'Corrupt' Villanueva blocked investigation to avoid bad press in re-election campaign: lawsuit

A whistleblower lawsuit filed Monday by a department commander alleges that Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is "corrupt" and that he has routinely blocked or stalled investigations and covered up misconduct to avoid bad press in his re-election campaign.

In his lawsuit, Commander Allen Castellano claims he sent the video of the March 10, 2021 incident to Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon immediately afterward.

The man in custody, Enzo Escalante, suffered minor injuries. Deputy Douglas Johnson was holding the handcuffed Escalante down with his knee after he had punched the deputy in the face.

Security video depicted Escalante and Johnson walking in a hallway toward a wall before the inmate allegedly turned around and punched the deputy in the face several times. Johnson and at least three other deputies managed to wrestle Escalante to the ground, where Johnson placed his knee on the inmate's neck.

One deputy handcuffed Escalante's hands behind his back and he began to lay still on the ground, but Johnson kept his knee on the inmate's head for at least three additional minutes. Escalante's hands and feet were eventually bound together, and he was restrained to a wheelchair before he was taken to a hospital.

Johnson wrote in a report that he knelt on Escalante's head in an attempt to control the inmate from thrashing around and striking deputies.

The suit says Limon watched the video with Villanueva and Undersheriff Tim Murakami on March 15.

Castellano claims the sheriff delayed an administrative investigation into the deputy’s actions for nearly a month and prevented the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau from reviewing the incident.

"Sheriff Villanueva blocked and stalled an investigation into an excessive Use of Force ("UOF") incident to obstruct justice and avoid bad publicity for his re-election campaign," the lawsuit claims.

While other law enforcement agencies reevaluated their use of force policies, that wasn't the case in Los Angeles, the lawsuit alleges.

"Sheriff Villanueva, however, falsely claimed in public pronouncements that his department had no issues with the use of force, and that LASD was ahead of the curve and the best law enforcement agency in the United States when it came to monitoring and preventing the excessive use of force," the lawsuit states. 

Villanueva held a news conference to say he hadn’t seen the video until November, some eight months after the incident. He said as soon as he watched it he ordered Johnson relieved from duty and called for a criminal probe.

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Villanueva also admitted that procedural errors were made in the internal investigation, but he said he immediately ordered a criminal probe into the deputy once he became aware of it.

The lawsuit also criticizes Villanueva's handling of the controversy surrounding Kobe Bryant's helicopter accident in 2020.

Last October, a Los Angeles federal judge granted Vanessa Bryant's motion to compel depositions Villanueva and Fire Chief Daryl Osby in her lawsuit against the county over photos of the helicopter crash scene allegedly taken and circulated by sheriff's deputies.

"Deputy Johnson was one of the deputies who arrived at the scene. Johnson disturbingly took photos of the decedents’ body parts and sent the photos to other deputies, one of whom shared the explicit photos to patrons at a bar," the lawsuit claims.

"Villanueva instructed the deputies to immediately destroy the evidence and gave no discipline to Deputy Johnson and the other deputies. Just as Sheriff Villanueva continues to engage in wrongful conduct, because no one holds him accountable for it, Deputy Johnson continued to engage in wrongful conduct because the sheriff did not hold him accountable," the lawsuit said.

Bryant sued Los Angeles County last year, alleging that she and her family suffered severe emotional distress after discovering that sheriff's deputies snapped and shared gruesome photos of the helicopter crash scene where her Laker legend husband died, along with their daughter and seven other people.

She later released the names of the deputies involved.

Villanueva faces eight challengers in the June primary. He has yet to comment on this lawsuit.