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Criminal Justice

Senior Sheriff’s Official Says More Deputies Involved in Alleged Gang Were Transferred

LA Sheriff's Chief April Tardy, in uniform, addresses reporters at a news conference.
Sheriff's Chief April Tardy.
(Screenshot from L.A. Sheriff's Dept. Facebook page)
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At a press conference meant to counter a “false narrative” that Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva hasn’t done enough to deal with deputy gangs, a senior Sheriff’s official Wednesday disclosed previously unannounced actions involving the secretive groups at the East L.A. and Compton stations.

Chief April Tardy — who oversees those two stations — said she transferred 15 employees out of the East L.A. Station last fall, indicating that a certain number had apparent ties to the gang known as the Banditos.

“Not all those who were asked to leave the station were alleged Banditos or associates, but some were moved because they required a change,” she said. Numerous deputies have said the Banditos group controls the East L.A. Station.

Tardy said she was prompted to act by “a couple of use of force incidents” and “a couple of other incidents at the station involving different personnel.”

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Tardy said she opened another subgroup investigation at the East L.A. station last October, adding, “the case is still active.”

Current and former officials testified under oath about deputy gangs last month at a public hearing convened by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission as part of the panel’s “full-scale” investigation into the groups. In addition to saying the Banditos still operate at the East L.A. Station, witnesses have told the panel that the group known as the Executioners is still active at the Compton Station.

Saying Wednesday’s news conference was called “to counter the false narrative” promulgated by the oversight panel and the office of the county Inspector General Max Huntsman, Assistant Sheriff Holly Francisco reviewed steps Villanueva has taken to address deputy gangs, including transferring deputies from the East L.A. Station after an off-duty fight in 2018, and enacting a policy in Feb. 2020 forbidding deputies from joining groups that violate others’ rights.

Shortly after the sheriff enacted that policy, an “employee-on-employee incident” at the Compton station prompted an investigation that included more than 200 interviews, Tardy said. She noted that some deputies admitted to having the tattoo associated with the Executioners.

Another 11 Transferred

After reviewing the investigation, Tardy said she shared her “concerns about use of force incidents, lawsuits and other incidents within the station” with Villanueva, adding the sheriff supported her recommendation to transfer 11 deputies.

Ultimately, “the findings of the subgroup investigation was unresolved,” Tardy said.

The oversight commission voted last week to subpoena Tardy to testify at its next hearing, on July 1. She said she will comply with the order to testify.

The panel also agreed to issue subpoenas to Villanueva, Undersheriff Tim Murakami, and former chief of staff Larry Del Mese to testify on July 1.

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Asked if Villanueva will comply with his subpoena, Francisco said, “I can’t speak for the sheriff on that.”

Retired Chief Matthew Burson, who allegedly was told by Villanueva to block an investigation into the Banditos, refused to comply with a subpoena to appear at the second hearing, held last week.

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

'The Weaponization Of Government'

When a reporter asked why Villanueva was not present at the news conference, Francisco said she believed he wanted the public to hear from other department officials.

Villanueva has called the oversight commission’s investigation “a ‘fishing expedition’ and political theater” and "the weaponization of government in order to influence the outcome of an election." He’s running for re-election this year.

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

While he has banned deputies from joining groups that violate others’ rights, the sheriff has said deputy gangs do not exist as defined by state law. He's described any questionable behavior by deputies as “hazing run amok.”

On the evening of last week’s state primary, Villanueva told KPCC/LAist at his election watch party that he hasn’t had “one single person” offer evidence of deputy gangs, and disregarded hearing testimony.

At the first oversight panel hearing last month, Inspector General Huntsman accused a senior Sheriff’s Department official of “obstruction of justice” for allegedly blocking a 2018 investigation into the Banditos, a gang based at the East L.A. Station.

At the second hearing, held last week, four witnesses — including deputies and a ranking officer — declined to appear out of fear of “career suicide" and "physical harm,” according to Bert Deixler, an attorney leading the investigation.

He said two of the witnesses told investigators that the Banditos control the East L.A. Station, and a third “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 people held in the facility.

The fourth witness 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.”

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.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.