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FBI Jails Investigation Leads to Charges Against 18 Sheriff’s Officials

Eighteen current and former members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were charged with a variety of crimes in an ongoing FBI investigation into alleged abuse of inmates and visitors at jails, federal authorities announced Monday, Dec. 9.

MCJ

Many of the charges in the indictments related to alleged abuses at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, shown in this file photo. (Credit: KTLA(

The continuing, “wide-ranging” investigation generated four grand jury indictments and one criminal complaint that allege a conspiracy to obstruct justice, civil rights violations and making false statements.

Some of the accused allegedly attempted to disrupt the federal investigation focused on alleged misconduct at downtown Los Angeles jails.

Two lieutenants, three sergeants and 13 deputies were charged. Sixteen of them appeared for arraignment hearings in U.S. District Court Monday.

The cases are detailed below. Click the headings to read the original court documents.

Twin Towers Case: Six Counts (PDF)

In one indictment filed Nov. 13, federal prosecutors allege Deputy Bryan Brunsting was training another unnamed deputy at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in 2010 when he instructed the trainee and Deputy Jason Branum to assault an inmate for “verbally disrespecting” a custody assistant, according to the indictment.

The inmate was struck, kicked and pepper-sprayed, according to the indictment. Brunsting and Branum allegedly then wrote false reports about the incident. They were each charged with deprivation of the inmate’s rights, making false statements and civil rights conspiracy.

The indictment also charges Brunsting with covering up an alleged assault on another inmate in 2009, resulting in two counts of making false statements and one of deprivation of rights under color of law.

Brunsting and Branum pleaded not guilty Monday.

Men’s Central Jail Visiting Center Case: Six Counts (PDF)

A second grand jury indictment, filed Aug. 15,  details alleged misconduct in 2010 and 2011 at the visitors center at the Men’s Central Jail, where Sgt. Eric Gonzalez was accused of encouraging deputies to use excessive force against those who came to see inmates.

“Gonzalez would reprimand deputy sheriffs he supervised for not using force on visitors to the MCJ if the visitors had supposedly ‘disrespected’ these deputy sheriffs through the visitors’ words or conduct,” the indictment states.

Gonzalez bragged about the use of force at the visitors center, according to the indictment.

One visitor was thrown against the wall by deputies and then detained for six days on suspicion of resisting an officer until he was release with no charges, the indictment states.

Another visitor was allegedly pepper-sprayed after being thrown to the floor.

In yet another example, a consular official from Austria was allegedly handcuffed and detained despite having committed no crime.

On various counts of deprivation of rights, Gonzalez and Deputies Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack were charged in the indictment.

With the exception of Luviano, the defendants are all charged with a civil rights conspiracy and accused of filing false reports.

All four deputies pleaded not guilty and were freed on bond Monday. Gonzalez had not been taken into custody but was expected to surrender and was not considered a fugitive, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.

Obstruction of Justice Case: Six Counts (PDF)

In a third grand jury indictment, two lieutenants, two sergeants and three deputies were charged in an alleged scheme to disrupt and obstruct the FBI investigation into possible civil rights abuses at the jails. The indictment was filed Nov. 20.

The indictment details treatment of an inmate who was an FBI informant. In 2011, once jailers discovered the man — named only as “AB” in court documents — was in custody at the Men’s Central Jail, they allegedly moved him to a remote location in the San Dimas Station jail. First they allegedly made it appear in false records that he had been released and then rebooked him under a fake name.

They intended to hide the informant from FBI investigators, the complaint alleges, and tried to convince the informant not to work with the FBI, telling him federal investigators had abandoned him.

Lt. Gregory Thompson, who oversaw a program called Operation Safe Jails and the jail investigations unit, and Lt. Stephen Leavins, who worked in the Internal Criminal Investigation Bureau and investigated crimes committed by sheriff’s personnel, were charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Deputies Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo and James Sexton, who worked in the “safe jails” program, where also charged with conspiracy and with obstruction of justice in the alleged scheme related to “AB.”

Also part of the case were allegations that Leavins instructed Sgts. Scott Craig and Maricella Long to approach an FBI special agent outside her home after surveilling her.

Craig and Long allegedly told the agent that she was a suspect in a  felony complaint and soon to be subject to arrest. Long then allegedly falsely told the agent’s supervisor that she would be arrested.

Craig also unsuccessfully sought a Superior Court judge’s order to compel the FBI to disclose information about the ongoing investigation.

Craig and Long were each charged with obstruction of justice and making false statements.

With the exception of Sexton, the suspects in this case appeared in court Monday but were not arraigned. Another arraignment hearing was scheduled for Dec. 16.

Sexton was expected to surrender and was not considered a fugitive, the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated.

Illegal Weapons Case: Two Counts (PDF)

In one of two cases that came about during the investigation into jails, according to U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr., Deputy Richard White Piquette was charged with possession of an unregistered assault rifle that he had allegedly illegally modified. The indictment was filed Nov. 21.

Piquette pleaded not guilty on Monday.

Mortgage Fraud Case: Three Counts (PDF)

In a 21-page criminal complaint that resulted from the jails investigation, three deputies, all brothers, were charged with conspiracy in an alleged mortgage fraud scheme.

Billy, Benny and Johnny Khounthavong allegedly conspired to make false statements to banks related to a loan to buy a home in Corona and to the short sale of a home in Chino.

The scheme allegedly allowed the brothers to avoid paying $340,000 in mortgage debt, according to the complaint, which was filed Dec. 5.

The brothers appeared in court Monday but were not asked to enter a plea. A preliminary hearing was set for Dec. 30.