A Lompoc gang member convicted of murder and sex crimes and now serving a life sentence in Folsom State Prison has sued the County of Santa Barbara and two jail guards for a beating he allegedly sustained at the county jail last summer while awaiting trial.
Charles Owens claims guards Robert Kirsch and Christopher Johnson — who were fired from the Sheriff’s Office in March after an internal affairs investigation, and are now facing local and federal charges — handcuffed him and threw him to the ground, where he was repeatedly kneed. The assault, Owens claims, left him with bruised ribs, internal bleeding, and wrist injuries. Much of the struggle was reportedly captured by a security camera. While Kirsch said he’d be willing to let The Santa Barbara Independent see the footage because he believes it would clear his name, his attorney declined a viewing.
Owens is represented by Ventura attorney Brian Vogel, who was not immediately available for comment. The lawsuit, filed on May 29, seeks an undetermined amount of monetary damages. It was discussed by the County Board of Supervisors this Tuesday during their closed-session meeting, but county counsel Mike Ghizzoni said no reportable action was taken.
Kirsch and Johnson have pleaded not guilty to assault charges filed by the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office but have not been prosecuted as local authorities wait until the federal case works its way through court in Los Angeles. In April, the FBI indicted the pair on allegations that while “acting under color of law” they violated Owens’s civil rights. Johnson is also charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly filing a false report with his supervisor.
A trial date was set for this fall, but the proceedings will likely be delayed, according to sources close to the case. Supporters of the former guards allege they were unfairly singled out for reasons both political and retaliatory after Kirsch filed a grievance about unsafe working conditions. The supporters also claim the men used a reasonable amount of force to gain control of Owens after he ignored their commands, and that such tussles are a relatively routine occurrence at the jail. They admit knee strikes were delivered but say the moves were necessary to bring a dangerous situation under control.
Owens was convicted of fatally shooting a man in 2007 as well as raping and abusing his girlfriend. He is not eligible for parole. The day after the alleged jail beating, 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 was taken to the hospital for an examination. After a short stay, he was returned to jail.
Below is a portion of the incident narrative provided in the lawsuit. The full filing is also attached. In interviews with the county counsel’s office about unrelated cases, attorneys have cautioned that such claims are inherently one-sided, but they explained their office does not comment on pending litigation. Ghizzoni confirmed that policy this week when asked about the Owens case. (WARNING: Explicit language ahead.)
On June 17, 2013, Plaintiff was incarcerated in the Santa Barbara County Jail in cell IRC-215 while awaiting trial on criminal charges. Plaintiff was originally incarcerated on November 23, 2011.
At approximately 11:30 a.m. on June 17, 2013, Plaintiff was in his cell when he pushed the call button and inquired about when he would visit the day room because it was past his scheduled day room time.
Johnson responded to the call and replied in words to the effect of, “Don’t you fuckin’ worry about it, we’ll give you day room when we’re ready to give you day room.” Plaintiff responded, “You don’t have to get an attitude about it.”
Johnson then said, “Don’t push the fuckin’ call button again.” Plaintiff said words to the effect of, “Don’t come at me all stupid,” to which Johnson responded words to the effect of, “I’ll come down there and rough you up” (or “…fuck you up”). Plaintiff responded, “Not without backup or some handcuffs you won’t.”
Plaintiff is informed and believes that Johnson was in the IRC Tower when he said the above. Plaintiff is informed and believes that Johnson was not supposed to leave the IRC Tower unless there was some type of emergency that required an immediate response.
A short time later, Johnson arrived at Plaintiff’s cell. Kirsch was with Johnson. They both entered Plaintiff’s cell. Johnson, in a threatening tone, asked Plaintiff, “Now what did you say?” Plaintiff responded, “Don’t come down here demanding some respect when you came at me all disrespectful.” Johnson then said, “Well you pushed the button on the intercom and you know you’re not supposed to push it unless it’s an emergency.” Plaintiff then stated, “I pushed the button to see when we were coming out and you got all stupid in the mouth.” Johnson replied, “Just for that, I’m gonna have you slammed down for the rest of the day,” which Plaintiff understood to mean that he would be locked in his cell for the rest of the day.
Johnson and Kirsch walked out of the cell and as they were leaving, Plaintiff said words to the effect of, “That’s some bullshit.” One of the deputies tried to grab the cell door as it was closing, but the door closed and locked.
The deputies then called up to the tower to request that it be reopened. The door was again unlocked. Johnson entered the cell and ordered Plaintiff to turn around and put his hands behind his back. Plaintiff complied.
At the time of the incident Plaintiff was 5‘6” and weighed 195 pounds. Johnson was approximately 6‘0” and more than 250 pounds.
Johnson told Plaintiff to face the cell wall and put his hands behind his back. Plaintiff complied. Johnson then approached Plaintiff. Johnson leaned down, with his face an inch or two from Plaintiff’s ear. He was close enough that Plaintiff could feel the heat from Johnson’s breath on his ear and neck, when, again in a threatening tone, Johnson asked, “Now what did you say?”
Plaintiff took a step forward, kept his hands behind his back, turned his head to the side, and said, “What the fuck are you doing?” Johnson ordered him to turn around, and immediately grabbed one of Plaintiff’s arms. Kirsch then stepped forward and grabbed Plaintiff’s other arm. They then applied handcuffs to both wrists and tightened them down very tight so that they hurt both of Plaintiff’s wrists. Kirsch grabbed the chain between the cuffs and twisted it, causing Plaintiff pain.
Plaintiff was then escorted out of his cell with Johnson holding one arm and Kirsch holding the other. As they proceeded down the hallway, Kirsch pushed plaintiff against the closed door of one of the holding cells in the booking area. Plaintiff believed that Kirsch was trying to get a reaction out of him and Plaintiff just smiled and shook his head from side to side. They then continued walking down the hallway and then Kirsch again pushed Plaintiff into another closed door.
Plaintiff said words to the effect of, “Why would you do that? That’s some coward ass shit.” Kirsch told Plaintiff to shut up and then they continued down the hall. When they got to a hallway door, one of the deputies ordered Plaintiff to stand against the wall, which Plaintiff understood to mean stand close to the wall facing the wall. Plaintiff complied. They waited a little while for the hallway door to be opened and during this time, Plaintiff again asked the deputies, “Why did you push me into the door? That was some coward ass shit.” One of the deputies told Plaintiff to shut up.
Plaintiff was standing with his face close to the wall, shaking his head back and forth and possibly mumbling about what he perceived to be the deputies’ mistreatment of himself when Johnson suddenly grabbed one of his arms, (which remained tightly handcuffed to the other arm behind his back), and then spun him away from the wall and slammed him down face first on the cement floor.
Johnson then held Plaintiff face down on the cement floor when Kirsch approached. Kirsch then dropped from a standing position knee first and landed on top of Plaintiff. Kirsch’s knee connected to the side of Plaintiff’s rib cage. One or both of the deputies then delivered repeated strikes to Plaintiff’s torso with their knees. Plaintiff also felt a blow to the small of his back which he believed felt more like an elbow. The last two blows from the deputies’ knees were the hardest and they knocked the wind out of Plaintiff and caused him significant pain.
After the final knee strike, a jail deputy by the name of Ms. Reynoso and two uniformed non-custodian or “street” deputies arrived and asked Johnson and Kirsch if they needed any help. Johnson or Kirsch then said, “No, we got this.” Johnson or Kirsch then pulled Plaintiff up by his arms from the floor, causing him further pain because his handcuffed arms were bent backwards in an unnatural position causing his full weight to [be] borne at his shoulder joints. The entire incident in the hallway was captured on video by a security camera.