LOS ANGELES (AP) — One of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s closest advisers says she was told to choose between retirement or demotion after raising questions about his handling of the investigation into a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head for several minutes.
The March 10, 2021, incident was captured on video and Robin Limon, who was an assistant sheriff, said she watched it five days later with Villanueva and two other sheriff’s officials, according to a legal claim -- a precursor to a lawsuit -- filed Thursday by Limon’s attorney. She expected Villanueva would act quickly but internal and criminal investigations of the deputy were delayed.
Limon grew frustrated with Villanueva's handling of the case and overall oversight of the agency of the nation's largest sheriff's department, which has about 10,000 deputies. Things came to a head last month when Villanueva demanded she choose “between two poisonous options:" retirement or a four-step demotion to the rank of lieutenant, the claim said. She instead took a leave.
“The reasons for the Sheriff’s misconduct were twofold, to retaliate against the Complainant for being a whistleblower on several instances of illegal and other wrongful conduct and to further his cover up of an excessive use of force incident," the claim said, referring to the deputy kneeling on the inmate.
Villanueva has denied any wrongdoing in his handling of the case. He maintains he did not see the video until eight months after the incident.
A statement issued Thursday by the department said there would be no comment on Limon's claim. “We look forward to presenting the facts in court," the statement said.
Limon's claim is the second filed against the sheriff over the incident, which occurred in a county courthouse two days after jury selection began for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of murder for pressing his knee against George Floyd’s neck for up to 9 1/2 minutes.
Both accuse him of orchestrating a cover-up to limit any political damage from the video — Villanueva is running for a second term — which came into the public domain last month when the Los Angeles Times reported on the incident and posted the video, which it obtained from an unidentified source.
The Times was first to report on Limon's claim, which came two days after Villanueva held a news conference and said a criminal investigation was underway to determine how the video was leaked. He said the Times reporter who broke the news last month was part of the probe.
That assertion brought quick condemnation from the paper, First Amendment advocates and local politicians. Within hours Villanueva walked back his remarks and said the agency was not pursuing charges against any reporters.
The Associated Press and more than two dozen other media outlets and organizations sent Villanueva a letter Thursday saying his actions were "an affront to the First Amendment and a violation of your public trust with the people of Los Angeles.”
According to Limon, it was Villanueva's desire to “avoid bad publicity" that led him to attempt to cover up the incident with the deputy.
In the video, Deputy Douglas Johnson is shown directing inmate Enzo Escalante to move up against a wall in the courthouse. Escalante punches at Johnson and other deputies help wrestle Escalante to the ground and handcuff him.
Johnson then had his knee on Escalante’s head for more than three minutes, the Times reported, even after the inmate had been handcuffed, placed face-down and did not appear to be resisting. Escalante — who was awaiting trial on murder and other charges — was taken to the hospital for treatment of minor injuries.
Johnson was removed from duty months later and is under criminal investigation, Villanueva said Tuesday. Prosecutors are reviewing Johnson's case but no charges have yet been brought.
Escalante has pleaded not guilty to two counts of resisting an officer. He has filed a federal lawsuit against members of the sheriff’s department, including Villanueva, that alleges his civil rights were violated.