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Criminal Justice

Deputy Gangs In The LA Sheriff’s Department — 7 Takeaways From Episode 3 Of Our Podcast About Sheriff Villanueva

A drawing of a man's mouth and jaw at the top, with the rest of the drawing taken up with a brown sheriff's uniform, with a dark tie, gold star with a blue circle on it over the man's chest, and a green patch with a star in the middle just below the man's shoulder. Superimposed on the uniform are the words Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff.
(Miranda Villanueva for LAist)
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The Grim Reapers. The Vikings. The Executioners.

Listen to our podcast series about Alex Villanueva's rise and fall as L.A. County's sheriff.

These are the names of some of the secretive gangs of sheriff’s deputies that have operated at patrol stations within the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department over the past several decades. Members of these gangs have been accused of celebrating police brutality, intimidating and retaliating against fellow deputies, and running a shadow hierarchy that operates outside the chain of command.

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In Episode 3 of LAist Studios’ podcast about Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff, we take you through the history of the LASD’s gang problem — a problem that Villanueva has at times taken credit for fixing, and at other times refused to acknowledge.

Here’s what we learned from making this episode:

1. Deputy gangs have been at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for a long, long time.

The earliest official mention of a deputy gang appears to have come in an internal memo in 1973. A captain investigating alleged misconduct by two deputies wrote that he had discovered a group of 47 past and present deputies who all had a tattoo of a “small caricature of a devil on their left calf.”

The memo said most worked at the East L.A. sheriff’s station but didn’t say anything about what they did. They were known as the Little Red Devils and had been around for about two years.

2. There have been at least 18 secret deputy gangs over the years. About half a dozen remain active.

According to a report by Loyola Law School, deputy gangs usually form in higher crime neighborhoods where deputies make a lot of arrests. These “fast stations” are often located in lower income neighborhoods where most residents are Black or Latino.

One of the most infamous gangs was the Lynwood Vikings. A federal judge described it as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang … which exists with the knowledge of departmental policy-makers." It operated out of the Lynwood Station in South L.A. and brutalized people of color in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka admitted that he has a tattooassociated with the Vikings.

Other infamous gangs: the 2000 Boys and 3000 Boys, which controlled two floors of Men’s Central Jail in the mid-2000s.

3. A gang called the Banditos has allegedly controlled the East L.A. Station.

We spoke to a deputy who formerly worked at the East L.A. Station and eventuallysued the department in 2019 along with eight colleagues. The lawsuit claimed a gang called the Banditos had created a hostile work environment at the station, and department leadership under successive sheriffs had done little to fix it.

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The deputy — who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution — told us the Banditos ran the station like a prison yard. He said the gang controlled key positions at the station, including the deputy in charge of scheduling and the officers who train rookies in the field.

He said the Banditos recruited prospects who “wanna fit in.” Prospects begin by doing favors for gang members, like swapping shifts, the deputy said. Then they receive a mentor. He said eventually, the Banditos take a vote on whether to induct them.

The deputy said Banditos members or prospects made unnecessary drug arrests, adding he could tell who was trying to get into the gang because they had a lot of DUI and drug arrests.

The deputy said non-Bandito deputies are required to donate money to the gang for vacations and parties.

4. Members of the Banditos allegedly have refused to help deputies they don’t like.

We heard allegations this has happened even during emergency situations. They’ve also been accused of attacking non-members. 

The deputy we interviewed said Banditos members refused to help him when he was responding to a break-in at a home. He also told us that Banditos did not respond to one call where a deputy was shot.

In September 2018, four deputies identified as Banditos attacked non-Bandito deputies during an after-work party at Kennedy Hall, a banquet hall near the East L.A. sheriff’s station. Two deputies were knocked unconscious. One was choked, another was knocked out.

5. The Executioners gang allegedly exercised control at the Compton station.

Sheriff’s Lt. Larry Waldie, who ran the Compton station in 2018-19, testified to the Civilian Oversight Commission about the gang at his station, the Executioners. Waldie said the Executioners orchestrated a work slowdown in 2019 when he refused to appoint a scheduling deputy loyal to the gang. Waldie also said deputies held a party to celebrate a fatal police shooting.

6. Not everyone agrees that the term “deputy gangs” is the right way to describe these groups.

We use “deputy gangs” in this episode because just like street gangs, these groups of deputies have initiation rites, matching tattoos, hand signs and leaders called shot callers.

But there are deputies who don’t believe these groups are a big deal and prefer to use terms like social clubs or cliques to describe them. They say these groups exist mostly to promote camaraderie. But in a survey conducted by the RAND Corporation, nearly half the deputies who responded said subgroups made the department look bad in the eyes of the public.

Sheriff Villanueva doesn’t like the term. His lawyer even wrote a cease and desist letter to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors claiming it was racist to refer to gangs, since the department is mostly Latino.

7. Villanueva maintains that deputy gangs aren’t a problem at the department — and also says he's taken action.

Villanueva told us conflicting things about deputy gangs.

He said they’re a problem of “perception more than reality,” and that “the overwhelming majority are benign.” He told us when he worked as a deputy at East L.A. Station in the 1990s, there was a group called the Cavemen. He described its members as no different from other deputies: “There were good workers, there were lazy people, and people in between.”

At the same time, Villanueva insisted he’d acted swiftly to address problems with the Banditos in East L.A. and with gangs generally. He said he’d fired deputies involved in the Kennedy Hall fight, transferred other deputies out of the station, removed the captain, and enacted a policy that prohibits deputies from joining groups that violate the rights of others.

But the station’s new captain says the transfers were voluntary or that they were promotions or retirements — not a result of disciplinary action.

And Villanueva’s policy does not outright prohibit membership in a deputy gang.

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Corrected October 16, 2022 at 11:36 AM PDT
A previous version of this episode erroneously said the former president of the deputies union, ALADS, “admits he was a member of a deputy gang.” He told our newsroom in 2021 that he has a tattoo from a group, but that it did not engage in any wrongdoing. He wouldn’t name the group. We recently learned the group was the FPK – named for the now closed Firestone Park sheriff’s station.