FBI Investigating S.F. Sheriff’s Department Over Forced Inmate Fights

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said on April 10 that the FBI is investigating allegations that deputies forced inmates to fight and bet on the outcomes. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said on April 10 that the FBI is investigating allegations that deputies forced inmates to fight and bet on the outcomes. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

By Alex Emslie
KQED

The FBI is leading an inquiry into allegations that a group of San Francisco sheriff’s deputies abused inmates at one of the city’s jails, forcing them to fight and gambling on the outcomes.

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi announced the FBI investigation Friday, two weeks and a day since the city’s public defender, Jeff Adachi, publicly revealed the allegations.

“Had I been alerted, I would have taken immediate steps to protect the inmates and take the appropriate administrative actions involving the identified deputies,” Mirkarimi said. “However, Mr. Adachi’s decision was to conduct his own limited investigation.”

The four deputies named at the center of an independent investigation initiated by Adachi remain on paid leave, Mirkarimi said. Their names are Scott Neu, Eugene Jones, Clifford Chiba and Evan Staehely. The law firm representing the deputies did not return a call seeking comment.

The federal inquiry officially started April 3. Special Agent Greg Wuthrich said the FBI investigation is at a very early stage.

“Civil rights allegations are definitely huge for the bureau,” Wuthrich said. “These kind of things, we take very seriously.”

The FBI is wading into a crowded group of agencies probing the sheriff’s department. That includes the city’s police department and district attorney, as well as the sheriff’s internal administrative and criminal investigations.

“We’re trying to figure out and coordinate how all that works,” Wuthrich said.

The federal probe is being conducted by the same group of FBI agents who investigated the San Francisco Police Department after Adachi released surveillance video of plainclothes narcotics officers illegally searching hotel rooms in 2011, Wuthrich said.

That investigation led to the indictment of six former SFPD officers, including former Sgt. Ian Furminger, who was sentenced in February to three years and five months in prison. Furminger is also at the center of a racist and homophobic text messaging scandal that has rocked the SFPD since mid-March.

Adachi said in a statement that he is pleased with the FBI’s involvement and commended Mirkarimi for taking the unusual step of inviting the federal probe.

“Eliminating this sort of brutal and sadistic conduct starts by leading an investigation that isn’t tainted by conflict of interest or misplaced loyalty,” Adachi said. “I look forward to a thorough and fair investigation that includes determining whether additional deputies were aware of the abuse and complicit in their silence. To ensure this never happens again, there must be accountability — not only for the perpetrators, but for those who fail to speak up.”

Adachi said last month that his office first learned of the allegations when then-inmate Ricardo Garcia’s father contacted a deputy public defender, concerned for his son’s safety. Garcia at first didn’t want to speak up, Adachi said, but then more inmates started contacting his office. So the public defender enlisted an independent private investigator, Barry Simon, to look into the claims.

Simon interviewed five inmates total. Two said they were forced to fight each other, and two others corroborated parts of their statements. The fifth inmate told investigators that Neu had sex with a civilian employee in the jail.

Garcia told Adachi in a recorded interview made public in late March that he was scared for his life in the jail.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi plays audio on March 26 from a phone conversation with former city jail inmate Ricardo Garcia, who said sheriffs' deputies in the jail forced him to fight another inmate for entertainment and bets.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi plays audio on March 26 from a phone conversation with former city jail inmate Ricardo Garcia, who said sheriff’s deputies in the jail forced him to fight another inmate for entertainment and bets. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

“I don’t know when they’re gonna come and, you know, try to basically attack or anything,” he said. “I’m kind of walking on eggshells.”

Stanley Harris said in a separate recorded conversation with Adachi that he was forced to fight Garcia twice, and that Neu often harassed him, forcing him to do pushups to “train for another fight.”

Both said Neu threatened to handcuff and beat them if they didn’t fight. Harris said Neu threatened to rape him.

Adachi’s office said the San Francisco district attorney dropped charges against Garcia and he had been released from custody. Mirkarimi said the remaining inmates were all transferred to the city’s jail in San Bruno.

One inmate told Simon that Neu had tattoos that said “850 Mob,” an apparent reference to San Francisco’s Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street, where County Jail #4 is located. Mirkarimi initially said the alleged tattoo gave him concern that more deputies may be involved, but he downplayed questions about the tattoo Friday.

“It wasn’t as it was initially said,” he said, declining to elaborate on the ongoing investigation.

Mirkarimi also addressed a recent inmate escape, saying he’d seek to fire a deputy who appeared not to follow protocol. The sheriff is facing a re-election challenge from former Chief Deputy Sheriff Vicky Hennessy, who was endorsed by the deputies’ union on Monday.

Update 4:55 p.m. Thursday, April 30:

One of four sheriff’s deputies under criminal investigation, after several inmates at a San Francisco jail alleged he humiliated them and forced them to brawl for entertainment and bets, is facing termination.

Scott Neu was taken off paid leave and issued a notice of intent to terminate on April 28, San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said today.

“The evidence has arrived at a place where we can,” Mirkarimi said, in response to questions about why he’s so far requested that only one of the deputies be fired.

The sheriff said the remaining three deputies — Eugene Jones, Clifford Chiba and Evan Staehely — would soon return to duty with assignments that don’t include contact with inmates.

“Bringing them back no longer requires us to keep them on paid time off,” he said. “That’s why we’re bringing them back.”

A criminal investigation continues, led by San Francisco’s district attorney with assistance from the FBI, and none of the four deputies have been exonerated, Mirkarimi said. He said that additional deputies are being interviewed as witnesses but are not the focus of the probe.

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