Investigative Unit

Sheriff Left Civilian Jail Watchdogs in Dark After Gang Beating of Police Informant

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit learned from several sources that the police informant was confronted by gang members with a recording of him speaking to homicide detectives a few years earlier. It took nearly 6 minutes for deputies to respond after the beating began.

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Moments before a confidential police informant was brutally beaten by dozens of men inside Clara County’s Elmwood Jail last year, Sureno gang members confronted the informant with a recording of him speaking to detectives in a homicide investigation a few years earlier, according to multiple sources familiar with the case.

Jail Surveillance video obtained by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit clearly shows what happens next. In plain view of security cameras and a guard station, 31 men inside the jail’s Sureno dorm launch a viscous attack on the informant – also a fellow gang member. The video shows the informant being beaten for nearly six minutes before his attackers walk away. Deputies don't enter the dorm for nearly another minute, the video shows.

The incident raises questions about how the the informant was exposed in the first place and how an attack involving dozens of people inside a space being monitored by cameras and guards could last so long before jail deputies took notice.

Further complicating this case, NBC Bay Area has confirmed that the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office left civilian jail watchdogs in the dark for months about the incident. That, county officials say, is a problem.

“I became aware of the jail assault incident when I came across a news report of it,” said Michael Gennaco, head of the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM) for Santa Clara County. “Ideally, as the monitor for Santa Clara law enforcement, we would have been notified of this incident in real time.”

While the beating happened in November, 2020, news reports of the incident didn't surface until May, when the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office announced indictments against 31 men accused of being involved in the attack.

OCLEM was created to monitor county jails and law enforcement in the wake of inmate Michael Tyree’s beating death at the hands of three Santa Clara County jail guards in 2015. OCLEM was designed to respond to incidents such as this and suggest corrective action. But county officials say Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith still refuses to sign an information sharing agreement with civilian monitors.

“OCLEM [The Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring] as a monitoring entity can’t really perform its functions without this information sharing,” said Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams. “That’s an important thing that needs to get resolved.”

Retired Santa Clara County Judge LaDoris Cordell, who chaired the county supervisor-appointed Blue-Ribbon Commission that recommended hundreds of jail reforms after Tyree was killed, says it’s clear Sheriff Smith and jail administration still need more oversight.

“The whole idea was so that these kinds of things, people getting killed or being hurt, would not happen, either to the guards or to the inmates,” Cordell said. “And look what has happened.”

Beyond the standoff between the Sheriff and OCLEM, Cordell called the informant’s beating “totally unacceptable.”

“It’s either ineptitude or deliberate indifference,” Cordell said.

Santa Clara County’s Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests from NBC Bay Area to discuss why it took so long for deputies to respond to the attack. The Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t answer questions about why department officials never reported the incident to Gennaco’s group. In May, the Sheriff’s Office sent a statement responding to a previous NBC Bay Area story on the incident, saying in part:

“This incident began in a remote part of one of our ‘Indirect Supervision’ dorms, which means the deputy is stationed outside of the housing area. Staff assigned to these posts are often responsible for multi-tasking and conducting other non-supervision duties, which typically occur out of eyesight of those incarcerated.”

The surveillance video obtained by NBC Bay Area shows the beating, but it doesn’t explain how the informant’s identity was exposed or why he was put into a jail dorm with people who now knew he was an informant. Grand jury testimony that led to indictments against all 31 alleged attackers might help answer those questions, but so far, the transcript of those proceedings hasn’t been made public.

Here’s what we do know:

In late 2020, on the evening of November 30, a man in a bright green shirt is led by deputies into the Sureno gang dorm at Elmwood Jail after a recent arrest. The man, 40, is a gang member himself, according to prosecutors. They say the man gave information to police a few years back during a murder investigation.

At first, nothing seems out of the ordinary and he’s greeted with handshakes by other men in the dorm. But a few minutes later, he’s led to the back of the dorm by another man.

Though it’s tough to see what’s happening on the jail surveillance video, multiple sources close to the case tell NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit that’s where the informant is confronted with the recording of him speaking to detectives, a recording the victim didn’t know existed.

Turns out the man facing charges in that murder is housed in the same jail dorm and had received a copy of the recording on a jail-issued computer tablet as part of the pre-trial discovery process.

It doesn’t take long for the beating to begin.

“I can see absolutely no reason why that should have happened,” said Adam Bercovici, a retired lieutenant from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Robbery-Homicide division.

Bercovici said when informants get exposed, it can have dire consequences, for informants and for law enforcement agencies that use them.

“You have to have a reputation that you protect your informants, that they’re not going to get injured or killed or assaulted because of the work that they do,” said Bercovici, who now does consulting work.

The witness survived the beating, but suffered broken bones, according to prosecutors. The video shows him being kicked, punched, stomped, and dragged across the dorm, left naked and bloody until deputies finally arrive.

“Every day now [the informant] is in danger because he’s been outed,” Bercovici said. “And once that’s happened, it’s really difficult to come back from. I mean, it’s almost impossible in that culture to come back from. He’s done. He’s going to have to reinvent himself and get out of there.”

All 31 defendants in the beating have entered not guilty pleas to the criminal indictments handed down by the grand jury.

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