Judge Orders Fired LA Sheriff's Deputy Who Was Rehired By Villanueva To Give Up His Badge And Gun

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the graduation ceremony for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy on Jan. 4, 2019. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

By Frank Stoltze and Paul Glickman

A Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who was fired over domestic violence allegations but later rehired by the new sheriff has been ordered stripped of his badge and gun by a county judge.

Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff granted a preliminary injunction Monday in the lawsuit from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, which sued the sheriff's department to nullify the rehiring of Caren Carl Mandoyan.

Mandoyan was a top aide during Sheriff Alex Villanueva's election campaign, and he was rehired by Villanueva in December.

In his order, the judge specifically ordered that Mandoyan shall "cease to hold himself out as a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff," that he "relinquish all County property in his possession," including his "uniform, badge and weapon," and that "Sheriff Alex Villanueva cease to recognize or hold Mandoyan out as a Deputy Sheriff or a County employee."

In a statement shared via Twitter Monday afternoon, Villanueva said he's disappointed in the decision, but that he has implemented the court's order until a verdict is reached.

HOW DID IT ALL START?

Mandoyan was hired as a deputy sheriff in 2006. He started dating a fellow deputy when they worked together at the West Hollywood Sheriff's Station in 2012, according to an internal department review of his case. Mandoyan was transferred to the South L.A. Station, but the two kept dating.

Mandoyan's girlfriend accused him of a range of domestic abuse, including an incident in September 2014 in which he "pushed or grabbed her by the arm, placing his hand around her neck and squeezing it restricting her ability to breath," according to the internal review.

Police in El Segundo, where his girlfriend lives, named Mandoyan a domestic violence stalking suspect. A judge issued a temporary restraining order against him.

Mandoyan denied he engaged in domestic violence of any kind.

Sheriff McDonnell fired Mandoyan in Sept. 2016, citing numerous policy violations pertaining to his conduct toward his girlfriend, domestic violence and dishonesty/false statements. Mandoyan, for example, did not tell the department he was forced to surrender three guns under the restraining order.

Mandoyan appealed his firing to the County Civil Service Commission, which granted his request for a full evidentiary hearing. In May 2018, the Commission issued its ruling upholding Mandoyan's termination.

On Aug. 13, 2018, Mandoyan filed a petition against the county and the sheriff's department, seeking a judge's ruling voiding his firing.

On Aug. 27, 2018, Mandoyan filed a complaint for damages against the county, alleging various violations arising from his case.

THE NEW SHERIFF STEPS IN

During Villanueva's campaign for sheriff in 2018, Mandoyan joined as a volunteer. But he wasn't just any volunteer. He played a key role in rallying deputies to support Villanueva, and served as the candidate's personal driver.

Villanueva was elected in November 2018 and took office on Dec. 3.

He convened a special "Truth and Reconciliation Panel" to review Mandoyan's case, comprised of Assistant Sheriff Timothy Murakami, Chief Eliezer Vera and Chief Steven Gross.

The group met on Dec. 21 to evaluate Mandoyan's case and issued a report on Dec. 27, saying Mandoyan had acted "in an irrational, unprofessional and impulsive manner" and "brought discredit to himself and the department" but still concluded that he should be rehired.

On Dec. 28, Villanueva rehired Mandoyan.

On Dec. 31, Mandoyan filed papers in court seeking to dismiss his two legal complaints.

In testimony to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission on Jan. 22, Villanueva said Mandoyan was wrongly fired, noting the District Attorney did not file charges and saying the department should not get caught up in personal disputes among deputies. He also said Mandoyan's behavior was not related to his work performance - even though his accuser was a fellow deputy.

THE BACKLASH

On Jan. 29, Villanueva drew the ire of members of the County Board of Supervisors when he cast doubt on Mandoyan's accuser's credibility by pointing out that she waited nearly a year to report her allegations and quit the department before she was to testify against Mandoyan.

In a Jan. 30 news conference, Villanueva said he never had a "predetermined outcome" on Mandoyan, that his case was fully vetted by the special panel.

"If the evidence supported termination, he would not be back at work, period," the sheriff declared.

That contention was called into question when the Los Angeles Times revealed a Nov. 30 email from Alicia Ault, a longtime senior official in the sheriff's department, about the sheriff's "priority request" that Mandoyan be reinstated.

Ault said she ultimately quit over what she considered to be an "unethical" and "unprecedented" order from a top aide to Sheriff Alex Villanueva to facilitate the reinstatement of a fired deputy and alter his disciplinary record before Villanueva took office.

Ault, who was chief of the department's professional standards and training division, said the sheriff-elect's chief of staff called her Nov. 26 to tell her it was Villanueva's "No. 1 priority" to reinstate Caren Carl Mandoyan before the new sheriff's swearing in on Dec. 3, according to a deposition Ault gave in relation to the county's lawsuit seeking to block the rehire.

Such a sequence of events would have left the impression that Mandoyan was brought back to work by the administration of outgoing Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

Ault said the call started off with what she felt was "somewhat of a threat," as incoming Villanueva Chief of Staff Lawrence Del Mese told her he was looking at her picture on an organizational chart but refused to say whether it was a current or future chart.

Ault said Del Mese also told her in the Nov. 26 call that he wanted to change an old case in Mandoyan's personnel file that "had something to do with use of force or tactics" from "founded" to "unfounded."

Requesting "to have someone's distant past discipline altered without any formal proceeding or fact-based documentation is highly unethical, and it's completely outside of our standards," she said.

Feeling that she was being asked to do things that were "unethical," Ault said she decided that evening to retire, because "I didn't feel that there was a future for me in an organization that was making decisions along those lines." She said she worked in the department for 34 years.

The Los Angeles Times first reported on Ault's deposition in July. Her comments built on a Times story in March that revealed Ault had referred to Villanueva's "priority request" to bring back Mandoyan in a Nov. 30 email to Del Mese.

The deposition was the first evidence suggesting that Villanueva wanted Mandoyan rehired while McDonnell was still in charge of the department.

In a statement at the time, Villanueva did not respond directly to Ault's assertions. He accused the County Board of Supervisors and its lawyers of "desperately trying to persuade public opinion by improperly releasing allegations" to the media while the Mandoyan case is still being litigated.

"We eagerly look forward to sharing the facts in the courtroom," he added.

Steve Madison, who represents the sheriff in the county's lawsuit, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment at that time.

The Board of Supervisors asked county counsel to review the rehiring, and on Feb. 20, Villanueva was informed that the county had determined that his action was illegal and therefore void, according to a Feb. 28 letter Auditor-Controller John Naimo wrote to Mandoyan.

Villanueva refused to heed the county's order, and Mandoyan refused to turn in his gun and badge. On March 4, the county filed a petition asking a judge to enjoin Villanueva from recognizing Mandoyan as a deputy, prohibit Mandoyan from presenting himself as a deputy and order Mandoyan to turn in his gun and badge.

On March 6, Judge Beckloff rejected the county's request for an immediate order, saying he was unconvinced the supervisors had the authority to override Villanueva's decision. The judge said the case can continue, and set a hearing for June 26.

In a March 5 appearance before the Board of Supervisors, Villanueva said he was "disappointed" they went to court to block his rehiring of Mandoyan without coming to him first.

The sheriff said, "I would come to you first" if he had a dispute with the board.

Villanueva argued the supervisors' legal efforts were "wasting taxpayers' money."

The supervisors pushed back. "We believe you have not operated within the confines of the law" in bringing Mandoyan back, said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

VIDEO AND AUDIO SURFACE

On March 7, KPCC/LAist obtained documents and videos from the Mandoyan case file from the Civil Service Commission.

The videos show Mandoyan trying to get into his girlfriend's apartment, and her forcefully telling him to stop and to leave.

"Get the [expletive] out of my house — get the [expletive] out, Caren," she shouts. "Get the [expletive] out. Get out! Stop, dude! Get out of my house - I'm calling the cops."

The videos are at odds with what Villanueva told the Civilian Oversight Commission on Tuesday. At that meeting the sheriff said that Mandoyan lived with the woman.

Mandoyan's lawyer, Greg Smith, told the Los Angeles Times that in the incidents captured on video Mandoyan was knocking on the door trying to get his girlfriend's attention because she had locked him outside without his keys, backpack and firearm.

In an audio recording the girlfriend made that was obtained by ABC7, Mandoyan says, "you deserve what you got coming."

THE INSPECTOR GENERAL WEIGHS IN

L.A. County's Office of Inspector General said in a July 9 report that evidence it reviewed "clearly establishes" Mandoyan is unfit to wear a badge and gun, pointing to the fact that he engaged in domestic violence against his girlfriend and lied about it to the department's internal affairs investigators.

The report was the first independent review of Villanueva's decision to rehire Mandoyan.

"Substantial evidence exists in support of the Civil Service Commission's holding to sustain Mandoyan's discharge," the report said.

In a key finding, Inspector General Max Huntsman "did not find evidence suggesting that the original discipline process was prejudiced against Mandoyan," said the report, which noted that the sheriff's own Truth and Reconciliation Panel, which recommended Mandoyan's rehiring, made no mention of a biased department investigation.

The inspector general's report was highly critical of how the sheriff and the panel handled Mandoyan's rehiring, and it described Villanueva as often uncooperative with the inspector general's efforts to learn more about how the panel works and about other deputies the sheriff is considering rehiring.

Villanueva has rehired four deputies since taking office December 3.

"This Office is aware of no case where a deputy was reinstated under similar circumstances," the report said. It noted that "the Department's efforts to reinstate Mandoyan appear to have begun before his case was evaluated by the Truth and Reconciliation Panel," and that the entire rehiring process "was accomplished in a sharply compressed timeline given the size and complexity of the record."

The memorandum issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Panel "strongly suggests that key pieces of evidence regarding Mandoyan's actions may not have been considered by the Sheriff and his Panel designees," the report said.

The department declined to furnish some requested information to the inspector general, citing the litigation with the Board of Supervisors. "As a result, many questions of how and why the Mandoyan case was selected for re-evaluation remain unanswered," the report said.

Villanueva issued a statement saying he was "extremely disappointed" by the report and the fact that it was released at all, given that the case is the subject of litigation.

"I don't feel this is the best use of tax payer dollars," the sheriff said.

A June 14 letter from the sheriff's lawyer commenting on an earlier draft of the report went further, blasting it as "part and parcel of the coordinated strategy of the Board, County Counsel, and OIG to publicly attack the Sheriff and the Department."

Attorney Steve Madison described the draft as "blatantly skewed" in favor of the Board of Supervisors. He pointed to several examples of what he said were evidence of the inspector general's "demonstrable lack of objectivity."

He said the draft ignored evidence that two of Mandoyan's accuser's former supervisors testified that she was "'unreliable' and 'unprofessional,'" and that she "'lacked credibility.'"

UPDATES:

5:35 p.m., Aug. 19, 2019: This article was updated to include a court ordering Mandoyan stripped of his badge and gun.

7:00 p.m., July 18, 2019: This article was updated to include Villanueva's response to Alicia Ault's deposition.

5:00 p.m., July 18, 2019: This article was updated to include the information about Alicia Ault's deposition.

July 10, 2019: This article was updated to include Villanueva's response to the Inspector General's report and his lawyer's June 14 letter.

July 9, 2019: This article was updated to include the findings of the Inspector General's report.

10:40 a.m., March 28, 2019: This article was updated with information on the video and audio that surfaced.

March 12, 2019: This article was updated to include the account of that day's Board of Supervisors meeting.

This article was originally published on March 8, 2019.

Brian Frank contributed to this story.