Three Deputies Face Criminal Charges in Horseback Pursuit Takedown

Francis Jared Pusok was punched and kicked by deputies after a nearly three-hour pursuit in the high desert north of Los Angeles

Three Southern California sheriff's deputies will face criminal charges in the beating of a man after he tried to escape on horseback in a high desert chase captured by NewsChopper4, District Attorney Michael Ramos said on Tuesday.

Charges were filed against San Bernardino County deputies Nicholas Downey, Michael Phelps and Charles Foster in the takedown of Francis Jared Pusok about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles on April 9. Downey, Phelps and Foster were each charged with one count of assault by a public officer.

"I believe the deputies that were filed on today crossed the line under color of authority," Ramos said. "But their actions should not tarnish the badge of those that honorably serve everyday."

All three deputies are expected to appear in court for arraignment on Sept. 8 at the San Bernardino Justice Center. The charged deputies face anywhere from 16 months to 3 years in prison if convicted, Ramos said.

"Events like today undermine the great work that the men and women of this organization and law enforcement across the country do every single day," San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said.

Laren Leichliter, the president of the Safety Employees' Benefit Association, the union that represents the county's sworn peace officers, released a statement, saying "it is not our place to pass judgment."

"The case will be tried in a court of law, not public opinion," Leichliter said. "We must defer any judgments to the judicial system – a system that insists the deputies are innocent until proven guilty."

Pusok's attorney James Terrell believes eight of the 10 deputies should have been charged.

"Other than the Rodney King beating, this is perhaps the greatest example of brutality that people have," Terrell said.

Seven other deputies who responded aren't being criminally charged because of what was said on the voice recorders that deputies carry on their belts.

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.

Pusok's fiancée Jolene Binder said emotions are still raw.

"If it brings up feelings for me, I imagine it brings up feelings for the public as well," she said.

Pusok feels lucky.

"I'm just grateful to be alive and get to spend my days with my family," he said.

An internal administrative investigation into the actions of 10 deputies, including the ones charged, remains open, McMahon said. The deputies remain on paid administrative leave pending the outcome, which could be revealed soon, McMahon added.

The Sheriff's Department submitted the results of its investigation in the April chase involving Pusok to the district attorney last month. The nearly three-hour pursuit began when authorities tried to serve a warrant in an Apple Valley identity theft investigation.

Deputies pursued Pusok in a vehicle, which he abandoned and stole a horse, according to authorities.

NewsChopper4 was overhead when Pusok fell from the horse in rugged terrain. Video that  showed deputies repeatedly punching and kicking Pusok as he lay on the ground was studied "frame by frame" during the investigation, Ramos said.

Deputies said a stun gun was ineffective due to his loose clothing.

The group surrounding the man grew to 11 sheriff's deputies. Pusok appeared to have been kicked 17 times, punched 37 times and struck with batons four times, a review of the video showed, and 13 blows appeared to be to the head.

Ramos explained why seven other deputies were not charged in an investigation he said was aided by belt recording devices worn by the deputies.

"The law is very clear," said Ramos. "A peace officer may presume that a fellow officer has acted lawfully. If one of several deputies acted unlawfully or engaged in an unreasonable excessive force... those officers' actions are not imputed to another officer, unless that officer knew or should have know that the fellow officers were acting unlawfully.

"We carefully took a look at every individual in this case. And, it's really important that you can see the terrain. Those bushes are tall. You can't see around them. So when these other officers are running up... They hear something the other officers are yelling, not knowing the circumstances."

Ten deputies were put on leave a day after the confrontation, and the county reached a $650,000 settlement with Pusok. McMahon said the arrest appeared to be an "excessive" use of force.

Pusok said he fled in fear due to previous encounters with law enforcement. He has been charged with 14 felony and misdemeanor counts.

An FBI civil rights probe has also been launched.

Toni Guinyard and Jason Kandel contributed to this report.

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