What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?
Newsletter for the week of April 25, 2022
In one of those long, rambling press conferences that are a trademark of a certain kind of public official, Sheriff Alex Villanueva gestured at pictures of Eli Vera (a one-time commander in the LASD), Max Huntsman (the inspector general, tasked with overseeing the sheriff’s office), and Alene Tchekmedyian (the L.A. Times reporter whose beat is largely the LASD and who was in the room).
Gesturing, Villanueva said, “Too bad I don’t have people, reporters like from the L.A. Times. Maybe you need to start clarifying exactly what you did with this and when did you … who did you get it from, and when did you get it.” The Sheriff then posted a series of “laws” that he said could be decisive in assessing the “case.” Presumably against the three whose headshots he was displaying so prominently.
If you’re wondering what case that case is, Villanueva seems to believe there’s a conspiracy against him – involving a deputy caught on video kneeling on a prisoner’s neck that no one knew about until the L.A. Times reported it. How Villanueva is a victim or how this case involves anyone outside of the LASD requires a contortion of logic.
In March of 2021, just two months after the California Attorney General announced the first investigation into the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (for unconstitutional policing) and two days after jury selection began for the trial of Derek Chauvin (the Minneapolis cop was murdered George Floyd), a deputy working in the San Fernando Courthouse knelt on the neck of Enzo Escalante for over three minutes after he was handcuffed, an action well known to be excessive force that could kill a person.
For context – LASD deputies are in charge of transporting people from the jail to the courthouses and are in charge of maintaining order while people await their court appearances. Escalante got into a scuffle with a deputy who told him to stop talking and, in the course of being disciplined for talking in line, punched Deputy Douglas Johnson in the face. Johnson and three other deputies pushed Escalante to the ground and cuffed him. Johnson knelt on the man’s head and continued to do so after he was cuffed and subdued. Then, the deputies tied Escalante’s legs together and strapped him into a wheelchair. (Knock LA posted the full video of the incident for those who are interested.)
Multiple higher-ups thought Johnson used excessive force. Commander Allen Castellano wrote in his use-of-force review that Johnson’s actions “placed other deputies and inmates in a dangerous situation.” More damningly, Castellano indicated in his report that the entire incident was being covered-up because of fears that it would create bad press: “It was determined the case should not be filed given the misconduct/unreasonable force allegation and the potential for this incident to shed negative light on the Department given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force.” (Escalante has filed a lawsuit against the LASD and Sheriff Villanueva for the incident.)
The first L.A. Times story reporting this incident in March dropped the same week Villanueva launched his campaign, much to his chagrin. Huntsman, the inspector general, also issued a subpoena for all related records. And now Villanueva claims that Tchekmedyian, the reporter who broke the story, Eli Vera, of one his many primary opponents and until recently the commander who oversaw the court services division of the LASD, and Huntsman are in some sort of conspiracy.
In a March 29 press conference, shortly after the allegations of the cover-up first became public, Villanueva said that he did not know about the incident and denied any cover-up (while also accusing Huntsman and the L.A. times of trying to sabotage his re-election campaign launch). He also announced shifts in personnel, including removing Castellano—the critical use-of-force reviewer—from senior leadership for the Court Services Division.
But Vera said that before he retired to run against Villaneuva, he learned that Villanueva DID see the video and DID know about the incident when it happened. The whole situation has now escalated: multiple lawsuits, an investigation by Huntsman, and a potential investigation by the FBI.
The internet blew up after the press conference, and the general counsel for the L.A. Times issued a letter supporting its work and its reporters. Legally, Villanueva can’t charge Tchekmedyian with any crimes because of California’s “shield law” that protects journalists who publish leaked material.
The tweets seem weaselly to me given what he actually said during the presser. During the 26th press conference, in response to a direct question from Frank Stoltze -- “Is Alene [Tchekmedyian] under investigation?” -- Villanueva said, “The matter is under investigation. This is stolen property that was removed illegally. People had some intent, criminal intent, and it’ll be subject to investigation…All parties to the act are subjects of the investigation.” Villanueva went on to say that while there are “complex issues of law,” Tchekmedyian is “part of the story” because she used “stolen material. He is wrong. See above.
How do we read all of this as anything other than the spastic flailings of a poor manager? Several theories come to mind. The first is that Villanueva is a SoCal Trump figure – overly-sensitive, extremely reactive, and judgmentally handicapped. Or in other words, a poor manager—but a good politician. The second is that Villanueva is a criminal mastermind; this theory posits that the sheriff is doing all of this as part of his reelection plan and is manipulating information to present a curated appearance by generating Tucker Carlson appearances and the like.
I would like to posit a third theory: Villanueva is Vladimir Putin. Like Putin, Villanueva is only vaguely accountable to anyone. He seeks complete control of information in order to produce compliance – even calling his own words “misinformation” as soon as he says them if it suits his purpose. He silences journalists. He uses paramilitary thugs to harass those who oppose him and keep the people in line. And he surrounds himself with yes-men.
Tchekmedyian is just one of a long line of journalists, politicians, activists, and family members of those killed by LASD deputies who have been harassed, threatened, and even terrorized with threats of criminal investigations and violence. Most of these victims don’t have powerful voices speaking in their favor. Some of the family members harassed were children; memorials have been destroyed and relatives arrested without warning. As the mother of Paul Rea said: “We can’t grieve . . . we’re too busy watching our backs.”