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Sheriff Villanueva - Part 3
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)
Episode 3
42:35
Sheriff Villanueva - Part 3
There have been deputy gangs in the LA County Sheriff’s department for almost as long as anyone can remember. These groups can be violent, misogynistic, discriminatory and powerful – they can control much of what happens at some sheriff’s stations. Sheriff Villanueva simultaneously denies gangs exist and claims he has banned them.

Host of Hearing  00:00

[audio clip] For decades, there have been allegations from many different quarters that deputy gangs exist within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. [music in] Several prior commissions have voiced concerns about the department's gang culture and urged each elected sheriff to act swiftly to eradicate deputy gangs or clicks. Unfortunately... [duck under]

Frank Stoltze  00:26

I'm in a classroom at Loyola Law School just a few blocks from downtown Los Angeles. It's late May 2022, and I'm here for a meeting of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. They're talking about one of the most pernicious problems facing the LA County Sheriff's Department- one that Alex Villanueva has at times refused to acknowledge and at other times has taken credit for fixing.

Host of Hearing  00:49

[audio clip] Unfortunately, sheriff leadership has refused to investigate, even though allegations about deputy gangs have hurt the relationship between the department and the communities it is supposed to serve. [duck under]

Frank Stoltze  01:06

This is the commission's most important work since it was created in 2015 after a jail violence scandal and cover up sent former sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff Paul Tanaka to federal prison. At the heart of that scandal- gangs of law enforcement officers, sheriff's deputies, brutalizing people they were supposed to be guarding inside the jails. Now, the commission is investigating another set of deputy gangs, gangs with names like the Executioners and Grim Reapers, that are based in patrol stations across the county. [music out]

Frank Stoltze  01:46

The man leading the commission's investigation is attorney Bert Deixler, who has long worked on police reform in LA.

Bert Deixler  01:52

[audio clip] Why have you requested to testify anonymously?

Anonymous Witness  01:57

[audio clip] You fear retribution or retaliation.

Frank Stoltze  02:03

Bert is standing at a lectern in the middle of the room, questioning someone who has only agreed to testify anonymously over a scratchy internet phone line.

Bert Deixler  02:11

[audio clip] What's the level of influence of the Banditos in East LA currently?

Anonymous Witness  02:15

[audio clip] They decide which deputies are considered [speech unclear- "VO" (?)] which means a deputy who's not considered up to the job.

Frank Stoltze  02:26

Bert says his team of lawyers has had a hard time convincing deputies to talk, to in other words, break the code of silence.

Bert Deixler  02:34

[audio clip] Within this organization, we found a palpable fear, a fear of professional retribution. "Career suicide" is the term we've heard repeatedly and perhaps more troubling, a fear for physical safety if one is associated and revealed as cooperating in this investigation. [music in] I should add that a critical witness scheduled to testify today anonymously withdrew Saturday out of fear of retaliation.

Frank Stoltze  03:10

This is a department with a lot of problems. But the presence of gangs might be the biggest.

Andres Kwon  03:15

[audio clip] Deputy gangs are a symptom of a deeply rooted culture within the department that tolerates brutality, violence, secrecy.

Vincent Miller  03:26

[audio clip] Deputy gangs are worse than street gangs because the street gangs we expect to be engaging in criminal behavior. Cops are expected to be held to a higher standard to protect residents and not to attack them.

Robert Bonner  03:39

[audio clip] It's like a cancer within the Sheriff's Department, and it needs to be eradicated. It needs to be surgically excised and removed.

Frank Stoltze  03:48

And when Alex Villanueva became sheriff, a lot of people thought finally, someone's going to do that. Clean house, root out corruption and reform this department. But that's not what happened.

Frank Stoltze  04:01

Do you think deputy gangs are a problem in the Sheriff's Department?

Sheriff Villanueva  04:04

I think it's a problem of perception more than reality.

Frank Stoltze  04:12

You're listening to Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff. I'm Frank Stoltze. Today, a look into Sheriff Alex Villanueva's relationship with deputy gangs. [music out] [break]

Frank Stoltze  04:37

[music in] Little subgroups of deputies have been around for a long time at the LA County Sheriff's Department. The earliest official mention of one appears to have come in an internal memo in 1973. The captain who wrote the memo had been investigating alleged misconduct by two deputies. He said he discovered a group of 47 past and present deputies each with a tattoo of a devil on their left calf. They were known as the Little Red Devils and had been around for about three years. The memo said most worked at the East LA Sheriff's Station but didn't say much about the group's activities. [pause] A report by Loyola Law School said there have been at least 18 secret deputy subgroups or gangs over the years. About a half a dozen remain active. Maybe the most infamous was the Lynwood Vikings, which a federal judge described as a neo-Nazi white supremacist group. These groups usually form at what are called fast stations, higher crime neighborhoods where deputies make a lot of arrests. Communities with a lot of low-income people of color, not Malibu. Members of these gangs have been accused of encouraging and even celebrating violence. Most gang members have matching tattoos. The Loyola report found that the stations with the most police shootings all have active deputy gangs, although some of the groups appear to have been more benign. One reason why it's so hard to figure out how big these gangs are and what they're all about is that they're secretive. And people are afraid to talk about them. [music out] Bob Olmstead is different.

Frank Stoltze  06:17

Bob, tell us something about yourself. Say your name and maybe why you became a LA County Sheriff's deputy.

Robert Olmstead  06:23

Bob Olmstead. Joined LA County Sheriff's Department because uh, my dad was on the department at the time. Uh, and I just kind of followed in his footsteps. Part of that was I saw how much fun he was having um, even after hour activities, whatever the case may be, and there were just kind of a good camaraderie of, of friendship.

Frank Stoltze  06:42

Bob worked for the Sheriff's Department for 34 years. He considers himself a straight shooter like his dad, who also has spent more than three decades with the department. Bob looks like an old west sheriff out of central casting. He stands ramrod straight, wears a bushy mustache and combs his hair straight back. Bob lives in Nevada now and spends a lot of time fishing in the Sierra Nevada’s. He joined the Sheriff's Department in 1978 after serving in the Vietnam War and the Coast Guard Reserve. By 2006, he was a captain assigned to run Men's Central Jail downtown. Bob and I met at a public library in Orange County. We sat down in a courtyard outside. And just so you know, sometime during our conversation, a group of bagpipers set up and started practicing across the parking lot.

Frank Stoltze  07:34

It sounds like I'm hearing like a uh-

Robert Olmstead  07:35

Bagpipe.

Frank Stoltze  07:36

A bagpipe! Of all...

Frank Stoltze  07:37

So that thing in the background that sounds like bagpipes, they're bagpipes. Bob's office at the jail was on the first floor. When he started his job, one of the first things he did was walk around the rest of the jail, visiting the deputies who would be working for him.

Robert Olmstead  07:54

So, I walked into the 2000 floor control booth, and there's a gentleman there with a broken right hand. So, I asked him what happened. He goes, I hit an inmate in the head. So we talked about it. We concluded that, I walked up to 3000 floor, and there's another deputy in there with their broken right hand, and I asked him, what happened to him? And he said, Uh well, I hit an inmate to head. We had a scuffle, a fight, and hit him in the head and broke my hand. I go, so, I said, Okay, well, this seems to be a re- reoccurring theme. So I then, I walked up to the 4000 floor, what'd I find in there, another deputy with a broken right hand. And I said, Let me guess. You hit an inmate in the head, and you broke your hand. He goes, No, I swung at the inmate and missed, and I hit the wall and broke my hand. And I, I said this place is out of control.

Frank Stoltze  08:40

Bob told me that during his first week, he went to introduce himself to another group of deputies.

Robert Olmstead  08:44

I was greeted by seven or eight deputies in the middle of the hallway. Now, seven or eight deputies sitting idle, or standing idle, not doing any type of work, tells me that they should have been in their modules, overseeing the supervision of the inmates, feeding the inmates, cleaning.

Frank Stoltze  09:05

Bob knew deputies were not supposed to be just hanging around. They all had jobs to do.

Robert Olmstead  09:11

And I still remember the individual's name that approached me, and he was obviously the leader of these seven or eight individuals. And he uh, his first statement wa- to me was, what are you doing up on my floor? Now, as a deputy with year and a half, two years on, addressing a captain, challenging the captain in charge of the facility who at the time had almost 30 years on, saying what are you doing up on my floor? I had to verbally and aggressively, and I don't want to tell you how I said it, but let him know that I, this is my jail, I run the place. You don't. Now get you- uh, get yourself back to work.

Frank Stoltze  09:50

[music in] Bob told me he came to realize there was a shadow hierarchy within the jail. On paper, the highest-ranking department official ran the place. That was supposed to be him. But in practice, deputy gangs called the shots on two of the floors within the jail- the 2000 and 3000 floors, which housed people accused of the most serious crimes. Their culture of violence, a "persistent pattern of unreasonable force" permeated the entire jail according to a report by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence. It's unclear whether the 3000 boys had tattoos, but the 2000 boys definitely did- the roman numeral two. Deputies earned their tattoo by beating people behind the walls of Men's Central Jail and then filing false reports to cover up what happened. Hence, the broken right hands. [music out] Bob was pretty horrified.

Robert Olmstead  10:49

I went to Paul Tanaka. He listened to me, but nothing was done. He brought in a new captain down there, but the problems were still popping up.

Frank Stoltze  10:57

Paul Tanaka was in charge of the jails at the time. And he was a tattooed Viking. Bob was undeterred. So, he talked to his other supervisors and eventually went straight to Sheriff Lee Baca himself.

Frank Stoltze  11:12

What are you feeling at that time, as you're explaining to him the problems and his reaction?

Robert Olmstead  11:18

He was useless. I felt negated. I felt that, that there's nobody in charge of the department. They turned everything over to Paul Tanaka. I was kind of lost. I didn't know what to do. The fact that all of this is happening on my watch, and nothing was occurring.

Frank Stoltze  11:32

The violence was spilling out of the jails. Deputies with the 3000 boys attacked colleagues during a Christmas party in 2010, shortly after Bob retired.

Robert Olmstead  11:43

I go, this is out of control, absolutely out of control. Shame on me. Now I get deputies getting hurt. There's nothing I can do about it. The problem's still there. I'm retired. I said, okay. And that's at the point where I went to the FBI.

Frank Stoltze  11:56

Bob went on to testify publicly about the deputy violence in front of a special commission. But he was told that when you break the deputy code of silence like that, you need to be careful.

Robert Olmstead  12:08

Several people, including my dad said, You better start, make sure you're carrying your gun and looking over your shoulder because it's not uncommon to have retaliation. Uh, and I said, you know, it's it's like, I'm ready for it. [music in] I mean, it's not that I want it. It did- I'll carry my gun and and defend myself if, if I have to.

Frank Stoltze  12:27

I gotta tell ya, your father warning you about uh, potentially violent uh, retaliation. Uh, when did he joined the department? [RO: Uh...] 1950s or something? [RO: Yeah. Yeah '58, I think.] I mean, so he's aware of this culture that's been there for a long time. But there's this element of the Sheriff's Department that you're describing, and your father was describing, and your friends were warning you about, that's ugly.

Robert Olmstead  12:54

Yeah. Yeah, um. It's just the way it is sometimes.

Frank Stoltze  13:02

Bob would run for sheriff in 2014, promising to clean up the department. He only got 10% of the vote. [pause] Four years later, Bob got a call from Alex Villanueva. Now, he was running for sheriff. But Bob didn't really know the guy.

Robert Olmstead  13:20

He called me up and said, Listen, would you support me? And I go, Alex, I like ya, but I can't support you. And he was a little upset. Um, he- You can tell when someone was upset at you. And you- and I knew he was.

Frank Stoltze  13:32

After Villanueva won, Bob got another call from him. Villanueva needed someone to run the county's massive jail system.

Robert Olmstead  13:40

And I said, I'm not sure if I can do it. Uh, you know, I'm having fun in retirement. But in the back of my mind, I'm thinking I don't know if I want to work with this guy.

Frank Stoltze  13:48

Why did you agree to do it?

Robert Olmstead  13:49

And I just thought it would be good to do. Come back and help the department. I thought maybe I can have some good.

Frank Stoltze  13:56

Sense of duty.

Robert Olmstead  13:58

Thank you. Yeah, well said.

Frank Stoltze  13:59

Bob figured Villanueva wanted him because he was a reformer, someone who was familiar with rooting out bad deputies. [music out] Bob was wrong. [pause] All throughout this episode, and in my own reporting, I have been using the phrase "deputy gang" to talk about groups of deputies like the Banditos in East LA and the Executioners in Compton. Not everyone agrees that this is the right term for these groups. Deputies who do not think they're a big deal say it's inaccurate. They prefer terms like "social clubs" or "cliques" and argue these groups are mostly about building camaraderie. Sheriff Villanueva agrees. He doesn't like the phrase. In fact, he wrote a cease-and-desist letter to the LA County Board of Supervisors telling them it was racist to use the term "deputy gangs" with a department that's mostly Latino. But I think gang is the right word for at least some of the groups. Like street gangs, these groups of deputies have initiation rites, matching tattoos, hand signs, and leaders called shot callers. They try to control certain stations like gangs control territory. They intimidate and harass people who don't support them. And yes, they are alleged to have engaged in criminal activity. Gangs at the Sheriff's Department have attracted so much attention, that California recently passed a law that defines what a deputy gang is. It says a gang is a group of "peace officers" who might give themselves a name, have a symbol like a matching tattoo, and who quote "engage in a pattern of on-duty behavior that intentionally violates the law or fundamental principles of professional policing." In September of 2019, I was sitting in a crowded recording studio with a sheriff's deputy, his lawyer, one of my editors, and a couple of squeaky chairs.

Audio Clip  16:03

[different men speaking] [people talking in background] I'm going to switch out your chair because you got a bit of a squeaky chair there. [people laugh or agree] Want it to sound best as possible here. [different man] What a surprising thing that an attorney has a squeaky chair. [laughter]

Frank Stoltze  16:15

I was trying to convince the deputy to talk to me on the record, but his lawyer Vincent Miller wasn't having it.

Vincent Miller  16:21

[audio clip] Well, the reason why they're afraid is that whoever stands out further than the, from the crowd- it makes it more likely the Banditos will, will do something to them.

Frank Stoltze  16:30

This deputy is part of a really extraordinary lawsuit. In it, a group of deputies describe how a gang called the Banditos virtually controls the East LA Station and run it like a prison yard. They bully young Latino deputies and refuse to allow anyone who is Black, white, or Asian to join the gang. And no women are allowed either. He says anyone who speaks out against them faces serious consequences. But I still don't understand why he won't allow me to identify him. After all, his name is in this high-profile lawsuit. He's a plaintiff. But his attorney Vincent Miller still says no way.

Vincent Miller  17:11

[audio clip] So the more that they stick their neck out, the more they become a target. So, his concern would be- at this point, it's mainly being attacked outside the station. It's being attacked at their house, which is what we think is most likely. If they do strike, it's going to be to try to make it look like an accident, do something to their car, or whatever, rather than just show up and shoot him in the doorway or something like that. It's not as likely for that to happen.

Frank Stoltze  17:38

Ultimately, the deputy in the high-profile lawsuit agrees to be interviewed if we hide his identity. [pause] The deputy told me the East LA Sheriff's Station was his first patrol assignment. He described how before every shift, deputies got together with their supervisors in the briefing room to discuss the upcoming day. The person you're about to hear is an actor. These are the deputy's words spoken as closely as possible to the way he said them, but it's someone else's voice.

Deputy  18:08

[audio clip] And in the briefing room, there's a table and we'll sit there and do briefing. And the brass sit on one end, and the trainees sit on one end. But you can see where the other people sit, and they sit in the same spot. And you start noticing the ones that, and when they talk, everybody listens, even though they don't rank versus the seasoned veteran cops. I didn't know they would end up being the shot callers.

Frank Stoltze  18:30

That's what the leaders of deputy gangs often call themselves- shot callers. Just like the guys who run gangs on the streets. They controlled key positions at the station, including the scheduling deputy, the guy who decides where and when people work, and field training officers, the guys who train rookies. The deputy told me that one day when he was still a trainee, he was handed an envelope.

Deputy  18:55

[audio clip] And they say, Hey, keep your mouth shut. And mind your own business. Do this, do this, do this. And then they'll give you an envelope, and I have no idea of what the envelope is for, and they be like, you know, Hey, make sure it's full at the end of your shifts. So, you hit up all the other trainees and gather as much money as you could and, and make it full.

Frank Stoltze  19:14

Sometimes they collected thousands of dollars.

Deputy  19:17

[audio clip] Later, I found out that it was for their little drinking parties, their little trips, whatever they want to spend it on. They went to Thailand like once or twice. So, we new guys, not knowing, paid a, paid a vacation for them.

Frank Stoltze  19:36

Some deputies had wives and kids at home and had to borrow from fellow trainees to make what was considered a required donation. So, it's not like making the new guys buy a round of beers after work. These guys basically charged taxes, just like regular gangs when they demand money from street vendors.

Frank Stoltze  19:55

[audio clip] You've described how they kind of recruit people. Any more specifics just in terms of how they- Do they come and say, Hey, uh, please be a member of the Banditos?

Deputy  20:04

[audio clip] Like, the people they like are the ones that are eager to be liked or eager to belong. You know, I grew up in East LA. I grew up around gangsters. I was never a gangster. You know, my first couple jobs, I worked with grown men, you know, I'm a high school kid, and I didn't need that to feel liked or feel belonged like some of these other guys do. And that's why they become prospects because you know, they want to fit in, and then they slowly start working them and then they go, Hey, do me a favor, and then they start doing favors, you know, favors- that could be so simple as uh you know, swapping, shift exchange. So then they slowly start moving up the ranks to a prospect, and once you're a prospect, that's when you get a mentor, and then they mentor you until your name comes up on a list. Once your name comes up on the list, they take a vote on a table, and they all have to agree. If they all agree, you're a Bandito now.

Frank Stoltze  21:02

It's time to get the coveted Banditos tattoo. New members are given a stencil. It's of a skeleton wearing a thick black handlebar mustache, sombrero with a sheriff's badge and bandolier slung across its chest. Its bony hand is holding a revolver with smoke sneaking out of the end of the barrel. The letters ELA are on a banner below for East Los Angeles. [music in] Cops speak with great reverence about officer safety, about how keeping each other safe is the most important thing they do because if they're not okay, they cannot help the public. That's why one of the more shocking stories this deputy tells me is how Banditos sometimes refuse to backup deputies who don't support them, as a form of retaliation and intimidation. It's happened to him.

Deputy  21:52

[audio clip] There was a guy breaking into a house. It came out as a priority. Priority- You have 20 minutes to get there. Then they upgraded it to a code three response, which is emergent. So you have 10 minutes to get there. Something like a code three, something that big- call got updated. Dude has broken into a house, and now he's fighting one of the residents. You should have at least, at least four to six units, easily. There's no excuse why you shouldn't, and there was only two of us.

Frank Stoltze  22:23

He said he watched Banditos refuse to respond to one call where a deputy was shot, and wonders if it could have been prevented. Attorney Vincent Miller told me another deputy he represents believes Banditos removed the shells from his shotgun before he went out on patrol. Luckily, he checked his weapon before leaving the station. A third deputy who worked at the East LA Station described dead rats showing up on their front door when they spoke out against the Banditos. [pause] If they're willing to do this to colleagues, I wonder what the Banditos are willing to do to residents of East LA. [pause] Residents who live in neighborhoods patrolled by deputy gangs have accused them of encouraging violence, harassing the public, and planting evidence.

Frank Stoltze  23:13

[audio clip] It's alleged that they encouraged planting of evidence to push up arrest rates. Did they encourage you or did you hear them ever- either in kind of in code or explicitly?

Deputy  23:27

[audio clip] If you detain somebody- you thought you had this and there's no crime- you can always take them for under the influence. And for the test you're supposed to do to determine if they are under the influence or not, you can just put refuse, refuse, refuse and take them to jail.

Frank Stoltze  23:45

He told me you could tell who was trying to get into the gang, who the prospects were, because they had a lot of DUI and drug arrests. For instance, finding a meth pipe is a simple citation and release. But this deputy told me he had heard of Banditos and prospects scraping the pipe for residue and calling it a drug arrest.

Deputy  24:04

[audio clip] So if you strip the residue, you can get some of the substance. Now you can take them in for possession. So, I've seen that. Now you can take them to jail instead of cite out on the street.

Frank Stoltze  24:19

He said Banditos have beat up, shot, and killed people, but it's unclear if they did it because they were members of the gang. Because of the intense secrecy around deputy gangs, it's hard to prove a direct connection between violence and gang membership. [music out] One thing we know is that deputy gang members are costing LA County a lot of money. The LA Times found that since 1990, the county paid out about $55 million in settlements in nearly 60 cases where deputies are alleged to have belonged to a gang or a subgroup.

Frank Stoltze  24:55

[audio clip] Now, you said they were straight up gangs. I mean, you're calling 'em gangsters.

Deputy  24:59

[audio clip] Oh yeah. There's no way around it. It's not a brotherhood. It's not like, like a frat. It's not. It's straight gangsters. They act like gangsters. They fight like gangsters.

Frank Stoltze  25:11

We'll be right back. [break]

Frank Stoltze  25:16

In September 2018, just before Alex Villanueva was elected and Bob Olmstead took over the jails, deputies from the East LA Station gathered to celebrate the graduation of a group of trainees. It was at a banquet hall called Kennedy Hall, about a mile from the station. Villanueva made an appearance as part of his campaign. The New Yorker reported that he reassured the deputies that "help is on the way." [pause] The anonymous deputy I interviewed told me there was lots of drinking going on, and said well after midnight, he was standing in the parking lot when a leader of the Banditos named Gregory Rodriguez, or G-Rod, started taunting a deputy he didn't like. [music in] Another deputy stepped in. That's when the Banditos jumped on him.

Deputy  26:06

[audio clip] I just, I saw him getting violently attacked, kicked, punched. You can tell when somebody's trying to defend themselves. His body's limp and they're kicking him and punching him like straight gangsters.

Frank Stoltze  26:20

Two deputies were knocked unconscious. One was choked. Another was knocked out- by fellow deputies.

Deputy  26:26

[audio clip] I see the dude, G-Rod, reaching for his waistband. And I heard a female say, hey, like stop. So, thankfully he didn't pull his gun out, but that was bad. It was bad to believe that cops were doing this.

Frank Stoltze  26:43

The Kennedy Hall incident was discussed at length at a special hearing of the Civilian Oversight Commission, which is how I know everything I'm about to tell you. After the fight, the sheriff's internal investigation bureau, or ICIB, opened up an investigation. The county's inspector general urged them to figure out if the Banditos played a role. But that's not what happened. The head of the investigation, Sgt. Jeffrey Chow, says shortly after Villanueva got elected, he was specifically told not to ask about the Banditos. He was told it's not a big deal. One of Villanueva's aides at the time, former sheriff's chief Matthew Burson, claims the sheriff did not want those questions asked. The DA declined to file criminal charges against the four Banditos allegedly involved in the fight. But the inspector general says that's because the Sheriff's Department didn't provide the DA with all the information. [music out]

Frank Stoltze  27:47

Villanueva has always shown favoritism to the East LA Sheriff's Station. It was one of the first stations he ever worked at. It's where he met his wife, who is a retired deputy, and it's where he announced his candidacy. But the things he did to shower the station with affection in the early days of his administration struck many people as odd, [music in] like when he reserved front row seats for East LA deputies at his inauguration. [pause] A few months after Villanueva took office, this deputy and seven others at the East LA Station decided to sue the Sheriff's Department. Later, a ninth deputy joined in. They said the Banditos had created a hostile work environment at the station, and department leadership under successive sheriffs had done nothing to fix it. Here's Vincent Miller, the lawyer, again.

Vincent Miller  28:37

[audio clip] Under Villanueva, there's sort of become a first time, an alliance of the gangs. Villanueva has acted as a spokesperson and defender of all the gangs in the department. And so now you have inked Cavemen and Reapers in his administration and the upper levels of power. If the department is going to be forced to fix itself, um, it has to tackle all of it. It has to tackle all the gang problem. And we have to recognize that it's, it's, the whole culture is permeated with this gang mentality.

Frank Stoltze  29:05

The lawsuit is still winding its way through the courts. [pause] After a break, Alex Villanueva responds. [music out] [break]

Frank Stoltze  29:20

[to Villanueva] I mean, my question is basic. [AV: Mmm.] It's: Do you think deputy gangs are a problem in the Sheriff's Department?

Frank Stoltze  29:37

I'm sitting with Sheriff Villanueva at our studios in Pasadena. When I ask him this question, he nods like he's ready for it.

Sheriff Villanueva  29:44

I think it's a problem of perception more than reality, and perception for most people is 4/5 reality, but it remains perception. [FS begins to say something] The overwhelming majority are benign. There are subgroups for sure. They exist and they've existed, and they exist in every large paramilitary organization in the world. You don't have to stop at our borders. Go to any large organization, all the military branches, LAPD.

Frank Stoltze  30:08

The best comparison would be the other large police department in town, the LAPD. And by all accounts, they do not have secretive tattooed subgroups of officers within the agency. The problem of deputy gangs within the LA County Sheriff's Department is pretty unusual.

Frank Stoltze  30:26

So, you don't think the Banditos exist?

Sheriff Villanueva  30:28

As a gang? No. Are there a bunch of deputies with the Bandito tattoo forming a subgroup? Yes. Did they get engaged in misconduct before I took office? Yes. Did we take action? Yes, we did. We ended up terminating four. We suspended 22. We ended up transferring out voluntarily about 36. Removed the station captain from command, replaced entire command structure, the leadership team at East LA. We took care of business. There is nothing legal that we did not do. Yet some people run around claiming we've done nothing.

Frank Stoltze  31:01

I want to unpack what Villanueva is saying here. It is true that four of the alleged Banditos involved in Kennedy Hall, including G-Rod, are no longer with the department. But we could not independently confirm anyone was suspended. One captain says the transfers Villanueva is talking about were voluntary, or promotions, or retirements, not disciplinary action. Villanueva did enact a policy that prohibits deputies from joining subgroups that violate the rights of others. But membership in a deputy gang is not outright prohibited.

Frank Stoltze  31:35

I found that lawsuit by the nine deputies pretty extraordinary. I mean, you never have nine deputies talking about fellow deputy misconduct [AV: Mmm hmm.] in such detail.

Sheriff Villanueva  31:48

Well, here's the problem with that lawsuit. Again, they're on their, I don't know, sixth amended complaint. They keep changing the complaint.

Frank Stoltze  31:54

Well, that happens all the time. Amended [AV: But-] complaints happen all the time.

Sheriff Villanueva  31:59

But if you look at the complaint, it's like throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. There's some outrageous stuff in these claims. But you go to their interviews on the Kennedy Hall incident when they're interviewed by our Internal Criminal Investigation Unit, [FS: ICIB.] ICIB, and you look at the DA's report when they rejected the case, not one mention of Bandito [FS: Wh-] in the whole thing. Not one.

Frank Stoltze  32:20

Villanueva is saying that because the DA did not mention that the Banditos were involved, they weren't. [music in] But the lead investigator for the Sheriff's Department, whose report informed the DA's decision, says he was specifically told not to ask about the Banditos. And a top commander, Matthew Burson, told the Civilian Oversight Commission that the order came from Villanueva.

Frank Stoltze  32:44

Did you order investigators not to ask about whether the Banditos were the instigators of the Kennedy Hall fight?

Sheriff Villanueva  32:51

That is absolutely false. That is a sick joke. And that is of the mind of Mr. Huntsman and his obsession. When they did the interviews of the people, none of them said, I was beat up by a Bandito. Not one. So why did they not mention that when they're being interviewed by the ICIB investigator? Why was it a secret?

Frank Stoltze  33:13

It's so interesting to me that you're sort of blaming them for not bringing it up and not acknowledging that investigators were told not to ask about it.

Sheriff Villanueva  33:22

Oh, no, because that's not exactly what happened at all. No, you, you got it wrong. The point that I'm trying to make here is, if it was a problem, they would bring that up. They did not bring it up.

Frank Stoltze  33:34

It seems pretty clear to me that if you want to know about the Banditos, you ask about the Banditos. [pause] There's one more piece of evidence about the existence of deputy gangs that I need to tell you about. It's a huge report from the RAND Corporation. [music out] The board of supervisors asked them to do it. The researchers surveyed more than 1600 deputies and supervisors anonymously. One in six said they'd been asked to join a deputy subgroup- that's the word the report uses. One in four said not being part of a subgroup could hurt your career. And nearly half said that deputy subgroups made the department look bad in the eyes of the public. In conclusion, the report says, "At their worst, subgroups encourage violence, undermine the chain of command, and gravely harm relationships with the communities that the Sheriff's Department is dedicated to serve."

Sheriff Villanueva  34:28

The RAND report was one massive, wasted opportunity. We gave them all the access in the world. We supported them, we convinced people in writing, and then they failed to ask the most important question of all.

Frank Stoltze  34:42

That question was whether deputies had joined a gang during Villanueva's administration or before. [music in] This was his big point- that this problem pre-dated him. He inherited it. He wasn't to blame.

Sheriff Villanueva  34:57

This is a 50-year problem. Why'd it become a crisis on my watch? Why was it not a crisis on Jim McDonnell's watch?

Frank Stoltze  35:02

I don't think anybody claims it's just your watch. [AV: But you know-] You are the Sheriff now.

Sheriff Villanueva  35:08

Yeah, but no one said zilch when McDonnell was in charge. Things were happening, and they were not taking any action. Why? I took action. I made a policy. I sponsored legislation. I enact- enforce the policy. I did everything legally possible. Yet somehow the 50-year crisis is my fault, on my watch. But no one gave a damn about it until I showed up in office. That's why it is a political crisis. Not a real crisis.

Frank Stoltze  35:40

Here's the thing- Villanueva did create a policy to ban subgroups that violate people's rights. He did support a state law to define and ban deputy gangs. And it's true, the gang problem does pre-date him. But the problem is, he still doesn't think deputy gangs are that big of a problem. He's playing both sides of the issue. [pause] Finally, as he's done on so many other occasions, Villanueva has lashed out at journalists who report on this topic. In 2021, Cerise Castle wrote a 15-part series entitled A Tradition of Violence, The History of Deputy Gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. It was published on the website Knock LA. The series got a lot of attention on social media, focused more people on the issue, and Cerise was asked to testify before the Civilian Oversight Commission. Afterwards, Villanueva called for deputies named in her series to sue her. [music out] Bob Olmstead, the guy Villanueva brought on to run the jails and who was in his inner circle, didn't last long working for the Sheriff.

Robert Olmstead  36:49

He's probably one of the most vindictive, retaliatory persons I have ever met.

Frank Stoltze  36:56

Bob realized pretty quickly, Villanueva had a very different idea of reform than he did. And it definitely didn't include fixing the deputy gang problem, or even acknowledging it existed.

Robert Olmstead  37:07

I think he's failing. I think is plainly evident. But if the RAND report comes in and says 16% of your people on the Department believe there's some sort of gang process or problem going on, deputy gangs within your organization, wouldn't you do something about it? Why aren't you addressing this? If some of your people in the department feel there's a problem, you should do something about it. Don't put your head in the sand. Go after the stuff. This is your job. You owe it to the stakeholders. You owe to the people on the department. You owe to the young deputies who are coming on- they're gonna fall within the grasp of some of these people illegally. You got lawsuits that are resulting because of it. You're losing people that are leaving the department because they don't want anything to do with it and or have been victimized because of it. This is totally wrong. I have no idea why he's not addressing that.

Frank Stoltze  37:50

The number of deputy gang members may be relatively small, a few 100, maybe more. Because they're secretive, it's impossible to know for sure. But their influence goes well beyond their numbers. Their tentacles spread far and wide through the Sheriff's Department. Deputies are still gang members when they leave their stations and go on to other assignments. The anonymous deputy I talked to said one Bandito had been promoted into the Special Enforcement Bureau, the SWAT of the Sheriff's Department. The former head of the deputies’ union, ALADS admits he was a member of a deputy gang, but would not say which one, and Sheriff Villanueva's former chief of staff admitted to being a tattooed member of the Grim Reapers.

Frank Stoltze  38:32

[music in] During our interview, Villanueva told me he had worked with tattooed deputies in a group called The Caveman when he was stationed at East LA in the 1990s.

Sheriff Villanueva  38:46

I don't have any tattoo. But those are my peers. And I worked with peers that were tattooed, that didn't have the tattoo. There was no difference in how they performed. There were good workers. There were lazy people and people in between. There were top performers that people admired, and they were called influential peer leaders. Today, they want to brand them as shot callers. No, they're just peer leaders, which is true in any organization.

Frank Stoltze  39:13

Villanueva told me he had a reputation back then of being straight and narrow. His nickname was La Flecha, or the arrow.

Sheriff Villanueva  39:20

I was not asked to join. [FS: Because you were La Flecha.] I was La Flecha. That was not my thing. And I think they never wanted to also be rejected. So you had to make sure that people you ask were going to actually say yes. [music out]

Frank Stoltze  39:36

On the next episode of Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff, we go inside a controversy that I'd frankly never come across in my 30 years of covering law enforcement.

Andres Kwon  39:47

Villanueva has enabled his deputies to do anything they want, because there's impunity within the Sheriff's Department under his leadership.

Frank Stoltze  39:58

That's next time on Imperfect Paradise.

Frank Stoltze  40:01

[music in] Imperfect Paradise is a production of LAist Studios. This episode was written and reported by a bunch of us, and hosted by me, Frank Stoltze. Our senior producer is Emily Guerin. Marina Peña is our producer and Francisco Aviles-Pino is our associate producer. Editing by Meg Cramer and Paul Glickman. Fact checking by Caitlin Antonios. Sound design and scoring by Emma Alabaster. Mixing by E. Scott Kelly. Original music by J. Valle. Voice acting by Peter Mendoza. Bruno Lopez-Vega is our intern. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Our website, LAist.com is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Thanks to the team at KPCC and LAist Studios, including Megan Garvey, Tony Marcano, Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, Donald Paz, and thanks to our VP, Shana Naomi Krochmal. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This podcast was made possible with support from the Committee for Greater LA in partnership with the Weingart Foundation. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. [music out]