Something’s Up: Flurry Of Suit Settlements Signals Possible Jailhouse Abuse Indictments

It was revealed this week that within the last month, San Bernardino County cleared the books of four further federal lawsuits relating to mental cruelty and physical abuse perpetrated against current and former West Valley Detention Center inmates.
The four suits on behalf of four inmates who settled in July for the relatively paltry sum of $60,000 total were proceeded by the settling of seven lawsuits pertaining to a total 32 current or former inmates at the jail in Rancho Cucamonga for $2.745 million in June.
The lawsuits were in large measure an outgrowth of the FBI’s 2014 confirmation that the abuse was occurring at the facility. 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 Brock Teyechea, Nicholas Oakley, and Andrew 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. Another deputy working detention detail at West Valley, Daniel Stryffeler, voluntarily resigned when confronted with evidence against him. In October 2014, deputies Russell Kopasz, Robert Escamilla Robert Morris, Eric Smale were placed on paid administrative leave and subsequently let go. Also caught up in the scandal and fired were two civilian jailers, Brandon Stockman and another with the last name of Neil, whose first name is nowhere available in public documentation.
The sheriff’s department maintains the problem was stemmed with the sackings of Teyechea, Oakley, Cruz, Stryffeler, Kopasz, Escamilla, Morris, Smale, Stockman and Neil. In one of the original lawsuits, however, attorneys Stan Hodge, Jim Terrell and Sharon Bruner maintained that sheriff John McMahon and lieutenant Jeff Rose, who oversaw the operations at the West Valley Detention Center, along with and other subordinate administrators “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.” Hodge is a former San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge.”
Between July 13 and July 20, former and current inmates Anthony Gomez, Keith Courtney, Daniel Vargas Jr., and Mario Villa signed settlement agreements for $20,000, $20,000, $10,000 and $10,000, respectively. All four were represented by attorney Robert McKernan.
The stampede to settle in less than 45 days eleven lawsuits in which the allegations of abuse by 36 inmates was taken as a signal that something is up. Initially, the amount sought in the lawsuits filed in 2014 and 2015 sought actual and punitive damages well in excess of $300 million. In their totality they were settled at less than a penny on the dollar. The federal grand jury that was impaneled to hear evidence about the abusive atmosphere at the West Valley Detention Center has either not yet returned an indictment, or if it has, did so under seal and the indictment has not been publicly revealed. Attorneys have been tight-lipped with regard to what induced them to settle the lawsuits en masse, and whether that triggering factor is a pending criminal indictment, the prosecution of which federal prosecutors would very likely want to pursue without the complication of parallel civil litigation involving the same set of witnesses and defendants.
Another issue in the settlements is the status and credibility of the plaintiffs, all of whom who were charged with crimes and nearly all of whom have been convicted of felonies.
Of the cluster of cases coming out of the FBI’s 2014 investigation of the West Valley Detention Center, only one remains outstanding, that of Cesar Vasquez, whose lawsuit represents a payday potentially larger than that of any of the plaintiffs who have settled.
Of the plaintiffs who settled their cases in June, they received an average settlement of $85,781.25.
The four who settled in July received an average of $15,000.
Among those plaintiffs who settled, the one receiving the largest payout was former inmate Eric Smith who on June 27 settled the lawsuit he had brought in January 2015 against the county, the sheriff and various other defendants for $175,000. Smith’s suit alleged that as an inmate at West Valley, he had qualified through good behavior for trustee status, which allowed him to function as a meal server within the jail. According to Smith’s suit, trustees were subjected by deputies to an initiation/hazing practice which included being given repeated jolts from Tasers on multiple occasions as well as being subjected to sleep deprivation and calculated psychological torture.
Vasquez, like Smith, was subjected to repeated shocks from deputies’ stun guns. In Vasquez case, there is graphic visual evidence of one of those occurrences, which consists of a video on the smartphone of now-cashiered deputy Nicholas Oakley tasering a helpless Vasquez who had been forced into a utility closet. Oakley had given his smartphone to another trustee, Lamar Graves, instructing him to capture the incident. The smartphone is now in the custody of the FBI and Vasquez’s attorney, Scott Eadie, has made a subpoena request for the phone to be used in Vasquez’s trial, which is slated to begin next year.
-Mark Gutglueck

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