LOS ANGELES – A former sergeant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, who was found guilty this summer of federal civil rights offenses related to the beating of a handcuffed visitor to the Men’s Central Jail, was sentenced today to 96 months in federal prison.
Eric Gonzalez, 46, received the eight-year sentence from United States District Judge George H. King, who immediately remanded the defendant into custody.
Judge King said Gonzalez “abused his authority and corrupted the very system he was sworn to uphold.”
Gonzalez, who was a 12-year veteran of LASD at the time of the offense, was one of three former deputies who were found guilty in June of civil rights charges.
At the trial, a jury determined Gonzalez, along with former LASD Deputies Fernando Luviano and Sussie Ayala, violated the civil rights of the victim in 2011 when they beat the man and caused bodily injury. The jury also determined that all three defendants falsified records when they prepared reports claiming that the victim was not handcuffed during the incident. Gonzalez Ayala were additionally convicted of conspiring to violate the victim’s civil rights by using unreasonable force.
Two other defendants who were named in a federal grand jury indictment in late 2013 – Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack – previously pleaded guilty.
“Today’s lengthy prison sentence demonstrates that individuals who abuse their positions of trust as law enforcement officers will be held accountable,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “The former deputy sheriffs who participated in the scheme to violate the civil rights of a handcuffed man who was beaten without cause cast a stain on the entire Sheriff’s Department, where virtually all of the deputies serve admirably.”
Gonzalez was the leader of the conspiracy to violate the victim’s civil rights, according to a sentencing memo filed by prosecutors. “While [the victim] may have suffered the bruises and cuts, the negative impact of defendant Gonzalez’s actions does not end with [the victim], nor is [he] the only victim. The actions undertaken by the defendants in this case have impacted the public trust and thus extend beyond [the victim] and his family,” prosecutors wrote.
“Mr. Gonzalez's actions cast a pall on his department and dishonored the badge he wore for many years,” said David Bowdich, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office. “We must be vigilant when it comes to abuse-of-power allegations, and prosecute them when warranted. However, we should also recognize and respect those who wear the badge with pride and serve Los Angeles County honorably.”
The evidence presented at trial showed that the victim and his girlfriend went to the jail to visit the woman’s incarcerated brother on February 26, 2011. Both visitors were in the possession of cell phones, which are prohibited under jail rules. When the phones were discovered, the victim was handcuffed and brought into an employee break room, where prosecutors said he was subject to a “savage beating” and sprayed with a burning agent similar to pepper spray. The victim was later transferred to the hospital by paramedics.
Following the incident, Gonzalez instructed Zunggeemoge how to write a report that falsely described how the victim swung his left elbow and struck Zunggeemoge, which prompted the use of force. Subsequent reports by other defendants also falsely described how the victim attempted to escape from the break room.
“Instead of using his position to educate and advance a new generation of law enforcement officers that would make the LASD proud, [Gonzalez] used this to frustrate the goals of true law-enforcement,” according to the government’s sentencing memo. “As is clear from the pre-sentence report, to this day he has accepted no responsibility and seems to argue that he was ‘right.’”
During today’s sentencing hearing, Judge King said that when law enforcement officers “think they are above the law, the entire rule of law is threatened.”
Ayala and Luviano are scheduled to be sentenced by Judge King on November 30. Ayala faces a face a statutory maximum sentence of 40 years in federal prison, and Luviano faces up to 30 years.
Last month, a federal grand jury indicted a sixth deputy in relation to the incident at the Visiting Center. Former Deputy Byron Dredd pleaded not guilty on Friday to conspiracy to violate civil rights and two counts of making false reports, and he was ordered to stand trial on December 22.
The case against Gonzalez and the other deputies is the result of an investigation by the FBI, and is one in a series of cases resulting from an investigation into corruption and civil rights abuses at county jail facilities in downtown Los Angeles. As a result of the investigation, 15 current or former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have now been convicted of federal charges.