By Mark Gutglueck
Posted on May 23, 2014

(May 22)– While the $180 million federal lawsuit filed on behalf of six of the county’s detention facility inmates by a legal team headed by highly respected former Superior Court judge has put the issue of violence against San Bernardino County’s incarcerated population into the limelight as perhaps never before, the abuse of inmates within the county’s jail system is not a new issue.

Indeed, the dual specters of brutality at the hands of law enforcement officers against those they have brought to justice and the toleration of violence among incarcerated suspects and prisoners against each other have hung over San Bernardino County for over a century. More than forty years ago, allegations of the mistreatment of county prisoners was taken up by the San Bernardino County Grand Jury and two county judges, leading to a bruising fight between the judiciary and the county sheriff.

Earlier this month, on May 7, attorneys Stan Hodge, Jim Terrell and Sharon Bruner filed a lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court in Los Angeles on behalf of John Hanson, Lamar Graves, Brandon Schilling, Christopher J. Sly, Eddie Caldero and Michael Mesa, all of whom were housed at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga between January 1, 2013 and the end of March 2014.

According to that lawsuit, Hanson, Graves, Schilling, Sly, Caldero and Mesa were subjected to horrific treatment inflicted directly by deputies Brock Teyechea, Nicholas Oakley, Russell Kopasz, Robert Escamilla, Robert Morris, Eric Smale, Daniel Stryffeler and Andrew Cruz, as well as two civilian jailers, one of whom has been identified as Brandon Stockman and another whose identity remains unclear. Also named in the lawsuit are San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon and the commander of the West Valley Detention Center, captain Jeff Rose.

The suit alleges that the inmates underwent treatment which amounted to “applications of unreasonable and unlawful force” that “deprived the plaintiffs of their right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures protected by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States.”

Specifically, according to the suit, during their incarceration “the plaintiffs were subjected by defendants to beatings, torture including but not limited to extending the handcuffed arms behind the plaintiffs causing extraordinary pain to plaintiff’s body, electric shock, including electric shock to their genitalia, sleep deprivation, had shotguns placed to their heads and sodomy. All these actions were taken without any legitimate purpose. As a direct and proximate result of the conduct of the defendants the plaintiffs have suffered extreme physical and emotional injury. The conduct of the defendants was willful, malicious and designed to inflict pain.”

The treatment was institutionalized, the lawsuit states, in that both the sheriff and those supervising the jail had knowledge of the activity.

“The defendant John McMahon and the defendant Jeff Rose and their subordinate administrators sued herein had knowledge that the abusive conduct by which the plaintiffs were deprived of their civil rights were taking place and were going to take place in the future and failed to take any action to cause the violation of plaintiffs’ rights to be prevented,” the lawsuit states.

It is the institutionalization of the violence against county jail inmates that has struck an historical chord. San Bernardino County has been struggling for decades, unsuccessfully, to overcome its image as a crass backwater jurisdiction, where justice is meted out by lawmen who are quick on the trigger but slow in, if not entirely neglectful of, their duty to investigate the actual facts of the crimes they are seeking to solve, and determine the guilt of those assumed to be the perpetrators. An indelible impression of this careless ethos was provided by the 1969 movie, “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” which concerns itself with the 1909 pursuit of Willie Boy, a Chemehuevi Indian fugitive who was run to ground by three separate posses, one led by San Bernardino County Sheriff John C. Ralph. Despite contradictory versions of events, what is known is that Willie Boy was arrested in Victorville in 1906 and spent time in the San Bernardino Jail, where he allegedly was accorded mistreatment that may have fueled his later action.

Willie Boy had amorous intent toward one of his cousins, 16-year-old Isoleta Bonifice, who lived with her father, Mike Bonifice, an elder at the Chemhuevi Indian Tribe reservation in Twentynine Palms. On the night of September 26, 1909, the then-28-year-old Willie Boy shot and killed Mike Bonifice and fled on foot with Isoleta accompanying him. Two posses formed, one from San Bernardino County, led by Ralph, and two from Riverside County, one of which was led by Riverside County Sheriff Frank Wilson.

On September 30, in the Pipes Canyon area, Isoleta was killed by a gunshot wound to the back. Law enforcement officers would claim that Willie Boy, frustrated at Isoleta’s inability to keep up with him in his flight from justice, shot her at point blank range through the heart. When the posse brought her body back to Banning, however, the coroner, whose last name was Dickson, concluded “She was shot in the back at a distance of at least 100 yards by parties unknown.”

On October 7, the posse tracked Willie Boy to Ruby Mountain in what is now Landers. A gunfight ensued and a deputy, Charlie Reche was wounded. The posse left the scene to transport Reche for medical treatment. A third posse, one composed of citizens from both Riverside and San Bernardino counties, formed, and apparently caught up with Willie Boy near Old Woman Springs. There he died, reportedly from a self inflicted wound, while surrounded by the third posse. Accompanying that posse was a news reporter, Randolph Madison, a descendant of the fourth president. Madison took inconclusive photos of the body. Then, in a deviation from normal protocol, the posse, instead of bringing the body back for an examination by the coroner, burned it.

Some 49 years later, San Bernardino County’s reputation for aggressive, indeed excessively heavy handed and brutal, enforcement of the law was confirmed by Lowell Lathrop, the San Bernardino County district attorney first elected in 1950, who served six terms before retiring in 1974. In a speech before the Victorville Chamber of Commerce in 1958, Lathrop lamented that a series of rulings by both the California Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court had deprived his office and the county’s law enforcement agencies of the tools they had come to rely upon for making arrests, obtaining evidence, and gaining convictions. Explaining why it was growing increasingly difficult to keep criminals off the streets of San Bernardino County, Lathrop told those assembled at that day’s luncheon that sheriff’s department deputies could no longer pistol whip suspects to obtain a confession from them as they did in the past and that if they persisted in using that technique, the confessions obtained in that manner would be deemed inadmissible in court.

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