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LA Sheriff Villanueva Calls Guardado Inquest ‘Circus Stunt’

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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. (L.A. Sheriff's Department)
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Sheriff Alex Villanueva Thursday decried a planned coroner’s inquest into the fatal shooting of Andres Guardado by an L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy as “a circus stunt.”

The sheriff also dismissed the County Board of Supervisors’ decision earlier this week to explore the legal options for removing or impeaching him, calling it “a power grab.”

The supervisors voted Tuesday to explore options for removing the elected sheriff beyond a voter-led recall effort.

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"They have not allowed me to actually do my job without their interference since the day I was sworn in," Villanueva said on our public affairs show AirTalk. The sheriff took office in December 2018.

In the case of Guardado, the 18-year-old killed by a deputy who shot him in the back after a foot chase in June, the supervisors directed Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas to hold a public inquest.

The coroner announced the inquest this week, saying it will begin on Nov. 30. It will be a formal public process in which witnesses can be called to testify. The inquest, the first such proceeding in more than 30 years in L.A. County, “ensures that our residents will have an independent review of all the evidence and findings of our office and of the cause and manner of death of Mr. Guardado,” Lucas said in a statement.

Villanueva said inquests can be useful but argued that the coroner has already determined the manner and cause of Guardado’s death. The coroner ruled the death a homicide.

“You’re trying to create a trial for something that already happened,” the sheriff said.

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This is the second time this year Villanueva finds himself at odds with the coroner over the Guardado case. In July, Lucas overrode a "security hold" by the sheriff's department and released the autopsy, which determined that Deputy Miguel Vega shot Guardado five times in the back.

Villanueva said the coroner's decision to release the autopsy before the department had been able to interview Vega amounted to interference. He accused Lucas of having “sacrificed the integrity of the investigation in a bid to satisfy public curiosity.”

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Demonstrators protest outside the home of LASD Deputy Miguel Vega, who shot and killed Andres Guardado. (Brian Feinzimer For LAist)

RESISTING OVERSIGHT

The sheriff disputed complaints from both County Inspector General Max Huntsman and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission that he has been uncooperative in investigating deputy shootings.

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Villanueva continued his war of words with Huntsman, calling him “a political attack dog of the board [of supervisors].”

Huntsman, who is charged with monitoring department practices, has said Villanueva refuses to provide documents and access to department personnel regarding deputy shootings, discipline, hiring and other issues.

As he has in the past, the sheriff called Huntsman a liar: “He’s been dishonest since day one.”

Villanueva said he’s given the inspector general “everything he is legally entitled to.”

The sheriff’s comments reflected his resistance to outside oversight. In an unprecedented move last year, he accused Huntsman of illegally accessing department records and opened a criminal investigation of the inspector general.

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Villanueva’s critics called it an act of intimidation.

The county ordinance that created the Office of Inspector General in part provides him access to department “information; documents; materials; facilities; and meetings, reviews, and other proceedings necessary to carry out the OIG's duties under this section.”

Villanueva also refused this year to respond to a subpoena by the Civilian Oversight Commission to testify about how he was handling coronavirus inside the jails, saying the panel didn’t have the authority to issue it.

In March, voters gave the commission subpoena power in response to a campaign to force the sheriff to be more transparent and accountable.

The sheriff is fighting the panel’s authority in court.

Echoing his criticism of Huntsman, Villanueva called the oversight commission “a political attack show.”

“Once they get their act together and they start behaving like a rational objective body I'd be more than happy to attend” commission meetings, he said.

The commission last month called for the sheriff’s resignation.

THE ARREST OF JOSIE HUANG: ‘MISTAKES MADE ON BOTH SIDES’

Villanueva also seemed to double down on his view that the arrest of our reporter, Josie Huang, was justified, while saying “there [were] mistakes made on both sides.”

Huang was tackled and arrested Sept. 12 during a small protest outside a hospital where two deputies were being treated after being shot in an ambush hours earlier.

“She got way too close to the action” while filming deputies making an arrest, the sheriff said, while adding that the deputies “were too quick in arresting her … they should have given her more time to comply” with their order to move back.

The department still charged Huang with obstructing justice. On Sept. 22, District Attorney Jackie Lacey declined to prosecute her, noting that "while deputies had reason to ask her to back up, Ms. Huang was not given the opportunity to comply with their demand."

Villanueva has repeatedly claimed, inaccurately, that Huang did not identify herself as a reporter and that she refused to comply with deputies' orders to stand back.

We debunked many of the sheriff’s claims in a previous story, which you can read here.

Huang’s arrest was decried by journalism organizations and First Amendment advocates.

The sheriff acknowledged on AirTalk that Huang was, in fact, wearing a work ID that clearly showed she was with KPCC, but he said that she did not identify herself until she was already on the ground being handcuffed, and that it was unlikely deputies would recognize "KPCC" as a local news organization.

The public should consider the "human element," the sheriff argued, and recognize that in the heat of the moment, when a handful of protesters were chanting for the deaths of deputies, it may have been difficult to tell Huang apart from the crowd.

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