Baca.

The sheriff, Juarez recalled, said he had never heard about the incident.

"This happened two years ago and I'm only finding out about it now?" Baca asked his executive staff, according to the chaplain. Baca looked over the file, about 10 pages long, and told the chaplain that his investigators had determined the inmate was schizophrenic. Juarez said Baca told him that deputies had to punch the inmate a couple of times to get him into the cell. "Punches are allowed, but kicks are not allowed in my department," Baca said, according to Juarez.

According to the chaplain, Baca said his investigators determined that the bruises were the result of being run over by a car before the inmate was incarcerated, not from a beating.

In response to the ACLU's complaints, a sheriff's task force launched an investigation into the incident in October 2011. The deadline for filing criminal charges in state court was four months later, but the Sheriff's Department did not forward the results to the district attorney's office until January 2013.

Sheriff's officials said in February that Aguiar was relieved of duty in October 2012 for a separate issue while Ramirez had continued to work in the jails. Capt. Mike Parker said at the time that the department would begin the process of relieving Ramirez of duty without pay.

The department's did not provide an update on their statuses Thursday.

In December, 18 current and former deputies were charged with beating jail inmates and visitors, trying to intimidate an FBI agent, and other crimes after a two-year investigation of corruption in the jails. All of those defendants have pleaded not guilty.

Another former deputy, Gilbert Michel, has pleaded guilty to one count of bribery in connection with his role in bringing a cellphone into the jail for an inmate who was working as an FBI informant.

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robert.faturechi@latimes.com

Twitter: RobertFaturechi

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