LA County Sheriff accused of covering up violent jail fight between deputy and inmate

Video shows a deputy put his knee on a jail inmate's neck for more than 3 minutes.
LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is facing accusations of covering up a violent jail incident between a deputy and an inmate, then lying by saying that he didn't know about it for months.

Video obtained by our sister station KABC-TV in Los Angeles shows the 2021 fight, and an internal investigation report, which determined the sheriff's department buried the case because of "the potential for this incident to shed negative light on the department given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force."

That's because it happened as the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin was beginning.

"The sheriff was concerned that it was going to look bad on the department or look bad specifically on him, so the case was essentially buried," said Eli Vera.

Eli Vera is running against Villanueva to become the next sheriff, but he's also a former division chief at the sheriff's department, and retired in April after 33 years on the force.

"After becoming aware of the incident and the circumstances, I became very concerned with what I was reading and what I was learning," Vera said. "So I decided to do the only thing that was proper, and that was to hand it over to the inspector general so he can investigate it."

He's referring to what happened on March 10, 2021. L.A. County sheriff's deputies were preparing two inmates for their court appearances at the San Fernando Courthouse.

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Surveillance video obtained by KABC-TV shows one of the inmates taking several swings at a deputy, leading to a fight and eventually a takedown involving four deputies.

Sixteen seconds into the struggle, the deputy who was originally punched, Deputy Douglas Johnson, presses his knee against the inmate's head and neck.

Thirty-five seconds later, the inmate is under control, his hands cuffed. Other deputies step away, but Johnson keeps his knee pressed against the inmate's head and neck area for nearly three more minutes.

An internal report shows that inmate, Enzo Escalante, suffered only minor injuries, but the sheriff's department did not open a criminal investigation into the use of force by the deputy until late November, and has still not referred the case to the L.A. County District Attorney's Office for potential charges.

However, protocol requires that the district attorney be notified to determine if Escalante should face new charges for punching the deputy.

And the sheriff's department would open a use of force investigation into Deputy Johnson's actions.

"Of course you would expect an investigation. We're told it doesn't appear to have been the kind of investigation you would expect. And so the question is why?" said L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman.

Huntsman's office oversees and monitors the sheriff's department. He says he has opened an investigation into the alleged cover-up by Villanueva

For his part, Villanueva held a news conference addressing the case and said he was unaware of the fight and knee-on-the-neck procedure by his deputy until more than months later.

"It came to the attention of my office. And the date when that happened was actually Nov. 18," Villanueva said.

ABC7 asked to interview Villanueva but was declined. The department now says the sheriff knew of the fight in October 2021. Vera says even that date is a lie.

"The sheriff was definitely shown the video back in March of last year. There were multiple members of the organization that were there, that were present," Vera said. "It was viewed in a public place where there's other secondary people that were there that could witness it."

Vera also says the sheriff is blaming two of his highest-ranking executives for not handling the use of force case properly, and that Villanueva told Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon and Division Chief LaJuana Haselrig to retire or they would be demoted.

In a statement Monday, the sheriff's department would not comment directly on Limon or Haselrig but said that "appropriate administrative action was taken."

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