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Criminal Justice

Second Top Official Accuses LA Sheriff Villanueva Of Coverup In Controversial Jail Video Case

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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Robin Limon, who once occupied a place inside Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s inner circle, filed a whistleblower claim Thursday accusing Villanueva of attempting to cover up a video of a deputy placing his knee on the head of a handcuffed incarcerated man for three minutes. It’s the second claim from a top department official accusing the sheriff of trying to bury the controversial video.

In the video, which was obtained by LAist, Deputy Douglas Johnson is seen kneeling on the head of a passive Enzo Escalante inside the lockup at the San Fernando Courthouse. Escalante had punched Johnson in the face.

Main lockup

Limon, who was recently demoted from assistant sheriff to lieutenant, states she watched the video with Villanueva days after the March 2021 incident and claims the sheriff proceeded to block a criminal investigation into the deputy’s actions.

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“We do not need bad media at this time,” the sheriff allegedly said after seeing the video, according to Limon's claim.

A legal claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

The Connection To The George Floyd Case

The incident occurred during the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. According to Limon, the sheriff was concerned people would compare the video to that of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck.

Villanueva maintains he did not see the video until November and, at that point, immediately ordered a criminal investigation. He was not immediately available for comment on Limon’s claims.

In her claim, Limon asserts Undersheriff Tim Murakami and Captain Anthony Blanchard also watched the video with Villanueva. Both were asked about the meeting during a Tuesday news conference held by the sheriff.

“The claim in March is false,” Murakami said when asked by reporters. “It never happened.”

“The video was never seen in March the way it was presented,” said Blanchard. Neither Murakami nor Blanchard elaborated.

Allegation Of Retaliation

Limon is the first person to claim firsthand knowledge that the sheriff saw the video a few days after the March 2021 incident.

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Limon claims Villanueva retaliated against her last month when news of the video first surfaced. She claims he ordered her to retire or be demoted to lieutenant “to further his cover up of an excessive use of force incident.” Limon also claims he was retaliating against her for previous instances of her raising concerns about other “wrongful conduct.”

When Villanueva was elected, he promoted Limon three ranks from lieutenant to chief and within months made her an assistant sheriff. She was demoted March 29, four days after the L.A. Times first reported on the controversial video, according to her attorney, Vincent Miller.

'Abusive, Racist, And Sexist Language'

As an assistant sheriff, Limon met regularly with Villanueva. She claims she witnessed him retaliate against people with differing opinions and use “abusive, racist, and sexist language.”

“This language has been used to describe various Department members, elected and appointed officials, and members of the public,” her claim states.

Limon also describes corruption, nepotism, and an office where the sheriff’s wife, Vivian Villanueva, looms large.

When Limon urged Villanueva to allow department executives to select the best people to promote, the sheriff allegedly said it is “His Department!” and “He and Vivian” (his wife, who is not employed by the department) will select people as they see fit because Vivian “is a very good judge of character.”

Limon claims she has “witnessed the Sheriff take photos of promotional and transfer lists and send them to his wife for approval or disapproval.”

The result: “the Sheriff has repeatedly promoted individuals who are not qualified for the positions and have been found to have committed wrongful acts or are under investigation for having done wrongful, even illegal acts,” her claim states.

In one case, he promoted a lieutenant to captain “despite prior founded administrative investigations and allegations of sexual misconduct.”

Villanueva also allegedly ordered Limon to allow a lieutenant who had been arrested by the Beverly Hills Police Department for alleged domestic abuse to come back to work before the completion of an internal affairs investigation. The arrest occurred “in public while drinking alcohol with his firearm on him.”

Robin Limon in a portrait photo wearing her Los Angeles Sheriff's Department uniform, which includes a six-pointed Sheriff's badge and three stars on each side of the shirt collar.
Former L.A. Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon has filed a whistleblower claim alleging Sheriff Alex Villanueva attempted to cover up a controversial jail video.
(Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department)

Limon said in the claim that Villanueva told her that his wife “talked to the employee’s wife and it was now ‘a big nothing.'”

Limon also alleges department personnel are working on Villanueva’s re-election campaign during their work hours.

She describes two employees who “during work hours organized various events where political campaign activities were taking place in violation of Department policy, and possibly in violation of the law.”

She “warned the Sheriff numerous times regarding these violations, but the Sheriff disregarded these warnings,” according to Limon’s claim.

Villanueva has described a "potential coverup" of the video by subordinates and says he ordered an investigation 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, the position that had been held by Limon.

Second Whistleblower Claim This Week

This is the second claim from a top sheriff’s official that Villanueva engaged in a coverup.

In his whistleblower claim filed Monday, Commander Allen Castellano, who at the time helped oversee courthouse operations, said he immediately sent the video up the chain of command to Limon. Castellano “had serious concerns the UOF [Use of Force] was excessive, illegal, and put the inmate’s life at risk.”

Villanueva has called Castellano a “disgruntled employee.”

Limon alleges the sheriff took several actions to hide the video, including ordering that no criminal case be filed against Escalante, who punched Deputy Johnson. “Villanueva knew that if assault charges were filed against the inmate, his defense attorney would have gotten access to the video and the public could see it,” the complaint states.

Villanueva has opened a criminal investigation into the leak of the video to the L.A. Times, which first reported on it last month. He came under intense criticism after he displayed a photo of L.A. Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian at Tuesday’s news conference and said “all subjects to the act are subject to the investigation."

After the video of the press conference went viral and drew national attention, Villanueva posted a tweet on Tuesday evening that said, in part, “We have no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters.”

The Sheriff's Department declined to respond to either of the whistleblower complaints. In a statement, it wrote, "Due to multiple active investigations, and two civil lawsuits, we are unable to comment further at this time. We look forward to presenting the facts in court.”

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Updated April 29, 2022 at 9:33 AM PDT
This story was updated to include a statement from the Sheriff's Department.
Updated April 28, 2022 at 3:15 PM PDT
This story was updated to include additional details from Robin Limon's whistleblower claim.