Ten weeks after Placer County Sheriff Devon Bell announced that three of his officials had been arrested on allegations of excessive force against inmates at the Auburn Main Jail, his department is facing a series of lawsuits claiming that abuse at the jail has routinely gone unchecked and that video and audio recordings have been altered to cover up the wrongdoing.
At least three cases have been filed so far, and attorneys say several more are expected. The most recent case was filed Friday in federal court in Sacramento by civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who is seeking class-action status to represent hundreds of former and current inmates who may have been victimized.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of former inmate Beau Bangert, claims that there “has been a group of sheriff’s deputies ... working at the Auburn Main Jail that frequently utilized unreasonable force against inmates, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively.”
“Those sheriff’s deputies have acted consistent with the ‘blue wall of silence’ – i.e., neither stopped nor reported one another’s unlawful conduct,” the suit says.
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The allegations follow Bell’s May 31 announcement that three Sheriff’s Office officials – Sgt. Megan Yaws, Deputy Robert Madden and corrections Officer Jeffrey Villanueva – had been charged in connection with abuse of six inmates at the jail, including Bangert.
The three have pleaded not guilty and have declined to talk about the case.
The sheriff declined to comment Monday on the lawsuits.
In his May 31 press conference, Bell would not detail the alleged abuse inmates suffered, but he said department officials discovered the abuse and attempts to cover it up, and acted quickly. Bell also said that “under no circumstances” would he tolerate such behavior.
Bangert said in a jailhouse interview with reporters in May that he was confronted and beaten by an officer while others watched, and his lawsuit spells out in greater detail what he claims happened.
Bangert claims Yaws, Madden and a third officer burst into his isolation cell, where he was being held for observation because he is mentally ill.
“The three sheriff’s deputies Tased plaintiff Beau Bangert repeatedly, struck him with their fists at least a half-dozen times in the back of the head, jumped on him and choked him into unconsciousness,” the lawsuit says.
The suit says Madden was “the primary aggressor” and that Yaws and the third, unnamed officer helped by restraining Bangert and failing to intervene.
Bangert was then handcuffed and placed in a restraint chair without receiving medical treatment, the suit says, and video and audio recordings of the incident were altered.
The lawsuit claims that “abuse of inmates has been occurring at the Auburn Mail Jail and reported long before May 2017,” and it alleges that the department had a policy of using unreasonable force against inmates and a practice of covering up such incidents.
The lawsuit also notes that claims of “inaccuracies and discrepancies in recordings” made at the jail had been reported to officials as early as December 2016, but that Bell took no action until May 2017.
Those allegations stem from a separate case involving Brendan Coleman, a former Marine who was arrested July 14, 2016, after he stopped to take a nap in the parking lot of a Granite Bay church.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court July 29, Coleman claims two deputies roughed him up, then arrested him and took him to the Auburn jail, where he was taken to a solitary cell and beaten.
That lawsuit, which was filed by Penn Valley attorney Patrick Dwyer, seeks $1.1 million in damages and alleges that “there has been a group of deputies working at the Auburn jail that have frequently engaged in unlawful violence against inmates.”
The suit says that jail and patrol car video Dwyer obtained from the county while preparing the case for Coleman had been altered, with one video containing a 26-minute gap and another that would have shown excessive force while Coleman was being arrested was “inexplicably missing” that portion of the arrest.
Dwyer filed a Dec. 15 court declaration about the video discrepancies, as well as a January claim against the county, months before the sheriff said his office discovered such allegations.
“The final insult to the criminal justice system in Placer County came on May 31, 2017, when Sheriff Devon Bell made a misleading statement about when and how he first learned about the abuse of inmates at the Auburn Jail,” the lawsuit states.
The suit also says that Coleman was the victim of “malicious prosecution” when he was charged with resisting arrest and that the district attorney’s office later dismissed the charge.
Dwyer filed a separate lawsuit on July 23 claiming that another inmate, Christopher Langley, was beaten in the jail “while he was handcuffed and lying down submissively in a holding cell ...”
“Not only was the beating of Mr. Langley unprovoked, his written complaints about this unlawful use of force, just like numerous complaints by other inmates, were ignored and covered up,” the suit says, adding that the department has failed to use its extensive video camera system to prevent such abuse “or it has concealed video evidence about the unlawful use of force against inmates.”
Dwyer said he expects to file additional lawsuits and that he hopes the public will take notice of the allegations that are being leveled.
“Our goal is, number one, of course, the interest of our clients,” Dwyer said. “And number two, it’s to effect positive and constructive changes in the operations at the Auburn jail under the Placer County Sheriff’s Office so that such abuses never occur again.
“This is not just a lawyer’s problem, this is a public problem and the public’s input at a meeting or series of meetings with the Board of Supervisors, I think, will be healthy.”
Yet another legal action is expected from Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz, who said he expects to file a claim on behalf of inmate Jacob Gillespie, who alleges he was beaten in the jail and was one of the six inmates whose claims led to criminal charges against Madden, Yaws and Villanueva.
Merin, who won a $15 million settlement from Sacramento County after suing over strip searches at the county jail, said he is meeting with a group of other attorneys later this week to discuss additional claims against the Auburn jail and the Placer County Sheriff’s Office in hopes of forcing officials to develop “a will to clean up the facility.”
“People have been systematically victimized, exposed to excessive force and punished by serious means that were pursuant to a policy and practice that was known by the sheriffs and condoned ... until it became impossible for the sheriff to deny it,” Merin said.