How the brutal tactics of officers in American law enforcements deadliest county have ended lives, cost the public millions, and prompted claims of a police force out of control
After they broke his ribs, fractured his spine and stained his body with bruises, the sheriffs deputies of Kern County told Scotty Byrket that he was free to go.
A sheet of paper handed to him on his way out of jail explained that he was not being prosecuted over a confrontation beneath the peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada. The two nights hed spent in a cell 60 miles from home had been a detention only, not an arrest.
But then Byrket spoke to a reporter.
Having ignored his case for more than four months, deputies revived it within days of Byrket publicly accusing them of beating him during the struggle, according to internal documents. Despite saying in his handwritten arrest report that Byrket attempted to kick me in the groin, deputy Brandon Geherty said in an investigation filingthat Byrket kicked me three to four times.
After the case was resubmitted to the district attorney, Byrket, 55, was arrested and charged with resisting arrest. He was convicted and sentenced to four months in jail. Then, after he was released, he was arrested again and charged with resisting arrest when deputies had first arrested him for resisting arrest.
Byrket, however, considers himself relatively fortunate.
So far this year, law enforcement officers in Kern County have killed more people relative to the population than any other. Three died in encounters with deputies from the Kern County sheriffs office (KCSO), a county-wide force of 905 officers, who in recent years have been involved in a lengthy series of confrontations ending in the deaths and serious injuries of suspects who had physical force, batons, Tasers and police dogs used against them.
In April this year, deputy Geherty responded to another disturbance call, this time at a trailer park beside the parched remains of Lake Isabella, which once lapped against the resorts edge. The park is a 15-minute drive from the house to which Byrkets son summoned the same deputy two years earlier, over what they now insist was only a family dispute.
Inside trailer 91, Michael Le Mon was having some kind of breakdown, according to witnesses. Geherty and a colleague forced their way inside. Le Mon, 57, resisted, according to the sheriffs office. So the officers pepper-sprayed him, struck him with batons, shocked him with a Taser and, witnesses said, placed him in a chokehold.
Soon, Le Mon was dead.
The first article in this series examined a series of controversial fatal shootings by the police officers of Bakersfield, Kern Countys biggest city. At the same time, confrontations in which KCSO deputies were accused of using excessive force have led to fatalities, cost the county millions of dollars in public funds, and prompted allegations of a self-regulating police force with wild west-style excesses.
KCSO deputies have been caught rewarding colleagues for aggressive use of batons with a baby seal prize for the best clubbing. Others have modified their patrol cars with decals declaring Well kick your ass. They are now viewed with fear by some of those they police: Its horrible, said Carol Lessley, Le Mons sister. I think the cops have some kind of disease. Its rampant.
Le Mon was the 10th arrest-related death recorded by KCSO following a physical clash since 2005,according to a review ofrecords. All 10 were unarmed men. Six were Hispanic, three were white and one was black. Three came into contact with deputies after reports they were acting strangely, three for alleged violence against partners, two for parole or probation violations, one for making a threat and one who was asleep on the street. All were accused of resisting officers.
None of the deaths was submitted to the FBIs annual count of justifiable homicides by law enforcement. Three were not submitted to Californias database of arrest-related deaths, which attorney general Kamala Harris opened to the public earlier this year. And three were not included on a list released by the county in response to a public records request.
The countys sheriff, Donny Youngblood, is also its coroner, meaning that his office issues the official rulings on how exactly people died in encounters with his deputies. A panel of his senior commanders then decides if the deputies acted lawfully and used appropriate force.
While six of the 10 deaths were ruled homicides, two were found to be accidents and two natural deaths. In eight of the nine cases where inquiries have concluded, the deputies actions were ruled justified by commanders. The department refuses to discuss personnel issues, but public payroll records indicate all the deputies involved in these at least 33 returned to work. In the ninth case, a deadly beating involving at least 15 deputies, three were convicted of crimes and three more appeared to lose their jobs. But nine returned to duty.
People injured and relatives of those killed have turned instead to the civil courts. At least $38m has been awarded in settlements and judgments in 20 different lawsuits since 2005 involving alleged wrongdoing by KCSO deputies, according to a review of court records. County officials refused to disclose their total payout. At least six more lawsuits are ongoing.
Another 19 federal civil rights lawsuits against the county over the actions of deputies were dismissed by judges or won by the county in that period. Among them was a damages claim lost by 39-year-old Stacey Brown, after a Kern County police dog that was unleashed on him tore skin from his genitals when he ran away from an arrest for alleged burglary.
Le Mon lived alone with his dog Dolly. He had mental health problems and often pounded at night, according to Bill Colewell, a neighbour, but it was nothing serious. Deputies had been called to the park before, said Colewell, 82, who watched Geherty and deputy Joshua Bechtel approach in April.
Deputy Geherty, 27, is 5 feet 10 inches tall and of muscular build. Le Mon stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 370lb. His family nicknamed him Belly for his impressive gut. He had lived in the park for about a decade after losing a well-paid job and sustaining an accident at work that required him to take medication. He did not own a gun, friends said.
Colewell said he thought Le Mon had not had taken his medication that morning.Someone in the park called 911. He saw Geherty arguing with Le Mon through the door. The cops said Were going to come in, Colewell recalled, and Mike said Like hell you are.
Speaking at her home in Ridgecrest, about an hour from Le Mons home, his sister said it was the familys understanding that the police had no arrest warrant before breaking down the door to her brothers trailer. KCSO did not comment on this.
No one still alive apart from Geherty and Bechtel saw what happened inside. But according to witness statements seen by the Guardian, shouts of stop resisting and sounds of loud grunting were heard by those outside.
Le Mon emerged around 20 minutes later in handcuffs, the witnesses said. He was placed facedown and an officer placed him in the chokehold. A minute later, he was unresponsive. Neither officers nor paramedics immediately administered medical care to Le Mon while he lay on the floor, according to witnesses.
Colewell, who followed the ambulance carrying Le Mon, said he heard paramedics say his friend was dead on arrival at the hospital. His family was, however, later billed $3,948 for emergency medical care, including $90 for oxygen and a $125 surcharge as paramedics were called in the early hours of the morning.
In response to a records request, KCSO said it ruled that Le Mon died from natural causes relating to heart conditions and other health issues. Le Mons family said the pathologist who conducted his autopsy had told his 88-year-old mother the same. There is nothing in the pathologists report to indicate there were any other contributing factors to his death, said Ray Pruitt, a spokesman.
While his case remains open, Le Mons relatives expect his death will have no consequences for Geherty and Bechtel. They beat him to death, alleged Lessley, the sister. Another sister viewed Le Mons body at the mortuary, Lessley recalled: She said he had a big old black-and-blue eye that was swollen shut.
Kern County lawmen are discussed in strikingly consistent terms by those who are critical of the department. They really do hark back to the rough days of the wild west, said Kathleen Faulkner, a Bakersfield attorney who has frequently come up against KCSO officials in court. It is not that long since the sheriff was having shootouts downtown.
The centrepiece of the KCSO website is a photograph of Sheriff Youngblood on a horse. A brilliant white stetson sits atop his head; a golden star rests over his heart. A ceremonial saddle stands at the entrance to his office in Bakersfield. But Youngblood dismissed any connection to alleged cowboyish behaviour by his men as a huge leap. He said: I think its petty.
His commanders point to what they call a rigorous training regime as evidence that only the highest calibre hopefuls become deputies. They must pass a written exam, an oral interview and a physical agility test that includes running 1.5 miles in 15 minutes. The highest scorers pass through to the county academy, a 900-hour course that takes months to complete.
Previously unreported video footage of academy classes depicts a military-style boot camp among the mountains. Recruits are screamed at during roll-call meetings, teargassed and pepper-sprayed in the face, and put through intensive physical fighting sessions in which they are attacked with batons. The clips, circulated among deputies, are set to heavy metal soundtracks and feature slogans such as KCSO The timid need not apply. Youngblood tells them: Its the greatest organisation in the world.
In an interview as he worked a night shift last month, senior deputy Jeremy Gregory said most of his colleagues always used force reasonably. But he recalled having to stop one who was using excessive physical force against a suspect during a restraint hold. Someone started to step over the line and I intervened to stop it, he said. I dont know whether he was just amped up, or upset, or both.
While alleging excessive force against deputies, residents such as Byrket have faced criminal charges themselves, typically for resisting arrest. Donald Cook, a veteran attorney in the region, said KCSO operated an unwritten policy of hurt a man, charge a man, which was flatly denied by Pruitt, the department spokesman.
They hurt somebody, and they know they or the department could be sued, said Cook. So they say, Well, he resisted arrest, and thats why I had to use force it was his own fault.
Some critics argue that the aggressive posture and often violent record of the sheriffs deputies is a direct consequence of a rightwing ideological zeal shown by the officials who have held control of the criminal justice apparatus in recent times.
You get a picture of how a certain counter-revolution in the US thats been going on for decades took a certain form of expression there, in terms of the criminal justice system, said Keith James, a campaigner for the Stop Mass Incarceration Network in the region.
An appetite for rooting out perceived deviancy flourished in Kern County during the 1980s, when crusading district attorney Edward Jagels prosecuted a supposed satanic abuse network that he and the sheriffs office claimed was sexually assaulting county children. Amid a public outcry, 27 people were convicted and many more accused of paedophilia. Over the following years, 25 convictions were overturned as victims recanted and said they had been coerced into saying they were abused.
They have to be watched, said Laura Lawhon, a Texas-based private investigator who has campaigned for the release of Pat Dunn, a man controversially convicted for his wifes 1992 murder. Its just the way they operate. They are not being deliberately dishonest, but they make up their minds what happened and try to gather evidence to support this.
Jagels did not return messages seeking an interview.
Stressing that part of our history is over with and gone, Youngblood said of the retired prosecutor: He did a great job for a district attorney from a law enforcement standpoint. The sheriff was unapologetic about his departments robust tactics. We have been a very law and order, lock them up type of county ever since I have been in the organisation, for the past 40 years, he said.
By then Kern had slowly shaken off its explicit links to the Ku Klux Klan, whose members had controlled several leadership positions within county administration during the 1920s. But it was only 40 years ago this May that 13 black student athletes at Taft College the only African Americans in the city were driven from the town by a gun-wielding lynch mob.
In his 1999 book Mean Justice, Edward Humes recounts how in the 1970s and 80s one Kern judge, Milton Elconin, kept a noose in his chambers while another, Gary Friedman, was renowned for sending a rattlesnakes head to a defendant who had a phobia of snakes.
Mahlon Keel Jr, who last year chaired the law and justice committee on the Kern County grand jury which is supposed to be a watchdog monitoring local authorities as well as potentially considering criminal indictments said the countys stridently rightwing politics did create an environment in which voters were deeply loyal to and forgiving of their police officers.
Most conservatives tend to obey the law, said Keel, a retired farm equipment salesman. And its one of those deals: if a policeman stops you and asks you to do something, do it, damn it dont antagonise the problem.
The crackdown has had limited effect. Despite recent reductions, the countys violent crime rate in 2014 was 517 offences per 100,000 residents, compared with 390 in the whole of California. Kern has the states seventh highest violent crime rate. Its homicide rate is 50% higher than Californias average, according to the states department of justice. Only five of the states 58 counties had a higher homicide rate than Kerns last year.
One of the three men killed by KCSO deputies this year, Benjamin Ashley, was fatally shot at the end of a three-week manhunt after he shot dead one man and wounded two deputies.
While dealing with a chaotic series of calls on a recent night shift, senior deputy Gregory blamed the decision by California voters on a ballot measure last year to downgrade the possession of drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine from a felony to a misdemeanour for buoying criminality. Five of the ten men who have died since 2005 after physical clashes with officers were found to have taken methamphetamine or PCP.
Drug offenders are no longer kept in custody, said Gregory. And those people who need drugs are going to have to steal to get money to pay for them, which increases theft. And it increases violent offences because people on drugs often like to fight.
Kern is the fourth most poverty-stricken county in the state. According to US Census Bureau data it had a per capita income of about 50% lower than the California average of $29,527. Its owner-occupied homes are worth less than half the typical California price.
As Gregory, 38, wandered with a flashlight among the grimy slums of Oildale, a crime-ridden section of the city once notorious for signs warning no niggers allowed, the ravages of addiction were clear. One man was working outside his trailer to construct a bicycle from scrap. As he looked up abruptly to catch the glare of Gregorys torchlight, he revealed a cavity into which his nose had rotted entirely.
Youngblood, 65, is a Vietnam veteran and anti-immigration firebrand who laments that his county is stranded in liberal California rather than neighbouring Arizona. He is an ally of that states well-known rightwing sheriff Joe Arpaio, but has said he does not imitate Arpaios tactics of packing prisoners into boiling tents in the Maricopa County desert wearing pink underwear because Californias Democratic-controlled government would not allow it.
First elected in 2006, Youngblood ended the single term of his boss Mack Wimbish, whose son Rick is a Bakersfield police officer involved in four fatal shootings in the past two years.
The Youngblood era began a few months after James Moore, a 30-year-old father, was beaten to death by KCSO deputies while restrained in Bakersfields Lerdo jail. More than a dozen deputies took part in beating Moore, who had been arrested for threatening his girlfriend. One deputy, who sent colleagues a photograph of a bloodied Moore with the caption This dude got fucked up, was convicted of murder. Another was jailed for manslaughter and a third received probation for assault in a plea deal. In 2009, the county was ordered to pay Moores family $6m.
Asked what he did to ensure the Moore incident was not repeated, Youngblood said: You dont just come in and make all these changes and fix the problem. He did have surveillance cameras installed at the jail, he said, but this had been a four-year process.
In fact, Youngbloods two terms have been punctuated by more acts of brutality, according to court records. In the past 16 months the county has settled lawsuits brought by one man who alleged his intestines were torn by a beating from deputies who attacked him at his house; another man who said he had flesh ripped from his leg by a police K9 dog during a traffic stop; and another who received $1.25m after having both his legs broken by deputies who said they suspected him of arson. In the latter case, prosecutors declined to charge the deputies even after the sheriffs office recommended it.
The surgeon said he had never seen these kind of intestine injuries from punches and kicks only from car accidents, said Jaime Cota, 40, who received $250,000 after being beaten and hit with a baton by deputies investigating a loud music complaint at his house.
Before those cases, Jose Lucero, a 34-year-old man with mental health and drug addiction problems who had a history of run-ins with deputies, died in December 2010 after being pepper-sprayed, struck with batons and shocked with Tasers by four deputies who came to his parents house when Lucero took meth and made bizarre 911 calls. According to an attorney for his parents, he was shocked 29 times and struck 33 times. The county was made to pay them $4.5m and had an appeal rejected by a higher court.
I can tell you to this day, that was the worst verdict that has ever happened, Youngblood said of the Lucero decision. The sheriff denied his deputies delivered 29 Taser shocks but declined to give an alternative total. He died from heart failure from methamphetamine and fighting with the police, he said.
Youngblood defended his deputies and said people who did not work in law enforcement could not comprehend or judge such cases:
One veteran of the Lucero incident, Ryan Greer, was among a large group of deputies gathered one night in May 2013 across the street from the Kern medical center, Bakersfields biggest hospital.
Soon after midnight, Sulina Quair called 911 to report what she and three relatives had seen, and said she planned to pass a recording to the media.
On the ground was David Sal Silva, a 33-year-old labourer. According to his family, he had walked to the hospital in search of help for mental health problems. He was a little over the drink-driving limit and had methamphetamine in his system. Silva had fallen asleep on the ground outside a clinic, and guards who had tried to move him on had called KCSO.
Officials said that because Silva began resisting when a deputy woke him with a knuckle rub to the chest and tried to detain him, the deputy released a German Shepherd dog, which bit Silva repeatedly. Six more deputies arrived and joined in. Several struck him with batons. Silva was hog-tied with a hobble restraint. He began vomiting and went unresponsive. About an hour after the guards called KCSO, Silva was declared dead.
Sulina Quair said a KCSO sergeant had already called and threatened her with jail if the video footage was uploaded to social media or shared. Then a group of deputies arrived unannounced at her mothers apartment, and eventually seized the cellphone, according to a lawsuit against the county. The department denies this.
When the phone was given back a week later, the complaint says, some of the video was missing.
In a partial clip made public, Silva can be heard screaming while the dog barks and an officer shouts orders. Dark and grainy surveillance footage, filmed earlier by a nearby security camera, appears to show officers striking Silva at least a dozen times.
After an autopsy, conducted again by KCSO itself, Silvas death was ruled an accident. Heart disease, alcoholism and Silvas obesity were all blamed, although the sheriffs office allowed that properly applied restraint procedures had contributed. Silvas body was described as covered with blunt force injuries but these were dismissed as superficial. Despite Silvas head showing a large swelling, bruising, scrapes and several cuts, it was ruled there were no signs of the baton strikes to the head that witnesses said they watched.
Announcing he had decided his deputies acted appropriately, Youngblood said the witnesses who challenged the official story didnt like law enforcement from the beginning. He criticised Silva for grabbing the K9 dog around the neck when it bit him. The US attorney in Sacramento later said there was not sufficient evidence to sustain a federal criminal prosecution, which must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Speaking at his home in Onyx with his wife at his side, Scotty Byrket trembles when recounting that morning in 2013. Deputies claim Byrkets son called them to allege he was agitated and making bizarre statements. Byrket said his son was making this up because his father had kicked him out of the house.
Byrket alleged that he was forced to the ground, handcuffed and thrown in the police vehicle. Geherty claimed in fact Byrket asked to be taken to a mental hospital. Then he was driven away. A deputy told him that they were going to kill me and throw me in the lower river, Byrket claimed. And my heart sunk, and it was like almost like being in a dream.
Both sides agreed they stopped at a marina beside Lake Isabella a couple of miles along Route 178 from where Geherty would return two years later for his clash with Le Mon. Byrket, however, said they stopped so deputies could come to the back of the vehicle and kick him, beat him and shock him with a Taser. He was eventually hog-tied with the same kind of hobble restraint used on Silva.
Geherty, though, reported that they stopped because Byrket was kicking a plastic partition in the vehicle, and that he used physical force to restrain Byrket when he started lashing out, kicking the deputy several times. Kern County denies that Byrket was shocked with a Taser.
A few weeks after his release, Byrket filed a complaint with the KCSO. Nothing was done, he said, and then deputies began idling in their cars outside his house intimidatingly. After he unknowingly revived his case by giving an interview, he said, he was arrested when deputies lured him to the nearby city of Ridgecrest by calling and pretending to be a television news crew seeking an interview.
For the trial, he called on a neighbour who supported his version of events. The police cited two women who said they witnessed the clash at Reds Marina. One said she saw deputies struggling with Byrket, but was distracted from seeing much by her child. The other said she saw Byrket trying to kick deputies and a deputy striking him with a baton.
Before having deputy Geherty testify, the county prosecutors allowed him, as prosecuting witness, to observe his colleagues giving their own accounts and being cross-examined. Its never happened to me in a case before, said Byrkets attorney, Thomas Beck. Geherty got up and made his testimony conform to what hed already heard.
Byrket was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 120 days in jail. In all he served 68, according to court records. He has appealed against his conviction and the case is pending in Californias appellate courts.
In January this year, about two weeks after his release, county authorities abandoned their second prosecution of Byrket for resisting arrest, dating from when they arrested him for resisting arrest the first time.
According to court filings, prosecutors decided that dismissing the charge would be in the interest of justice.
Additional reporting by Ciara McCarthy, Jamiles Lartey and Grant Slater