Lawsuit claims Sonoma County jail inmates suffered 5-hour beating at hands of deputies

The claims include allegations of Sonoma County correctional deputies going cell-to-cell, pulling people out and punching and kicking them as others listened to their screams. The Sheriff’s Office categorically denied the allegations.|

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday accuses Sonoma County correctional deputies of assaulting 20 inmates over a more than five-hour period of continuous beatings in which masked guards allegedly marched cell to cell, punching and kicking their terrified captives, who begged them to stop and screamed in pain.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, seeks unspecified damages from the county and Sheriff Steve Freitas as well as the appointment of a special monitor to oversee use-of-force incidents at the jail and report findings to the court for three years.

The Sheriff’s Office issued a statement Monday evening categorically denying “the outrageous and inflammatory accusations delineated in the complaint.”

“There is absolutely no basis to the allegations of torture, sadistic actions, and patterns of egregious constitutional violations or human suffering,” according to the statement issued by sheriff’s Sgt. Cecile Focha.

The lawsuit represents the latest claims of civil rights violations by Sonoma County deputies and comes amid heightened scrutiny of inmate treatment following the August beating death of a mentally ill Santa Clara County inmate, allegedly at the hands of three guards.

Lawyers for plaintiffs Marqus Martinez, 28, of Santa Rosa and Dan Banks, 23, of Petaluma allege the abuse meted out at the Sonoma County jail is encouraged by department policy, which they claim promotes a culture of violence among correctional deputies amounting to cruel and unusual punishment.

“This is like a horror movie,” said Santa Rosa attorney Izaak Schwaiger, one of three lawyers handling the case. “And we have reason to believe this was not an isolated incident.”

Freitas did not return repeated calls Monday seeking comment. Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker, who oversees the 1,100-inmate jail, also did not respond to calls.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said she learned of the allegations Monday but had no other details.

“I really can’t give you a reaction,” Gorin said. “At this point, I don’t have any information to comment on.”

The suit stems from a May 28 incident in a special module reserved for inmates deemed high-security risks, including gang members, Schwaiger said.

Focha said jail personnel did respond that day to “a seemingly coordinated mass disturbance by inmates” that was interfering with safe operation of the facility and the security of staff and other inmates. The incident will be reviewed further in response to the complaint, she said.

It appears neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the county made any public statements about the disruption in the jail at the time of the May 28 incident.

The suit alleges the events began when deputies conducting the morning “soap call” exchanged angry words with inmate Giovanni Montes, 27, of Santa Rosa, who had refused to wake up because he was on heavy medication.

The argument became physical when guards opened his door, threw him to the ground, pummeled him and shot him with an electric Taser, the suit said.

Guards dragged Montes from his cell to the showers, where they beat him again and made him dress in underwear several sizes too small to humiliate him in front of other inmates, the suit said.

At some point, the correctional deputies strapped Montes to a restraint chair and placed a mask over his head, despite Montes’ screams that he could not breathe, the suit said.

When another inmate, Jesus Lopez, 25, of Santa Rosa, yelled at deputies to stop beating Montes, guards turned on him, handcuffing him and body-slamming him to the floor, causing injuries and involuntary self-defecation, the suit said.

Guards then closed the windows on all the cell doors and spent the next five and a half hours beating all the inmates in the unit, the suit said.

“They beat one person, threw him back in his cell and went to the next person,” Schwaiger said. “It was a deliberate, systematic beating of everybody in the module.”

Martinez, who was in jail on domestic violence charges, grew panic-stricken as he listened from his cell and called to deputies for help, the suit said.

Instead, they stormed into his cell and beat him, forcing him to repeat, “This is our house!” while kicking, punching and kneeing him, the suit said. He was left injured and in pain on the floor where he listened as others received similar treatment, according to the suit.

The last to be beaten was Banks, who lay face down on his mattress with his hands behind his back in a show of submission, the suit said. Four deputies entered his cell and began kneeing and punching him in the back while yelling, “Stop resisting!” the suit said.

When Banks, who was serving time for probation violation, turned to look at the guards, one spat in his face and yelled, “That’s right. Get a good look at me you punk bitch. This is our house!” according to the suit.

“I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like this before,” Schwaiger said.

In a response to a grievance filed later by Banks, jail officials said they used force on the inmate because of defiance, inciting behavior and an inability to follow simple instructions, the suit alleged.

The suit, which also names jail supervisors Lt. Mazen Awad and Sgt. Brian Galloway, alleges the infliction of serious injuries along with “pain, fear, anxiety and terror.”

It accuses correctional staff members of a conscious disregard for inmates’ rights against unreasonable force and punishment under the Fourth, Eighth and 18th amendments.

Schwaiger said the two plaintiffs have since been released from jail and other inmates may be added to the suit as they finish serving their sentences or are freed. He said federal law prohibits inmates from suing while they are in custody until they have gone through an internal complaint process.

Although no video evidence accompanied the suit, Schwaiger said a recording made by jail staff exists but has yet to be turned over to him. He said the claims were contained in handwritten letters from the inmates, which he said had similar descriptions.

A press conference was planned for Tuesday morning in Santa Rosa.

Rick Walker, president of the labor group that represents correctional deputies, the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, said Monday that he was not aware of the lawsuit and did not want to comment on it.

In her statement, Focha said the department “takes very seriously our obligation to treat all inmates with dignity and respect, and is confident that we will prevail in this lawsuit.”

The case is the fourth civil rights lawsuit now facing the Sheriff’s Office. The most high-profile case was filed by the family of 13-year-old Andy Lopez weeks after the boy’s October 2013 shooting by a sheriff’s deputy. It alleges that the shooting was reckless and unjustified and accuses the Sheriff’s Office of “encouraging, accommodating, or ratifying” the use of excessive force by deputies.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or On Twitter @ppayne.

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