The Slatest

California Deputies Charged With Assault After Beating Horse Thief on Camera

Three San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies have been charged with assault months after a violent arrest that was captured on video by a news helicopter, the Los Angles Times reports.*

Deputies were serving a search warrant on a house in Apple Valley, California, in April when Francis Pusok, who was nearby but not a target of the operation, sped away in his car. He led deputies on a three-hour chase that ended in a remote area near the San Bernardino National Forest after Pusok ditched his car and stole a horse.


A news helicopter from Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC was overhead and captured Pusok’s arrest. From the Washington Post coverage last spring:

Video footage shows the moments when deputies finally caught up with Pusok and he fell off the stolen horse. He then appears to be hit with a Taser and falls to the ground. He is seen with his hands initially outstretched but puts them behind his back just before the first two officers on the scene appear to begin beating and kicking him. The beating continues for minutes.


The number of officers at the scene grows to 11, and others appear to join in.

A total of 10 deputies have been on administrative leave since the incident, an extended video of which can be seen here. San Bernardino county attorney Mike Ramos hinted Tuesday that the seven deputies who weren’t charged had heard false descriptions of Pusok’s behavior broadcast from “belt recordings” by the first officers to arrive.


Ramos wouldn’t go into detail, but he alluded that the deputies who arrived later were misled into thinking Pusok was being combative.

“Some of those deputies responding were hearing things that were on the belt recording that weren’t really occurring,” Ramos said.

Deputies Nicholas Downey, Charles Foster, and Michael Phelps, each facing one count of assault by a police officer, posted $50,000 bail apiece Tuesday and could face up to three years in prison if convicted. One of the officers’ attorneys cautioned against a rush to judgment, telling the Los Angeles Times that the KNBC video showed the beating from only one point of view.


“The officers had a head-on view, so to speak,” said Steven D. Sanchez, who represents Phelps. “Their vantage point is a lot different than what is seen on the helicopter camera.


“What you don’t see in the video is the terrain, the bumps, the hills, the shrubbery, the dust that’s flying in the air from the propellers of the helicopter—there’s a lot of moving parts that are affecting the ability of the officers to perceive what’s going on.”

(“What you don’t see in the video is … the shrubbery“!)

The county has already paid a settlement of more than $600,000 to Pusok, who still faces charges including cruelty to an animal and evading a police officer. His attorney, James Terrell, has compared his client’s experience to the Rodney King beating and criticized the county attorney for not filing more charges and including more deputies in the criminal case:


“Each time they put their foot down they had time to think, they had time to strike him and kick him and injure him. … Thank God for the news media capturing it on camera.” Terrell said the fact that his client chose to run that day saved him.

“If he would have surrendered, the chopper wouldn’t have caught it and I think my client would be dead today,” Terrell said.

San Bernardino County Sheriff James McMahon has said the KNBC video captures behavior by officers that does not “appear to be in line with our policies and procedures.” McMahon’s internal investigation into Pusok’s arrest is continuing.

*Correction, Sept. 2, 2015: This post originally misspelled San Bernardino.