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Criminal Justice

Gripped By Fear, Witnesses Refuse To Testify Publicly About Deputy Gangs;  Sheriff Alex Villanueva Is Subpoenaed

FILE: L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks in August at the graduation ceremony for the latest Academy Class. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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A startling revelation was made Friday at a special public hearing on deputy gangs inside the L.A. Sheriff’s Department: four witnesses were asked to appear, and all four refused, according to the attorney leading the investigation.

“The witnesses have stressed as the [reasons]: career suicide, fear, physical harm,” said Bert Deixler, an attorney leading the investigation into deputy gangs by the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission. The panel held its second hearing Friday. The first was last month.

Commissioners said the fear illustrates the extent of the problem inside the nation’s third largest law enforcement agency, and the refusal of Sheriff Alex Villanueva to cooperate, which they say has sent a clear signal to deputies — you shouldn’t cooperate either.

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“This climate of fear and retaliation is evidence in and of itself that deputy gangs exist and that they intimidate witnesses from coming forward to testify,” Commission Chair and Loyola Law Professor Sean Kennedy said. Reports by Loyola Law School and RAND found deputy gangs are a serious problem at the department.

The commission voted to issue subpoenas to Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Undersheriff Tim Murakami, division Chief April Tardy and former chief of staff Larry Del Mese to testify at a July 1 hearing.

“It is time to hear from the sheriff and Undersheriff Murakami and the other LASD officials who have the authority to address deputy gangs, but it appears have done nothing to do so,” Kennedy said.

The sheriff defied a similar subpoena last year. Retired Commander Matthew Burson, who allegedly was told by Villanueva to block an investigation into a deputy gang known as the Banditos, refused to comply with a subpoena to appear Friday.

The panel requested that county lawyers ask a court to find him in contempt, with Commissioner Rob Bonner, a formal federal judge, saying Burson “should be incarcerated” if he refuses to comply.

Villanueva has called the panel’s investigation a “political stunt” designed to hurt his chances for reelection. He has said any misconduct by members of gangs amounts to “hazing run amok” and that he has implemented a policy that prohibits people from joining groups that discriminate or engage in misconduct. The sheriff has not responded to questions about whether anyone has been found to have violated the policy.

Deixler described the witnesses who have spoken with investigators but are too afraid to testify publicly, even if they did so anonymously.

One witness has recounted to investigators how the Banditos deputy gang has controlled scheduling and assignments at the East L.A. Station. “The Banditos have superseded the official hierarchy,” Deixler said.

“The witness says that the behavior of the Banditos mimic the behaviors of criminal street gangs in their language, discrimination against Blacks, women and non-Mexican American Latinos.”

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Echoing allegations in a lawsuit filed by a group of nine deputies who once worked in East L.A., the witness described how Banditos call their leaders “shot callers,” refuse to provide back-up on dangerous radio calls to colleagues who refused to support them, and engage in excessive force and wrongful arrests, according to Deixler.

He said another deputy who would not testify corroborates this.

A third person who has declined to testify “has provided information about the return of the 3000 Boys to Men’s Central Jail.”

The Citizens Commission on Jail Violence issued a report in 2012 that found deputies who called themselves the 3000 Boys engaged in brutal attacks on inmates.

Photo shows a man's ankle partially blown away by a bullet with ink from an alleged deputy gang tattoo around the edges of the wound.
The chief investigator of the Sheriff's Civilian Oversight Commission says a ranking officer of the department has told investigators about how one deputy shot off the gang tattoo of another deputy.
(Sheriff's Civilian Oversight Commission)

The fourth person too afraid to speak publicly is a “ranking officer who has percipient knowledge” of a 2015 incident in which an off-duty deputy shot off part of a deputy’s ankle, Deixler said. He said the shooting was an attempt to remove a tattoo “for failure to adhere to the policies of that particular deputy gang.”

Diexler said it was out of respect of “bonafide concerns” by the deputies for their safety and careers that he has not asked the commission to seek to force them to comply with subpoenas.

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