Seven children claim they were physically and verbally abused by officers during a weeklong boot camp held in Central California that was sponsored by Huntington Park and South Gate police departments, a lawyer for the children's families said Wednesday.
Of about three dozen children and teenagers who attended the camp in San Luis Obispo, seven have come forward with accounts of abuse that occurred in May, according to Santa Clarita-based attorney Gregory Owen.
During a portion of five-month intervention program for at-risk youth -- called Leadership Empowerment and Discipline, or LEAD -- the campers were slapped, punched, beaten and had their hands and backs stepped on while they did push-ups, Owen said.
One young camper suffered broken fingers when an officer stepped on the child's hand during the May 17 to May 24 camp, Owen said.
"These officers would pull these kids into 'the dark room.'... And in the dark room, they would take these children ... by the neck, push them up against the wall," Owen said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference in Commerce. "Then they would strike them. They would beat them in the side, in the stomach, in the ribs, and in the face."
The children, ages 12 to 16, were participating in a 20-week-long program that aimed to teach discipline and leadership as well as reduce family conflict, according to a news release from Owen's law firm. The program included the weeklong camp in San Luis Obispo.
The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday that it was investigating reports of child abuse at the camp, held at a California Army National Guard Base known as Camp San Luis Obispo.
The camp is rented out to the program and is not affiliated with LEAD, the Sheriff's Office said, in conflict with Owen's news release, which alleged the state's National Guard was involved.
Detectives came to Southern California to talk to seven of the identified victims in interviews Monday and Tuesday, according to a sheriff's news release.
The investigation was ongoing and no charges had been filed Wednesday.
The Sheriff's Office was contacted by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services regarding the allegations, the sheriff's release stated.
The South Gate Police Department issued a statement about the allegations Monday, saying the chiefs of both the South Gate and Huntington Park police departments met with parents to discuss concerns over the weekend.
"Both agencies believe in complete transparency and take all allegations very seriously," the statement read. "Any matters of concern will be investigated thoroughly."
At a news conference Wednesday, parents said they want a fair investigation.
Bridget Salazar said her 13-year-old son was punched, slammed up against a wall and choked.
"He just couldn't stop crying," Salazar said. "Right there, I knew something happened."
Araceli Pulido said her daughters, aged 12 and 14, were among the seven alleging abuse. There are more campers who were hurt but they are too scared to come forward, Pulido said.
The children were allegedly told they were worthless and their parents did not love or want them, and that the camp was three months long rather than a week, according to Owen.
The “Gomez brothers” were primarily responsible for the mistreatment, the children reported.
“Many of the children are suffering from nightmares and other emotional trauma because the Gomez brothers are out on the streets. They are afraid the Gomez brothers will come after them,” Owen's news release stated.
The children were also allegedly threatened that they would be harmed if they told anyone about the abuse.
When San Luis Obispo detectives interviewed campers, the Gomez brothers were "within view of the children and were able to intimidate several of them to the point that they did not provide full accounts of what occurred,” Owen stated in his news release.
But on Wednesday, the Sheriff's Office said that the officers allegedly involved were not present during any interviews detectives conducted with children.
The Gomez brothers have since been suspended from the boot camp program but are still on patrol, lawyers believed.