In a sworn declaration, dated last Thursday, June 16, 2022, retired Chief Matthew Burson, a 32-year-veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, described having been an unwitting part of what appears to be the deliberate derailing of a criminal investigation.
The investigation pertained to several violent assaults committed in September 2018 by a four deputies who worked at the department’s East Los Angeles station.
The quartet who allegedly did the assaulting were considered to be “shot callers” of the deputy gang known as the Banditos. The brawl, which took place at an off-duty party at a local rentable event venue called Kennedy Hall, reportedly consisted of the Bandito group physically attacking four other station deputies who were not Banditos, but who reportedly failed to go along with the Banditos often illegal actions.
The injuries sustained by two of the non-Banditos were reportedly serious enough that the two deputies were hospitalized.
According to Burson, the person directly responsible for derailing the investigation into the Bandito assault was Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who had been sworn into office four days before he issued his order.
The investigator, the chief, and the sheriff
The path to Burson’s June 16, declaration is a complicated one, so, before we go farther, it will help to look briefly at the back story.
As WitnessLA readers may remember, the suggestion that the sheriff may have deliberately obstructed a criminal investigation involving members of the Bandito deputy gang first came to light 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 the Kennedy Hall/Bandito case for the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, or ICIB.
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.
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 Burson, that LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman wanted him to ask questions in the course of his investigation, about “the subculture group” in the department’s East LA. station, namely the Banditos.
According to Chow’s declaration, along with the highly detailed investigator’s log the sergeant kept during his probe into the Kennedy Hall incident, Burson and Chevalier told Chow he should go ahead and ask the “subculture” questions that Huntsman had requested.
At the time, former sheriff Jim McDonnell still ran the LA County Sheriff’s Department. And although McDonnell hadn’t been terribly proactive in dealing with the LASD’s corrosive deputy gang problem, he didn’t get in the way of an appropriately rigorous investigation such as Chow’s appeared to be conducting.
In any case, Chow set up a string of interviews with potential witnesses, and was preparing to move forward.
However, according to Chow, two-and-half weeks after he’d been instructed to include questions about deputy cliques in his inquiries, everything changed.
The critical sequence of events began on November 26, 2018, when then Sheriff McDonnell conceded that he had lost his bid for a second term to retired LASD lieutenant Alex Villanueva.
Although the new sheriff would not be sworn in until December 3, on November 27, the day after McDonnell’s concession, Burson contacted Chow again about the “subculture” issue. This time, rather than telling him to go ahead with his questioning, he told Chow to put any interviews on the Kennedy Hall assaults on hold.
Chow did as he was ordered to do.
Then, on or about December 7, which was four days after the new sheriff was officially sworn in, Burson gave the investigator one more order. Sgt. Chow could go ahead and re-start his investigation, said Burson, but he was not to ask anyone he interviewed about “deputy subcultures at the ELA station,” meaning specifically 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 completely and permanently off the table.
Although all this occurred in the fall and winter of 2018, few knew of the interference in the investigation by Sheriff Villanueva via Burson, until Chow’s deposition and his investigative log became public on May 24, 2022, when the department’s Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) held the first of the series of special hearings into deputy gangs, 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 had become notorious for its actions at the department’s Compton station.
Among the first to testify at the May 24 hearing was Inspector General Max Huntsman who had just received Sgt. Chow’s deposition, and his log, both of which contained the details of his examination of the 2018 Bandito assaults at Kennedy Hall.
As Huntsman gave his testimony, 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 asking any questions of witnesses about “deputy subgroups.”
Burson was, of course, prominently mentioned in Huntsman’s testimony.
The messenger reaches out
On May 26, two days after the May 24 public hearing, in which Burson’s 2018 actions played a notable part, Matthew Burson called civil rights attorney Vincent Miller, and said he wanted to make a declaration.
“My integrity has never been challenged in 33 years until now,” Burson told Miller, the attorney representing the non-Bandito deputies who were assaulted at Kennedy Hall.
A few weeks later, on Sunday, June 19, Miller received Burson’s seven-page signed declaration, in which he narrated in detail his part in what appears to be a deliberate cover-up on the part of the sheriff.
“I was put in the middle of all this,” he said, “and I want to clarify and explain my role in the matter.”
In the declaration, Burson described how, on November 27, 2018, he received a call, “on behalf of Villanueva,” from then Captain Lawrence Del Mese, who was already selected by Villanueva to be his chief of staff.
According to Burson, Del Mese told him to tell Sgt. Chow to hold off on asking questions about the Banditos until the new sheriff-to-be was officially the sheriff.
That same day, Burson passed along the message to Chow, as ordered.
“I did not ask Mr. Del Mese why Villanueva wanted us to hold off on the questions,” Burson said in his declaration. “I assumed there was a valid reason for it, and followed orders. I did not at that time suspect any ulterior motives including a cover up”
His perspective was affected, said Burson, by the fact that the acting Captain of the East Los Angeles Station at the time, Eric Smitson, and other leadership at the station was making light of the Kennedy Hall incident.
“Smitson and others,” he said, “claimed the incident was just a drunken two-way brawl.” That characterization, said Burson, “would later be rebutted by Sgt. Chow’s investigation.”
But, believing what he had heard from Smitson and others was correct, on about December 7, four days after Villanueva’s swearing in had taken place, Burson contacted Del Mese in order follow-up on the preliminary order he’d given Chow, which had temporarily halted the forward movement of the Bandito brawl investigation.
“On behalf of the Sheriff,” Del Mese again stated that the ICIB, the LASD’s criminal investigative bureau, was to not ask any questions pertaining to the Banditos.
At the time, according to Burson, he had no reason to believe that the sheriff’s order was not righteous.
The idea that he might have been drawn into a cover up first came to Burson’s attention in October 2020, he said, when Inspector General Huntsman issued a report describing his own discovery, after reading the ICIB investigation transcripts, that no questions “were asked about the role of the Banditos in the Kennedy Hall attack,” although Huntsman had specifically requested that line of questioning.
“Mr. Huntsman pointed out that by not investigating the role of the Banditos,” said Burson, “the Sheriff’s Department deprived the County’s District Attorney of information about a motive for the attack at Kennedy Hall.”
According to Burson, his initial concern about a possible cover-up relating to the Kennedy Hall investigation, was further exacerbated when accounts of the Compton located deputy gang known as the Executioners began showing up in the news (including in WLA), and reportedly also caught the attention of the FBI.
Subsequent to the existence of Executioners becoming public, Burson said he contacted the supervising agent of the FBI Public Corruption Unit and offered assistance in investigating the Executioners.
“I pledged LASD’s full cooperation with the FBI in its investigation,” he said.
Burson also announced at an August 13, 2020 press conference that he was going to lead a “full-on investigation of the Executioners,” and other deputy gangs. He sounded sincere and impassioned during the announcement as he laid out the details of the upcoming investigation, and the department’s new “zero tolerance policy” having to do with deputy cliques engaged in wrongdoing.
The investigation never took place.
Instead, according to Burson, the sheriff’s office told him to hold off on the new initiative, “until the RAND Corporation completed its study of deputy subgroups, a study that had been commissioned by the County’s Board of Supervisors.”
Yet, while Burson’s investigation had been prominently announced at a press event, the fact that it was never launched, but was instead put on hold indefinitely, was never mentioned to anyone—at least not as far as Burson was aware, he said.
The RAND Corporation finally released its long-anticipated 230-page report on September 10, 2021. By that time Burson was out on a medical-leave .
He subsequently retired on March 31, 2022.
As for the sheriff and the RAND report, after its release, Villanueva slammed it in extravagant terms.
The No-Show subpoena issue
A newer episode of the obstruction drama in which Burson now finds himself occurred on Thursday June 10, 2022, when Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission (COC), held the second of its series of special hearings on the issue of deputy gangs inside the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, at which Burson was to be the main witness.
But, although Burson was subpoenaed to appear at the June 10 hearing to testify under oath, as WLA reported, he defied the subpoena and was a no-show.
Before the end of the June 10 meeting the members of the COC directed the representative from county counsel to file in court an “order to show cause,” to enforce the subpoena. The COC also told county counsel to inform Burson that he will be held in contempt, which meant he’ll be fined and jailed, if need be, until he decides to show-up and testify under oath at the COC’s next special hearing, which is to be held on July 1.
Now that we know that two weeks before he was subpoenaed by the COC, Burson had reached out to Miller, it is unclear why Burson didn’t communicate as much to the COC.
The matter is made more perplexing by the fact that, at the opening of his declaration, Burson states the following:
“…I am an individual over the age of 18 years, and if requested to do so, I could and would competently testify to the facts stated herein.”
So presumably this means that Burson will show-up in response to the COC’s subpoena at the next special hearing on deputy gangs on July 1.
Pressure from the top
Apart from the COC and the subpoena, WitnessLA has heard one more thing related to Burson’s declaration from sources who wish to remain anonymous. According to these sources, part of the reason that Burson retired when he appeared to be at the top of his career, is that he was being asked to do things by the sheriff that he was not at all comfortable doing. So he pulled the pin instead.
These sources also suggested that some his discomfort may have been related to reports that, in addition to the Internal Affairs cases that sheriff has repeatedly caused be opened on whistleblowers, or anyone whom he perceives as disloyal, when it comes to departmental probes into the actions those whom the sheriff views as loyalists, IAB investigations are made to vanish.
More as we know it.