East LA Sheriff's Deputies File Suit Claiming Harassment, Violence By 'Banditos' Clique

The East L.A. Sheriff's Station is at the center of a lawsuit by eight deputies accusing their colleagues of "criminal gang" activity. (Frank Stoltze/LAist)

In an unprecedented lawsuit, eight Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies Wednesday accused a group of their colleagues at the department's East L.A. station of being members of a secret "criminal gang" that violates their civil rights with a campaign of harassment and physical attacks.

The lawsuit describes in detail how members of the "Banditos" clique allegedly control station operations.

In one of the more explosive allegations, the lawsuit claims Banditos declined to provide backup to deputies they don't like, endangering them and the public.

The suit also claims Banditos encourage deputies to increase their arrest numbers by planting evidence on suspects.


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A number of the allegations in the suit repeat assertions made in legal claims filed in March and May, including the charge that the Banditos named as defendants in the lawsuit attacked fellow deputies at a September 2018 off-duty party, leaving two unconscious and sending them to the hospital.

The lawsuit claims the department is "permeated by criminal gang culture."

The Sheriff's Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The deputies who filed the lawsuit include seven men and one woman. Two of the men are veterans with more than a decade on the job.

They were "threatened and bullied in attempts to get them to conform to the corrupt culture or leave the station," the suit alleges.

All eight requested transfers out of East L.A. and moved to other stations earlier this year, according to their attorney, Vincent Miller.

"LIKE INMATES RUNNING A PRISON YARD"

The Banditos are a group of nearly 100 deputies who wear matching tattoos of a skeleton with a thick mustache, sombrero, pistol and bandolier, according to the suit. It says about 30 members and prospects work at the East L.A. station, adding the others work elsewhere or have retired.

The Banditos control the East Los Angeles station "like inmates running a prison yard," the lawsuit alleges. It describes members of the group as maintaining control by intimidation of other deputies and control of key positions, including dispatcher, scheduling deputy and training officer.

The Banditos extract "taxes" from young Latino deputies for clique members' parties and travel, one of the deputies who filed the lawsuit told LAist. Even though he's one of the named plaintiffs, he requested anonymity out of fear that Banditos might harass him at his home or his new station because he spoke to the media.

"Other taxes take the form of sexual favors from female deputies," according to the complaint.

In 2014, L.A. County paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a female deputy who said she was bullied and harassed by Banditos.

Deputies based at the East L.A. station "have generated an excessive amount of stops and arrests in the community because of the pressure from the Banditos to inflate numbers, to satisfy ... illegal arrest quotas," the suit alleges.

Banditos also pressure deputies "to ignore constitutional protections which require there to be probable cause to stop and arrest civilians," which leads to the "planting and manufacture of evidence and other illegal acts," the complaint claims.

The Banditos logo (Courtesy of Vincent Miller)

Deputies who don't follow the Banditos' orders are subject to retaliation that can include getting overloaded with excessive calls, being sent out for extra calls at the end of their shift and being told routine calls are emergencies, according to the suit.

The Banditos only recruit young Latino deputies, said the plaintiff who spoke to LAist.

"They see who is eager to belong, who they can manipulate, who they can control easily," he said.

Banditos groom young deputies they are considering for membership in the group, assigning them mentors, the deputy said. Prospects are put on a list and Banditos vote on who becomes a member at "roundtable meetings" held at a Bandito member's home, according to the lawsuit.

A SAVAGE BEATING

Along with the county, the suit names four Banditos as defendants: Raphael "Rene" Munoz aka "Big Listo"; Gregory Rodriquez aka "G-Rod"; David Silverio aka "Silver", and Michael Hernandez aka "Bam Bam," who the complaint says was assigned to Men's Central Jail.

The suit accuses all four of being involved in the September 2018 attack on some of the plaintiffs. It says they and others savagely beat and kicked Deputy Art Hernandez, leaving him unconscious, and that Deputy Oscar Escobedo was beaten by Munoz and strangled by Silverio, briefly losing consciousness.

Escobedo and Hernandez were treated at a local hospital, Escobedo for "severe neck pain and strain, dizziness, and nausea due to lack of oxygen from being choked out," and Hernandez for a concussion and cuts that required sutures, the complaint alleges.

Escobedo was unable to work for a week afterwards, according to the suit.

After taking office in December 2018, Sheriff Alex Villanueva removed the captain and transferred numerous deputies out of the East L.A. station. Munoz, Rodriguez, Silverio and Michael Hernandez were all placed on paid leave.

But Villanueva limited the investigation into the attack at the party, saying only the actions of individual deputies would be examined — not the Banditos as a whole.

In June, Villanueva acknowledged that the Banditos had amassed too much power and influence at the station.

"Pretty much they were calling the shots, they were dictating the decisions of the station and that has a very bad outcome obviously," he said. Villanueva blamed the situation on "a leadership team that fell asleep at the switch."

The lawsuit contends that even with the new leadership, the Banditos still effectively run the East L.A. station and that it remains a hostile workplace.

FAILING TO PROVIDE BACKUP

Banditos "intentionally fail to provide back-up during emergency situations and other dangerous calls to purposely place deputies in dangerous circumstances," the suit says. It says this has happened "dozens" of times over the last three years.

The refusal to provide backup created "close calls" that almost got deputies killed, according to the suit.

In one incident, "a deputy was shot twice, including in the face," and the suspect "would have murdered the fallen deputy if not for two special units coincidentally being [in] the area trying to talk down a mentally ill person," the complaint says. It asserts that the special unit members "showed up just in time to kill the perpetrator before he could murder their fellow deputy."

On Sept. 19, 2018, just nine days before the attack at the party, two East L.A. deputies were shot, "coming close to being murdered, because of the intentional failure of the Banditos to provide back up," the suit claims.

THE PINK HAND INTERVENES

In March and April 2018, two of the plaintiffs, deputies Louis Granados and Benjamin Zaredini, were "alarmed by the increasingly hostile and violent nature" of the Banditos' activities, the lawsuit states. They met with station Lt. Richard Mejia, who initiated an investigation into the Banditos gang and interviewed about 20 deputies who acknowledged the Banditos problem, according to the suit.

But the Pink Hand intervened.

The lawsuit alleges Sgt. Angelica Estrada, one of the few female associates of the Banditos and a woman who wielded tremendous influence at the station, "went over Mejia's head" to the captain at the time and then-Chief Bob Denham to block any discipline of the Banditos.

"The Pink Hand's dominance of the management at the East Los Angeles Station was so strong, she was also nicknamed 'the Red Queen,'" the suit contends.

Granados and Zaredini both suffered retaliation for blowing the whistle, according to the complaint. It says Banditos denied them backup, Granados was denied a promotion he had earned and Zaredini was stripped for a time of his position as a training officer.

In December 2018, Banditos "secretly removed the bullets from Deputy Zaredini's shotgun," the lawsuit claims.

BRINGING NEW SCRUTINY TO AN OLD PROBLEM

The lawsuit brings new scrutiny to one of the most vexing problems at the nation's largest sheriff's agency: the existence of subgroups that date back decades and whose loyalty is more to the subgroup than law and order. The lawsuit estimates 15-20% of the department's more than 9,000 sworn personnel are members of these cliques.

LAist reported in July that the F.B.I. is investigating the Banditos. One of the deputies who filed the lawsuit said federal agents interviewed him but declined to provide details.

"We haven't confirmed or denied any investigation," FBI Spokeswoman Laura Eimiller told LAist.

The legal action also accuses L.A. County and Sheriff Alex Villanueva of failing to eradicate the Banditos and other problem cliques, which date back decades and whose members have risen to the highest ranks of the department.

The current undersheriff, Tim Murakami, has a "Cavemen" tattoo, according to the lawsuit. The Cavemen preceded the Banditos at the East L.A. Station. In an interview with KPCC/LAist, Murakami denied that he's a member of the group.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was a tattooed member of the Vikings, which a federal judge called a "neo-nazi white supremacist" group. Tanaka is serving a five-year prison term for trying to cover up jailhouse beatings.

Villanueva has generally downplayed the problem, saying cliques are nothing more than "hazing run amok" and "intergenerational rivalry."

Villanueva did draft a policy regarding cliques. It 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."

The department did not respond to LAist's inquiry as to whether the policy has been formally adopted.

UPDATES:

3:20 p.m.: This article was updated to note that the Sheriff's Dept. did not have an immediate response.

4:30 p.m.: This article was updated to include Sheriff Villanueva's June comments about the Banditos.

Oct. 3, 2019: This article was updated to include Undersheriff Murakami's denial that he is a member of the Cavemen.