Facing an upcoming election, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva did all he could to prevent a controversial video from surfacing, showing a deputy placing a knee on the neck of a non-resisting man, according to three lawsuits filed by high-ranking commanding officers within the department.
But his efforts failed because Los Angeles prosecutors announced this week that a grand jury will investigate whether the sheriff’s department mishandled the investigation of the incident captured on a security video, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Villanueva, who was elected sheriff in 2018 and faces a challenger in the November 2022, is accused of trying to cover up the incident for political reasons after telling senior executive officers “we do not need bad media at this time,” according to one of the lawsuits.
But the video was leaked to the Los Angeles Times in March, prompting Villanueva to launch a criminal investigation against the reporter and two sheriff employees whom he accused of leaking the video.
The sheriff backed off from the investigation against journalist Alene Tchekmedyian after public backlash, claiming he had never intended to investigate her, even though he displayed her photo during a press conference.
Villanueva, who was elected after campaigning as a progressive reformer, vowed to be more transparent than his predecessors, including Sheriff Lee Baca, who ran the department from 1998 until 2014 until a scandal involving abused inmates led to his resignation, conviction and three-year prison sentence in 2017
But since taking office, Villanueva has developed a reputation as a retaliatory power-hungry sheriff with a tendency to “flip the script” against those who criticize him by accusing them of the same things he is accused of doing.
He also developed a reputation of promoting deputies with histories of criminal and sexual allegations against them, including one deputy who “was arrested by the Beverly Hills Police Department for committing domestic violence against his wife, in public, while drinking alcohol with his firearm on him,” according to the lawsuit filed by Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon which you can read below.
The incident in question took place on March 10, 2021 at the San Fernando Courthouse and involves a deputy named Douglas Johnson placing a knee for more than three minutes after a short physical altercation.
Johnson, one of the deputies who took photos of the bodies in the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash in 2020, sending the images to other deputies, was leading an inmate named Enzo Escalante for a hearing.
Security video with no audio shows Johnson shoved Escalante lightly, prompting the inmate to start swinging at the deputy.
The deputy responded by swinging back and was soon able to bring him to the ground with the assistance of three other deputies. Johnson placed his knee on Escalante’s neck while the other deputies handcuffed him.
Once Escalante was handcuffed with his facedown on the ground, not resisting in any manner, the three other deputies stood up and walked away.
But Johnson remained with his knee on his neck for nearly three minutes afterwards. The deputies eventually strapped Escalante to a restraint chair and wheeled him away.
The incident took place on the second day of Derek Chauvin’s criminal trial, the former Minneapolis cop who was convicted on murder charges for the death of George Floyd by placing his knee on his neck for nine minutes.
A few days later, the video was brought to the attention of Allen Castellano, a high-ranking commander, who brought the video to the attention of Chief Lajuana Haselrig, a superior officer.
Believing that the deputy used excessive force, the two commanding officers brought the video to the attention of Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon who is ranked just under the sheriff in the department’s hierarchal system.
Limon agreed with the other two commanding officers and brought the video to Villanueva’s attention on March 15, 2021, pointing out that none of the other deputies intervened.
That was when the sheriff responded by saying “we do not need bad media at this time” and that he would be “handling the matter,” according to Limon’s lawsuit.
And by handing the matter, Villanueva proceeded to block an internal affairs investigation as well as blocking criminal charges of assault against Escalante in his effort to keep the incident out of the public eye to ensure his re-election.
Villanueva also began promoting officers to captain in the department’s West Bureau to help him coverup the incident while transferring other captains unlikely to help him to other divisions.
By July 2021, when evidence of the coverup could no longer be ignored, Castellano and Haselrig decided to blow the whistle by filing reports of their suspicions in an attempt to create a paper trail.
After many setbacks and delays, the incident was finally accepted by the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau on November 21, 2021, which investigates criminal matters instead of just policy or administrative matters which is handled by the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.
Sheriff Villanueva was livid and responded by filing an internal affairs complaint against Castellano resulting in a written reprimand against him for failing to properly handle an excessive force case, essentially blaming Castellano for what he was being accused.
Escalante, the inmate who swung at the deputy before he was taken down, was finally charged with assault in February, almost a year after the incident. But by then, Villanueva was confident he had succeeded in covering up the part of the video where the deputy placed his knee against Escalante’s neck.
However, his scheme began to fall apart a month later in March after the Los Angeles Times published the leaked video along with details of Castellano’s whistleblower complaint.
Villanueva told the Times that he did not see the video until October 2021 but when questioned by the reporter as to why he would wait a month before referring the case to the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, he changed his story again by claiming he had not seen the video until November 22, 2021, the same day the investigation was launched.
Three days after the article was published, Villanueva retaliated against Haselrig and Limon, accusing them of covering up the incident, demanding they retire immediately or face demotion.
He also announced a criminal investigation to find who leaked the video as well as one against the Los Angeles Times reporter.
But now it appears as his world is about to come crashing down with the grand jury investigation into the coverup which would implicate the sheriff as well as several other commanding officers involved.
Villanueva’s opponent in the November election is a former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna who is not nearly as popular or notorious as the sheriff. In a run-off primary election last month, Villanueva received 454,165 votes to Luna’s 382,910 votes.
But that could easily change within the next three months as more light is shed on the growing scandal.