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Criminal Justice

Tales Of A Coverup, A Shooting Celebration, And A Work Slowdown At Hearing On Deputy Gangs

At Civilian Oversight Commission May 24, 2022 hearing on deputy gangs, Lt. Larry Waldie, in uniform, sits in the witness box. To his left are three men and a woman, and in the foreground two men sit writing at a table.
Sheriff's Lt. Larry Waldie, in uniform, testifies at Tuesday's hearing.
(Frank Stoltze
/
LAist )
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A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s lieutenant testified Tuesday that a deputy gang known as the Executioners celebrated a shooting by colleagues and engaged in a 2019 work slowdown that resulted in a drop in arrests and a spike in crime.

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Tales Of A Coverup, A Shooting Celebration, And A Work Slowdown At Hearing On Deputy Gangs

The testimony came during the first public hearing by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission in its investigation into deputy gangs inside the department.

Also at the hearing, county Inspector General Max 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.

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Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who declined to appear at the hearing, sent a tweet later Tuesday calling the proceedings "a true kangaroo court," with "no judge, no opposing counsel." He said the "wildly unconstitutional" hearing was a "well-rehearsed political stunt ... designed to influence the outcome of the [June 7 primary] election." The sheriff is running for re-election.

A Celebration Of A Shooting

Lt. Larry Waldie spoke about the Executioners gang at the Compton Station, where Waldie was acting captain in 2018-19. He told of hearing about how the Executioners were holding a party at a Fullerton restaurant to celebrate a deputy shooting. Waldie found it “concerning,” since a bystander had been killed in the incident.

Waldie said the March 2019 work slowdown occurred after Deputy Jaime Juarez, the Executioners' shot caller and the station’s powerful scheduling deputy, was being put back on patrol duty and asked Waldie to select his successor from a list of deputies “loyal to [Juarez].”

Waldie said when he refused, Juarez told him “we are going to initiate a work slowdown.” It lasted about a month, Waldie said, and meant deputies were doing less proactive work, slowing down their response times, and generally having less of a presence in the community.

The slowdown led to a significant jump in reported crimes and a large drop in arrests, Waldie said.

Juarez, who has been involved in four shootings, is up for promotion to detective, Waldie confirmed.

Waldie, who said he fears retaliation from deputies for testifying, has sued the county, claiming he was passed over for promotion for resisting the Executioners.

‘Obstruction Of Justice’ In Banditos Probe

During his testimony, Huntsman was presented with a sworn deposition and an investigator’s activity log regarding the department’s internal criminal investigation of a 2018 after-work party at which Banditos members allegedly attacked several colleagues, sending two to the hospital.

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“I believe the manner in which this case was investigated and presented [to the District Attorney’s office] amounted to a cover up, essentially obstruction of justice,” Huntsman said.

Bert Deixler, the attorney leading the oversight panel’s investigation into deputy gangs, had Huntsman read portions of an activity log kept by Sheriff’s Sgt. Jefferson Chow, who led the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau’s investigation into the 2018 fracas. Deixler also discussed portions of an April 21 deposition by Chow, who was testifying in a lawsuit brought by eight deputies against members of the Banditos.

Chow’s Nov. 9, 2018 log entry said a Lt. Chevalier and Capt. Matthew Burson told him the inspector general’s office wanted additional questions asked about the Banditos. Huntsman said his office hadn’t made that request, surmising that the sheriff’s officials were anticipating that he would want such questions asked.

Huntsman read Chow’s log entry from Nov. 27, 2018 — six days before Villanueva was to take office — that Chow had canceled further interviews in the case at Burson’s direction, because Burson “wanted to make sure I did not have to ask questions about subculture groups at East L.A. Station.” Huntsman said he “cannot think of a proper investigatory reason” for Burson to give such an order.

I believe the manner in which this case was investigated and presented [to the District Attorney’s office] amounted to a cover up, essentially obstruction of justice.
— Max Huntsman, L.A. County Inspector General

The inspector general confirmed Chow said in his deposition that Burson told him in the Nov. 27 meeting that Burson had to “speak to the sheriff about pursuing questions” about the Banditos.

Deixler then had Huntsman read the Dec. 7, 2018 entry in Chow’s log, which stated that Burson — by that point Villanueva had promoted him to chief — “informed me [Chow] that I do not need to ask about” the Banditos.

Huntsman said “the only proper reason” for Burson to order Chow not to ask about the Banditos “would be if it would somehow interfere with the investigation and… I can think of absolutely no reason why it would.”

The order not to pursue further inquiries about the Banditos, along with the department’s failure to supply Chow’s log to the District Attorney’s office as it assessed whether to file criminal charges in the case, amounted to “obstruction of justice,” according to Huntsman. Then-DA Jackie Lacey declined to file charges, a move that surprised Chow, said Huntsman, referring to Chow’s deposition.

‘Palpable Fear’ Of Retribution

Huntsman agreed with Deixler’s suggestion that Burson committed obstruction of justice, and said Villanueva is implicated as well “if the sheriff gave that instruction” not to pursue questions about the Banditos.

Deixler said he will be issuing a subpoena to Burson to secure his testimony in a future hearing, and that he will also seek Villanueva’s testimony “voluntarily or under compulsion.”

We asked the Sheriff’s Department for Burson's reaction to the testimony. In response, Deputy Lizette Falcon said in an email that “[t]he Department has made numerous statements regarding the numerous unproven allegations regarding deputy sub-groups, which you refer to as ‘gangs’ … We do not have any further comment at this time.”

Deixler said “a critical witness scheduled to testify today anonymously withdrew Saturday out of fear of retaliation.” He said he and the other lawyers working on the inquiry encountered “a palpable fear of professional retribution … and perhaps more troubling, a fear for physical safety, if one is … revealed as cooperating in this investigation.”

Villanueva has said that in response to the violent Sept. 2018 Banditos incident, he removed the captain of the East L.A. Station and transferred 36 deputies.

Testifying at Tuesday’s hearing, retired Sheriff’s Commander Eli Vera — who is also a candidate seeking to unseat Villanueva in the primary — said the sheriff’s remarks were misleading, that the 36 people who transferred were not connected with the Banditos, but were voluntarily leaving East L.A. Station for a variety of reasons, including retirement and promotion.

Vera said he was in a position to know because he had been placed in charge of changing the culture at the East L.A. Station, something that he says did not occur. He noted that Capt. Ernest Chavez, former captain of the East L.A. Station, made a similar comment about the transfers during a March 2021 deposition.

Villanueva demoted Vera to commander after he announced his candidacy to replace the sheriff, and Vera retired in March.

A 'Historic' Hearing

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

The hearing is “historic,” said Commission Chair and Loyola Law School Professor Sean Kennedy. “We’ve had alleged deputy gangs for at least 50 years but to my knowledge no county entity has ever actually held hearings open to the public with sworn testimony.”

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."

While he refused to testify Tuesday, Villanueva was forced by a judge to testify about subgroups under oath last month as part of an investigation conducted by Huntsman.

The sheriff has said deputy gangs do not exist as defined by state law, although he did institute a policy barring employees from joining groups that violate others' rights. He's described any questionable behavior by deputies as “hazing run amok.”

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