A turn in jail beat­ing case

Deputies change sto­ries on what hap­pened to vis­i­tor, court records show.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Joel Ru­bin

The sher­iff ’s deputies all told the same story.

A man vis­it­ing his brother in Los An­ge­les County Jail, they said, fought with them in a wait­ing area and had to be re­strained. The five deputies in­volved in the strug­gle adamantly de­nied the man’s al­le­ga­tions that he had been hand­cuffed and then beaten.

Their ac­count re­mained un­changed un­der scru­tiny from in­ter­nal sher­iff ’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors, the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice and the man’s de­fense lawyers. No one wa­vered even when fed­eral au­thor­i­ties ob­tained an in­dict­ment ac­cus­ing them of as­sault and civil rights vi­o­la­tions.

But two of the deputies have now changed their sto­ries.

With their trial set to open later this month, both have struck deals with pros­e­cu­tors that re­quire them to plead guilty to crim­i­nal charges and, if called on, to tes­tify against their for­mer col­leagues, court records show.

Un­der the terms of the agree­ment he signed last week, Deputy Noel Wo­mack gave pros­e­cu­tors a new ver­sion of the vi­o­lent 2011 en­counter in a win­dow­less, se­cluded room in the Men’s Cen­tral Jail fa­cil­ity. Deputies, he said, beat the jail vis­i­tor even though the man was hand­cuffed and not re­sist­ing as he was held on the f loor, ac­cord­ing to a copy of the agree­ment re­viewed by The Times.

Wo­mack has agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge that he lied to FBI agents dur­ing an in­ter­view last month when he told them he did not know if the vis­i­tor was hand­cuffed, the agree­ment said. He ad­mit­ted to ly­ing again when he told the agents his su­per­vi­sor had or­dered him to punch the man and a third time when he said the strikes he inf licted on the man had been nec­es­sary, the agree­ment said.

The sec­ond deputy, Pan­tamitr Zunggeemoge, en­tered a guilty plea ear­lier this year, court records show. The agree­ment be­tween pros­e­cu­tors and Zunggeemoge, who faced sev­eral al­le­ga­tions of abuse and dis­hon­esty, was sealed by U.S. Dis­trict Judge Ge­orge H. King, keep­ing its de­tails se­cret.

But a court fil­ing by an­other de­fen­dant last month said that Zunggeemoge, too, has told pros­e­cu­tors that the vis­i­tor was hand­cuffed dur­ing the in­ci­dent. In his state­ment to pros­e­cu­tors, the fil­ing said, Zunggeemoge said deputies had con­cocted a story that only one of the man’s hands was cuffed to jus­tify their use of force. The fil­ing also said that Zunggeemoge has agreed to co­op­er­ate fully and tes­tify for the gov­ern­ment if pros­e­cu­tors call him as a wit­ness.

Though cut­ting deals to avoid lengthy sen­tences is a sta­ple of the jus­tice sys­tem, the pros­e­cu­tion’s abil­ity to ex­tract guilty pleas in this case is strik­ing be­cause ex­pec­ta­tions of sol­i­dar­ity run deep among law en­force­ment of­fi­cers. In their plea agree­ment with Wo­mack, pros­e­cu­tors said Wo­mack’s ac­tions high­light the pres­sures deputies are un­der to put up a united front.

“Wo­mack con­tin­ued to lie be­cause he had learned that once a deputy sher­iff writes about an in­ci­dent in a re­port, the deputy sher­iff has to stick to that ver­sion of events, even if they are lies, from that point for­ward,” pros­e­cu­tors wrote. “Wo­mack un­der­stood that he was never sup­posed to go against his part­ners.”

Wo­mack’s agree­ment re­quires him to re­sign from the L.A. County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment, and he will be banned from work­ing in law en­force­ment. Pros­e­cu­tors, for their part, will rec­om­mend to the judge that Wo­mack re­ceive no time in pri­son, ac­cord­ing to his plea agree­ment. The judge could opt to dis­re­gard the sug­ges­tion and sen­tence Wo­mack to as many as five years in pri­son, court doc­u­ments show.

With Zunggeemoge’s agree­ment sealed, what rec­om­men­da­tion, if any, pros­e­cu­tors will make on his be­half is not known. His at­tor­ney and As­sis­tant U.S. Atty. Bran­don Fox de­clined to com­ment.

The plea agree­ments mark the first time in the last two decades that a sher­iff ’s deputy has been con­victed in fed­eral court of crimes re­lated to ex­ces­sive force, a spokesman for the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice said. Last year, the of­fice se­cured con­vic­tions against seven sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials ac­cused of ob­struct­ing the FBI’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into claims of bru­tal­ity by deputies in the jail.

The guilty pleas have scram­bled the makeup of the ap­proach­ing bru­tal­ity trial, which is sched­uled to begin June 16. In se­cur­ing the deputies’ help, pros­e­cu­tors scored a po­ten­tially po­tent ad­van­tage in their ef­fort ei­ther to ex­tract more guilty pleas or con­vict the three re­main­ing de­fen­dants at trial. With­out the first­hand ac­counts from the deputies, the case would rest heav­ily on the abil­ity of the beaten man and other al­leged vic­tims to con­vince ju­rors of what hap­pened.

But Joseph Avra­hamy, an at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing one of the other de­fen­dants, Sgt. Eric Gon­za­lez, a su­per­vi­sor at the jail vis­i­tor cen­ter on the day of the in­ci­dent, said the about-face by Wo­mack and Zunggeemoge are trans­par­ent bids to pro­tect them­selves at the ex­pense of the oth­ers.

“They are go­ing to have se­ri­ous cred­i­bil­ity is­sues,” Avra­hamy said of the pair. They have been very con­sis­tent through­out in their ac­counts of what hap­pened and now, sud­denly, they’re chang­ing their sto­ries. I think a jury will be able to see right through that. There was never a mo­ti­va­tion for them to lie be­fore. Now there is.”

Along with Wo­mack, Zunggeemoge and Gon­za­lez, the grand jury in­dict­ment ac­cuses deputies Sussie Ayala and Fer­nando Lu­viano of civil rights abuses. Gon­za­lez, Ayala and Lu­viano have pleaded not guilty.

Lu­viano’s at­tor­ney, Bernard Rosen, ac­knowl­edged that the de­ci­sion of the two deputies to co­op­er­ate with pros­e­cu­tors poses po­ten­tial prob­lems. But he down­played the sig­nif­i­cance of what they might tes­tify to on the wit­ness stand, say­ing their new ac­counts of the in­ci­dent “sup­port much” of what Lu­viano con­tends oc­curred. Rosen de­clined to elab­o­rate.

“Any time the gov­ern­ment tells a jury they’ve got more than one wit­ness, it makes things more dif­fi­cult,” Rosen said. “My client in­sists he’ll be go­ing to trial and is con­fi­dent he’ll be ex­on­er­ated…. Some peo­ple look for­ward to their day in court. Oth­ers don’t.”

The al­le­ga­tions against the group stem from sev­eral en­coun­ters with vis­i­tors to the Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment’s main jail fa­cil­ity in 2010 and 2011. In each of the episodes, some or all of the deputies are ac­cused of detaining peo­ple with­out le­git­i­mate rea­sons and, in all but one of the in­ci­dents, as­sault­ing them in a room deputies used dur­ing work breaks.

Pros­e­cu­tors por­trayed Gon­za­lez in the in­dict­ment as a ring­leader who “would main­tain, per­pet­u­ate and foster an at­mos­phere and en­vi­ron­ment … that en­cour­aged and tol­er­ated abuses of the law by deputies.”

The case cen­ters on the al­ter­ca­tion in late Fe­bru­ary 2011 with Gabriel Car­rillo. Car­rillo, who had come to jail to visit his brother, was de­tained with his girl­friend af­ter Zunggeemoge be­came sus­pi­cious that the woman was car­ry­ing a cell­phone in vi­o­la­tion of jail rules.

Car­rillo said some­thing com­bat­ive that an­gered one of the deputies, which led to the beat­ing, ac­cord­ing to pros­e­cu­tors’ ac­count. Based on the deputies’ re­ports and their tes­ti­mony in court pro­ceed­ings, the Los An­ge­les County dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice pur­sued a crim­i­nal case against Car­rillo on charges of as­sault­ing law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

Days be­fore the trial, the dis­trict at­tor­ney sud­denly dropped the charges. Car­rillo’s at­tor­ney found ev­i­dence he said showed that Car­rillo had suf­fered in­juries on both his wrists con­sis­tent with be­ing hand­cuffed dur­ing the strug­gle.

The county later paid Car­rillo $1.2 mil­lion to set­tle a civil law­suit.

In the state­ment he gave pros­e­cu­tors as part of his plea deal, Wo­mack said he copied an­other deputy’s re­port of the in­ci­dent in­volv­ing Car­rillo to make sure his ac­count was in line with the oth­ers. He added that he watched as Gon­za­lez later laid out all the deputies’ re­ports on a ta­ble to com­pare them and “en­sure their con­sis­tency.”

Lawrence K. Ho Los An­ge­les Times

TWO SHER­IFF’S DEPUTIES have agreed to plead guilty to crim­i­nal charges and, if called on, to tes­tify in a case in­volv­ing al­leged beat­ings of jail vis­i­tors, ac­cord­ing to court records.

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