Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Gonzalez was sentenced to eight years in prison by U.S. District Judge George H. King on Monday, for his role in a jail beating ring that had been targeting visitors of inmates.
Federal officials launched an investigation in 2010 after allegations surfaced that deputies had been brutalizing visitors to the Los Angeles county jail in a windowless, secluded room and then wrote false reports claiming the victims had instigated violence.
On June 1, two deputies – officers Noel Womack and Pantamitr Zunggeemoge – broke what they called a “code of silence” and reached plea deals regarding the primary case in question which involved a man visiting his brother in the jail in 2011.
Three other officers exposed by the two were convicted on June 25, after a federal jury deliberated for only four hours, returning guilty verdicts against deputies Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, and Sgt. Gonzalez – who bragged about the attack and beating of 27-year-old Gabriel Carillo in a text message.
At the time, the officers had claimed Carillo had fought with them in a waiting area and had to be restrained. The five deputies involved in the struggle denied the man’s allegations that he had been handcuffed and beaten without cause.
That was until Deputy Womack ended years of denial by admitting officers did in fact brutalize Carillo, who was handcuffed and held to the floor in a room at the sheriff’s department’s main jail facility.
Carrillo was attacked on Feb. 26, 2011, after deputies found him carrying a cellphone in the waiting area, a violation of jail rules – a civil-rights lawsuit filed by the man said.
After discovering the cellphone, deputies said they handcuffed Carrillo and escorted him to a booking room. The officers claimed that when they released one of Carrillo’s hands for fingerprinting, he swung his elbow at them before a supervisor ordered the deputies to use force and restrain him.
Carrillo alleged in his lawsuit however, that both of his hands were handcuffed behind his back the entire time, and that the attack was unprovoked. He said he was beaten until he blacked out and then, when he came to, was sprayed with mace.
During the federal probe of the allegations, nine other officers – including former Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka and a captain – were convicted of crimes, including obstructing the investigation. Other deputies face more charges in two upcoming trials.
Carrillo was charged with battery, resisting deputies, and attempting to escape arrest. He faced up to 14 years in prison, but all charges against him were dropped a week before his criminal trial. The beating left Carrillo with a broken nose, severe bruises all over his body, cuts, and facial paralysis. He was eventually awarded $1.2 million to settle his civil suit.
Deputy Womack agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge that he lied to FBI agents when he said he did not know if Carillo was handcuffed or not. Deputy Zunggeemoge, who had faced allegations of abuse and dishonesty, also entered a guilty plea earlier this year, court records show.
The officers convicted in June were found guilty on the charges of unreasonable force and falsifying records. Ayala and Gonzalez were also convicted of conspiring to deprive Carrillo of his civil rights. Luviano and Ayala are scheduled to be sentenced later this month.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lizabeth Rhodes, the lead prosecutor in the case, said she would be asking for 70 month prison sentences for the two deputies but maintained that Sgt. Gonzalez – who supervised the incident – should receive a longer sentence because, he has exhibited “a pattern of allowing misconduct among deputies to go unchecked in the jail’s visiting center.”
On Monday, the prosecutor got her wish after Judge King rejected pleas from Gonzalez’s attorney for a much shorter sentence, saying the former Sgt. “believes he is above the law and that he can show total disrespect for the law.”
“It was a blatant crime, no different than one committed by any street criminal except that it was worse because it was committed by a law enforcement officer,” Judge King said. “This was not a surprise incident that caught him off-guard. This was a known course of action that had played out before with his knowledge.”
Defense attorneys maintained that Gonzalez and other officers were telling the truth when they wrote in reports that Carrillo’s hands had been uncuffed during the beating, but because of the testimony of Womack and Zunggeemoge – along with photographs taken the day after the incident showing handcuff marks and swollen hands – jurors determined that Carrillo was indeed cuffed.
As a result, Judge King rejected pleas for Gonzalez to have 60 days of freedom before he went prison, and ordered the Sgt. to be immediately taken into custody – where he will spend the next eight years of his life.