Two former Santa Barbara County custody deputies are now facing a civil lawsuit after an inmate claimed he was assaulted by the deputies in the County Jail and that his constitutional rights were violated.
Christopher Johnson, 28, and Robert Kirsch, 30, former custody deputies with the Sheriff’s Department, were indicted by a federal grand jury in April on charges of deprivation of rights under the color of law and aiding and abetting — charges stemming from an alleged attack on an inmate being housed at the jail.
Johnson is also charged with obstruction of justice.
Both men entered not guilty pleas last year to local criminal charges that they had assaulted Charles Owens, who had been in custody since 2011 on a variety of serious charges, including a 2007 gang-related killing in Lompoc, and a related case that involves rape, forced sodomy, attempted oral copulation, domestic battery and witness intimidation.
Johnson and Kirsch were fired after an internal investigation by the Sheriff’s Department.
Now, both defendants are facing a civil lawsuit that maintains Owens’ constitutional rights were violated.
Owens is being represented by Ventura-based attorney Brian Vogel, who filed the suit May 29 in district court asking for damages and a jury trial.
Listed as defendants in the case are the County of Santa Barbara, Johnson and Kirsch, as well as Deputy Richard Zepf, who was allegedly involved in putting Owens in an isolation cell after his assault, according to the lawsuit.
More defendants may be added to the lawsuit, including one unknown deputy who allegedly opened Owens’ cell after he had been beaten and “sat on (Owens’) crossed ankles so that he could not move his legs.”
Neither responded to multiple requests for comment from Noozhawk.
“At this early stage, I do not have any comments about Mr. Owens’ litigation,” County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni told Noozhawk on Thursday.
A terse complaint was issued when the case first came to light in 2013, but May’s court documents reveal more details about the alleged beating, and state that the deputies may have had a pattern of abuse.
The lawsuit alleges that the deputies assaulted Owens while he was in a holding cell at the County Jail while awaiting trial.
The suit also states that Owens believes Kirsch and Johnson used excessive force on other inmates, including “several instances in which one or both of them used excessive force on mentally ill inmates.”
The incident allegedly unfolded on June 17, 2013, when Owens pressed a call button to ask when he would be allowed to visit the jail’s day room.
The lawsuit states that Johnson responded, telling Owens not to worry about it, and then told the inmate not to press the call button again.
After a back and forth between the men, Johnson allegedly told Owens that he would “come down there and rough you up.”
Owens responded “not without backup or some handcuffs you won’t,” and a short time later, Johnson entered his cell along with Kirsch, the complaint alleges.
According to the suit, Johnson asked Owens, “Now what did you say?” to which Owens responded, “Don’t come down here demanding some respect when you came at me all disrespectful.”
Johnson chided Owens for pressing the emergency call button, to which Owens replied that he pushed the button to see when he would be released and then Johnson “got all stupid in the mouth,” the suit states.
Johnson replied that “Just for that I’m gonna have you slammed down for the rest of the day,” which Owens understood to mean he’d be locked in his cell for the rest of the day, according to the complaint.
“That’s some bullshit,” Owens said as the deputies were leaving his cell, and one of the deputies tried to grab the cell door as it was closing, but the door closed and locked, the suit states.
The deputies requested that the door be reopened and re-entered the cell, where Johnson told Owens to face the cell wall with his hands behind his back.
“Johnson leaned down, with an inch or two from (Owens’) ear,” the suit states. “He was close enough to 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?”
Owens asked Johnson what he was doing, and both men grabbed Owens’ arms.
“They then applied handcuffs to both wrists and tightened them down very tight so that they hurt both wrists,” the suit states, with Kirsch grabbing the chain between the cuffs, and twisting to cause Owens pain.
The deputies reportedly escorted Owens out of the cell and Johnson slammed the inmate “down face first on the cement floor.”
Kirsch kneed Owens in the rib, the suit states, and the deputies began to deliver repeated strikes to Owens’ torso with their knees.
Several other deputies arrived after the last knee strike, and the deputies asked Kirsch and Johnson whether they needed help.
Johnson or Kirsch responded “No, we got this,” the suit states.
The pair decided to throw Owens into a safety cell, where they were joined by a third unidentified deputy.
Kirsch grabbed Owens handcuffs, taking the inmate to the ground, and the third unidentified deputy sat on Owens’ ankle so he could not move, and with Kirsch and Johnson still holding Owens’ arms, Kirsch twisted the handcuffs again “causing Owens severe pain,” the suit states.
The deputies left and Owens, coughing up blood, called for a nurse, who diagnosed the inmate with bruised ribs, internal bleeding and bruises, among other injuries, the claim states.
Owens was kept in a safety cell for 15 hours “to silence Owens so that he would not report the beating,” and was taken to the hospital for a medical examination eight days later, the claim states.
“After the incident, Johnson prepared and submitted a police report falsely stating that (Owens) had physically resisted the deputies and omitted the fact that while (Owens) was handcuffed on the ground, he was kicked and kneed” by the deputies, the lawsuit said.
The federal trial is set for Jan. 20, and the state trial will be delayed until the federal case is completed.