Placer County officials have agreed to settle a jail abuse lawsuit by paying $100,000 to a former inmate, while yet another lawsuit has been filed alleging that deputies beat a prisoner in the Auburn jail last year.
The developments come as Placer County continues to grapple with the fallout from a scandal revealed last May by Sheriff Devon Bell, who announced the arrests of three Auburn jail employees on charges of excessive force against inmates and falsifying evidence.
Charges against the three are pending, and they remain suspended from the department.
The allegations have spawned a series of at least seven federal civil rights lawsuits, including one that is in the process of being settled for a $100,000 payment with no admission of wrongdoing by the county.
That suit was filed Sept. 4 on behalf of Derek Conner, who claimed he was beaten and had his testicles groped by one of the three officers now facing criminal charges.
Conner’s lawsuit alleged that Officer Jeffrey Villanueva instigated an “unprovoked attack” on him on Sept. 6, 2015, when the officer awakened Conner in his cell.
Conner was wearing only boxer shorts at the time and was subjected to a full, pat-down search that included Villanueva grabbing his “penis and testicles very hard and then lingering and feeling (his) penis, testicles and surrounding area,” the lawsuit alleged.
Conner also claimed he was roughed up by Villanueva and other officers.
“The settlement of this case is part of an ongoing effort to investigate and correct abuses at Placer County’s two jails,” Conner attorney Patrick Dwyer said in a statement to The Bee Tuesday.
One of the pending suits was filed by Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who is seeking class action status from the federal court that could include claims from hundreds of inmates. Dwyer said he and Merin have presented county officials with a plan to create a process for inmates to file claims for alleged abuse, but that process must be approved by county officials and the court.
Brett Holt, supervising deputy county counsel, confirmed in an email to The Bee that officials had agreed to settle the Conner case.
“The decision to resolve Mr. Conner’s claim is a step forward in an overall strategy to address allegations of improper activity by certain officers at the Auburn Jail,” Holt wrote. “The settlement with Mr. Conner for $100,000 is a litigation decision approved by the Board of Supervisors and based on the legal advice of counsel.
“The settlement with Mr. Conner should not be interpreted as a statement as to the legitimacy of his claim. The decision is based on several factors, including the time and cost to fully litigate Mr. Conner’s claim.”
Holt’s email added that officials “take all claims of misconduct seriously” and noted that the sheriff’s office has revamped its training and upgraded its video equipment at the Auburn and South Placer jails “to prevent future claims of misconduct.”
Villanueva and the other two officers charged in the case – Sgt. Megan Yaws and Deputy Robert Madden – have not commented publicly but have entered not guilty pleas.
Amid efforts by Placer officials to improve treatment of inmates, lawsuits continue to be filed. The most recent person to sue was a man who claims he was beaten by deputies in the Auburn jail in October 2016 because of his religion. This lawsuit names a jail officer – Deputy William Lukenbill – who was not among those arrested and suspended by Bell for alleged wrongdoing.
Department officials did not respond to repeated inquiries about Lukenbill’s conduct or about the case, filed in federal court in Sacramento by a former inmate named Nana Yeboah.
Yeboah said he had permission from jail officials to wear a turban at night to pray as part of his Rastafari religion. Nonetheless, his lawsuit alleges, Lukenbill ordered him to remove it. Yeboah claimed he removed the turban, but filed a complaint, or “kite,” against Lukenbill, which led to the deputy later beating and kicking him, the lawsuit says.
As many as five other deputies later joined in, the lawsuit says. They used a Taser on him and ripped out several of the dreadlocks he wears as part of his religion and which represent his children.
After the beating, the only medical attention he received was some ice, the lawsuit says, and for the next week he received no medical help for lacerations, bruising and pain.
“He tried to alleviate his pain by applying water and toothpaste to his injuries,” the lawsuit says.
His attorney, Sarah Garvey of Los Angeles, said her client’s case differs from other abuse lawsuits at the jail because of the allegation that it was motivated by religion.
“I think it’s especially significant because of the religious freedom aspect,” she said. “This is not just an excessive force case.”
Lukenbill also is named in a lawsuit filed in September by inmate Joseph Charles Golden, who claims the deputy beat and kicked him while he lay handcuffed on the floor of the jail. That incident allegedly occurred after an altercation that began when another inmate attacked Golden. During the fight, the lawsuit says, Golden was hit with a Taser by another officer, then handcuffed by Lukenbill and kicked and beaten.
The lawsuit says the incident ended when a jail sergeant shouted, “Knock it off, what do you think you’re doing?” at Lukenbill, and pushed him away from the inmate.
Another inmate who was allegedly abused by the suspended sheriff’s officials, Jacob Gillespie, has a claim pending against the county that was filed by Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz and could result in yet another lawsuit.
Sheriff Bell, who took over the office in February upon the retirement of Ed Bonner, choked with emotion during his May announcement of the arrests of jail officials. He has said the department uncovered the alleged abuses itself and will not tolerate such actions.
Some of the lawsuits contend that jail officials have been aware of such abuse for years and that a “blue wall of silence” kept the abuses from being reported.
The sheriff’s department had no comment on the lawsuits.