On Wednesday morning, October 12, Ray Leyva, who was the highly respected former second-in-command of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, died as the result of a malignant brain tumor, according to his family.
Prior to his diagnosis, Leyva was planning to run for sheriff against Alex Villanueva. In the opinion of a wide array of department watchers WitnessLA consulted, he might have been the present sheriff’s strongest challenger, had his health not unexpectedly intervened.
Leyva, who was the former undersheriff of the LASD during Villanueva’s first months in office, spent more than 40 years as a cop. He began as a reserve officer with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1975, then left the LAPD to work for the Burbank Police Department in 1976. In 1981, he transferred to the LASD, which would be his professional home for the next 32 years.
There he gained a reputation for intelligent reform, and as someone who stood up to corruption and cronyism no matter the cost.
In 2016, Leyva retired from the LASD as a commander. (Specifically, he took a medical retirement, due to back and wrist problems.)
Then in December of 2018, Leyva agreed to come out of retirement when brand new sheriff, Alex Villanueva, whose campaign Leyva had supported, was putting together his command staff and persuaded the highly respected former commander to serve as his undersheriff.
“He missed being in the game,” one of his friends told WitnessLA at the time. “And he hoped he could contribute as part of the team.”
Leyva was joined by former LASD commander Bob Olmsted, another highly respected department veteran who also agreed to come out of retirement. Olmsted became the Assistant Sheriff in charge of the LASD’s custody division.
The two were regarded as a welcome stabilizing influence for the inexperienced new leader.
Villanueva ran an unexpectedly effective dark horse campaign, positioning himself as a liberal-leaning change agent in contrast to the more conservative appearing incumbent sheriff, Jim McDonnell. Yet, he was lacking in command experience, as he’d not risen up the LASD ladder farther than the rank of lieutenant, and his experience across the complex department was not particularly broad.
But, once in office, instead of being the hoped-for breath of fresh air, Villanueva seemed to pick a fight with most of the people outside the department he would most need to work with, including the members of the LA County Board of Supervisors, the county CEO, and the LA County Inspector General, among others. When he needed advice, he turned primarily to his wife, plus a very short list of advisors, most of whom appeared not to whisper to the new sheriff’s better angels.
Despite Villanueva’s habit of seeing enemies where none existed, many were stunned when, three-and-a-half-months into his tenure, he abruptly shoved Leyva out of the position of undersheriff and out the LASD door altogether, reportedly after Leyva attempted to gently steer his boss away from choices he thought would ultimately cause Villanueva and the department some serious problems.
Apart from the irrationally vindictive and clumsy nature of the ouster, however, Leyva landed on his feet. Less than nine months later, in an unexpected move, the board of supervisors asked the longtime cop if he would serve as the Interim Chief of LA County’s complex and scandal-plagued Probation Department.
The idea was that he would provide a steady hand at the tiller, allowing an unhurried search to find the candidate best able to lead the agency into a reimagined future.
At the time, his friends and colleagues told WitnessLA that they thought the interim position of running another large LA County agency could also benefit Leyva should he decide to run for sheriff against Villanueva in June 2022.
Leyva’s ability to bounce back so quickly was not surprising, said those who knew him well. In addition to the accomplishments listed on his CV, his decades at the LASD forced him to deal with more than the usual amount of venomous interdepartmental politics—especially during the reign of former sheriff Lee Baca and Baca’s once-feared second-in-command, Paul Tanaka.
Most notably, Leyva was one of three captains that former LASD under-sheriff, Tanaka—who would later be sentenced to federal prison for his and Baca’s wrongdoing within the LASD—told others in the department that he would never under any circumstances allow to be promoted.
In part, the problems with Tanaka reportedly began when, in 2003, Leyva attempted to institute a series of much-needed reforms at the notoriously violent Men’s Central Jail, which had an expanding deputy gang problem—a violence-laced issue that would not become public for another seven years.
Tanaka, who had the unhelpful habit of reversing common sense reforms (as the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence would document in detail nine years later), dumped Leyva’s reforms, then transferred him out to a much lower-profile assignment elsewhere in the jail system.
Subsequent to the transfer, like others who found themselves crosswise with Tanaka, Leyva was reportedly repeatedly passed over for promotion after promotion in favor of department members with far less experience and talent, but were Tanaka proteges and loyalists who also raised cash for Paul Tanaka’s political campaigns.
Yet, rather than ducking and covering in the face of Tanaka’s efforts to sideline him, Leyva—along Joaquin Herran, a friend and colleague who also found himself on Tanaka’s enemies list—successfully brought a lawsuit against the department alleging discrimination and unfair practices in its promotional system.
While he battled vengeful cronyism in one area of his professional life, Leyva’s reputation in the broader world of Southern California law enforcement was burnished by the fact that, during his years in the LASD, he rose to the top of various professional organizations. He served, for example, on the national board for the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA), where he eventually became the organization’s president . Leyva also served as president of the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association.
And so it was, according to those who knew him well, when he accepted the job as Interim Probation Chief, he came out of the LASD trenches battle-tested, but “strongly optimistic about law enforcement and other forms of public service.”
COVID & earaches.
Leyva moved into LA County Probation’s head office in January 2020, and began to familiarize himself with the agency’s problems, and its players.
“Ray Leyva is an excellent choice,” said Brian Moriguchi, the longtime former president of the Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA), the supervisors union for the LA County Sheriffs Department after the selection became public. “I have known him for many years. He has the management skills, respect towards employees, and integrity necessary to lead a department during a difficult transition. He was a great undersheriff who tried to keep Sheriff Villanueva on an ethical path….It’s good to see the Board of Supervisors recognized his value.”
Three months after Leyva began, however, the COVID pandemic hit, meaning that, during that early period, almost everything but getting through the crisis had to be tabled.
Nevertheless, once in his new position, Leyva began seeing evidence of a toxic culture among the agency’s upper management, particularly when it came to youth probation. One of the festering issues that reportedly came to Leyva’s attention, was the never-investigated allegation of a teenage girl who said a staff member had repeatedly sexually assaulted her. It turned out that a cluster of LA County Probation’s top rung leaders provably knew of the complaints, but swept the whole thing under the rug.
(WLA broke the story of the teenager’s reported abuse, which you can read about here.)
“Ray was not at all happy,” said one probation source who spoke to Leyva about the issue. “Not at all. Especially when he learned that the staff member the teenager had accused was still working with kids in one of the juvenile halls.”
Leyva began making changes. Yet, before the year was out, he began getting bad earaches, said retired LASD commander, Joaquin Herran.
At first the former-undersheriff-turned-interim-probation-chief assumed that his health problem was a simple one. It was not. The pain was being caused by a malignant brain tumor.
Leyva had surgery, then began a targeted treatment in a clinical trial at City of Hope. The cancer, however, was unusually aggressive. Still, Leyva was reportedly optimistic and intent on healing.
But, in the end, nothing worked, said Herran.
On October 4, Leyva’s family sent out the following message via former LASD commander Carlos Marquez:
“Retired Undersheriff Ray Leyva has been battling a very serious medical condition for the last two years. Ray’s strength and determination to combat this condition can only be described as courageous, however, it is with a very heavy heart that his family wishes to inform you that Ray is currently in hospice.”
Slightly over a week later, the news came that Ray Leyva had died with his family surrounding him.
“He was a man of integrity,” said retired LASD lieutenant Katherine Voyer, a colleague and friend who had known Leyva for decades. “He always did the right thing. And sometimes he paid for it.”
Retired captain Michael Bornman, another longtime friend who’d worked with Leyva, praised similar qualities, including his colleague’s “decisiveness in situations of crisis.”
Former Captain Eli Vera called the former undersheriff a “beacon of light in some very dark times,” who was “respected inside and outside the department.”
Retired Assistant Sheriff Robert Olmsted was traveling outside the U.S. when news came that his his friend and longtime colleague had died. He called WitnessLA early in the morning from Morocco to give us his thoughts.
“It was rather shameful the way Alex dismissed Ray,” Olmsted said partway through our conversation. “He was the consummate professional. And he loved the department.”
When he was asked to come back to work at the LASD to aid the then new sheriff, said Olmsted, “he was there to help Alex to keep the organization on track and be a voice of reason. But he was undermined by some of Alex’s underlings who told Alex what he wanted to hear.”
Olmsted paused for several long seconds.
“We lost out by not having the department in the hands of Ray,” he said finally.
Then after another pause.
“He was a good man. He will be remembered. He will be missed.”