Joshua Dominic Wilson didn't need a psychic to predict that moving to Orange County guaranteed pain. The 20-year-old quit a good-paying union job in northern California in August and, to pursue his dream of playing in the National Football League, joined the LA-based semi-pro team the Southern California Smash. Defensive backs—like the 5-foot, 11-inch, muscular Wilson—know all about dishing out and receiving trauma.
But Wilson, an upbeat Santa Clara native with a disarming smile and model-good looks, believed that all the violence he'd experience would be on a football field. Wilson didn't realize that Orange County is home to another sort of contact sport: jail beating.
Unlike football, which has rules of conduct and penalties for cheaters, beatings in the jail are one-sided contests, where—thanks to the weak-kneed management of Sheriff Mike Carona—despicable acts routinely go unpunished. Beating prisoners doesn't require any skill; any group of 9-year-olds armed with high-voltage taser guns and pepper spray can torture someone who is handcuffed and confined. The home team always wins.
Wilson learned this lesson on Sept. 24, after Huntington Beach police transported him to the OC Jail because he'd failed to resolve an old traffic ticket. He was stripping for a body search when he says an irritable deputy provoked an incident. The deputy told him to lift his arms up. He complied. "Higher," the deputy ordered. Wilson became concerned. His arms were already as high as he could stretch them, a fact he says the deputy ignored. "Raise your arms," the deputy yelled a third and fourth time. Wilson, who was wearing only pants, responded, "Fuck, they're already raised as high as they can go."
"Okay, that's it," the deputy told Wilson. "Put your hands behind your back."
Wilson did what he was told. After he was handcuffed, a group of deputies pounced.
"They slammed me against a wall, and then one of them sprayed a can of pepper spray directly into both of my eyes—which were wide open because I had no idea what they were doing or why," said Wilson. "I had done everything they told me to do. I wasn't starting any problem. I'd done nothing wrong. I was cooperating to the fullest."
After emptying the pepper spray can, deputies fired two taser darts into Wilson's back. "They zapped me with the electricity for about a minute," he said. "I felt my heart pumping and I couldn't breathe. I was screaming in pain. Then they'd pause for a second and zap me again. I'd say they zapped me four or five different times. It just didn't stop."
According to Wilson, the deputies weren't finished. Still handcuffed, outnumbered and unable to see because of the pepper spray, Wilson was then punched and kicked so severely they fractured his nose in three places, ripped his lip, busted his eye socket and ribs, pounded his jaw, cut his leg and bruised his shoulder. Blood poured. A huge knot swelled on his head.
Next, they hog-tied him, twisting his legs behind his back. The hold aggravated an old knee injury, and he pleaded, "Please stop! Please stop!" But the deputies only pushed harder, he recalls. "I was scared that they were going to break my knees," he said. "That's all that was on my mind—that my chance for a football career would be over."
The 10-minute beating ended when a higher-ranking officer arrived and ordered his deputies to "calm down." They tossed Wilson into a cell, brought a video camera and interrogated him. Apparently, the interview with the blood-soaked Wilson didn't suit the sheriff's department's purposes. They removed the handcuffs and ordered him to wash the blood off his face, throat, head and shoulders. After telling him they were thinking about accusing him of assaulting them, deputies rerecorded the interview with a terrified Wilson.
"I'm guessing that we'll never see that first tape," said Chris Mears, Wilson's attorney, who filed a claim against the sheriff's department and the county on Oct. 5. "What those deputies did was so brutal, so unnecessary. They have to be held accountable."
Eleven hours after the beating, Wilson was set for release. Before he left, an amused deputy walked over. "So you're the ultimate fighting guy," he wisecracked.
Once outside the jail, Wilson's girlfriend started crying when she saw his pulverized face. She took him to the Hoag Hospital emergency room. Doctors asked, "What happened to you?"* * *
If you've followed the OC Jail beatings saga, you know Wilson's experience isn't rare. The list of injuries inflicted by deputies in recent years is horrific: detached retinas, ruptured eardrums, shattered jaws, severed arteries, broken limbs—even crushed testicles. Deputies counter by claiming they fear attacks by inmates and use force only as a last resort.
But in August the Weekly exposed the brutal beating of San Clemente businessman Greg Hall, who was being processed in the jail after a minor traffic accident. Deputies punched, kicked and tortured Hall, who was handcuffed, hooded and left to sit in his own feces for 12 hours. He emerged from jail with a concussion, broken ribs, a gash in his leg, an eye contusion, broken veins in his feet, a shattered front tooth, lacerations and bruises over his body, contusions to his knee, neck pain, a fractured right wrist, and nerve damage to his left hand. In response, amused sheriff's officials shrugged. One laughed.
It's a situation screaming for immediate reform. Since rogue deputies apparently aren't going to be fired or disciplined, here's an idea: audio- and videotape the processing of everyone entering the jail. That would help settle allegations of abuse.
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But even such modest reforms are unlikely. Carona, local judges, the grand jury and the county's Board of Supervisors—which regularly pays out millions of taxpayer dollars to settle abuse cases—have proved to be co-conspirators. For example, the previous grand jury began investigating the jail last year but decided one subject was off-limits: jail beatings. In a May report that echoed deputy demands for more money and better offices, the grand jury hinted at its lack of concern about the violence. Deputies treated them with "respect and courtesy" when they visited the jail, they noted.
There's hope, however. Carona—struggling through embarrassing revelations about his incompetence, connections to felons, fund-raising irregularities and a sordid mess involving an alleged series of extramarital affairs—might not be in office after next June's election. The new grand jury could take its government watchdog role seriously. And thank God for the FBI: following the Weekly's Aug. 12 "Justice Takes a Beating" cover story about abuses in the OC Jail, a federal agent met with Hall. Perhaps the agency will be interested in talking to Wilson too. He's got a story to tell.
"I moved down here to start my career and hopefully get the attention of the NFL," he said. "I didn't come here to get beaten for no good reason."