As we speed toward Tuesday, June 7, the day of California’s primary election, it may be useful to delve into a recent series of events that demonstrate how Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has handled, and continues to handle the issue of deputy gangs, and related forms of abuse, violence, and corruption that have plagued the nation’s largest largest sheriff department under his leadership.
Deputy gangsters and smoking guns
As many WitnessLA readers are aware, in the past five decades or so, the LASD has had a problem with gangsters who wear badges, an issue that previous LA sheriffs have tinkered with halfheartedly, but failed to eradicate.
Villanueva, however, doesn’t merely avoid the problem, he repeatedly denies the matter exists at all, and attacks those who believe otherwise. He also attacks anyone who disagrees with him, and has aggressively stood in the way of holding deputy gang members responsible for their actions when they engage in behavior that harms and endangers others.
As it happens, a lot of the worst of Villanueva’s behavior on the topic has been reserved for the deputy gangsters and their “associates,” who work out of the department’s East Los Angeles station.
This is station that Villanueva considers his home base within the department, so much so that, when he was sworn in on Dec. 3, 2018, it was the ELA deputies for whom the incoming sheriff reserved the best seats in the house. I was a weird message to send to the rest of the rank-and-file, who all too recently had lived through the Baca-Tanaka regime where cronyism and corruption ruled the day.
But his actions are not limited to sentimental seating favoritism and the much criticized decision to reinstate the station’s extremely problematic Fort Apache logo, with its aggressive jack boot and riot helmet symbols, after former sheriff Jim McDonnell had caused it to be taken down. (When Villanueva re-upped the logo a few months after he took office, he claimed that he’d checked with Apache tribal leaders who were just fine with the logo, which department sources dispute, and which sounds preposterous on its face.)
Far worse, the sheriff has actively enabled behavior at the station that endangers members of the communities that deputies are meant to protect and serve, along with related behavior that has endangered the physical and emotional safety of hardworking department members who simply want to be good cops.T
A brand new light provided a unique view of this enabling on Thursday, April 21, 2022, when Sgt. Jefferson Chow, a 26-year veteran of the LASD, gave a deposition under oath about his actions and experiences in the fall of 2018 when he was the lead investigator on a particular case for the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, or ICIB.
The deposition and the cooked investigation
Specifically, Chow was investigating whether or not crimes had been committed by several deputies who worked at the East LA station. The deputies in question were considered to be “shot callers” of the Bandito deputy gang that is based out of ELA. The Bandito deputies had physically attacked four other station deputies who were not Bandito members during a September 2018 after hours social event, sending at least two of the non-Bandito deputies to the hospital.
It was Chow’s job to find out if there was a “sufficient case for a District Attorney to prosecute” the aggressor deputies for their actions.
For those readers unfamiliar with the incident that necessitated the investigation, the brawl in question occurred on September 28, 2018, during a celebration for new deputies who were graduating from their training. The party was hosted at Kennedy Hall, a rentable event venue not too far from the East LA Station.
The fight started after midnight, as the party was starting to wind down, and Villanueva, who was running for sheriff at the time, had already exited the event with his wife.
It was then that the Bandito deputies reportedly began verbally berating one of the non-Bandito deputies, while also threatening his family. When the non-Bandito guy failed to react, the aggressor deputies allegedly escalated to a vicious physical attack.
Before the resulting assaults were over, the group of Banditos had allegedly choked one deputy into unconsciousness with the man’s own shirt, and knocked down and began kicking a second deputy, also reportedly into unconsciousness, causing a concussion.
In addition, the Bandito group allegedly beat and kicked other deputies who tried to come to the rescue of the first two. And all of this was done in front of a crowd of several dozen witnesses, and captured to some degree on several videos.
(If you want further details, WitnessLA broke the story about the Kennedy Hall assaults, in 2018, and we have written many times about this and other issues pertaining to deputy gangs, along with the expanding allegations in the ongoing civil lawsuit resulting from the Kennedy Hall brawl, and related alarming events.)
The “subculture” question
In the course of being questioned for the deposition, which was a part of a civil rights lawsuit that details the attack and other abuses by the Banditos, Sgt. Chow described that, after he’d been working the investigation for several weeks, he was told on November 9, 2018, by two of his superior officers, Lt. Irma Chevalier, and then Captain Matthew Burson, that the LA County Inspector General (OIG), Max Huntsman, might want him to ask additional questions about “the subculture group the East LA. station,” namely the Banditos.
Burson and Chevalier told Chow he could go ahead and ask the “subculture” questions.
Chow duly set up a string of interviews with potential witnesses.
Then a few days later, everything changed.
Interestingly, when Chow was told he could ask his interview subjects about the topic of the “deputy subculture” at the ELA Station, the November 4, 2018, midterms election that would result in Alex Villanueva becoming sheriff, had just taken place, although no winner would be declared for a few more weeks.
Finally on November 27, 2018, former sheriff McDonnell conceded the race. It was on this day, when it was finally clear that Villanueva had won, that Burson contacted Chow again about the “subculture” issue, telling him to put a hold on any interviews.
Although Villanueva was still six days away from being sworn as sheriff on December 3, 2018, the issue of anyone at ICIB asking questions about deputy “subcultures” at the East LA station was evidently high enough on the list of concerns of the incoming sheriff that Burson—who would soon be promoted to the rank of chief, and Larry Del Mese, who was to become the new sheriff’s chief of staff—felt they had to act.
Tracking the sequence of events is greatly helped by the fact that Chow kept a highly detailed log of his day-by-day actions during the investigation. In that log, we can see that on November 27, 2018, Sgt. Chow noted that he cancelled a bunch of interviews he had scheduled due to the fact that Burson withdrew his earlier instruction and told Chow he Burson “wanted make sure” he “did not have to ask questions about subculture groups at ELA Station.”
So, how was Burson going to make sure?
“I knew that he had to speak to the sheriff,” said Chow in the deposition. By that Chow meant Villanueva, the man who was not yet sheriff but would be soon.
Ten days later still, Burson permanently clarified the matter. Chow could go ahead and re-start his investigation, but he would not “need to ask about deputy subcultures at the ELA station,” meaning specifically the subculture that Chow understood to be the Banditos. In other words, the topic that was central to the investigation of assaults by deputy gang members that were severe enough to send two non-gang-member deputies to the hospital was now off the table.
Nevertheless, according to the deposition and the log, Chow appeared to do all he could to do a thorough investigation, despite the fact that he was forbidden from asking certain critical questions. Nevertheless, after conducting around 90 interviews, Chow said he received no contradictions to the victims accounts of being violently assaulted by the four department member/perpetrators.
“The District Attorney should have filed charges against them,” said Chow of the Bandito members who committed the assaults.
Yet, although Chow expressed that he believed it was a clear cut criminal case, he was surprised to find that the DA declined to prosecute.
One of the problems Chow ran into with the case was the fact that, although not one of the dozens of witnesses present during the attack contradicted the victims’ accounts of what had occurred, many claimed not to have been able to see clearly who was doing the assaulting.
During the deposition, civil rights attorney Vincent Miller asked Chow if he thought the witnesses were afraid of retaliation if they answered truthfully.
“Could be, yes,” Chow said.
Attorney Vincent then asked if Chow if he himself was personally “concerned” that he could be retaliated against for the testimony that he had given during the course of deposition. Yet, although he appeared to have been forthcoming throughout his testimony, when it came to this particularly line of inquiry, Chow said he would like to “respectfully decline to answer that question.”
A month later, however, on May 24, 2022, when parts of Jefferson Chow’s deposition and his investigators log were made public at a hearing having to do with deputy gangs, Chow and his wife were reportedly very concerned.
Here’s what happened.
Obstruction of justice and threats of retaliation
This past March, Sheriff Villanueva’s resistance to having any kind of fact-based discussion on the corrosive matter of deputy gangs persuaded LA County’s Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission or COC, to schedule a series of special public hearings in order to fully investigate and analyze this issue that no other law enforcement agency in the U.S. faces.
The new special investigation would include a team of high-profile lawyers who had agreed to conduct the probe on a pro bono basis.
In order to ensure that the attorney/investigators would get the cooperation they needed, the COC’s Chair, Sean Kennedy, announced that the commission would use its “full subpoena power,” to procure testimony for the new probe.
And so it was that, on May 24, 2022, the COC, held the first of the series of special hearings during which various witnesses testified under oath about the actions of the Banditos at the East LA station, and about the deputy gang known as the Executioners, which has become notorious for its actions at the department’s Compton station.
Among the first to testify was Inspector General Max Huntsman who had just received Sgt. Chow’s April 21, 2022, deposition, along with the detailed log Chow had made during the course of his examination of the 2018 Bandito assaults at Kennedy Hall.
As Huntsman talked, pieces of Chow’s log were shown on screen to the viewing audience, and Huntsman described the significance of Chow being told to stand down, when it came to any questioning of witnesses about “deputy subgroups.”
It was especially troubling, said Huntsman, that the person who precipitated the order for Chow to severely restrict his investigation was Alex Villanueva who, when the halt was first called, had yet to be sworn in as sheriff.
As a result, said Huntsman, the DA’s office never had the crucial information that Chow revealed in his deposition, and in his investigative log—namely that the motive for the assaults was missing. The DA’s office also didn’t know, Huntsman said, that the limits placed on the way in which the “case was investigated” amounted to “obstruction of justice.”.
Attorney Vincent Miller, who represents the assaulted deputies, went farther in his description of what deposition and log had revealed.
“This is a smoking gun,” he told WLA. “The log and testimony confirms that Villanueva directed the sheriffs department to obstruct an ongoing criminal investigation.”
Threats, endangerments, and work slowdowns
During the rest of the four-hour hearing (see above), two present department members, and one recently retired department member, testified about their first person knowledge of the damage done by the Banditos and other deputy gangs, and the sheriff’s complicity in the damage.
First up after IG Huntsman, was Lt. Larry Waldie, who had been the acting captain at the Compton station, where the group that calls itself the Executioners is the resident deputy gang.
Waldie described how the Executioner shot callers would enforce their wishes at the station by either over policing the Compton community to cause arrest stats to tick up in order to curry favor with higher ups, or, in another instance, to get their way, in March 2019, they triggered a work slowdown.
The architect of the slowdown, according to Waldie, was an Executioner shot caller named Jaime Juarez who was helped in his efforts by the fact that he was the station’s scheduling deputy, which meant he controlled the on duty scheduling for most of the station’s sworn personnel.
The work slowdown came came about, according to Waldie’s testimony, when Juarez was unhappy that Waldie wouldn’t let him choose the deputy to fill a particular position at the station that it was Waldie’s job to fill as the acting captain.
Hoping to force the issue, according to Waldie Juarez called for a work slowdown, during which deputies were instructed to only minimally engage in law enforcement. As a consequence, according to departmental stats, arrests in Compton for the month of March 2019, dropped by “over a hundred arrests” during the four week period of the slowdown, causing a rise in crime and endangering the Compton neighborhoods it was the station’s duty to police, said Waldie.
Waldie also described a list of other problematic actions by the group, such as the Executioners’ habit of “celebrating” shootings with a party.
Many of the shootings by the Executioners were themselves troubling, according to Waldie, among them the shooting of Andrés Guardado, the 18-year-old young man who was shot five times in the back by Compton Deputy Miguel Vega. Vega was, at the time of the shooting reportedly an Executioner wannabe. Furthermore, Deputy Vega’s training officer was reportedly Executioner shot caller Eugene Contreras.
The Executioners, said Waldie, “are being protected by the command staff of the LASD, including Undersheriff Tim Murakami, and Sheriff Villanueva.”
Before he finished his testimony, Lt. Waldie, who is the son Larry Waldie Sr. a former undersheriff of the department under Lee Baca, before Paul Tanaka took the position, was asked by the attorney/examiner if he was worried about his safety because of his testimony.
“Yes, I’m worried for my safety and the safety of my family,” he said. Mostly, Waldie said, he worried about being on the receiving end of the kind of retaliation that has occurred for others. I worry “that I’ll have a case put on me.”
The anonymous witness
There was much more to the four hours of hearings, including some very illuminating information supplied by former LASD Chief Eli Vera who has retired in order to run against Alex Villanueva in Tuesday’s primary race.
Yet arguably the most dramatic testimony came from a deputy who is still working at the East LA Station, but who was so concerned about “retribution and retaliation” from the Banditos that the deputy spoke remotely with his or her voice disguised to the point that it is impossible to tell if the person speaking is a male or a female.
(For convenience sake we’ll refer to the anonymous deputy as “he,” although the deputy could just as easily be a female)
The anonymous deputy described in detail the various forms of retaliation that resulted when deputies didn’t go along with the Banditos’ program.
They would be “shunned,” said the anonymous deputy, which meant the offending deputy’s colleagues at the station could no longer speak to him or her in the course of work, turning their faces away when the shunned deputy walked though a room.
Or they would have a false “jacket” put on them, said the anonymous deputy, which would convey the message that “he’s no good or she’s no good,” that “you can’t trust them to have your back,” and so on. The jacket, once applied, said the source, follows someone from to station in such a way that is ruinous to one’s career and, in many cases nearly impossible to undo.
Yet, as bad as the “jackets” were, the source described worse situations where non-Bandito deputies had their lives endangered. For example, as with the Executioners, the Banditos would put out the word that no one should give this or that deputy back-up when he and she were on patrol.
Another newer retaliation method, according to the anonymous witness, is the loosening the lug nuts on the cars of individual non-Bandito deputies, with the purpose of endangering the person when they are driving.
This particularly practice had come to the source’s attention “as recently as a month or so ago,” he said.
The reasons for retaliation it seems are reportedly many and varied.
In the case of one deputy, said the source, retaliation came after the deputy took the test needed to become a training officer, or TO in the station, and scored “very high” on the test.” But this person was not a Bandito or Bandito “associate,” so the process of character assassination began, said the source. As a result, a Bandito-approved deputy was slotted in as the new training officer, and the more talented deputy was “shunned.”
There was a lot more to the anonymous deputy’s testimony, including his description of how Banditos, like Executioners, instituted work slow-downs to get their way, causing crime to rise during the time of the slow-down, he said.
He also noted that neither women nor Black deputies are allowed in the Banditos.
Near the end of his testimony, the anonymous deputy was asked by the attorney/examiner what he thought would change the toxic culture permeating the ELA station.
“Leadership,” said the anonymous deputy, both at the level of whoever is “captain at the station.”
And also, “whoever hires the captain and holds the captain responsible.”
Namely the sheriff.