Here Are The New Claims About A Violent Group Of LA Sheriff's Deputies Acting Like A Gang

LA Sheriff Jim McDonnell addressing recruits at the Biscailuz Training Academy in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday, May 3, 2018. (Susanica Tam for KPCC)

Los Angeles County is again faced with allegations that a group of sheriff's deputies operates as a criminal gang.

Seven sheriff's deputies have filed claims against the county saying they've been harassed, bullied, intimidated and physically attacked by members of the Banditos gang of deputies.

All of the deputies who filed claims — and the deputies they're accusing — work out of the East LA station, which services communities of unincorporated East Los Angeles, City of Commerce, City of Maywood, and City of Cudahy.

The attorney for the claimants, Vincent Miller, of the Law Offices of Vincent Miller, states that "the hostile environment at the police station has led to the deputies fearing their fellow officers more than the criminals in the street."

The claims assert that by failing to discipline and covering up the gang's actions, the county encouraged its gang member employees to retaliate against deputies.

The claims say things came to a head at a party last September, where members of the Banditos attacked several deputies. One deputy said he was punched multiple times in the face before being knocked out. Another said he was choked until he passed out.

The deputies' union and the sheriff's department had no comment on the claims, which are a precursor to lawsuits. Altogether they're seeking tens of millions of dollars from the county.

In a statement, the Sheriff's Department noted the allegations outlined in the claims arose before Sheriff Alex Villanueva took office. It said he replaced the unit commander and "key supervisory personnel."

The allegations "are being fully investigated," said the statement, which added that the East L.A. Station's new unit commander "has met with staff members, and has made it abundantly clear that activities which violate workplace policies or the law will be immediately addressed with swift and appropriate action."

Villanueva has at times defended deputies with tatoos. During last year's election campaign he said, "I worked with many people with these tatoos at different stations, and they were the most honorable, ethical people I have ever worked with."

The sheriff has also accused his predecessors of failing to crack down on a culture of hazing.

The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents deputies, had no comment on the claims, said President Ron Hernandez.

The group "fully supports a detailed, fair, timely investigation, with an interest in due process for all parties said to be involved," he added in a statement.

There have been charges for years about violent deputy gangs, often marked by members wearing similar tatoos.

Deputy cliques have been around since 1971, when a gang was first established at the East L.A. Station, said Sean Kennedy, a Loyola Law School professor who studies deputy cliques.

There was even a white supremacist gang called the vikings at the Century Station back in the early 90s, he said.

Altogether, Kennedy has identified 13 gangs that have operated within the Sheriff's Department.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to six years in prison for covering up jailhouse beatings by deputies, had a Vikings tattoo.

He said the Banditos have been active at the East L.A. Station for at least a decade.

In 2014, Deputy Guadalupe Lopez sued the county, claiming she was assaulted and harassed by the Banditos gang. The county settled Lopez' lawsuit for $1.5 million.

In July of last year, former Sheriff Jim McDonnell told the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission that he had launched a comprehensive probe into secret cliques, and was looking into whether criminal gangs were operating within the ranks.

His announcement followed a Los Angeles Times report that as many as 20 deputies at the Compton station had matching skull tatoos.

Frank Stoltze contributed reporting to this article.