Another high-ranking sheriff’s official filed a damages claim Thursday against Los Angeles County, alleging she was retaliated against and demoted by Sheriff Alex Villanueva as part Villanueva’s effort to cover up his knowledge of an altercation in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes.
Former Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon is the second department official this week to file a claim against the county over the alleged cover-up. Cmdr. Allen Castellano filed a similar claim earlier, alleging retaliation as part of an effort to downplay Villanueva’s knowledge of the use-of-force case.
The sheriff has repeatedly and vehemently denied any effort to cover up the case, insisting he was unaware of the March 10, 2021, incident until he saw surveillance video in November of that year. He has claimed in two news conferences, most recently this week, that once he saw the video in November, he took immediate action to suspend the deputy involved and initiate a criminal investigation.
Castellano, however, contended that Villanueva saw the video days after the incident occurred.
Limon backs up that allegation in her claim, which says she “brought the DVD video of the use-of-force incident on or about March 15, 2021, to Villanueva’s office and watched the video with him.”
The claim states she watched the video with the sheriff, Lt. Anthony Blanchard and Undersheriff Timothy Murakami. Murakami this week flatly denied that he watched the video in March.
“Villanueva blocked a criminal investigation into the matter, lied about the incident and claims he did not watch the video until November 2021 to fit a fake timeline,” Limon’s claim alleges.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times obtained the video and published a story detailing allegations that the sheriff’s department tried to cover up the incident due to its similarities to the Minneapolis police tactics that led to the death of George Floyd. According to Limon’s claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — the sheriff on March 29 “demanded and forced Assistant Sheriff Limon to choose between two poisonous options: retire or be demoted four ranks, to lieutenant.”
She ultimately opted for the demotion.
“The reasons for the sheriff’s misconduct were twofold, to retaliate against the complainant for being a whistleblower on several instances of illegal and other wrongful conduct and to further his cover up of an excessive use-of-force incident,” the claim states.
She repeated Castellano’s assertion that Villanueva, after watching the video, stated that “we (the department) do not need bad media at this time” and said he would “handle the matter.”
“However, by `handling the matter,’ Villanueva really meant that he would proceed to obstruct justice and direct a cover-up of the incident,” the claim states.
The March 2021 use-of-force altercation, which was first reported by the Times, occurred at the San Fernando Courthouse, where a 24-year-old inmate named Enzo Escalante allegedly punched sheriff’s Deputy Douglas Johnson in the face. Johnson and other deputies wrestled Escalante to the ground, with Johnson putting his knee on the inmate’s head.
Security video of the altercation shows Johnson keeping his knee on Escalante’s head for three minutes after he was handcuffed and did not appear to be resisting.
After the Times published the story and video, Villanueva held a news conference and denied any effort to cover up the incident. He acknowledged that there were internal failures in the department, saying a criminal investigation should have begun immediately after the altercation, but only an administrative probe was launched. He insisted he didn’t see the video until November, and immediately launched the criminal investigation.
Villanueva reiterated that timeline Tuesday, again denying any type of cover-up or retaliation.
“When it comes to cover-ups or whistleblowers, I don’t see what was covered up or what whistle was blown, because that’s a mystery,” he said.
He labeled Castellano’s damages claim part of an ongoing political attack aimed at derailing his re-election bid.
He also lashed out the Times, saying Tuesday during his news conference that reporter Alene Tchekmedyian was one of three people being examined as part of a criminal investigation into the leak of the surveillance video. After coming under fire from the Times, members of the Board of Supervisors and other journalism groups, the sheriff walked back his statements Tuesday night, denying that he ever said Tchekmedyian was under criminal investigation.
He went as far during his news conference to display a large photo of the reporter, election challenger Eli Vera and county Inspector General Max Huntsman, while describing the type of possible criminal charges being probed in relation to the leak of the video.
“When you take this entire thing into context you realize that there’s a lot of people working in concert and coordination,” the sheriff said during his news conference. “That includes the L.A. Times. That includes people that obviously want to defeat me electorally. That includes the (Board of Supervisors)-appointed inspector general and the (Civilian) Oversight Commission. A lot of people working overtime and they’re doing it as best they can, so there’ll be more of this nonsense thrown at me until June 7, but it is what it is.”