In One Day, Over $300M In Jail Abuse Cases Settle For A Penny On The Dollar

After more than three years of litigation, San Bernardino County in the last six weeks settled for a total of $2,745,000 seven separate lawsuits growing out of the Spring 2014 revelations of severe abuse of inmates at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. A total of 32 inmates or former inmates were represented in those suits, which had sought far in excess of the eventual settlement amount.
In one case involving six inmates originally represented by attorneys Stan Hodge, Jim Terrell and Sharon Bruner, it was alleged the inmates had been subjected to such horrific treatment at the hands of San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies that they should collectively recover a total of $180-million, $15 million in compensatory damages for physical, mental and emotional injury to each plaintiff along with $15 million for exemplary and punitive damages for each plaintiff, in addition to attorney fees. That suit on behalf of John Hanson, Lamar Graves, Brandon Schilling, Christopher J. Sly, Eddie Caldero and Michael Mesa, all of whom were housed at West Valley between January 1, 2013 and the end of March 2014, was filed in U.S. Federal Court in May 2014. Ultimately, on July 11 of this year, the county settled for $2.5 million the Hanson, Graves, Schilling, Sly, Caldero and Mesa lawsuit and six other lawsuits on behalf of 26 other plaintiffs represented by Hodge, Terrell and Bruner. Dale Galipo, whose reputation proceeds him as an aggressive litigator on wrongful death, brutality and excessive force cases, joined with Hodge, Terrell and Bruner as co-counsel three months ago, a signal the legal team was ready to go to trial. There was nevertheless an obvious and substantial discrepancy between the more than $300 million sought in the various lawsuits and the total $2.5 million settlement, a settlement of less than a penny on the dollar.
Two weeks before Hodge, Terrell, Bruner and Galipo closed out the seven cases, on June 27, the county settled a lawsuit brought against it by former inmate plaintiff Eric Smith for $175,000. In January 2015 Smith filed a lawsuit in which he alleged that as an inmate at West Valley who was given trustee status as a meal server within the jail he he was subjected to repeated jolts from Tasers on multiple occasions as well as sleep deprivation and calculated psychological torture.
A week before that, on June 21, the county settled with plaintiff Armando Marquez on his claims of physical and psychological abuse for $70,000.
A lawsuit filed by attorney Robert McKernan on behalf of four inmates, Keith Courtney, Daniel Vargas, Mario Villa and Anthony Gomez, is in the settlement negotiation phase and is unlikely to go to trial. That is not the case of a lawsuit brought in August 2014 by attorney Scott Eadie on behalf of inmate Cesar Vasquez, who is at this point scheduled to go to trial against the county in July 2018.
According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Hanson, Graves, Schilling, Sly, Caldero and Mesa, “During the plaintiffs’ 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 plaintiffs’ bodies, 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. The defendants thereby deprived the plaintiffs the right to be free from punishment without due process of law pursuant to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
The allegations of sodomy pertained to aggressive body cavity searches carried out by guards at the facility.
The suit alleges that “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 suit maintains the defendants’ conduct “was under the color of state law. Each of the individual defendants are being sued in their individual capacity as well as their official capacity.”
Language in the suit suggests that the mistreatment of the prisoners was documented by medical treatment subsequently provided to them. “Those plaintiffs who were permitted by the defendants to obtain medical treatment had to receive such treatment due to the conduct of the defendants,” the lawsuit states.
Among those named as defendants in the suits were San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, West Valley Detention Center commander captain Jeff Rose, seven deputies initially identified by the last names of Teychea, Oakley, Copas, Escomilla, Morris, Snell, and Strifler, as well as two civilian jailers with the last names of Stockman and Neil, along with the county of San Bernardino and up to ten yet-to-be-identified members of the department. Subsequently, the seven deputies were identified as Brock Teyechea, Nicholas Oakley, Russell Kopasz, Robert Escamilla Robert Morris, Eric Smale and Daniel Stryffeler. An eighth deputy, Andrew Cruz, was identified as one of the unnamed defendants. Brandon Stockman was identified as one of the unsworn civilian jailers.
In late February 2014, the FBI was provided with a report of widespread abuse of inmates at the jail. In early April 2014, during the early stages of the federal inquiry, three deputies were “walked off” the grounds of the facility by federal agents. Those three were identified as Teyechea, Oakley and Cruz, all of whom had not yet been with the department a full year and were thus considered to be within their probationary term where they could be fired at will. They were terminated on the strength of the FBI’s initial findings. Stryffeler. reportedly voluntarily resigned
In October 2014, Escamilla, Kopasz, Morris and Smale were placed on paid administrative leave and subsequently let go.
The suit said the knowledge of the abuse went right to the top of the department. “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 department maintains that McMahon had no knowledge or understanding of what took place inside the West Valley Detention Center and that he has since assisted the FBI in its investigation. The department claims there has been a surge in inmates assaulting one another as well as violence against jailors in the aftermath of the 2011 prison realignment, which has resulted in inmates who would otherwise be housed in state prison now being incarcerated locally.
Early in the litigative process, the county sought to challenge the validity of the lawsuit by claiming the inmates alleging abuse had filed no grievances. The department has since acknowledged that the inmates were discouraged in many cases from filing grievances against their jailors.
Over the last two years, the department has upped the number of security cameras tracking guards and inmates at West Valley.
A federal grand jury was impaneled in 2015 to consider the allegations of abuse at West Valley. No indictments have yet been returned. Fact finding by the FBI is yet ongoing. -Mark Gutglueck

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