On top of Mel Gibson's "preferential treatment," its arrest of a beauty pageant contestant who later died mysteriously and the death of a music exec struck on his bike and killed by one of its officers, internal affairs again is investigating the station, this time in connection to allegations of spousal rape and child abuse by a former 'American Gladiators' star.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When Tracy Justrich and her then-husband, Steve Henneberry, a former star of the TV show American Gladiators who went by the name "Tower," had problems that needed solving, they turned to Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies at the Malibu/Lost Hills station. They all were part of a tightly knit community in Agoura Hills — their kids went to the same schools, and the adults socialized in church or at dinner parties on weekends. Henneberry was in a "dads' group" in church with some deputies and played on a softball team with them, too. When the couple's eldest daughter was graduating from eighth grade and a neighbor complained about the noise at the celebration party, Justrich says they sought help from a friendly captain. "He handled it for us," Justrich, a former child actress (her credits include Galactica 1980, Doogie Howser, M.D. and L.A. Law), tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We were his friends, and we got favors." But when Justrich filed a police report in 2013 during a messy divorce alleging that Henneberry had raped her while they were still married, she was surprised by the response she got. Justrich claims that a deputy encouraged her to not report the crime. And later, she says, several deputies chided her for "provoking" her ex. When, toward the end of that year, Justrich told Lost Hills deputies that Henneberry also had hit their four children with a plastic paddle, she claims they told her the statute of limitations had run out. "They were no longer law enforcement; they became involved in our relationship and our divorce," Justrich tells THR. "It got to the point where I knew I couldn't go to them because they'd act like I was the crazy ex-wife."
Justrich, 44, and her current husband, Larry Collins, 55, a highly decorated L.A. County Fire Department battalion chief, have been raising claims with the Office of the Inspector General, the LASD and the L.A. County District Attorney's Office that Lost Hills deputies have maintained improper personal relationships with Henneberry and have been protecting him. Now, THR has learned that L.A. County Sheriff's Department internal affairs investigators are seriously examining these allegations, raising new questions about a police station that has been embroiled in controversy numerous times in recent years.
Henneberry, shown above in 1993 on 'American Gladiators,' adamantly denies allegations that he raped Justrich, but neither he nor his attorney would explain why he acquiesced to charges in family court that he had forced a sexual encounter with his then-wife.
The Malibu/Lost Hills station, whose celebrity-soaked jurisdiction stretches from the Malibu coastline inland to Agoura Hills and Calabasas, is no stranger to controversy. It made headlines in 2006 after deputies were investigated for allegedly giving Mel Gibson, who had been arrested and booked for drunk driving, "preferential treatment." (After an investigation concluded last year, the arresting officer, who alleged that he had been fired by the LASD for disclosing details about the case, was reinstated.) A few years later, the station found itself in the spotlight again for its handling of the disappearance of Mitrice Richardson, a young woman with mental health issues who was released from the station under strange circumstances after midnight one evening in September 2009 and then mysteriously vanished (she was found dead 11 months later). And then in 2013, allegations of sexual misconduct among Lost Hills staff members resulted in an internal shake-up and reorganization. The following year, a Lost Hills deputy who was typing on his onboard computer hit and killed music executive Milton Olin as he was riding his bicycle in Calabasas. After the deputy was not charged, Olin's family filed a (still pending) wrongful-death suit against the LASD.
Collins and Justrich's allegations could set off another high-profile scandal. In August, two internal affairs officers interviewed the couple separately for more than 10 hours at LASD headquarters in Monterey Park, asking specific and pointed questions about Henneberry's behavior and the Lost Hills department's responses. Investigators isolated seven specific allegations of potential misconduct that they promised to examine further, say Collins and Justrich. In response to written questions, LASD officials confirmed to THR that the department had "an active and ongoing investigation as a result of Mr. Collins' numerous complaints and allegations." The IA investigation further clouds the scandal-plagued department. "The Lost Hills station is just like the movie The Departed," says a source close to the various investigations. "You can't throw a stone without hitting a rat there. There's rats on every side — criminals, cops, everyone — and they're all ratting on each other."
This latest LASD internal affairs investigation complicates that agency's already troubled history. (While the LAPD's jurisdiction is the city of Los Angeles, LASD serves unincorporated areas of L.A. County as well as 42 incorporated cities.) Sheriff Jim McDonnell, a 28-year LAPD veteran with a track record of implementing progressive reform efforts there, has vowed to clean up the sheriff's office, which he took over in 2014. But he has a long history to overcome. Federal officials indicted 18 current and former LASD deputies, lieutenants and sergeants in 2013 after a widespread investigation found evidence of corruption, obstruction of justice and fabrication of police reports throughout the agency. According to the Office of Independent Review, a civilian oversight organization that monitors the LASD, a 2013 report found that episodes of misconduct at the LASD included rape, kidnapping and smuggling heroin into a jail cell. A 2012 Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence found a "persistent pattern of unreasonable force by sheriff's deputies against inmates" inside LASD jails. In November, three LASD deputies were sentenced from six to eight years in federal prison for overseeing the vicious beating of a handcuffed inmate.
The cast of 'American Gladiators' in 1993.
In an era of intense scrutiny of abuses by law enforcement nationwide, the question Justrich and Collins raise about police accountability is troublingly simple: What happens when you report a crime to your neighborhood police station and the process goes awry? According to a publicly available 60-page "respondent's brief " — which summarizes this ugly family saga and includes direct testimony from children's court proceedings and Van Nuys Superior Court — filed with a California Court of Appeals by L.A. County lawyers, Henneberry "acquiesced" (a term that conveys a kind of silent permission) to a family court custody order that detailed his behavior in specific language, including "forcing a sexual encounter with the mother" and "physically disciplining" his children. "Such harassing and controlling behavior on the part of the father places the children at substantial risk of harm," the court found. A judge then granted Justrich full legal and physical custody of the couple's children. A key part of this ruling granting custody to Justrich was a reference to the Welfare and Institutions Code, which found that the children were at risk of "serious physical harm" that does not include "reasonable and age-appropriate spanking to the buttocks."
The former Gladiator, now 52, has never faced any criminal charges (broadly speaking, sexual assault and physical abuse are serious crimes, and individuals who are convicted can face multiyear sentences). "Lost Hills' job was to let the district attorney's office decide," Justrich tells THR, "but I believe Lost Hills deputies are trying to make sure [Henneberry] can't get in any sort of trouble." (The D.A.'s office had no comment on the matter.)
Although he acquiesced to language of "forcing a sexual encounter" in the respondent's brief, Henneberry, though his lawyer, now is adamant that no rape occurred. Neither lawyers for the county nor Henneberry's attorney, Anthony Zinnanti, could rectify for THR the apparent discrepancy between these two accounts. Henneberry is seeking to have a three-year restraining order, which specifies that he can only see his kids in a supervised setting, removed. "As it regards L.A. County, their attorneys are a bunch of seat warmers," says Zinnanti. "Miss Justrich concocted a giant mound of bullshit and got away with it."
Henneberry in 'True Gladiators,' a documentary that ESPN shelved in 2014.
Justrich was still reeling from the failure of her first marriage when she met Henneberry in 1996. He had just come off four years as a star of the 1990s hit show American Gladiators, which recently had ended its seven-year syndicated run. The show wasn't high art, but it quickly became a cheesy cult classic and paved the way for the explosive rise of competition-based TV shows such as The Biggest Loser, The Amazing Race and Survivor. Gladiators featured muscle-bound men and women dressed in red, white and blue tights battling amateur contestants in timed competitions and feats of strength. As silly as they were entertaining, the challenges had catchy names such as "Eliminator," "Joust" and "Powerball" and were perfect vehicles for a kind of faux, made-for-TV athleticism. Henneberry, a 6-foot-4 body builder and personal trainer, stood out with his 285-pound ripped frame, soft brown hair and a jawline Batman would envy. "That show was everything to him," recalls Justrich. "He loved it. Those were his glory days."
Justrich was living in Thousand Oaks, working as a personal trainer and raising a 1-year-old daughter from her first marriage by herself. The two became more friendly one day when Henneberry, a neighbor, saw Justrich arguing bitterly with her first husband in front of her home. The recently retired Gladiator stepped in, and Justrich, who was only vaguely familiar with the show, escaped. They soon began helping each other. Henneberry, also a personal trainer, offered up his garage for Justrich to use; she took his clients if he was busy. Justrich says she was eager to find a man who could help raise her child. Henneberry was charming, always offering to help. He used his status as a minor celebrity to host and promote charity events. And while he had two ex-wives, Justrich says he seemed like a "cool guy."
But before long, things began to change. The respondent's brief details how Justrich testified in court that Henneberry had grappled with steroid and pain-medication abuse and how she thought he was using alcohol again after 13 years of sobriety. Justrich also says he was volatile and controlling. The brief details Henneberry's 1999 arrest and conviction for insurance fraud (it was later expunged). Just two years into their relationship, she tells THR, Henneberry threatened to kill himself, curling into a ball and sobbing when Justrich said she wanted out of the relationship. Justrich believed that he was taking steps to address his drug problem, and she stuck around. They were married in 2000, and for roughly seven years, Justrich says Henneberry remained sober. "I was mostly happy," she recalls.
Henneberry allegedly has strong ties to deputies who work at the LASD’s Malibu/Lost Hills station, located in Agoura Hills.
Eventually, the relationship began to sour as conflicts over the future arose. Justrich wanted more kids. The couple had trouble conceiving, tried IVF, which failed, and settled on third-party donor insemination. They had a girl, followed by twins. Then Justrich's mother died. Eventually, Justrich recalls, the pair settled into an uncomfortable routine: living largely separate lives but keeping up appearances with neighbors and friends, a pattern Justrich says she regrets. "I felt like I was living a lie," she says. "We fought about it all the time." Justrich claims Henneberry began physically abusing their children around 2009, starting with spankings but escalating to "hitting them with his hand with enough force to leave handprints on their body and striking them with a paddle that would be replaced when broken," according to the respondent's brief.
Justrich and Collins met at a coffee shop in late 2012 and began an affair (he was not married at the time). Henneberry found out, and Justrich confessed. Collins claims Henneberry, in a phone call, threatened to kill him after stalking Justrich to his Hermosa Beach home, according to the respondent's brief. By spring 2013, she and Henneberry had separated, and Justrich planned to file for divorce. It was then, she says, that Henneberry's behavior changed dramatically. Henneberry texted, emailed and called Justrich constantly, often with threats that were detailed in the respondent's brief.
By May 2013, Justrich and Henneberry were separated, though they still co-owned the home where Justrich lived. Henneberry showed up one day toward the end of the month, "coming into the shower, where she was, throwing her on the bed, holding her hands above her head and raping her despite her protestations," according to the brief. Henneberry allegedly told Justrich, "Oh please, you are my wife." Justrich asked "how he would feel if someone did this to his own daughter." (Henneberry claimed in his appeal that he and Justrich did not have sex on that occasion but did have consensual sex the following month.) Two weeks after the alleged sexual assault, Justrich filed for divorce. She reported the alleged assault to police two months later, at which point it was too late to undergo a rape kit. The respondent's brief recounts how, a month after the first alleged assault, Henneberry entered the house again while she was showering but left when she protested. She changed the locks on her house. According to the brief, Henneberry told Justrich he would "destroy" her and Collins, who by then was supporting her efforts to get away from him. That same month, Henneberry called Justrich and left her a voicemail, saying that by leaving him, she "blew it," according to the brief. Then, according to that brief, he left a message on her phone: "I'm telling you right now, don't bring the man [Collins] around those kids again or else I will come over there and I will f—ing drop him like there's no tomorrow. He can send me to jail all he wants, but it will be the best f—kin' blow I've ever hit. … Believe me."
Not long after, when Collins, Justrich and the kids took a weekend trip to Mammoth Lakes, Henneberry sent several texts, all detailed in the brief. In one, he told Justrich that if she didn't return immediately, he would notify the LASD that she had "kidnapped" their children. Justrich says she got scared and began recording conversations with Henneberry so she would have documented evidence of his threats. Upon returning to L.A., Justrich presented one of these recordings to sheriff's deputies at the Lost Hills station and filed a police report about the alleged rape. While one deputy discouraged Justrich from reporting the rape, another took Collins aside and urged him to file a "criminal threats" complaint, which he did. The recording was enough to warrant an emergency protective order for Justrich, her children, Collins and his dog, Roxy.
Justrich says she waited nearly three months before a deputy from the LASD's Special Victims Bureau showed up at her house to question her more thoroughly about the alleged rape, only to tell her it was a case of "he said, she said," indicating nothing more could be done. (Experts say that in the absence of physical evidence, spousal rape is a difficult crime to prove and law enforcement often errs on the side of caution.) The deputy also questioned Henneberry, but no criminal charges were filed against him, according to a brief filed by his attorney. Lost Hills detective Nick Cafferty later told a court that there was insufficient evidence and the case came down to "her word against his," according to that same brief. Justrich was devastated. "It was clear to me that this wasn't going anywhere," Justrich tells THR. A few months later, in December, Justrich says, she found out that the LASD had dropped the case altogether.
Henneberry hanging around with Pamela Anderson in 1993.
Also in spring 2013, Justrich had put herself and her children in counseling with Lester Summerfield, a family therapist. Summerfield learned of the allegations of child abuse and on Aug. 29 called a child abuse hotline, which triggered the L.A. Department of Child and Family Services. A DCFS investigation lasted a couple of months and involved multiple, unannounced visits and extended interviews with Henneberry, Justrich and all four of their children. During the next year, as the respondent's brief details, DCFS investigators and a social worker repeatedly substantiated allegations of physical abuse by Henneberry, ranging from roughly pulling the children's tongues to spanking them so hard with paddles that sometimes would break. In fact, according to the brief, after months of denial, Henneberry "now admitted to using the paddle" on three of his children. (According to the respondent's brief, "he denied hitting the children with his hands, saying that he would have hurt them given his size.") The brief also discusses an incident in which Henneberry allegedly grabbed one of his children's tongues "with such force that her entire mouth and the back of her throat ached."
DCFS investigators and a social worker found that Henneberry had handled his children roughly and left "bruises" on their arms as well as "locking the kitchen pantry precluding access to food and forcing a sexual encounter with the mother," according to the brief. In May 2014, Summerfield formally diagnosed Justrich's children as suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and told the DCFS of his "grave concerns that in unsupervised conditions the father would be a danger to his children, emotionally and physically." That same month, an L.A. Superior Court judge issued a three-year restraining order against Henneberry, prohibiting him from further contact with Justrich or their children, unless supervised by a court-mandated supervisor. Henneberry had testified on his own behalf, but a judge found his testimony to be "not credible." A juvenile court in October 2014 granted Justrich full custody of their three minor children. L.A. County submitted papers in August supporting Justrich's legal case, adding yet more weight to the juvenile court's ruling that Henneberry had "violated the boundaries of his family." A final ruling is pending.
Despite the series of legal decisions against him in children's court, however, Henneberry, whose post-Gladiators career included credits on Married … With Children and Space Ghost Coast to Coast, is challenging the restraining order. Justrich recalls that IA investigators, who also interviewed her now 20-year-old daughter from her first marriage, told her: "Be patient. The wheels of justice turn slowly." In June, Collins wrote a 72-page letter to the LASD, alerting it to what he called a "sustained miscarriage of justice" at the agency and notifying it that he had involved the county's Office of the Inspector General, which, also at Collins' urging, in 2014 concluded its own investigation into Henneberry's connections to the LASD and recommended the IA investigation. The OIG's recently elected chief, Max Huntsman, declined to be interviewed. But Dan Baker, a spokesperson, said his office, which has been tasked with investigating the LASD, was "hobbled" by laws protecting police officers, even if substantial evidence of misconduct existed because outside investigators don't have access to these officers' personnel records. "Without that access, we can't evaluate whether those complaints were adequately taken. We are trying to get access; we have been trying for a year and a half."
Henneberry with the cast of the 1995 TV series 'Muscle.'
Collins and Justrich suggested to IA investigators that their inquiry cover issues of evidence tampering, intimidation of witnesses, falsification of records and conflict of interest and provided them with texts, emails and voice recordings (involving themselves, Henneberry and deputies) they say prove it. Justrich tells THR that when she tried to follow up with the sheriffs, who had been asked by DCFS to investigate the child abuse allegations, they dismissed her inquiry, telling her, "Maybe it's just his parenting style." When she asked to review specific police reports she had filed, she says they were returned to her "empty." Collins says that Lost Hills deputies accompanied Henneberry to the home that he and Justrich had shared, and where the alleged rape had occurred, to help him retrieve more than half a dozen of his firearms, which he was required to surrender as a condition of the restraining order. Collins says the deputies allowed Henneberry to explore the house and retrieve his weapons and other belongings.
In his letter to the LASD, Collins enumerated a half-dozen other allegations against specific deputies that relate directly to Henneberry, including corruption of criminal investigations and, more generally, a "pattern and practice" of misconduct. Henneberry's attorney, Zinnanti, claims Collins is on a "crusade" against his client. Zinnanti acknowledges a relationship between Henneberry and certain Lost Hills deputies but refused to elaborate, dismissing any allegation of impropriety. In response to questions from THR, Lieutenant Darren Harris of the Sheriff's Information Bureau replied, "Mr. Henneberry is not a volunteer, nor a reserve, nor an employee of the LASD, nor has he ever been. Mr. Collins' numerous allegations are under investigation." Harris declined to provide specifics, citing "the integrity of the investigative process" and to "ensure fairness and impartiality for all involved parties."
Henneberry's troubles extend to other arenas in the entertainment world. In 2013, ESPN decided not to run a short film it had helped finance and produce that featured Henneberry. True Gladiators, which was slated to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013, purported to "follow the career of three former Gladiators," including Henneberry, using old footage to show how they dealt "with the demands of the show, the injuries and their personal lives." The film was shelved just before its festival debut. Collins and Justrich told the network that Henneberry was the subject of a restraining order, but ESPN says the retraction had nothing to do with allegations against Henneberry. "ESPN Films' ultimate decision to not move forward with the project occurred in advance of Mr. Henneberry's family contacting ESPN."
Collins, who says he still works with the LASD on a regular basis in his role as a fire chief, expresses weariness and determination about the pursuit of justice. "The manner in which this man has physically and emotionally hurt innocent women and children is contrary to every principle I have ever stood for as a person and in my 36 years as a firefighter," he says.
Early last year, he and Justrich relocated to a town several hundred miles from L.A. in an attempt to get some distance from Henneberry. But they say the ex-Gladiator has tracked them down through social media and his own contacts. "I am thankful bloodshed has not occurred," Collins said recently. "But I worry about it every day."
A History of Trouble
The LASD's Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff's station is no stranger to ugly controversy
Mel Gibson (2006)
Deputy James Mee arrested the Lethal Weapon actor in 2006 and booked him on charges of drunk driving. On the way to the station, Gibson allegedly went on an anti-Semitic tirade, taunting Mee, who is Jewish, with slurs and threatening to "get even." It might have ended there, but LASD managers buried Mee's report, leading to accusations that they were giving the actor "preferential treatment." An internal affairs investigation was opened after TMZ obtained a copy of the report. Mee was fired in 2012, but his attorney claimed that the LASD had retaliated against him for leaking information about the incident. A County Commission ruled in 2015 that Mee should be reinstated.
Milton Olin Jr. (2014)
The prominent Los Angeles entertainment attorney was riding his bicycle in a dedicated bike lane on Mulholland Drive in Calabasas on Dec. 9, 2013, when LASD deputy Andrew Wood, distracted by typing on his onboard computer, struck him from behind and killed him. L.A. County district attorneys declined to prosecute the deputy, who was returning from a fire at a Calabasas high school, stating that he was "acting within the course and scope of his duties when he began to type." Olin, who had been an executive at A&M Records and Napster, was catapulted onto the car, shattering the windshield. Olin's family filed a wrongful death suit against the LASD in July 2014.
Mitrice Richardson (2009-2010)
Lost Hills deputies arrested the 24-year-old former beauty pageant contestant on Sept. 17, 2009, after she behaved oddly and failed to pay her bill at Geoffrey's, an upscale restaurant in Malibu. Richardson was booked at the remote station but, in a move that still puzzles observers, was released after midnight and sent on her way without a phone, purse or money. "She exhibited no signs of mental illness or intoxication," said an LASD spokesman. "She was fine. She's an adult." After one of the largest searches in LASD history, Richardson's body was discovered 11 months later in a desolate canyon. LASD deputies removed her body against coroner's orders, and homicide was ruled out as a cause.