On Thursday, June 10, 2022, the 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.
The hearings, which are being run by a special prosecutor and his pro bono team of high profile lawyers, has the advantage of being able to subpoena witnesses who are then required to testify under oath before the commission, and in front of anyone else who wants to tune in virtually.
The first of the public hearings, which was held on May 24,featured an array of witnesses, and was loaded with drama. (You can find WLA’s account of the hearing and related events here.)
Thursday’s 9 a.m. hearing was scheduled to feature recently retired LASD Chief Matthew Burson.
Matters did not, however, go as planned.
Burson, if readers will remember, was critical to the sequence of events having to do with Sgt. Jefferson Chow, a 26-year veteran of the LASD, who in late April of this year gave a deposition under oath about his actions and experiences in the fall of 2018, when he was the lead investigator on a case being probed by the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, or ICIB.
Specifically, Chow was investigating whether or not crimes had been committed by a cluster of deputies who worked at the East Los Angeles station and were considered to be “shot callers” of the Bandito deputy gang that is based out of East LA. These were the Bandito deputies who, at an after-hours party in September 2018, reportedly physically assaulted four other station deputies who were disliked by the Bandito members, allegedly for their failure to knuckle under to what the deputy clique perceived to be their authority at the station.
It was Chow’s job to find out if there was sufficient cause for the LA County District Attorney—who was, at the time Jackie Lacey—to prosecute the Bandito deputies for their actions.
Yet, according to Chow’s deposition—along with the highly detailed log he kept as he worked the case, as the sergeant was ramping up his investigation—then-Captain Burson conveyed the message that, in the course of Chow’s interviews with eyewitnesses and others, he shouldn’t ask any questions about deputy “subcultures,” also known as deputy gangs, an issue that was at the heart of the incident.
It was Chow’s understanding that the order to steer clear of the topic of “subcultures” came straight from the top, although Alex Villanueva had only been elected as sheriff a few days before, in a surprise defeat of incumbent Jim McDonnell.
If Chow’s account is true, according to Inspector General Max Huntsman and other commission members, Villanueva’s actions may very well constitute obstruction of justice.
Thus, the COC and the special council wanted to question Burson with respect to his knowledge about whether or not Sheriff Villanueva gave direct orders that stood in the way of Chow and ICIB doing a full investigation into a deputy-on-deputy assault serious enough that two of the non-Bandito deputies were reportedly rushed to the hospital.
The special council also said he and his investigators had heard from another department witness that Burson had indeed met with Villanueva on or about Dec. 3, of 2018, which was the day that the new sheriff was sworn in to the office.
Four days later still, on Dec. 7, 2018, Burson told Chow not to ask questions about deputy subgroups.
It was this series of events that caused Deixler and the COC to subpoena Burson to testify on June 10.
Yet, when the actual hearing arrived, Burson declined to show up.
“Unfortunately Mr. Burson has decided not to honor the subpoena,” Deixler told the COC shortly after 9 a.m. on June 10.
And so it was that the Civilian Oversight Commission voted to ask the court to compel Former Chief Burson to appear, like it or not.
They also voted to ask the court to compel appearances from former LASD chief-of-staff, Larry Del Mese, Chief April Tardy, Undersheriff Tim Murakami, and Sheriff Villanueva himself.
Deixler told the COC that a lot of the witnesses he and his team have interviewed in the course of their investigation thus far, are fearful of testifying publicly at a public hearing, even if the witnesses promised complete anonymity, such as was offered to a department member witness at the last hearing. This witness was not on camera, yet testified at length with his/her voice disguised to the point that even the witness’s gender was unrecognizable.
But, despite similar promises made to many witnesses who were forthcoming in interviews, they told investigators they feared for their physical safety and/or believed that testifying in public would be “career suicide,” Deixler said.
Yet, for Burson, who is retired, presumably career damage is not the issue.
In the case of the other working department members who didn’t want to appear, Deixler described some of the information they provided in interviews about the East LA Station in particular. Much of this new information, according to Deixler, confirmed what had been said by the deputy who testified anonymously at the first meeting, where he/she described a pattern of humiliating and endangering those deputies working in East LA who didn’t go along with the rules of the Bandito shot callers.
These methods, according to the newly interviewed department members, included failing to provide back-up on dangerous calls, physical assaults, loosening or removal of lugnuts on disfavored deputies’ cars, “demeaning and derogatory statements” about the deputies “over the radio,’” and the wrongful arrests of innocent civilians to inflate arrest numbers—and more.
Before the end of the Thursday’s meeting Commissioner Robert Bonner once more stressed the importance of forcing the issue in court to get Sheriff Villanueva to “appear and testify under oath before this commission about this incredibly important matter that’s infecting the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department.”
(On a side note, for anyone who is not sure whether or not former federal judge Rob Bonner understands the pressures and difficulties of leading a large law enforcement agency it helps to review his CV.)
Before adjournment, Bonner made sure that county counsel understood they were not to delay in any way with expediting these subpoenas, including Burson’s, and advised county counsel to file an order to show cause, and to inform Burson that he will be held in contempt, which may mean he’ll be fined and jailed, if need be, until he decides to show-up and testify under oath.
The next special hearing is scheduled for July 1, 2022.
And so the story continues.