Christopher Johnson (left) and Robert Kirsch in Santa Barbara Superior Court

Paul Wellman

Christopher Johnson (left) and Robert Kirsch in Santa Barbara Superior Court

Sheriff Fires Jail Guards Accused of Assaulting Inmate

FBI Called to Investigate; Guard Supporters Say Terminations Were Political and Retaliatory

Thursday, April 10, 2014
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The two Santa Barbara County Jail guards accused of assaulting an inmate last summer have been terminated by the Sheriff’s Office following an internal affairs investigation, but their court case remains stalled at its preliminary stages while the FBI looks into the incident. Robert Kirsch, hired as a custody deputy in 2006, was fired on March 7. Christopher Johnson, with the Sheriff’s Office since 2005, was terminated on March 19.

Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover said because the decisions were personnel matters, she couldn’t comment any further. However, friends, family, and colleagues of the former deputies have been vocal in their criticism of the firings, alleging that the move was not only political but also retaliation after Kirsch filed a formal grievance about unsafe conditions for guards at the jail and prompted a January report that concluded staffing levels at the time were dangerously low.

Christopher Johnson leaves his August arraignment
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Christopher Johnson leaves his August arraignment

On June 17 in the jail’s reception center, Johnson was moving Owens from his holding cell when Owens — a 26-year-old Lompoc gang member arrested for rape and murder — began to resist. Johnson attempted to subdue him by taking him to the ground, but struggled and called for backup. (The incident was record by a surveillance camera, and multiple sources who have viewed the footage shared the sequence of events with The Independent with promises to make the tape available next week.)

Kirsch arrived to help Johnson and delivered three knee strikes to Owens’ legs, after which he agreed to cooperate. Because of the camera angle, much of Johnson’s actions were not recorded. The whole confrontation lasted approximately 15 seconds, the sources said. Two CHP officers were witnesses to it and have reportedly testified that they didn’t feel the deputies were guilty of any wrongdoing.

Kirsch and Johnson have maintained their innocence and say the scuffle with Owens was a routine handling of an unruly inmate. While the knee strikes were reportedly cited as excessive force in the Sheriff’s investigation, law enforcement officials familiar with the case say the tactic is allowed when the situation calls for it.

Charles Alonzo Owens
Click to enlarge photo

Courtesy Photo

Charles Alonzo Owens

According to the Sheriff’s Policy Manual, “It is the policy of this department that deputies shall use only that amount of force that reasonably appears necessary, given the facts and circumstances perceived by the deputy at the time of the event, to effectively bring an incident under control.” Prosecutor Anthony Davis has stated that the use of force becomes illegal when it exceeds reasonableness for a given situation. An FBI spokesperson confirmed her office is involved in the criminal investigation, but declined to answer questions about when and why the agency was called in.

The day after the incident, Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt, chief investigator of Santa Maria’s public defender office and president of the NAACP’s Santa Maria-Lompoc branch, brought an assault complaint to the District Attorney’s Office. A week later Owens began complaining of pain in his upper torso and was taken to the hospital for a medical examination. After a short stay, he was returned to jail. The Sheriff’s Office has declined to elaborate on Owens’s reported injuries, citing health privacy laws.

Both Kirsch, 30, and Johnson, 28 — who were on paid administrative leave until their terminations — pleaded not guilty to their charges of assault by a public officer, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in County Jail. Their arraignment took place August 30, but their preliminary hearing has been postponed multiple times since.

Owens was convicted in November of fatally shooting a man in 2007 as well as raping and abusing his girlfriend over the course of their eight-month relationship. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole, but was still awaiting trial at the time of the alleged assault.

Sources say Kirsch and Johnson plan on participating in a county civil service hearing in hopes of clearing their names and being reinstated, but they can’t do so until their criminal case is resolved. Their next court date is scheduled for May 16. Because it is an open case, Davis said he couldn’t talk in detail about it.

Kirsch’s attorney, William Hadden, who defended Los Angeles police officers implicated in the Rodney King beating, declined to comment for this story, but told reporters after August’s arraignment, “It’s our contention that both deputies did nothing wrong.” Johnson’s attorney didn’t return a request for comment.

Kirsch has reportedly been in talks with private attorney Josh Lynn about a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, but that has not been confirmed. Lynn didn’t immediately return calls placed Thursday afternoon.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

It sucks that scum like Owens can get the better of two men trying to do their job.

pony (anonymous profile)
April 11, 2014 at 1:09 a.m. (Suggest removal)

How is it Lawanda Hyphenated and the Ndubl-ACP wield such power in defending a murderer rapist against two officers working in arguably the toughest public service job there is.And where is the officers union representation as they have to resort to our local Lincoln lawyer.

garfish (anonymous profile)
April 11, 2014 at 8:05 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Their union buckled like a belt. The guy in custody, total POS. They should've used REAL excessive force. Might as well if you're going to get axed. Go out with a bang I say & take out a scumbag i the process.

blahblahmoreblah (anonymous profile)
April 11, 2014 at 11:51 a.m. (Suggest removal)

This report really opens up the story around these charges. If you have any knowledge of law enforcement officer's feelings for one another you'd know that there's not a single CHP officer that would sacrifice his/her career for the actions of jail guards (corrections officers/custody deputies/whatever they call them). There are two CHP officers that say these two did nothing wrong? That says a lot.

I assume these guards filed reports and the video was reviewed by supervisors. Why isn't everyone involved being charged for covering up? Why didn't they charge the CHP officers for covering up since they were there at the time? Especially now that they defend the two guards?

These firings and prosecutions are not all that uncommon when the NAACP gets involved. Not to say that all NAACP claims are false, but weak agency leaders panic at the thought of bad civil rights press, especially at election time.

I can't wait to see the video. If it is what they say I sure in the hell wouldn't want to work in that jail under the fear of another call from the NAACP.

Validated (anonymous profile)
April 11, 2014 at 4:28 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I highly dislike criminals such this individual! But that does not authorize our designated authorities to take the law into their own hands, these are suppose to be model citizens and set examples. These two former officers give legitimate officers a bad name and reputation. I hope they all go to jail for a very long time.

1123inde (anonymous profile)
April 11, 2014 at 4:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

@1123inde... So, have you seen the video? Were they convicted and we not know it? Or was it just because they wore a uniform and that's why you'd like to see them in jail?

Validated (anonymous profile)
April 11, 2014 at 5:07 p.m. (Suggest removal)

@ validated...Well they are not facing these allegations by accident, nor are they being released from their duties because they are innocent! And the fact that they Took advantage of their badge just grinds my gears! When becoming a officer you take a oath of entegrity, and clearly they took advantage of a situation. If u don't think they did anything wrong, then write me when the verdict is reached.

1123inde (anonymous profile)
April 12, 2014 at 8:27 a.m. (Suggest removal)

This happens all too often because of political reasons...

Validated (anonymous profile)
April 12, 2014 at 7:24 p.m. (Suggest removal)


I guess you've already found them guilty before they have even had their day in court before a jury. Remind me not to have you on the jury if for some reason I'm ever charged with a crime I DID NOT COMMIT!!!

Priceless (anonymous profile)
April 13, 2014 at 8:29 a.m. (Suggest removal)

@ priceless and validated,

all of a sudden you two want to give fair trials and not make assumptions about the case despite of what the media publishes and facts are. I don't see you guys writing any post on behalf of these scum bag gang-members running around stabbing people! were are your post at that time when they are being judged before their trial? you two are hypocrites.

1123inde (anonymous profile)
April 14, 2014 at 9:27 a.m. (Suggest removal)

More evidence of corruption in the local LEO community. not uncommon. Read the national press.

JohnLocke (anonymous profile)
April 15, 2014 at 10:28 a.m. (Suggest removal)

They call them "pigs" for a reason.

Beachgirl77 (anonymous profile)
April 16, 2014 at 8:01 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Yo Beachgirl, it's "Porcine-American", not "pig".

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
April 16, 2014 at 8:06 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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