By Mark Gutglueck
(May 22) While the $180 million federal lawsuit filed on behalf of six of the county’s detention facility inmates by a legal team headed by a respected former Superior Court judge has put the issue of violence against San Bernardino County’s incarcerated population into the limelight as perhaps never before, the abuse of inmates within the county’s jail system is not a new issue.
Indeed, the dual specters of brutality at the hands of law enforcement officers against those they have brought to justice and the toleration of violence among incarcerated suspects and prisoners against each other have hung over San Bernardino County for over a century.
More than forty years ago, allegations of the mistreatment of county prisoners was taken up by the San Bernardino County Grand Jury and two county judges, leading to a bruising fight between the judiciary and the county sheriff.
Earlier this month, on May 7, attorneys Stan Hodge, Jim Terrell and Sharon Bruner filed a lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court in Los Angeles on behalf of John Hanson, Lamar Graves, Brandon Schilling, Christopher J. Sly, Eddie Caldero and Michael Mesa, all of whom were housed at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga between January 1, 2013 and the end of March 2014.
According to that lawsuit, Hanson, Graves, Schilling, Sly, Caldero and Mesa were subjected to horrific treatment inflicted directly by deputies Brock Teyechea, Nicholas Oakley, Russell Kopasz, Robert Escamilla, Robert Morris, Eric Smale, Daniel Stryffeler and Andrew Cruz, as well as two civilian jailers, one of whom has been identified as Brandon Stockman and another whose identity remains unclear. Also named in the lawsuit are San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon and the commander of the West Valley Detention Center, captain Jeff Rose,
The suit alleges that the inmates underwent treatment which amounted to “applications of unreasonable and unlawful force” that “deprived the plaintiffs of their right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures protected by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States.”
Specifically, according to the suit, during their incarceration “the plaintiffs were subjected by defendants to beatings, torture including but not limited to extending the handcuffed arms behind the plaintiffs causing extraordinary pain to plaintiff’s body, electric shock, including electric shock to their genitalia, sleep deprivation, had shotguns placed to their heads and sodomy. All these actions were taken without any legitimate purpose. As a direct and proximate result of the conduct of the defendants the plaintiffs have suffered extreme physical and emotional injury. The conduct of the defendants was willful, malicious and designed to inflict pain.”
The treatment was institutionalized, the lawsuit states, in that both the sheriff and those supervising the jail had knowledge of the activity.
“The defendant John McMahon and the defendant Jeff Rose and their subordinate administrators sued herein had knowledge that the abusive conduct by which the plaintiffs were deprived of their civil rights were taking place and were going to take place in the future and failed to take any action to cause the violation of plaintiffs’ rights to be prevented,” the lawsuit states.
It is the institutionalization of the violence against county jail inmates that has struck an historical chord. San Bernardino County has been struggling for decades, unsuccessfully, to overcome its image as a crass backwater jurisdiction, where justice is meted out by lawmen who are quick on the trigger but slow in, if not entirely neglectful of, their duty to investigate the actual facts of the crimes they are seeking to solve, and determine the guilt of those assumed to be the perpetrators. An indelible impression of this careless ethos was provided by the 1969 movie, “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” which concerns itself with the 1909 pursuit of Willie Boy, a Chemehuevi Indian fugitive who was run to ground by three separate posses, one led by San Bernardino County Sheriff John C. Ralph. Despite contradictory versions of events, what is known is that Willie Boy was arrested in Victorville in 1906 and spent time in the San Bernardino Jail, where he allegedly was accorded mistreatment that may have fueled his later action.
Willie Boy had amorous intent toward one of his cousins, 16-year-old Isoleta Boniface, who lived with her father, Mike Boniface, also known as Old Mike, an elder at the Chemhuevi Indian Tribe Reservation in Twentynine Palms. On the night of September 26, 1909, the then-28-year-old Willie Boy shot and killed Mike Boniface and fled on foot with Isoleta accompanying him. Two posses formed, one from San Bernardino County, led by Ralph, and two from Riverside County, one of which was led by Riverside County Sheriff Frank Wilson.
On September 30, in the Pipes Canyon area, Isoleta was killed by a gunshot wound to the back. Law enforcement officers would claim that Willie Boy, frustrated at Isoleta’s inability to keep up with him in his flight from justice, shot her at point blank range through the heart. When the posse brought her body back to Banning, however, the coroner, whose last name was Dickson, concluded “She was shot in the back at a distance of at least 100 yards by parties unknown.”
On October 7, the posse tracked Willie Boy to Ruby Mountain in what is now Landers. A gunfight ensued and a deputy, Charlie Reche was wounded. The posse left the scene to transport Reche for medical treatment. A third posse, one composed of citizens from both Riverside and San Bernardino counties, formed, and apparently caught up with Willie Boy near Old Woman Springs. There he died, reportedly from a self inflicted wound, while surrounded by the third posse. Accompanying that posse was a news reporter, Randolph Madison, a descendant of the fourth president. Madison took inconclusive photos of the body. Then, in a deviation from normal protocol, the posse, instead of bringing the body back for an examination by the coroner, burned it.
Some 49 years later, San Bernardino County’s reputation for aggressive, indeed excessively heavy handed and brutal, enforcement of the law was confirmed by Lowell Lathrop, the San Bernardino County district attorney first elected in 1950, who served six terms before retiring in 1974. In a speech before the Victorville Chamber of Commerce in 1958, Lathrop lamented that a series of rulings by both the California Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court had deprived his office and the county’s law enforcement agencies of the tools they had come to rely upon for making arrests, obtaining evidence, and gaining convictions. Explaining why it was growing increasingly difficult to keep criminals off the streets of San Bernardino County, Lathrop told those assembled at that day’s luncheon that sheriff’s department deputies could no longer pistol whip suspects to obtain a confession from them as they did in the past and that if they persisted in using that technique, the confessions obtained in that manner would be deemed inadmissible in court.
Lathrop was yet district attorney when 12 years later, the county grand jury took up the issue of the abuse of jail inmates. Raymond Pryke, was the foreman of the Grand Jury that had been impaneled in 1970. Today, he is 91, but evinced a remarkably clear recollection of the grand jury inquiry that took place more than four decades ago.
“I was talked into getting on the grand jury by Joe Katz, who at that time was the presiding judge,” Pryke told the Sentinel this week. “I really had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I am originally from England and grand juries are an archaic institution there. They were outlawed in England in 1931 because they are considered to be a star chamber, where the rights of the accused are completely violated, so as soon as I accepted the position, he [Katz] appointed me foreman and I was having second thoughts. I decided then that if I was going to go through with it, I would do something meaningful. But that was quite difficult because I had to get the rest of the grand jury on my side. Most of them wanted to go after welfare queens. So I had to explain to them that what was really significant were the government officials and the big wheels with all the administrative power who handle the money that needed to be looked into. It took some doing, but eventually I got their support. During that term of the grand jury, which in those days ran from the beginning of the calendar year to the end of the year in December rather than like it does now from July 1 to June 30, information came up about what was going on out at the jail at Glen Helen. I had gotten Jim Mealey, who had been the trainmaster at the railroad yard, appointed as foreman pro tem. He was the head of the committee looking into the running of the jails and one night we used our authority as the heads of the grand jury to go down to Glen Helen at midnight, pretty much unannounced, or at least at short notice. We got there and we were met by inspector Hughes. We told him who we were and said we were there to inspect the jails and he just put his hand to his lips and pointed to where there was a microphone in the room. Then we went outside and he told us, “The sheriff knows you’re here. He’s on his way now. Look, I’ve got eight children and a lot to lose. I need to be careful here.” So, he took us back inside and number one, the first thing we see is this man in this cage. It wasn’t even a cell, and he is hanging on the bars. He was obviously insane. I said, “It’s illegal to have someone who is clearly mentally ill confined like that. Inspector Hughes didn’t know what to say. That was just the way things were done.”
Pryke continued, “Right after that was when [sheriff] Frank Bland came in. ‘It’s good to see you,’ he said, but then he wanted to know what we were doing there. I said, “Well sheriff Bland, we’re just following our instructions from Judge Katz and we are going to be doing a report about conditions in the jails and we’d like to see ‘the hole.’ That was where they kept prisoners in isolation. So, the sheriff took us down a hall where there were, if I remember, five separate doors. So he opened the doors one at a time, to let whoever was in there out and we said to each of them, ‘We’re with the grand jury and we want to know how they are treating you.’ One of them was a guy who would go along the highway with donkeys and some other animals selling things and that was illegal. So he went to court and was fined and when he didn’t pay the fine, he got thrown in jail. They wanted him to cut his hair and shave his beard and he said, “No, my hair and my beard are part of what I do,” and he wouldn’t let them cut his hair and so they put him in the hole for thirty days. I told the sheriff, ‘That seems a little extreme to me.’ I asked the sheriff, ‘What do you think?’ It was like he didn’t know what to say. I said, ‘I think you have to let him out, just like the guy you have in the cage. You can’t keep an insane person in a cage.’
“We called the grand jury together the following Wednesday morning and gave them a report on what we did and what we had seen,” Pryke went on. “Carl Davis, who was later a judge, was the grand jury advisor from the district attorney’s office. “He was really upset about what we were getting into. He didn’t know what to say. None of them knew what to say. We wrote up the report. One of the prisoners that was in the hole said ‘Every three days they let you out and they beat you up and claim you attacked a deputy and then they throw you back in.’ Everyone couldn’t believe we would just show up at midnight like that Frank [Bland] pretty much left us alone, because there wasn’t much he could do to stop us and he could always blame it on someone else and say ‘I didn’t know what they were up to.’ I don’t know what happened to inspector Hughes. In our report, we did not attribute to him what he had told us, to protect him. He had been open with us, and said, ‘This is the policy. We just follow it.’ Frank had to know that he had been talking to us, so I don’t imagine it went well for him.”
When the grand jury’s report came out in November 1970, Bland had an immediate, and predictably negative, reaction.
“The grand jury just doesn’t know what it’s talking about,” he told the board of supervisors.
In private conversations with those he considered to be more sympathetic to law enforcement, Bland expressed himself somewhat differently, acknowledging that jails were unpleasant places and that the experience of jail and prison was intended to make a lasting impression on those consigned to them. Whatever experience those in jail underwent, Bland maintained, was a consequence of their own criminal acts.
Within a short span of time, his department produced a written response to the grand jury report that was intended to mollify his department’s critics. “The report is an incredible collection of half truths and misstatements. It was obviously prepared by people who, out of idealism, inexperience, and ignorance, have not obtained all the facts.“
Bland dismissed suggestions that those jailed were subjected to mistreatment, by either their keepers or other inmates. “Inmates classified to serve their time in maximum security are considered to be escape risks due to their past history of escaping, or the fact that they are facing a major prosecution in this county or elsewhere, due to the fact that they are addicted to the use of narcotics or dangerous drugs and will go to every means to sustain their habit, or they are homosexuals and must be isolated from the other inmates for their own protection and to prevent the occurrence of criminal sex acts.”
Nevertheless, evidence of Bland’s contempt for efforts to interfere with his employment of a harsh incarceration regime crept into the response, with an assertion that his approach was one that found favor with the public at large.
“The people throughout the United States are extremely dissatisfied with the present judicial system thinking only of the rights of the defendant and failing to consider the protection of society against the criminals.”
Bland attempted and succeeded in riding out the storm.
Abuse of the county’s prisoners, however, did not end, and less than a year later the sodomizing of prisoners in San Bernardino County’s jails was again a front and center issue. Whereas before Bland had been able to retreat into the protection his status as county sheriff afforded him as well as the knowledge that the district attorney, Lathrop, had his back, this time two personages in the form of county municipal court judges threw their weight behind the grand jury’s reform effort. Judges John Lawrence and Roy Chapman turned information over to the grand jury indicating that prisoners, young prisoners in particular, had been subject to sexual abuse while in the custody of the sheriff’s department. While Lawrence and Chapman’s action had taken place on the down low and outside the view of the public, in early October 1971 Lawrence turned it into a public issue when he reduced sentences for two 18-year-old offenders to five days to be served in a rehabilitation center rather than send them to jail where he said they could be subjected to homosexual attack. Bland went ballistic, calling for the removal of Lawrence unless the judge could provide evidence to support his assertion about homosexual rape taking place in the county’s jails. Lawrence, Bland told the board of supervisors, was justifying his propensity for sentencing leniency “by saying the jails are unsafe for criminals.”
Bland becalmed himself, and asserted “All young people placed in the county jails are kept separate from known homosexuals or hardened criminals.”
As the most powerful law enforcement entity in the county, Bland moved to insulate himself further from the reach of other officials, assigning the detectives in the department’s intelligence unit as well as those attached to the department’s command staff to step up surveillance efforts against members of the county bench, members of the board of supervisors, and prosecutors in the district attorney’s office. He also insisted upon his department vetting all future members of the grand jury before they were impaneled. He then made a practice of obtaining, through contact with willing grand jury members, information about future grand juries’ ongoing investigative efforts.
Bland’s efforts in this regard were successful. In 1973, when questions again surfaced about the treatment of prisoners in the jail, Bland was able to short circuit the probe by utilizing information his investigators had accumulated to prevent Judge Joseph Campbell from aggressively examining the issue. Campbell was permitted to do a walkthrough of the jail, but only at a pre-arranged time, with Bland accompanying him. Bland effectively closed out the possibility that grand jurors, or judges or any outsiders could spring a surprise inspection of the jails on him or his department, instituting a policy that all such excursions be scheduled well in advance.
Sexual abuse in the jails remained a reality in San Bernardino County, such that its actuality, or the threat of it, was institutionalized as a tool at the sheriff’s departments disposal. An unwritten rule in San Bernardino County is that unruly prisoners and particularly ones who threaten deputies, their wives or their families with retribution, as well as those individuals arrested for threatening or overzealously questioning public officials are to be placed into confinement among the jail’s known homosexual inhabitants for what is referred to as “attitude adjustment.”
By Mark Gutglueck