To Close or Not to Close? Consider the Victims and Their Families
Patricia Wenskunas, founder and CEO of Crime Survivors, a non-profit advocacy and resource center for crime victims, made a plea to the Board of Supervisors and the public to consider the impact of reducing the 2020-2021 fiscal budget for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). The $545 million budget cut was recently approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, in response to a shrunken purse after COVID-19, despite the availability of alternative sources of money for government than sales tax.
In addition to more than 300 pending personnel layoffs, Board members also followed CEO Sachi Hamai’s recommendation to eliminate four important investigative bureaus: Special Victims Bureau, which investigates crimes against some of the most vulnerable of our population, children and victims of sexual assault, who are victims of atrocities like physical abuse, sexual abuse and rape; Operation Safe Streets, which investigates gang-related crimes, collects gang intelligence and maintains current information on local street gangs; Fraud and Cyber Crimes Bureau, which investigates crimes committed online and various forms of fraud, including identity theft, real estate fraud and wire fraud; and Major Crimes Bureau, which specializes in investigating kidnapping for ransom, illegal medical practices, extortion, solicitation for murder, series and pattern robberies, etc.
Scrapping these specialized bureaus will cause investigations to be decentralized and conducted at a station-level by detectives whose caseloads are already heavily burdened. Special Victims Bureau detectives, alone, average 25-30 cases per month, and carry specialized training and valuable experience with them as they leave their positions.
The discussion of these pending losses came during a press conference on Monday, July 6, 2020, at the Sheriff’s Training and Resource Center in Whittier, with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, family members of crime victims, and victim advocates in attendance. As a victim of attempted murder, Mrs. Wenskunas revealed her very personal encounter with detectives; she spoke in first person of seeing their compassion, dedication and commitment to victims and the community. She addressed the elimination of the Special Victims Bureau, Major Crimes Bureau, Fraud and Cyber Crimes Bureau, and Operation Safe Streets, and the proposal to close the Men’s Central Jail.
Mrs. Wenskunas addressed the Board of Supervisors directly and thanked them for watching the press conference. “We need to make sure that victims are provided justice within our legal system,” she said. “We cannot let these offenders not serve their time and be released back into our communities.” And yet, with elimination of the specialized investigative bureaus, the closure of a jail facility and the impending release of inmates, “…victims’ voices are not heard. Who’s speaking about the victims?” she asked, and read a list of crime classifications and numbers of inmates LASD would be forced to let out:
Attempted Murder 762
Sexual Assault/Child Molestation 391
Attempted Robbery 194
Domestic Violence 743
Human Trafficking 85
Assault with a Deadly Weapon 1,717
“This is why we have to oppose them closing the Men’s Central Jail. This is dangerous, dangerous offenders that will be released back into our communities,” stressed Mrs. Wenskunas. “It’s unacceptable. Again, we have no political agenda, here, whatsoever. This is about victims, and victims and survivors, and their families, and public safety. Period.”
Malinda Wheeler, owner and president of Forensic Nurse Specialists, has worked with Special Victims Bureau detectives for more than 25 years. She made the purpose of her participation in the press conference crystal clear: “I’m here today to advocate for the full-funding, no-cuts of the Special Victims Bureau.” Early in her career, Mrs. Wheeler found children needed specialized services to get them to talk about their traumatic incidents, only once, and in a legally defensible manner. With this, she helped form the Children’s Advocacy Center. “There is no question that a specially-trained, team approach works best for the investigation and prosecution of child abuse and sex crimes. Special Victims Bureau investigators are specially-trained and aware of the sensitivity for handling these cases,” she said.
Ana Estevez, the mother of Armazd “Piqui” Andressian, a five-year-old boy who was suffocated to death by his father in 2017, also advocated for saving the detective bureaus. She recalled the care and dedication the detectives gave to handling the investigation, and how much it meant to her. Their tenacity led to the location of the little boy’s body and the father’s conviction. Mrs. Estevez read a text she sent them on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, the anniversary of his body’s discovery, “It has been three years today. Thank you for bringing my Piqui home,” she said tearily. She recounted the detectives’ collaboration with other units and agencies who worked tirelessly for 72 days to locate her beloved, lost son.
Parents of a murdered son, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Walker, recounted the day in 2014 when he was shot to death while waiting for a meal he ordered. He was 26 years old.
Mrs. Walker expressed her thanks to detectives who worked on his case and also asked for consideration of the families, as related to the closure of the detective bureaus and jail facility. “I stand here today to ask that you consider the families of these victims, who are voiceless…” she said. “Christopher no longer has a voice. He had a beautiful smile, but you would never see that anymore.”
Mrs. Walker’s voice shook with grief as she addressed those with the power to provide or take away, “I ask you, I pray and I beg of you to consider this father and this mother, this family. There are many other families like us. We stand by silently and we don’t really say much ‘cause nobody wants to hear what we have to say. But, would you, please, consider us as you investigate, as you consider whatever it is that you’re going to do in voting on the reducing of funds for the departments?”
In closing remarks, Sheriff Alex Villanueva recounted the loss of a young girl’s life in a shocking carjacking event, which occurred a day earlier, on Sunday, July 1, 2020, in Pico Rivera. The suspect, a 26-year-old man on probation, stole a running minivan with four children inside and drove off with the rear sliding door open. Two of the children jumped out and two remained inside the vehicle. As the vehicle sped, the children were ejected and sustained massive trauma. The 13-year-old girl was pronounced dead at the scene and her eight-year-old brother fights for his life in critical condition at a local hospital. The suspect carjacked two more vehicles before being apprehended by citizens who held him until deputies arrived.
The suspect was arrested late May, 2020, for felony weapons violation but was released with a citation due to the current zero, emergency bail schedule. The Sheriff kept in the event’s thread of remembering the victims. “I heard a lot in the news about ‘Say His Name/Say Her Name,’” he said. “Well, I will say her name again: Isabella Cortez. Let’s not forget her.”
To view the press conference, click: https://www.facebook.com/LosAngelesCountySheriffsDepartment/videos/3371808249497035