LOS ANGELES – A prosecution witness told a federal jury Tuesday that he watched unseen as Los Angeles County jail guards beat an apparently unconscious inmate. He said the brutal images from seven years ago are impossible to erase from his mind.
The memories were “beat into my brain,” said John Maestaz, a 48-year-old state prison inmate. “It was a memory I can see frame-by-frame in my mind — because it was that fierce of a beating.”
Maestaz took the stand against deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez, the latest of 21 current and former sheriff’s officials to be tried by federal authorities in connection with the FBI’s multi-year investigation into brutality and other misconduct in the sheriff’s department.
Federal authorities allege that Aguiar and Ramirez violated the civil rights of Bret Phillips of Lancaster by assaulting him inside the Men’s Central Jail on Feb. 11, 2009. Prosecutors say the inmate was handcuffed to a waist chain during the attack.
The indictment alleges the deputies kicked Phillips in the head and upper body, struck him with a flashlight, pepper-sprayed him in the face and then lied about it in official reports.
Maestaz, who is halfway through a 21-year sentence for gang-related voluntary manslaughter, testified that he was incarcerated at the jail when he secretly watched as Aguiar and Ramirez battered the “unmoving” head and body of the handcuffed and plainly unconscious Phillips.
Maestaz said he was in a shower area of the facility when he heard noises, turned and saw Phillips “laying on the ground with two deputies on top of him.”
One of the deputies, the witness said, was “riding” on Phillips’ back, repeatedly “slamming” his fist into the back of the man’s head, while a second deputy was also striking the inmate.
“I was able to see everything that was going on — but I did not want to be seen,” Maestaz said. “I was afraid of repercussions.”
The witness said he soon noticed the jail chaplain about 15 feet away, also watching what was happening and apparently unseen by the deputies.
“He looked astonished, with this expression like, ‘Oh, my God,”‘ Maestaz said of the minister. “It was a brutal beating.”
The chaplain, Paulino Juarez, testified last week that he also witnessed Aguiar and Ramirez punching the handcuffed, unresisting Phillips, leaving the man in a puddle of blood.
Phillips, 44, took the stand Friday to tell the panel that he apparently angered Aguiar by lobbing milk cartons at the lawman, because the guard had left him tightly handcuffed to a waist chain inside his cell instead of removing the restraints once he was inside.
After one of the cartons struck Aguiar’s shoe, Phillips said, he was brought out of his cell and ordered to face a wall.
“I just had that feeling that something was going to happen,” the former inmate testified. “I was nervous. I knew I did something wrong by throwing the milk cartons.”
Phillips said he could tell he was in trouble by the “demeanor” of Aguiar and Ramirez.
At that point, the witness testified, his head was “slammed” into the wall, Ramirez placed him in a chokehold and he blacked out.
“Could you protect yourself from punches or kicks?,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins asked.
Phillips responded, “No, I couldn’t.”
The ex-inmate — who told the jury that he suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — said he awoke on a gurney surrounded by deputies as he was being taken to a medical facility for treatment of his injuries.
Defense attorneys contend the use of force was reasonable and perfectly legal while trying to contain Phillips, who they maintain was unruly and violent.
But Maestaz said Phillips “had a blank look on his face” during the beating and was not moving off the floor.
“They’re hitting him and he’s not responding — he’s not there,” the witness testified.
Later that day, deputies came down the row, asking inmates if they had “seen anything” that morning, Maestaz said.
The witness said he told the deputies, “I didn’t see nothing.”
He told the jury that he never told authorities what he had witnessed until two years ago when FBI agents came to interview him in his prison cell.
When told in 2014 that he may have to testify against the deputies in federal court, Maestaz said he responded that he didn’t want to be “judged” as someone who snitched.
During cross-examination, Vicki Podberesky, Ramirez’s attorney, attempted to catch the witness in prior inconsistent statements.
Maestaz, she suggested, had initially told federal investigators that Phillips had “broken away” and run from a deputy who was bringing him back to his cell prior to the incident.
But the witness was adamant Tuesday that the guard’s hand had slipped from Phillips’ sleeve and the inmate had merely “backed slowly out of my view” before any force was used.”
Aguiar and Ramirez face several criminal counts, including conspiring to violate federal civil rights, deprivation of rights under color of law that caused injuries, and preparing a false report.
If convicted as charged, the deputies — who are on unpaid leave from the department — each face more than 10 years in federal prison.
Testimony continues at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in Courtroom 14, U.S. District Court, 312 N. Spring Street, Los Angeles.
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