LA Times reporter responds to Sheriff Villanueva's investigation into leaked jail house video

LA Times reporter Alene Tcheckmedyian joined Michaela Pereira on Good Day LA Friday to talk about her explosive coverage of an alleged coverup within the LA County Sheriff's Department and the subsequent investigation Sheriff Alex Villanueva has launched into the leaked jailhouse video.

Tchekmedyian, who covers the LA County Sheriff's Department for the L.A. Times, was at a press conference on Tuesday, where Sheriff Villanueva went as far as to call out her out by name, saying she was one of three people under investigation into the leak. He later backtracked and issued a statement saying Tchekmedyian is not a suspect in a criminal investigation and that he has no interest in pursuing criminal charges against any reporters.

When asked what it was like to see her picture up on the board with two other people, she told Pereira, "It was certainly an uncomfortable and strange moment to see that up there. You know, when I first saw it, it was just so surreal that I kind of let out a little laugh and, you know, took a picture. But I was just also so focused on just trying to ask my questions, I had a long list of them, and I didn't want to get distracted. So I was just kind of keeping the focus on that."

The use-of-force incident

Last month, the Los Angeles Times obtained the video and published a story detailing allegations that the sheriff's department tried to cover up the incident due to its similarities to the Minneapolis police tactics that led to the death of George Floyd

The leaked footage from the San Fernando Courthouse taken on March 10, 2021, appears to show Deputy Douglas Johnson pressing his knee on the head of handcuffed inmate, Enzo Escalante, for three minutes. The altercation began when Escalante allegedly punched Johnson in the face. Johnson and other deputies wrestled Escalante to the ground, with Johnson putting his knee on the inmate’s head.

The investigation into the leaked jailhouse footage

After the Times published the story and video, Villanueva held a news conference and denied any effort to cover up the incident. He acknowledged that there were internal failures in the department, saying a criminal investigation should have begun immediately after the altercation. However, only an administrative probe was launched. He insisted he didn't see the video until November and claimed that he immediately launched the criminal investigation.

Villanueva reiterated that timeline at a press conference Tuesday, again denying any type of cover-up or retaliation.

"When it comes to cover-ups or whistleblowers, I don't see what was covered up or what whistle was blown, because that's a mystery," he said.

During Tuesday's press conference, Villanueva shared photos of the three individuals in connection with the investigation - his political opponent Eli Vera, Inspector General Max Huntsman, and L.A. Times reporter Alene Tcheckmedyian.

"The matter is under investigation. This is stolen property that was removed illegally by people who had some criminal intent. It'll be subject to investigation," Villanueva said.

When asked if Tchekmedyian was under investigation, Villanueva responded, "The act is under investigation… so all parties to the act are subjects of the investigation. That's why we do investigations."

"She [Tchekmedyian] received information, and then she put it to her own use. What she receives legally and puts to her own use and what she receives illegally, or the LA Times uses… that's a huge complex part of the law… freedom of the press… however when its stolen material, at some point you actually become a part of the story… so it's up to the LA Times to decide that," he added. 

Villanueva later backtracked and issued a statement saying that Tchekmedyian is not a suspect in a criminal investigation and that he has no interest in pursuing criminal charges against any reporters.

Legal claims against Villanueva alleging a coverup

Two high-ranking officials claim Villanueva is trying to cover up his knowledge of the jailhouse altercation.

In a claim filed Tuesday, former Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon alleged that she was retaliated against and demoted by Villanueva because of her knowledge of the incident.

According to Limon's claim -- a precursor to a lawsuit -- the sheriff on March 29 "demanded and forced Assistant Sheriff Limon to choose between two poisonous options: retire or be demoted four ranks, to lieutenant."

She also said that she personally brought a DVD of the incident to the sheriff and watched it with him and at least two others. 

"Villanueva blocked a criminal investigation into the matter, lied about the incident and claims he did not watch the video until November 2021 to fit a fake timeline," Limon's claim alleges.

Earlier this week, Commander Allen Castellano filed a similar claim, alleging retaliation as part of an effort to downplay Villanueva's knowledge of the use-of-force case. Castellano also contends that Villanueva saw the video days after the incident occurred.

Where does the investigation into the use-of-force stand?

"The sheriff said this week when he held that press conference that he had forwarded the investigation to the district attorney's office. So, according to him, prosecutors now are reviewing it," explained Tchekmedyian.

What did the L.A. Times investigation find?

"Since the beginning of when I started reporting the story a month ago, the sources were telling me that Sheriff Villanueva was involved himself in this cover-up. But yesterday, the story advanced a little bit when we got the first first-hand account from someone who says that they were actually personally in the room when he saw the video and watched the video with him five days after it occurred," explained Tchekmedyian. "And so the big question is, you know, what did the sheriff even know and when and what did he do about it? And, you know, she is alleging, along with others, that he covered it up by blocking a criminal investigation into the deputy and blocking charges from being filed against an inmate who very clearly on the video punched the deputy because they didn't want the video to get out."

Tchekmedyian said that she stands by her reporting and that she feels supported by her colleagues, her editors and the Times, which issued the following statement after Villanueva's press conference on Tuesday, "Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s attack on Alene Tchekmedyian’s First Amendment rights for doing newsworthy reporting on a video that showed a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head is outrageous. His attempt to criminalize news reporting goes against well-established constitutional law. We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian’s and the Los Angeles Times’ rights in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities."

Where the sheriff's department stands right now

"You know, the sheriff department… they have had no shortage of scandals that have been under the microscope… since Villanueva took office. And before, you know, they're facing a civil rights investigation by the attorney general's office that are looking at them. They've had a, you know, string of controversies. And so I'm just trying to do the best I can to let the public know about that," explained Tchekmedyian.

LA County Sheriff election 2022

Sheriff Villanueva is up for re-election in 2022. The primary election will take place on June 7, 2022. The general election will follow on November 8, 2022. Among the other candidates listed on the primary ballot are retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, Los Angeles Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, retired LASD Captain Matthew Rodriguez, LASD Captain Britta Steinbrenner, LASD Lieutenant Eric Strong and LASD Commander Eli Vera.

CNS contributed to this report.