Sheriff Villanueva investigates reporter who revealed jail coverup

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced Tuesday his department is targeting a Times journalist in a criminal leak investigation for her reporting on the department’s cover-up of an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes.

The sheriff’s attack on reporter Alene Tchekmedyian during a news conference drew immediate condemnation from the newspaper.

“His attempt to criminalize news reporting goes against well-established constitutional law,” said Kevin Merida, executive editor of The Times, in a statement. “We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian’s and the Fontana News Room’ rights in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities.”

The Times published a report last month that described how Sheriff’s Department officials worked to cover-up the March 2021 incident because they feared it would paint the department in a “negative light.” The Times report was accompanied by surveillance video from a lock-up area of the San Fernando Courthouse that captured the deputy kneeling on the inmate’s head after handcuffing him.

Earlier this week, the newspaper and other outlets reported on a legal claim in which a department commander alleged that Villanueva participated in the cover-up, telling underlings, “We do not need bad media at this time.”

Villanueva has denied being involved in the cover-up, saying he learned of the violent detention eight months after it occurred and immediately launched an investigation into it.

In the wake of the reports on the commander’s claims, Villanueva summoned the media to the Hall of Justice downtown and revealed the criminal probe into how The Times obtained the video of the detention.

With Tchekmedyian looking on from the audience, he displayed a poster with large photographs of her and two longtime foes, political rival Eli Vera and sheriff’s Inspector General Max Huntsman. Arrows pointed from Vera to Huntsman to Tchekmedyian, implying the two men had been involved in providing the video to the reporter. Villanueva also exhibited a list of possible felonies under investigation, including conspiracy, burglary and unauthorized use of a database.

“This is stolen property that was removed illegally from people who had some intent — criminal intent — and it’ll be subject to investigation,” Villanueva said. When pressed whether he was investigating the journalist specifically, the sheriff said, “All parties to the act are subjects of the investigation.”

This is a developing story.

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