Current and Former Deputies Charged with Federal Crimes, including Illegal Beatings of Jail Inmates and Obstruction of Justice
LOS ANGELES – LawFuel.com – Five criminal cases that charge a total of 18 current or one-time deputy sheriffs of various ranks were unsealed today as part of ongoing and wide-ranging FBI investigation into allegations of civil rights violations and corruption involving members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Four grand jury indictments and one criminal complaint allege crimes that include unjustified beatings of jail inmates and visitors at downtown Los Angeles jail facilities, unjustified detentions and a conspiracy to obstruct a federal investigation into misconduct at the Men’s Central Jail.
Federal authorities announced the charges after 16 of the defendants were taken into custody earlier today. Those defendants are expected to be arraigned on the charges this afternoon in United States District Court in Los Angeles.
“The five cases allege a wide scope of illegal conduct,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. “This investigation started by focusing on misconduct in county jails, and we uncovered examples of civil rights violations that included excessive force and unlawful arrests.
“Our investigation also found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum – in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized. The pattern of activity alleged in the obstruction of justice case shows how some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law. Instead of cooperating with the federal investigation to ensure that corrupt law enforcement officers would be brought to justice, the defendants in this case are accused of taking affirmative steps designed to ensure that light would not shine on illegal conduct that violated basic constitutional rights.”
Bill Lewis, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, commented: “The defendants charged in this case are facing serious allegations, including violating the trust of the public they were sworn to serve. It is equally as important to point out that these charges should not reflect on the thousands of men and women of the Sheriff’s Department who proudly serve the citizens of Los Angeles County, and who partner with the FBI in a variety of crime areas.”
This morning, FBI agents took into custody 16 of the 18 defendants named in four indictments and one criminal complaint. Most of the defendants were arrested at various LASD facilities.
The five cases, which are part of an ongoing investigation, were unsealed this morning.
United States v. Brunsting and Branum, CR13-573
Two deputy sheriffs – Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum – are charged in a six-count indictment with civil rights violations and making false statements in reports. Brunsting, who was a training officer, is charged in relation to an incident in which an inmate allegedly was assaulted and suffered bodily injury. Both Brunsting and Branum are charged in another assault. The victims were inmates at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where both deputies worked. Following the two incidents, the indictment alleges that Brunsting used deputies he was training to file reports that covered up the abuse. This case is being handled by Assistant United States Attorneys Brandon Fox (213-894-0284), Lizabeth A. Rhodes (213-894-3541) and Margaret Carter (213-894-7413) of the Civil Rights and Public Corruption Section.
United States v. Gonzalez, et al., CR13-574
This indictment charges a sergeant and four deputies with civil rights violations that allege they arrested or detained five victims – including the Austrian consul general – when they arrived to visit inmates at the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in 2010 and 2011.
The lead defendant in this indictment – Sergeant Eric Gonzalez, who was a supervisor in the MCJ visiting center, but no longer works for LASD – fostered an atmosphere “that encouraged and tolerated abuses of the law, including through the use of unjustified force and unreasonable searches and seizures by deputy sheriffs he supervised,” according to the indictment.
Each of the four deputies – Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack – is charged with participating in at least one of the four incidents in which victims allegedly suffered civil rights violations. In one incident, a man suffered a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder that has left him permanently disabled. In another incident, the Austrian consul general and her husband were handcuffed and detained.
United States v. Thompson, et al., CR13-819
This six-count indictment that alleges a broad conspiracy to obstruct justice charges seven sworn members of the LASD. This case developed when deputies assigned to the Men’s Central Jail – including Lieutenant Gregory Thompson, who oversaw LASD’s Operation Safe Jails Program, and Lieutenant Stephen Leavins, who was assigned to the LASD’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau – learned that an inmate was an FBI informant and was acting as a cooperator in the FBI’s corruption and civil rights investigation.
After learning that the inmate received a cellular phone from a deputy sheriff who took a bribe and that the inmate was part of a civil rights investigation, those allegedly involved in the obstruction scheme took affirmative steps to hide the cooperator from the FBI and the United States Marshals Service, which was attempting to bring the inmate to testify before a federal grand jury in response to an order issued by a federal judge. As part of the conspiracy, the deputies allegedly altered records to make it appear that the cooperator had been released. They then re-booked the inmate under a different name, and then told the cooperator that he had been abandoned by the FBI.
Over the course of several weeks, the deputy sheriffs allegedly also attempted to obtain an order from a Los Angeles Superior Court judge that would have compelled the FBI to turn over information about its investigation to LASD. After the judge refused to issue such an order, according to the indictment, two LASD sergeants who are charged in this case nevertheless confronted an FBI special agent at her residence in an attempt to intimidate her into providing details about the investigation. The sergeants falsely told the special agent and her supervisor that they were obtaining a warrant for her arrest, according to the indictment.
Thompson no longer works for LASD. The other deputies named in this indictment are Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo, and James Sexton, who were assigned to the Operation Safe Jails Program; and Scott Craig and Maricella Long, who were LASD sergeants within the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau.
United States v. Piquette, CR13-821
Deputy Richard Piquette is charged in the fourth indictment with illegally building and possessing an assault rifle. The indictment charges Piquette with possessing an unregistered Noveske Rifleworks N-4 .223 caliber rifle with a barrel length of less than 16 inches. The second count in the indictment charges Piquette with manufacturing the Noveske rifle. Piquette, who is currently on leave with LASD, was previously assigned to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. The investigation in this case was conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. This case is being handled by Assistant United States Attorney Lane Dilg of the Civil Rights and Public Corruption Section (213-894-3493).
United States v. Khounthavong, et al., 13-3105M
The fifth case unsealed today is a criminal complaint that charges three LASD deputies, all of whom are brothers, with conspiracy to make false statements to two banks in connection with a “buy-and-bail” mortgage fraud scheme. The complaint alleges that the three deputies – Billy Khounthavong, Benny Khounthavong, and Johnny Khounthavong – made false statements and reports to Flagstar Bank to purchase a 3,900-square-foot residence in Corona. The brothers then made additional false statements and reports to Bank of America in relation to another large residence they owned. The brothers walked away from – or “bailed” on – that home in which they were “under water,” meaning they owed substantially more than the residence was worth. As a result of the scheme, the brothers allegedly avoided more than $340,000 of unpaid mortgage debt. Benny Khounthavong and Johnny Khounthavong are assigned to LASD jail facilities. This case is being handled by Assistant United States Attorney Margaret Carter (213-894-7413)
An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.
The five cases announced today are part of an ongoing investigation being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.