A sheriff’s commander who reviewed a controversial use of force incident that Villanueva previously ordered buried, blew the whistle to his own demise. But internal mechanisms triggered by him worked to forcibly involve Sheriff Villanueva long before the sheriff says he knew about the alleged abuse. In the end, Sheriff Villanueva jumps into lifeboat with all life vests, sending top executives to the bottom.
After a long track record of resisting external oversight and blaming others for anything that goes awry in his department, it is ironic that Sheriff Villanueva’s own policies and internal oversight could be the ticket to exposing his own corruption. The same practices that sent Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka to Federal prison look to be alive and well from Villanueva’s Office of the Sheriff who ran a campaign largely trumpeting “reform” needed in the wake of the FBI investigation into systemic inmate abuse. But the actual reform and safeguards put in place prior to his election have caught Villanueva in a trap that was set long ago by Sheriff McDonnell.
As a result of the inmate abuse scandal, special review processes were put in place by Interim Sheriff John Scott and Sheriff Jim McDonnell that added a layer of review for use of force incidents between prisoners and department personnel. In a nutshell, the final determination as to whether or not violence against an inmate is justified was taken from the unit captain and placed in the hands of the division commander. This upper echelon layer of approval was added as a mechanism to prevent coverups from originating at lower department levels but in this case, it exposed a cover-up originating from the very top of the department.
What Actually Happened?
On March 10, 2021, the country was fixated on the death of George Floyd as the trial of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin entered day two. At the center of what was largely known at the time, Chauvin was on trial for murdering Floyd by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for several minutes. March 10, 2021 was also the day Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Douglas Johnson was assaulted by an inmate and was caught on video kneeling on the head of that inmate named Enzo Escalante for three minutes. Inmate Escalante was not alone. Another inmate named Roger Ortiz was also involved in the same incident with Deputy Johnson and other assisting deputies. Both Escalante and Ortiz were subdued by deputies with physical force that triggered a standard department process of review.
The Optics and Coverup
No one can forget the riots, calls for more police oversight, and demands to defund the police that followed the George Floyd incident. Notably ironic to this story is the fact that Villanueva’s vehement opposition to those calls was based on his own self-assessment that the sheriff’s department under his command was immune to corruption because he claimed to have fulfilled a campaign promise to “reform” the department from the top down. But the timeline on the Escalante incident from beginning to end blows Villanueva’s’ recent denial of a coverup, out of the water.
When use of force occurs anywhere inside the system of LA County jails especially those involving assaults against staff, a few things occur that are normally a part of the routine process. First, a crime report is written alleging assault and battery on a police officer. Simultaneous to the criminal investigation is an internal investigation by department managers that are designed to determine whether or not the defensive force used against the inmate was reasonable and justified under department policy and state law. On a normal course, the criminal report is reviewed by detectives, and assault charges are immediately filed against the inmate. However, the internal report usually follows a months-long process of internal review.
But since there was a video of the incident and the danger of that video becoming a bombshell was a genuine concern, especially if viewed by District Attroney George Gascon, the video of Deputy Johnson kneeling on Inmate Escalante was immediately sent to Sheriff Villanueva.
Our information from inside sources states that the video was handed over to Division Chief LaJuana Haselrig who hand walked it to the sheriff’s office where it was played for Sheriff Villanueva, Undersheriff Tim Murikami, Chief Haselrig, Assistant Sheriff Limon, and the sheriff’s aide, Lieutenant Blanchard. Under the circumstances, this is not unusual however what followed is.
THE ORDER TO COVER
There was a discussion that the use of force against inmate Escalante was at the minimum an ugly portrayal in light of the Floyd case, and could even be criminal since Deputy Johnson kneeled on the inmate’s head for three minutes. After much discussion, inside sources state that Villanueva issued the following orders.
Chief Haselrig was to separate the single-use of force incident involving two inmates and create two separate use of force incidents. This would ensure that the investigation into inmate Escalante and the force by Deputy Johnson could be compartmentalized from the less controversial use of force against inmate Roger Ortiz. Villanueva’s second order was to ensure the administrative review of the force incident was concluded in just three days which is highly irregular. Villanueva’s third order was that no criminal charges were to be filed against inmate Escalante OR the deputy.
These orders effectively prevented the video from transferring to the district attorney for review thus assuming the video would remain under the control of the sheriff’s department and never become a public record.
Now known as “a special”, every investigating supervisor in the chain of command understood that this case was to be crafted with an eye on downplaying its exposure and seriousness, in keeping with the sheriff’s orders. (Anything known as “a special” in department circles is known to mean that the sheriff wants to be in the loop or that the activity at hand was requested/directed by the sheriff himself).
The Process of Review and where the wheels came off the coverup
With the criminal case report suppressed and hidden from the district attorney’s oversight and prying eyes, the focus was squarely on the internal investigation into Deputy Johnson’s use of force. That review separate from the incident involving inmate Roger Ortiz was conducted by a sergeant at the unit level and reviewed by the unit captain, influenced by the orders passed down from the sheriff. However, when the completed administrative force review reached the desk of Commander Allen Castellano, the safeguards set in place following the jail abuse scandal worked perfectly to stop the coverup.
Upon Commander Castellano’s internal oversight of the case review, he determined the following and documented it in his official review to Chief Haselrig, Dated July 2021.
Inmates Enzo Escalante and Roger Ortiz both had force applied to them during this incident, however, only inmate Escalante was listed in this force review. Inmate Ortiz’s incident was reviewed separately as a Category 1 Us of Force, approved by the unit commander, and sent to Discovery on April 7, 2021. The incident was not reviewed at the Division level. According to Lieutenant Hernandez, a decision was made by an executive above the Division Chief to split the incident into two separate force reviews, (one for Inmate Escalante and one for Inmate Ortiz). The force reviews were requested, again by an executive above the rank of Division Chief, to be completed within three days. The force reviews should not have been separated.
A deputy was clearly assaulted by Inmate Escalante, the incident was captured on CCTV, and Inmate Escalante admitted to assaulting the deputy, yet the criminal complaint was not immediately presented to the District Attorney for filing consideration. According to Lieutenant Hernandez, Captain Jacqueline Sanchez consulted with Custody Investigative Services and it was determined the case should not be filed given the misconduct/unreasonable force allegation and the potential for this incident to shed a negative light on the Department given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force. The potential optics of an incident should not be a determining factor in whether or not a criminal complaint is filed. I discussed this issue with West Bureau operations and requested the case be presented to the District Attorney’s Office for filing consideration. At the time of this review, the case has not been filed yet.
Deputy Johnson placed his knee on the Inmate Escalante’s head and maintained pressure for a prolonged period of time, even when it appeared that Inmate Escalante was not physically resisting and complying with the deputies’ commands. In addition, two supervising line deputies, who were identified as supervisors by their uniform insignias, failed to intervene/supervise and remove Deputy Johnson from his position where he was applying pressure to Inmate Escalante’s head.
The Sh*t storm
Commander Castellano clearly identified the incestuous handling of this investigation. However, one thing is perfectly clear, any reference to an unnamed “department executive above the rank of Division Chief” is clearly referring to the Sheriff.
Once Commander Castellano was finished with his review, the “special” case was sent to his Chief, Lajuana Haselrig where it of course, died on arrival consistent with Villanueva’s orders.
Remember, Commander Castellanos’s findings were completed in July 2021, yet unbelievably in a press conference last week, Villanueva said he didn’t know about the video until November 2021 which is where Villanueva is caught in his lie. More on that in a minute.
Commander Castellanos ensured his findings (now dead on arrival with Chief Haselrig) were investigated by Internal Affairs Bureau. So far so good that is, until Internal Affairs accepted the case and read Castellano’s disposition that clearly implicated misconduct by the sheriff himself. That triggered an internal investigation implicating Chief Haselrig and anyone “above the rank of Division Chief”.
What does an internal probe of a high ranking department executive entail?
Here is where the sheriff is caught in a bald-faced lie.
Anytime a department member higher than the rank of lieutenant is under internal investigation, the sheriff is personally informed regarding the details of the alleged misconduct and the investigation is carried out by the undersheriff who in this case, is also implicated in the misconduct. Repeat, all investigations of department executives are carried out by the undersheriff with the sheriff’s direct knowledge.
So when Commander Castellano blew the whistle on the unethical orders of a department executive (meaning someone at the rank of Assistant Sheriff and higher), he triggered a landslide on the 8th floor involving the sheriff and the two highest-ranking members below him.
For his part in following sheriff’s department policy to the letter, a policy designed to provide internal oversight, Commander Castellano’s ethical efforts backfired on him. In typical Villanueva fashion, the sheriff targeted Commander Castellano and made him the subject of an internal investigation that resulted in discipline for certain matters of judgment regarding his review of Deputy Johnson’s use of force.
But there is more. Since Commander Castellano implicated the Sheriff, Undersheriff and Assistant Sheriff in his findings, they too would have been simultaneously investigated and if they weren’t, why not?
The bottom line is, it is 100 percent not believable that Sheriff Villanueva did not know about the video of his deputy kneeling on the neck of an inmate many months before his claim of November 2021.
THE BIG LEAK…
Back in July 2021 when Commander Castellano submitted his findings which triggered an internal affairs probe, the sheriff later and quietly disciplined Commander Castellano but no one else. It is not in dispute that Commander Castellano’s discipline required the stamp of approval of the sheriff which means, yes, the sheriff knew about the kneeling video and the entire incident in order to properly evaluate the amount of discipline levied against Castellano.
More notably, Villanueva did not discipline Chief Haselrig or Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon at that time. Game over, right? No, not by a long shot.
When the video and story of the alleged coverup made their way to the public in late March of this year via several media outlets, Sheriff Villanueva jumped in his lifeboat and shoved off. He announced the demotions of Assistant Sheriff Limon and the demotion of Chief Haselrig along with his claim that he did not see the video before November 2021.
It is imperative to understand that when Commander Castellano issued his findings, effectively blowing the whistle on upper management corruption, the sheriff must have known about it every step of the way.
Even the sheriff’s most staunch supporters can’t buy his claim of not knowing about the kneeling video until November 2021, especially since Castellano issued his findings back in July 2021.
The media’s revelation of this coverup simply involved existing department documents and did not reveal any new information. So why did Villanueva only act to discipline Chief Haselrig and Assistant Sheriff Limon after the incident was leaked to the media? Likely because Limon and Haselrig had acted on the orders of Villanueva the day they all watched the video together on or about March 10, 2021. Villanueva simply sacrificed their career to save his own political butt.
The sheriff said the demotions were necessary because “his staff let him down”. No sheriff, it’s instead the other way around. You are Baca and Tanaka 2.0.