Why did the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office fail to bring charges against any of the the four LA County Sheriff’s Deputies who allegedly viciously assaulted several other sheriff’s deputies at a 2018 after hours party in front of approximately six dozen witnesses?
And when the LA County Sheriff’s Department investigated those same assaults, why did investigators appear to studiously avoid asking witnesses about the deputy gang known as the Banditos, the influence of which reportedly had everything to do with the physical assaults that resulted in at least one deputy being choked into unconsciousness, and three others injured.
In a new report released this week , the LA County’s Inspector General’s Office probes these and other questions, and concludes that Sheriff Alex Villanueva “continues to promote a Code of Silence,” regarding secret societies of deputy sheriffs, such as the Banditos at the department’s East LA station, and other deputy cliques such as the Executioners located at the Culver City station.
The central purpose of the new report pertains to the investigation conducted by the LASD’s Internal Criminal Investigation Bureau (ICIB), in which, according to the OIG, department investigators “completely ignored evidence of the involvement of the Banditos which led to the assaultive conduct at Kennedy Hall.”
The infamous Banditos brawl
For those readers who may have forgotten, on September 28, 2018, the East LA sheriff’s station hosted an “off training” celebration party for new deputies at Kennedy Hall, a rentable event venue in East Los Angeles. After midnight, as the party was starting to wind down, multiple assaults occurred involving LASD personnel, much of it spilling into the hall’s parking lot.
Based on the Kennedy Hall incident, an eleven-count civil lawsuit was filed in September 2019, by the deputies identified as the victims in the incident report, with the original claim by the alleged victims, which is the first step in any such legal action, filed in mid March 2019.
The lawsuit details how the members of the Banditos engaged in a “pattern of intimidation and retaliation” against those who didn’t go along with their actions, or worse, became whistleblowers, as at least two of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs reportedly did in desperation.
The retaliation that resulted for those who ran afoul of the Banditos, according to the lawsuit, consisted of escalating harassment, ranging from verbal taunts or keying someone’s car, and the like, to putting deputies in physical danger by failing to provide back up on potentially perilous work call outs, several instances of which the complaint details,.
One of the worst of these alleged no-back-up episodes reportedly occurred on September 19, 2018, and resulted in two deputies from the East LA station being shot while on duty (albeit, fortunately, not fatally), “because of the intentional failure of the Banditos to provide back up,” according to the complaint.
The Kennedy Hall fight, which occurred nine days later, allegedly started when members of the Banditos attempted to intimidate, then attacked multiple other non-Bandito deputies (all among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs), choking one into unconsciousness with his own shirt, knocking down and kicking a second deputy plaintiff also reportedly into unconsciousness, causing a concussion, beating and kicking still others who tried to come to the rescue of the first deputies. And all of this done in front of a crowd of witnesses.
(WitnessLA broke the story about the Kennedy Hall assaults, and we have written many times about deputy gangs, along with the expanding allegations in the still pending civil lawsuit. We also broke the story of the existence of the Compton Executioners.)
ICIB steps in
After the Kennedy Hall incident, the ICIB investigation was launched to determine if any of the behavior by LASD personnel at the event violated the law.
It is this investigation that the new report by the Office of the Inspector General explores, along with a brief look at the LA District Attorney’s decision not to file charges relating to the Kennedy Hall assaults, pursuant to the LASD investigation.
Yet, although ICIB located seventy-three witnesses to the Kennedy Hall assaults, of which they recorded interviews with forty-six (after 23 declined to cooperate,) bizarrely, according to the OIG report, the ICIB investigators showed little interest in asking the witnesses they interviewed anything about the Banditos in relationship to the assaults, even when the deputies brought the issue up themselves, and never mind that it was allegedly the influence that the deputy gang had on the East LA station that had everything to do with the assaults that ICIB was investigating.
According to the OIG report, the deputies who agreed to be interviewed provided fairly consistent versions of the incident. They identified the four named suspects as the instigators, who were described by some witnesses as engaging in “a pattern and practice of bullying and ostracizing younger deputies. Other witnesses also described the four suspects “as being associated with the Banditos deputy clique.”
Yet, the OIG report describes how there was little or no follow-up, when the witnesses brought up the issue of the increasingly notorious deputy clique. ICIB only proactively asked one witness if the suspects in the investigation were Banditos, states the report. In addition, ICIB neglected to ask if the bullying described was ordered by Banditos or whether this was a common practice of Banditos.
Further, although ICIB did ask numerous witnesses about tensions between older and younger deputies, there were no follow up questions about any association the older deputies might have with Banditos or any subgroup.
And when a sergeant explained that, actually, the tensions were not between older and younger deputies but rather between those deputies who associated with the Banditos and those who did not, ICIB interviewers reportedly considered none of this worth probing.
Attorney Vincent Miller, whose eight clients brought the civil lawsuit against the county regarding the actions of the Banditos, agreedswith the OIG’s characterization of the department’s peculiarly incurious inquiry.
When LASD investigators talked to his clients, Miller told WitnessLA, “they aggressively and intentionally avoided bringing up the Banditos.”
In one instance, Miller said, he was with two of his clients as they were being interviewed, and happened to mention the topic of the Banditos to one client, at which point the sergeant who was interviewing the deputy quickly broke in.
“He said, ‘Oh, we’re getting beyond our scope. That’s beyond our scope.'”
The OIG report is also critical of the fact that, when twenty-three witnesses declined to give any statement at all about the Kennedy Hall incident, ICIB investigators did not compel them to do so, despite the fact that, according to the OIG, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Manual of Policy and Procedures (MPP) gives ICIB the ability to compel witnesses to be interviewed — stopping short of the point of self-incrimination. Yet the LASD investigators evidently saw no reason to attempt no such compelling.
On June 19, 2019, ICIB submitted its investigation to the Justice System Integrity Division unit of the LA District Attorney’s Office.
Nearly eight months later, on February 6, 2020, the DA’s office officially declined to file charges against the four suspect deputies, and put their reasoning into an official memorandum.
According to the OIG report, the main rationale the DA’s memo cited for declining to file a criminal case in the matter of the Kennedy Hall incident, was because “alcohol was involved, the area in question was dark, and thus the video [of the brawl] did not sufficiently capture the incident, contradictory statements were made by witnesses and parties involved, and all of the suspects and victims were all potentially biased.”
Therefore, concluded the DA’s memorandum, there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any of the suspects committed any crime.
“The majority” of the DA’s memorandum “focused on inconsistencies in accounts by percipient witnesses,” wrote the OIG of the district attorney’s explanation for not charging, which the OIG did not find persuasive.
Instead the OIG report characterized these “inconsistencies” in the witness statements to be minor “and of the type inherent in criminal investigations with multiple witnesses.”
Yet, it didn’t seem to matter to the LA District Attorney’s office that the “witnesses to the assaults at Kennedy Hall had identified the suspects and described what each of them did on the night in question.”
And even more “oddly,” the report continued, the DA’s memorandum included footnote that “downplayed the involvement of the Banditos… ”
Here’s the DA’s footnote.
“Although there was some mention of a subculture ‘Banditos’ existing at the ELA station, the Banditos were not a focus of this investigation nor were the suspects identified as being part of this subculture. Furthermore, whenever mentioned, the Banditos were simply associated with a group of older, more senior deputies that simply ostracized younger deputies they felt were lazy. At no point in this investigation did any witnesses indicate that the Banditos were equivalent to a gang or any type of criminal enterprise.”
The OIG’s report found the DA’s footnote “concerning for several reasons.”
First, the report notes, the “motive of the assault,” was the senior deputies imposing their standard on younger deputies. And “motive is a central element of every criminal case and requires detailed analysis.”
Also, although the DA’s memo seems to validate the existence and purpose of the Banditos, “stating that no witnesses indicated that the Banditos were equivalent to a gang suggests a lack of thoroughness in reading the statements provided by ICIB, or lack of familiarity with Penal Code section 186.22, or both.”
(By Penal Code 186.22 ,the report refers to the so-called STEP Act, passed in 1988. Section f, which the report reproduces, is the part of the statute that defines the term “criminal street gang.” )
The OIG report helpfully reproduces a series of excerpts from ICIB interview transcripts, and points to some of the relevant parts of various deputy statements that the DA appeared to simply ignore in order to arrive at its decision not to charge anyone.
“Deputy 1 clearly stated that Deputy 3, Suspect Deputy W, and Suspect Deputy X manipulated people ‘like a gang,'” the OIG wrote, “and an analysis of the totality of the statements provided to ICIB clearly shows that a gang type culture existed at the East LA Station and the Banditos were the group that exhibited that behavior.”
The bottom line, according to the OIG, is that department investigators, “should apply the same investigative practices to investigations relating to alleged gang behavior of deputies as would be employed in the investigation of a serious crime by a suspect who is not an employee of LASD.”
As to what the LA County District attorney’s office failed to do, or could have done differently, the OIG writes that, “having received what appears to be a purposefully perfunctory investigation by ICIB (which did not gather evidence of the motive behind the alleged assault at Kennedy Hall), the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office (LADA) did not request statements be taken from the uncooperative witnesses or empanel a grand jury to compel statements.”
And so it was that no charges were brought.
The sheriff replies
On Monday, October 5, following the release of the story, Sheriff Alex Villanueva issued a statement about the OIG report via Instagram in which he suggested that Inspector General Max Huntsman and the report were “purely politically driven and an attempt to undermine the reputation of the Department.”
The report, he wrote, “alleges investigators did not conduct a thorough investigation into the Kennedy Hall deputy on deputy fight. This is false. Both criminal and administrative investigations were conducted where investigators interviewed over 70 involved parties and witnesses in the case.”
(According to to the report, although ICID investigators located 73 witnesses, they recorded interviews with 46. As stated earlier, most all of the rest reportedly declined to be interviewed.)
“The facts are,” the sheriff continued, “that immediately after taking office, I relieved the East Los Angeles Station captain of his command, overhauled the entire leadership of the station, and transferred 36 personnel.”
The sheriff’s claim to have transferred 36 Banditos-involved deputies from the East LA Station after the Kennedy Hall debacle has been challenged as an overstatement of the actual number transferred.
Meanwhile, the 64-page civil lawsuit continues to move ahead.
We plan to make a couple of additions to this story, so watch this space.
The Banditos image at the time of the story is courtesy of attorney Greg Smith