A group of 14 people, many of them children, sit on stairs. Several hold signs saying: "Long Live Francisco," "LASD Failed Francisco Nunez", "Justice 4 Francisco", as well as a picture of him.
Francisco Nunez's family gathers in downtown Los Angeles in early May, to announce filing a claim against Los Angeles over Francisco's death. (Cerise Castle)

Francisco Nunez, a 38-year-old father of 8, was last seen alive with several Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies. Five days later, he turned up dead a few feet away from where they took him into custody. 

An autopsy report from the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner claims that Nunez died of “the effects of methamphetamine.” But the report doesn’t account for bruising and several markings that appear to be burns that are present throughout his body, clearly visible in photos of his body post-autopsy reviewed by LA Public Press.

The Department of Medical Examiner declined to speak about the case. 

Despite multiple eyewitness accounts from people who clearly saw Nunez be detained early on a Saturday morning in March, the sheriff’s department denies that Nunez was ever in custody.

“The serious allegations made against our deputies are factually untrue and not consistent with the facts and evidence of this case,” LASD told LA Public Press in a statement. “Mr. Nunez was not located nor detained as a result of that stop.” 

However, five eyewitnesses who spoke to LA Public Press say that Nunez was not only arrested by deputies, he was beaten severely. Since his death, members of his family have documented persistent harassment by members of the department. 

Nunez’s family has filed a tort claim against Los Angeles County for Nunez’s death, the precursor to a lawsuit.

“There is a police term that’s called dumping,” Nunez family attorney Denisse Gastélum said at a press conference outside of the Hall of Justice. “There were handcuffs markings on his body… blunt force trauma to the chest to the head of Mr. Nunez while he was in their custody. And instead of doing what they are hired to do as deputies…they dump him…because they believe the Nunez family wouldn’t catch on.”

A Mysterious Death

Deputies Logan Simi and Shane Quesada of the Lancaster sheriff’s station drove their patrol vehicle down an alley behind the apartment complex at 44040 Division Street. According to federal court filings, the deputies spotted several men in the alleyway. It was Nunez and some of his friends hanging out in one of the men’s cars, which was parked in its assigned parking space according to multiple witnesses. The deputies claim they were conducting an investigation for vehicle theft. Several people ran off as deputies approached, including Nunez. 

One of the men who ran off told LA Public Press that he watched Nunez run, and eventually become surrounded by patrol vehicles. Another witness watching from nearby the apartment complex also recounted watching Nunez run across Division Street into a field, where he was stopped by a deputy in a patrol vehicle driven by Deputy Noel Witty. The witness observed a figure, who they believed to be Nunez, being taken into custody, and overheard deputies saying “three is custody” over the radio of another deputy standing nearby. Another witness confirmed seeing Witty stop Nunez.

The Sheriff’s Department has continued to deny that Nunez was ever in their custody.

Nunez’s family heard about the arrests, and began using LASD’s Inmate Locator to attempt to find him. He never showed up in the database. 

On March 14th, five days after the incident in the alley, Nunez’s body was discovered in the alley about 250 feet from where deputies had initially made contact with him. According to the report from the Department of Medical Examiner, he was discovered by a homeowner at 8:45 am on the ground next to the man’s garage. Nunez was found with blood in his mouth, hands and pants, as well as near a “small spot of blood” in the tumbleweeds where he lay. His pockets were turned inside out. A paramedic pronounced him dead at 9:13a. 

Later that day, LASD homicide detectives Rivas and Leopoldo Sanchez arrived at Cindy and Francisco’s parents home to notify them of his death. Sanchez has been identified as an associate of the Banditos deputy gang. He told LAist that he “took a lot of pride” in a controversial station logo that celebrates police violence, and denied being a member of the gang. 

Sanchez and LASD did not respond to a request for comment about his alleged ties to the Banditos. 

Christian Contreras, an attorney for the Nunez family, said that he had concerns that a deputy with gang ties was promoted to the rank of detective and oversaw the investigation into Nunez’s death. “They will use other types of measures, even if they are outside the legal constraints, to show you not to cross us,” he said. “It’s frightening, frankly.”

Cindy Nunez, Francisco’s sister, contacted Robert Fierro Sr., the coroner investigator assigned to the case. During a meeting at his office, Fierro told Cindy and another one of Francisco’s sisters present that he was sure Francisco had been in a fight, and that he had not overdosed on drugs. The women both say Fierro also stated that Francisco had not died in the alley, rather he had been placed in there and moved twice. His conclusions had prompted the involvement of homicide detectives.  

An examination by medical examiner Dr. Sami Souccar concluded that Nunez died from the effects of methamphetamine. Souccar noted that Nunez had abrasions on his knees, face, and fingers. His wrist was also noted to have a large cut. In photographs of Nunez’s body reviewed by LA Public Press, bruises and what appear to be burn marks are present throughout his torso and back. None of them were noted in the autopsy.

The sheriff’s department has denied that there were any signs of trauma on Nunez at all. “A preliminary investigation at the scene revealed no signs of foul play (violence resulting in death), nor were any signs of apparent trauma found on Mr. Nunez’s body,” LASD said in a statement posted on its Nixle account. No mention was made of the blood on Nunez in the statement.

Deputies Harass the Nunez Family

Since Nunez’s body was discovered, his family has faced continued harassment from local deputies. 

The evening that detectives informed them of the death, a patrol vehicle drove by where the family had gathered with its window down. The deputy inside yelled “Fuck you,” as he drove by, according to several witnesses. A few minutes later, another sheriff’s department vehicle passed by. The deputy inside asked the gathered relatives if they were “going to keep it G [gangster]?”, according to eyewitnesses.  

Since then, deputies have kept up a steady presence outside of the homes of members of the Nunez family, according to more than 10 videos and photos reviewed by LA Public Press. An LA Public Press reporter was pulled over shortly after meeting with witnesses to Nunez’s detainment. 

“What we are seeing here today is … deputy gangs continuing to harass and murder the people in Lancaster,” Gastélum, the family’s attorney, said.

Deputy harassment of family members of people killed by LASD is routine. The sheriff’s department’s Civilian Oversight Commission has received numerous complaints of deputies harassing the family members of people killed by its members. The Office of the Inspector General has put forward several recommendations to ensure thorough investigations of all allegations of harassment, and to limit pretextual stops that provide circumstances for allegations of some forms of harassment to occur.

“The Department investigates all allegations of public complaints. Lancaster Sheriff’s Station is dedicated to serving the community and providing the highest level of public safety,” LASD said in its statement. 

“I’ve filed my complaints with internal affairs, I’ve gone to COC settings, I’ve met with the Office of Constitutional Policing,” Cindy Nunez said at the press conference. “It doesn’t stop. We live in fear.”

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