The Banditos And Other LA Sheriff's Deputy Groups Are Now Being Investigated By The FBI

Activists packed a sheriff's town hall Wednesday at Garfield High School in East L.A. Lisa Vargas (c) is the mother of Anthony Vargas, who was killed by sheriff's deputies on August 12, 2018. Portions of an autopsy report leaked to the media appear to show he was shot 13 times in the back. Deputies recovered a handgun next to Vargas. (Frank Stoltze/LAist)

The FBI has opened an investigation into a secret clique of L.A. County sheriff's deputies known as the Banditos, all of whom are or were assigned to the East L.A. Station, two sources with knowledge of the investigation have told LAist.

The agency has indicated it is looking into other cliques in the department as well, the sources said.

FBI agents have interviewed several deputies, inquiring about whether the Banditos encourage criminal conduct, such as planting drugs on suspects, the sources said.

The agents have inquired about the Bandito hierarchy and recruitment practices, according to the sources.

In addition, the sources said agents have quizzed deputies about whether senior department officials — including Sheriff Alex Villanueva — are members of the Banditos.

Villanueva has previously said that he's not a Bandito. He issued a statement late Thursday saying the department "is not aware of any ongoing investigation" by the FBI, but promised "full cooperation" if one is initiated.

The investigation raises the stakes for the sheriff as he deals with the issue of cliques. In the past, he has characterized cliques as primarily social groups and that any bad behavior is "hazing run amok."

Villanueva is coming under increasing criticism for his stance on cliques. At a town hall in East L.A. Wednesday night, members of the audience repeatedly interrupted the sheriff with calls for him to do more to get rid of the Banditos. Several people carried banners, one of which had the Banditos tattoo emblazoned on it and read, "Banditos A Gang with Badges."

Villanueva unveiled a draft policy on cliques two weeks ago that forbids department personnel from joining "any group which promotes conduct that violates the rights of employees or members of the public or otherwise encourages conduct that is contrary to department policy."

County leaders and sheriff's watchdogs became alarmed over the Banditos in September after four members attacked several fellow deputies at an off-hours party because they didn't support them. One deputy was choked until he was unconscious; two were sent to the hospital.

In March, seven deputies who once worked at the East L.A. Station filed legal claims against the county over the attack. They alleged it followed months of harassment and bullying of young deputies that included pressure to carry out questionable arrests and work overtime without pay.

In a supplement to their claims filed in May, the deputies said despite the transfer of some personnel, the department has allowed a number of Banditos to remain at the East L.A. station, and the group's bullying and harassment have "continued uninterrupted." An eighth deputy at the station filed a similar claim in June.

Department investigators already are conducting an investigation into last September's incident, but Villanueva limited the inquiry to looking at the specific actions of the four deputies involved in the attack and not the Banditos as a whole. L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey will decide whether there's enough evidence to file charges.

Villanueva has said he's "fixed" the Bandito issue at the East L.A. Station, transferring 36 people, including the captain and several lieutenants. But sources inside and outside the department told LAist that most of the people who left were promoted, retired or moved on as part of their natural rotation.

This is not the first time the Banditos have come under scrutiny. In 2014, L.A. County paid a female deputy assigned to the East L.A. station $1.5 million to settle her lawsuit alleging physical and emotional harassment by members of the clique.

This is the second time in recent years the FBI has investigated the Sheriff's Department. In 2011 agents started looking into reports of systematic abuse of jail inmates in Men's Central Jail by deputies. That inquiry eventually led to the convictions of more than 20 deputies and senior officials, including Former Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, on charges of corruption and obstruction of justice.

Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. Justice Department has indicated it prefers to steer clear of reforming local law enforcement. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued local agencies could reform themselves.

At least a dozen cliques exist in the department, which date back to the early 1970s, according to one report by Loyola Law School Professor Sean Kennedy, who also sits on the Sheriff's Civilian Oversight Commission. In 1990, a federal judge described the Vikings at the old Lynwood Station as a "neo-Nazi' gang that was involved in racially motivated hostility toward residents.

Members of each group wear the same tattoo. The Bandito tattoo is a skeleton with a giant mustache wearing a sombrero with a bandolier and pistol.

In addition to the FBI and the department's own investigation, the county's Inspector General and the RAND Corporation are looking at sheriff's cliques.

The one-year RAND study will "examine the purpose and function of the social groups" and will "make suggestions for departmental approaches to understand and manage deputy groups," according to the nonprofit. Researchers will conduct confidential interviews with senior sheriff's department officials, deputies and certain community leaders, as well as "an anonymous survey of all 10,000 sworn officers in the Sheriff's Department."

In April, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors directed staff to compile a "chronological list of all claims, lawsuits, and other settlement agreements" brought against deputies who are alleged to be members of a clique or secret society dating back to 1990.

UPDATES:

July 12, 2019: This article was updated with Sheriff Villanueva's statement regarding the FBI investigation.

This article was originally published on July 11.