Sheriff Officials Buried Misconduct Reports, Ex-Sergeant Testified

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A sheriff at the Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting on Sept. 24, 2019.

A retired Orange County Sheriff’s Department sergeant testified in September that reports alleging misconduct and crimes by his colleagues were intentionally buried to protect certain deputies, according to the Orange County Register.

Former Sgt. William West, testifying in a confidential personnel hearing, said an audit found over 60 internal affairs complaints were not investigated between 2013 and 2018, the Register reported Friday.

“Most of the cases were referrals, including use of force, from captains and supervisors within the Sheriff’s Department,” according to the Register.

West testified that at the department’s direction, he conducted the audit into internal affairs complaints and was later told by a higher-up “not to talk about it anymore.”

“There’s a ton of them that are getting referred to investigations, and they’re just not making it there,” West said in his testimony, according to the Register. “So we didn’t know if it was by fault or by accident or there’s a miscommunication.”

The newspaper noted a civilian internal affairs employee who worked on the audit, Sheri Howell, testified all but one case was investigated. “But she didn’t say when,” the Register reported.

Sheriff Don Barnes’ spokeswoman, Carrie Braun, disputed West’s testimony in a statement to the Register.

“These assertions are factually inaccurate and completely without merit,” Braun said. “The ‘audit’ was a review of a CRM [computer] platform to ensure that cases to be referred to internal affairs for additional investigation were referred as intended. Every case in the CRM platform that was referred to internal affairs was reviewed, sent through the appropriate channel, and action was taken where applicable.”

The Register reported details of two specific cases West mentioned in his testimony:

One of the complaints that West said was not investigated was against Deputy Phuong Nguyen, who was suspected of not booking a purse into evidence until after the owner came looking for it, according to the transcript and internal emails. Nguyen also challenged another deputy to a fight in a parking structure, West testified.

West speculated during his testimony that Nguyen received special treatment because he was a member of the sheriff’s SWAT team.

West testified he asked Lt. Nathan Wilson why Nguyen’s alleged mishandling of evidence was not included in the evidence audit. “He said, ‘Come on, dude. You know how things are. I don’t make those calls.’ ”

West also testified he was instructed by [Capt. Wayne] Byerley to destroy the internal affairs computer file for the case of jail inmate Gary Beavers, who alleged he was beaten by deputies. Beaver complained he was dragged by jail workers outside of the view of surveillance cameras and assaulted. Beavers was sentenced in 2018 to 108 years for molesting his girlfriend’s two minor children.

West, who refused the alleged order to destroy the file, including a video recording, testified it was ultimately deleted by someone else. But West said he had it restored.

When West notified Lt. Benson that he recovered the file, he testified, Benson “basically told me that he discussed it with ‘Lt. DiGiorgio’ at the time and that … they were going to make it look like they accidentally put it into the wrong (computer application).”

West said he had been asked by others earlier to misfile records to hide them from disclosure.

News of West’s testimony comes amid revelations of a widespread evidence booking crisis at the Sheriff’s Department that has the potential to affect thousands of criminal cases. Internal audits found hundreds of cases where deputies failed to follow policy in booking drugs, cash, photos, and videos in criminal cases by the end of their shift.

In nearly 300 instances, the audits found evidence was booked more than a month late. The delays can raise questions about whether evidence was contaminated and the ability of prosecutors to verify to courts that evidence was truly collected. And in at least 57 cases, a second audit found deputies lied about booking evidence that they did not actually book.

For nearly two years, the public and Orange County supervisors – who oversee the sheriff’s legal defense and budget – were kept in the dark about the evidence problems.

Sheriff officials say they learned of evidence issues in January 2018, and launched an audit the following month. But none of it became public until last month, when the Register published an article about the findings. On that day, sheriff officials first told county supervisors, noting a news story was coming.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.