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Criminal Justice

Commander Claims Sheriff Villanueva Covered Up Jail Video For Many Months

Three L.A. Sheriff's deputies knees over a man; one has his knee on the man's head. Six other deputies stand watching. Two other deputies are off to the side.
A screenshot from a jailhouse surveillance video obtained by LAist shows a deputy identified as Douglas Johnson kneeling on the head of a man identified as Enzo Escalante.
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Update

Sheriff Alex Villanueva attempted to cover up a video that showed a deputy with his knee on the head of a person in custody for about three minutes because he feared people would compare it to George Floyd’s murder, according to a legal claim filed Monday by a department commander.

The man in custody, Enzo Escalante, suffered minor injuries. Deputy Douglas Johnson was holding the handcuffed Escalante down with his knee after he had punched the deputy in the face.

In his whistleblower claim, Commander Allen Castellano asserts he immediately sent the video of the March 10, 2021 incident, which was obtained by LAist, up the chain of command to Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon.

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Main lockup

The claim says Limon watched the video with Villanueva and Undersheriff Tim Murakami on or about March 15 —  many months before when the sheriff has previously said he viewed the incident. Castellano’s lawyer, Vincent Miller, said in an interview with LAist that Limon told Castellano she had watched the tape with the sheriff and undersheriff.

The incident happened inside a lockup at the San Fernando Courthouse and left Escalante with minor injuries. Castellano claims the sheriff delayed an administrative investigation into the deputy’s actions for nearly a month and prevented the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau from reviewing the incident.

“Sheriff Villanueva blocked and stalled an investigation into an excessive Use of Force (“UOF”) incident to obstruct justice and avoid bad publicity for his re-election campaign,” the complaint claims. Villanueva faces eight challengers in the June primary.

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The sheriff was not immediately available to comment when we reached out to his office.

He did address the case last month after the Los Angeles Times first reported that department officials had covered up the video. Villanueva held a news conference to say he hadn’t seen the video until November, some eight months after the incident. He said as soon as he watched it he ordered Johnson relieved from duty and called for a criminal probe.

Villanueva Cites A 'Potential Coverup' By Some Of His Senior Staff

The sheriff said the handling of the case had led him to launch an investigation into a "potential coverup" after he learned that "many people, including senior executives" in the department, failed to ensure there was a criminal investigation of the deputy, rather than just an administrative one.

As a result, Villanueva said he made "a change in our senior command." He then introduced Holly Francisco as acting assistant sheriff for countywide operations, a position that has been held by Limon.

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Villanueva also demoted Limon to captain, according to Miller.

Limon also was unavailable for immediate comment when contacted.

The claim says the sheriff’s aide, Lt. Anthony Blanchard, also watched the video on or about March 15 along with Villanueva, Limon, and Murakami at the sheriff’s headquarters inside the Hall of Justice. The complaint alleges the sheriff expressed “dismay” at the video and noted the failure of two supervisors to intervene.

“We do not need bad media at this time,” the claim asserts Villanueva said, adding that he allegedly told Limon he would “handle the matter.”

The complaint alleges Villanueva ordered that no criminal charges be filed against Escalante, who is seen on the video attacking Deputy Johnson, in an effort to prevent the recording from falling into the hands of Escalante's lawyer.

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A legal claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

Villanueva And Castellano Have A History

A criminal investigation was initiated in November only after a captain charged with reviewing use of force incidents looked at the video at the request of an internal affairs investigator, according to Miller.

Johnson has been relieved of duty and the investigation is ongoing, according to Villanueva.

The complaint alleges the sheriff retaliated against Castellano the day after the investigation began by opening an internal affairs investigation into his handling of the initial administrative investigation into the video. The claim maintains Castellano followed all department procedures and that the sheriff ordered the inquiry “with malice and to cover for his own crimes and mistakes.”

Miller said Castellano received a written reprimand.

The complaint alleges Villanueva and Castellano have a history, that the sheriff “long harbored animosity and thirst for revenge” against Castellano. It describes a 2015 incident in which Villanueva, then a lieutenant, allegedly failed to get medical aid to a person in custody who had been tased by a deputy.

Castellano, then Villanueva’s captain, reported the alleged misconduct and Villanueva was given a five-day suspension. Villanueva retired in 2018 before the discipline was finalized, the claim states.

Castellano alleges the investigation into him was also payback for his reporting Villanueva’s alleged misconduct.

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Frank Stoltze covers a new movement for criminal justice reform at a time when not everybody shares the same vision.

Corrected April 25, 2022 at 1:30 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story erroneously said the lawsuit alleged the sheriff watched the video on March 15. It claims he watched it "on or about" March 15.