Grand Jury

By Joe Nelson, The Sun
Posted: 02/05/15, 12:01 AM PST | Updated: 47 secs ago

A nearly year-long investigation into the alleged Taser gun torture of inmates at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga is winding down, with a federal grand jury weighing evidence and five lawsuits pending before a U.S. District Court judge.

The FBI and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department announced in April that criminal and internal affairs investigations had been launched after the allegations surfaced in March, and that three rookie deputies fresh out of the training academy — Brock Teyechea, Andrew Cruz and Nicholas Oakley — had been fired. In October, the department announced that four more deputies had been placed on paid leave during the investigation, but refused to disclose the deputies’ names.

Since then, attorneys representing more than a dozen current and former inmates have filed five federal lawsuits alleging civil-rights violations, the latest on Jan. 25 by Eric Wayne Smith, 28, of Hesperia, the first to come forward with the allegations that prompted the criminal and administrative investigations.

The lawsuits allege a brutal hazing ritual involving inmate food servers, called “chow servers,” in the jail’s protective custody wing, where inmates are segregated from the jail’s general population because they are vulnerable to violent attacks by other inmates.

Deputies, the lawsuits allege, would routinely stun the inmates with their Taser guns, deprive them of sleep by entering their cells in the middle of the night, stunning inmates with Taser guns as they slept, or blaring loud music over the jail’s intercom while inmates tried to sleep.

Smith’s lawsuit alleges deputies also played audio clips of the horror film “Silence of the Lambs” in the middle of the night while inmates slept to terrorize them. The lawsuit also alleges Teyechea sprayed pepper spray under his cell door one time, causing Smith to become violently ill, and that Cruz entered his cell one night screaming, racked his shotgun and placed it to Smith’s head and the head of his cell mate, Brandon Schilling.

It was the price inmates had to pay to earn the special privileges that came with being a chow server, including additional use of the telephone and television and less confinement to the cell, the lawsuits allege.

On May 5, Victorville attorney James Terrell filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of six inmates alleging civil-rights violations. Three weeks later, he filed another lawsuit on behalf of four more inmates with nearly identical allegations.

In August, former West Valley inmate Cesar Vasquez filed a lawsuit naming Sheriff John McMahon, West Valley Capt. Jeff Rose, and deputies Teyechea, Cruz and Oakley, as well as deputies Robert Escamilla, Russell Kopasz, Robert Morris, Eric Smale and Daniel Stryffeler.

In June, former inmate Armando Marquez filed a lawsuit with similar allegations.

And more lawsuits are expected to be filed, court records show.

Though the three deputies believed responsible for much of the suspected abuse were fired in the early stages of the internal affairs investigation, the extent of the alleged abuse was far more cultural and systemic than the actions of a few rookie deputies, it is alleged. Several other deputies named in the lawsuits either actively participated in the hazing of inmates or encouraged the behavior, which was either condoned or ignored by the jail’s ranking command staff, according to the lawsuits.

“Certainly, it’s more than just the three (deputies) who were fired,” Smith’s attorney, Matthew Eanet, said.

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