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Criminal Justice

Former Top Sheriff's Officials Tell Conflicting Stories About An Alleged Banditos Coverup

LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaking at a podium at a news conference.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(Screenshot from LASD Facebook video)
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Two former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials gave conflicting testimony Friday as to whether Sheriff Alex Villanueva impeded a 2018 investigation into a deputy gang based at the East L.A. Station.

At the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission’s third hearing in its investigation into the secretive groups, former Division Chief Matthew Burson said he directed internal criminal investigators not to ask questions about the Banditos when they were probing an attack against deputies by members of the Banditos at an after-hours party.

Burson, who was a captain in the criminal investigations bureau at the time, said the order came from Villanueva’s then-Chief of Staff Lawrence Del Mese, who reportedly told Burson he was speaking on behalf of the sheriff.

Testifying after Burson, Del Mese said he didn’t recall ever having a conversation with Burson — or Villanueva — about the Banditos.

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Burson recounted two conversations with Del Mese, the first on Nov. 27, 2018, six days before the recently-elected Villanueva took office. He said in that phone call Del Mese informed him that Villanueva wanted to hold off on asking questions about the Banditos until he was officially the sheriff.

Burson said he called Del Mese again on Dec. 7, four days after Villanueva’s swearing-in, and that Del Mese told him, "Don't look into the Bandito aspect of the case … Just focus on the alcohol and the fight.”

Burson said he did not consider at the time that the department might be carrying out a coverup, but that looking back on it now he “absolutely” believes he was part of a coverup.

When asked by lead investigator Bert Deixler if he now feels he was “used as kind of an unknowing dupe to shut down an investigation,” Burston replied, “I believe I was.”

Burson said the day before his Dec. 7 conversation with Del Mese, Villanueva promoted him two ranks, from captain to division chief — skipping commander, the next rung in promotions. Burson insisted there was “absolutely not” a quid pro quo for his promotion.

He said his integrity was never questioned during his 35 years in law enforcement. Burson retired in March of this year.

A colossal failure of recollection.
— Oversight Commissioner Robert Bonner on Lawrence Del Mese's testimony.

During his testimony, Del Mese answered numerous questions by saying he did not recall.

He did reluctantly admit to having been a member of another deputy clique called the Grim Reapers at the Lennox Station in the late 1980s and early '90s.

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He characterized the Grim Reapers as a “fraternal group,” adding that he had his gang tattoo removed from his ankle in 2018 or 2019 when he decided it had “become a liability.”

Noting that attitudes about deputy groups have changed significantly since 1990, Del Mese said “the activities that they are partaking don’t lend themselves to professional law enforcement.”

Del Mese retired in Feb. 2020.

After Del Mese was excused, an exasperated Commissioner Robert Bonner called his testimony “a colossal failure of recollection for things that I expect some recollection of.”

Villanueva Defies A Subpoena — Again

Villanueva did not attend the hearing at Loyola Marymount University despite being subpoenaed. In a letter to commission Chairman Sean Kennedy that was obtained by LAist, the sheriff’s lawyer Linda Savitt listed several reasons for his absence.

She alleged that Deixler has a “conflict of interest” because his law firm represents Villanueva “individually” in a separate legal matter. In an email to LAist, Deixler said that assertion is “completely false,” adding, “Our firm does not represent the Sheriff in a personal capacity … The issue has been addressed fully by County Counsel.”

Savitt also said Villanueva wouldn’t show up because of “inadequate security at the present venue and [his and his command staff’s] personal safety is at issue.” Spectators at past hearings were “aggressively hostile” towards the sheriff and the department “as evidenced by their behavior in chanting and wearing jackets stating ‘F*** the East LA’ and postings on Twitter ‘F*** the Sheriff,’” she wrote.

The Commission also subpoenaed Undersheriff Tim Murakami; Savitt said he has “a longstanding medical issue for which he has a medical restriction precluding him from testifying before the COC.”

On Friday the commission voted to ask County Counsel to take additional steps to compel Villanueva and Murakami to testify.

Bonner noted this is the fifth time Villanueva has refused to comply with a lawful subpoena from the oversight panel.

A 'Full-Scale' Investigation Into Deputy Gangs

The hearing was part of the oversight panel's “full scale” investigation into the decades-old problem of secretive deputy subgroups.

A 2021 Loyola Law School report found 18 such groups have at some point existed in the department, with members wearing matching tattoos and, in some cases, required to engage in misconduct including excessive force to gain entry into the gang.

A survey of department personnel by the RAND Corporation found the groups are sharply divisive.

Many survey respondents said the groups “provide a sense of camaraderie and fraternity” and encourage a strong work ethic, while others said “they [subgroups] have destroyed many honest, hard-working deputies’ lives and careers.” More than one out of three deputies and mid-level managers surveyed supported banning subgroups altogether.

In their conclusion, the report’s authors wrote, “[a]t their worst, subgroups encourage violence, undermine the chain of command, and gravely harm relationships with the communities that LASD is dedicated to serve.” They recommended strengthening current policy to “formally prohibit” subgroups.

Villanueva has slammed the Oversight Commission's investigation, calling it “a ‘fishing expedition’ and political theater” and "the weaponization of government in order to influence the outcome of an election." He’s seeking re-election in November.

While he has refused to testify at the oversight commission’s hearings, Villanueva was forced by a judge to testify about subgroups under oath in April as part of an investigation conducted by Huntsman.

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