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Sheriff Villanueva - Part 1
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 1
33:26
Sheriff Villanueva - Part 1
We begin with a scene of a very strange press conference: Sheriff Alex Villanueva is threatening to open a criminal investigation into an LA Times reporter, and our host, Frank Stoltze, is questioning him about it. Through Frank’s reflections on his time covering policing in LA County, we learn that Villanueva is the product of a department that has been riddled with scandals for decades: racial profiling, jail violence and deputy gangs. We learn how Villanueva sees himself as the man to fix it.

Frank Stoltze  00:00

I've been to hundreds of news conferences in my career as a journalist and never have I seen anything like the one I attended in April of 2022.

Lorena Rodriguez  00:09

[audio clip] Good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. My name [music in] is Lorena Rodriguez... [duck under]

Frank Stoltze  00:12

I'm in the first-floor press room. It's in the basement of LA's historic Hall of Justice. About a half a dozen reporters are there along with some TV cameras, and a bunch of armed Sheriff's deputies in tan and green uniforms.

Lorena Rodriguez  00:27

[audio clip] ...Now it is my honor to present the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, Alex Villanueva.

Sheriff Villanueva  00:35

[audio clip] Morning, everyone. We'll walk 'er through from the eh, starting point, which is March 10th of last year, the date of the incident in San Fernando court, which you probably already are familiar with- and you seen the video. And then...

Frank Stoltze  00:45

The video is from a courthouse security camera. It shows a pair of deputies escorting a man down the hallway. [music out] The man punches one of the deputies, and two more run over to help. They wrestle him to the ground and handcuff him. One of the deputies puts his knee on the head of the man for more than three minutes. It's eerily similar to the George Floyd video. All of this happened a year before this, but the video had just been published by the LA Times. And some of Villanueva's own people- his own command staff- were accusing him of trying to cover up the video. The Sheriff denies this. He thinks the real problem is how the video got out in the first place. So he's called this news conference to announce he's launching a criminal investigation into the leak of the video. At this point, he pulls up a slideshow on a giant screen in the front of the room.

Sheriff Villanueva  01:39

[audio clip] ...investigation. And this is not a leak. This is actually obstruction of justice. Go on to the next slide. So here are the three individuals that we want to know a lot about. This person said he gave it to this person. But somehow it landed in the hands of the third person, a reporter from the LA Times. So now the question is... [fade out]

Frank Stoltze  01:59

The Sheriff has a wooden pointer stick in his hand. And the tip of it is touching the photo of an LA Times reporter, Alene Tchekmedyian. There are two other photos up there too. One is of a former commander; another is of the county's Inspector General. They look almost like mug shots. I know Alene. She's sitting in the front row, furiously taking notes. [Villanueva speaks in background] The Sheriff at that point addresses her directly.

Sheriff Villanueva  02:25

[audio clip] ...LA Times. Maybe you need to start clarifying exactly what you did with this. And when did you, who did you get it from? And when did you get it? So that's a question for you to answer.

Frank Stoltze  02:34

At this point, Alene raises her hand and the Sheriff points at her.

Sheriff Villanueva  02:38

[audio clip] So with that, we're not going to take a question from you. Anybody else has a question? [people talking in background]

Frank Stoltze  02:43

I felt obligated to jump in.

Frank Stoltze  02:46

[audio clip] [chatter in background] Can I ask you a question? [Villanueva: Go ahead, Frank.] Is is uh, Alene from the LA Times under investigation by the department?

Sheriff Villanueva  02:53

[audio clip] The matter is under investigation, all right? [FS: Is she uh, is she par-, is she under the i-] The matter is under investigation. This is stolen property that was removed illegally from people who had some intent, criminal intent. And...

Frank Stoltze  03:09

[music in] Wait a minute- the matter is under investigation? What kind of answer was that? There's nothing more I enjoy than questioning a powerful person who appears to be blowing smoke up my ass.

Frank Stoltze  03:20

[audio clip] Sheriff, are you gonna answer the question? You placed her picture up there, [Villanueva: Mmm hmm.] alongside two other people, [Villanueva: Mmm hmm.] talked about it in terms of a criminal investigation. [Villanueva: Mmm hmm.] Is this Los Angeles Times inv- uh, reporter, under investigation by the department?

Sheriff Villanueva  03:34

[audio clip] Well, the act is under investigation. All parties to the act are subjects of the investigation. Now, that's why we do investigations. We don't just walk away, say, Oh, well, you know. Oh, well. So sad. No. [FS: Is she one of the parties?] Well, she received the information and then she put i-, put it to her own use. When it's stolen material, at some point, you actually become part of the story. [music out]

Frank Stoltze  04:02

Sheriff Alex Villanueva is one of the most powerful law enforcement officials in the country. He leads a department with 10,000 deputies. He has a three and a half billion-dollar budget. This is a department bigger than the LAPD, and he's saying he's investigating Alene for doing her job as a journalist, a job that's protected by the First Amendment. It looked a lot like retaliation. Alene had been doing some hard-hitting reporting on the Sheriff's Department. The LA Times called it an abuse of power and threatened legal action. And that night, Villanueva actually backed down. He denied he ever said Alene was under investigation. [music in] This is not the sheriff that people thought they were getting back in 2018. Back then, candidate Alex Villanueva promised to fix a deeply troubled department.

Sheriff Villanueva  04:55

[audio clip] I'm Alex Villanueva, and I'm candidate for Sheriff for Los Angeles County. My candidacy is about reforming, rebuilding and restoring the Sheriff's Department. The reform element is very...

Frank Stoltze  05:04

He ran on a platform of ending corruption-

Sheriff Villanueva  05:07

[audio clip] My intention as Sheriff is to wipe the slate clean...

Frank Stoltze  05:11

Protecting immigrants-

Sheriff Villanueva  05:12

[audio clip] I am not going to allow ICE physically be inside the jail system.

Frank Stoltze  05:17

And progressive values.

Sheriff Villanueva  05:18

[audio clip] It's been 138 years since the last Democrat was elected sheriff.

Frank Stoltze  05:22

Villanueva was proud of who he was.

Sheriff Villanueva  05:25

Hace mucho tiempo, ya es hora que otro Hispano que pueda hablar Espanol sea alguacil de los Los Angeles...

Frank Stoltze  05:32

And voters loved it.

Angelica Salas  05:33

[audio clip] When he won, we felt a great sense of possibility for change.

Hans Johnson  05:39

[audio clip] We saw it as a signal of hope, against Trumpism.

Frank Stoltze  05:44

But after taking office, things went off the rails.

Max Huntsman  05:47

[audio clip] I knew I was being threatened. That was pretty clear, but what exactly it was he was going to do to me was unclear.

Sheila Kuehl  05:53

[audio clip] It's like an enemies list. He was investigating anybody who was critical of him.

Robert Olmstead  05:57

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

Andres Kwon  06:03

[audio clip] This is pure retaliation. And trying to suppress their speaking up.

Max Huntsman  06:09

[audio clip] And in the course of that, that's when he made the, the blackmail attempt.

Frank Stoltze  06:14

I've been reporting on law enforcement in LA for 30 years, and I've never really covered someone quite like Alex Villanueva. In this series, I'm going to take you through what happened after he became Sheriff in 2018. I'm going to show you how a man who ran as a progressive reformer in liberal LA County ended up as a darling of Fox News.

Tucker Carlson  06:37

[audio clip] Your priorities are so exactly in the right place. I just have to ask you- Are people thanking you for taking a stand on this?

Sheriff Villanueva  06:44

[audio clip] Well, I got a lot of people that are thanking me from across the political spectrum except for one group, the woke left.

Tucker Carlson  06:51

[audio clip] Man, what- why didn't you run for governor?

Frank Stoltze  06:55

Threatening to open a criminal investigation into a reporter is just the beginning. And this November, Alex Villanueva is up for re-election.

Sheriff Villanueva  07:03

[audio clip] I think 2022 is going to be a special year. I think it's going to be a referendum on a national disease that's going to finally see the cure coming along. Woke-ism is on the ropes. Let's put it out of its misery [cheering] in 22.

Frank Stoltze  07:23

I'm Frank Stoltze and you're listening to Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff, from LAist Studios. After a break, we'll meet the man behind the six-pointed star. [music out] [break]

Sheriff Villanueva  07:42

Do I put these things on, or...

Frank Stoltze  07:43

Uh, if you want to, I mean you don't have to. Uh, I, I wear them just because I'm used to wearing them. [AV: Mmm.] So you can wear 'em or not wear 'em. [duck under]

Frank Stoltze  07:50

Alex Villanueva and I are sitting in a studio at KPCC in Pasadena. It's late July. For more than two months, the Sheriff has been putting off my request for an interview. [music in] His people at first quizzed me on the kinds of questions we would ask and wondered if we would be fair. Then they delayed the interview until after the primary election in June. Then the Sheriff got COVID. Finally, he arrives in an unmarked SUV with his security detail- two plainclothes deputies- and a PR person from his re-election campaign. He is not in uniform either. Instead, he's wearing a Tommy Bahamas polo shirt, with the words LA Sheriff's Department on the front. He walks with a limp. He's got a bad knee and seems relaxed as he sits down for an interview.

Frank Stoltze  08:35

I appreciate you coming in.

Sheriff Villanueva  08:36

No, no problem.

Frank Stoltze  08:39

I wanted to talk to Alex Villanueva to learn what he was like as a kid, to understand why he thought the Sheriff's Department needed to be reformed, and why he thought he was the man to do it. I also want to give him a chance to respond to criticism. Villanueva is 59 years old. He was born in Chicago to a Polish American mother. He spent his early years in Rochester, New York before moving in the fourth grade to Puerto Rico, where his father was born. [music out]

Sheriff Villanueva  09:10

I was nine years old. Couldn't, I couldn't count to five in Spanish.

Frank Stoltze  09:13

Did you feel out of place in, in Puerto Rico? Were you- Did- Was it hard for you?

Sheriff Villanueva  09:19

No, they're very um, very receptive folks. Real hospitable to, to foreigners and uh, other than being teased by being a gringo. Because you know, you know, light skinned, blue eyes and on an island where people, there are people just like me, that are Puerto Rican, but most tend to be a little more darker skin.

Frank Stoltze  09:40

Villanueva loved reading as a kid. His favorite book was Don Quixote.

Sheriff Villanueva  09:45

The very first sentence- you always know it [reciting line in Spanish]. That’s the very first sentence in Don Quixote introducing the main character.

Frank Stoltze  10:00

That's not totally right, but he did nail the first half of the sentence.

Sheriff Villanueva  10:04

And then a concept of uh, tilting at windmills. You know that, that phrase isn't part of our lingo now.

Frank Stoltze  10:14

I guess you tilt at windmills a little bit, right?

Sheriff Villanueva  10:16

And I knock them down.

Frank Stoltze  10:18

After high school, Villanueva joined the Air Force and ended up stationed in Southern California. He signed up for the LA County Sheriff's Department a few years later in 1986 because it paid well, and he had a new baby to support. [music in] The Sheriff's Department is actually much bigger than the better-known LAPD. The LAPD patrols the city of LA exclusively, but the LA Sheriff's Department covers far flung areas of the county, from East LA to the high desert. It also patrols 42 individual cities including Compton and Malibu. The biggest difference: the Sheriff runs the county's massive jail system. But you know, over the years, the LAPD has gotten a lot more attention from journalists and the public. That's partially because one of the biggest police violence scandals of the 20th century happened at the LAPD. [music out]

Reporter  11:16

As soon as it hit the airwaves, it created a firestorm. Video recorded by a man named George Holliday from the balcony of his apartment in Lakeview Terrace. It showed LAPD officers beating Rodney King with their batons and kicking him for 15 minutes after he led cops on a high-speed chase.

Frank Stoltze  11:34

I was new to LA. I had just started working in the news department at KLON Jazz Radio. Here's my broadcast five days after the beating. I sounded a lot different back then.

Frank Stoltze  11:45

[clip from KLON news] The videotape has already caused national alarm and has led to calls for the police chief's ouster. Meanwhile, the police department is conducting an internal investigation while the county will start presenting its case to a grand jury today.

Frank Stoltze  12:00

After a jury found the officers not guilty, the city exploded.

NBCLA Audio Clips  12:04

It was just two words, not guilty, heard over and over again at the Simi Valley courthouse that triggered all the violence... There are fires, at least 40 separate significant fires in South Central Los Angeles. More than 150 all total since 7:30 this evening... This is one of the most horrible things I've ever seen in my life. This guy had a crowd of people jump up on his truck, there's another guy kicks him when he is just returned to consciousness... Which some rocks, bottles were being thrown at cars. Several bricks hit his window simultaneously, his front window shattered, his vehicle stopped. Uh, many people busted his side windows. Uh, two men climbed in and began beating him in the face with beer bottles...

Frank Stoltze  12:43

Villanueva was a few years on the job at this point. And he told me he was chasing people around East LA.

Sheriff Villanueva  12:50

And uh, we actually stopped rioters on Whittier Boulevard and Ford in East LA. They came to burn down Whittier Boulevard, and they were settin' fire in the trash cans, they were starting to break windows.

Frank Stoltze  13:01

He was a member of the California National Guard at the time too. And after a few days, he put on his green camouflage uniform, and he patrolled the streets with an M 16. I was armed with a cell phone the size of a brick, but the battery wasn't great. So most of the time, I went from payphone to payphone, filing reports as fires burned nearby. At one point a woman warned me to get off the streets, and she invited me into her home, and I used her landline to file some reports. Another woman I interviewed expressed the sentiments of a lot of people.

Woman  13:36

What I think about going on? The video showed everything. [with emotion] You know, you just can't beat nobody down like that.

Frank Stoltze  13:43

What do you think about all this violence? Are you scared?

Woman  13:45

No, I'm not scared. I'm not scared. I just wish they hadn't d- destroyed a lot. But they need to destroy. They do a little. I mean, they, they beat up Mexican people, they beat up Blacks, but you let a, you let a police beat up a white man, you let 'em fully beat up a white man. And they ain't gonna beat no white man up.

Frank Stoltze  14:02

A lot of people said, look I don't like the violence, but something needs to be done to wake people up to what police are doing in the city.

Frank Stoltze  14:09

Did the riots have an effect on you? Did it change the way you thought about policing?

Sheriff Villanueva  14:12

I paid a lot of attention to what Sherman Block did and Daryl Gates did during the riots. And I thought they did horrible. Because their decisions cost a lot of lives, a lot of misery. Uh, property destroyed because they were not decisive at the inception of the riot. And the worst thing you can do is telegraph that you're not gonna enforce the rule of law, it's the worst thing you can do.

Frank Stoltze  14:38

In other words, he would have done things differently than the Sheriff and the head of the LAPD. [music in] A special commission created by the city after the King beating issued a scathing report about the LAPD. Some officers were sending racist computer messages to each other, and a significant number were using excessive force. There was less attention given to the Sheriff's Department, but it had the same problems. And they were all spelled out in a seminal lawsuit that was filed just a few years after Villanueva became a deputy. It was filed by a group of more than 70 Black and Latino residents, from a small, lower income community in South LA called Lynwood. They described how deputies were terrorizing them with indiscriminate shootings, and beatings, and trashing their homes during nighttime raids. At the heart of the lawsuit was this bombshell claim- that a white supremacist gang of deputies operating out of the Lynwood Sheriff's Station was causing most of the mayhem. They were called the Lynwood Vikings. Deputies had matching tattoos of a Viking. Some included the numbers 998. That's police code for when a deputy opens fire on someone. Inside the station house was a map of the community- in the shape of the African continent. [music out]

Frank Stoltze  16:09

So what was the department like when you joined?

Sheriff Villanueva  16:12

Definitely did not look like me. It was old, very uh, stifling. I'd say very bureaucratic and, you know, steeped in tradition. And this is the way we do things and don't ask questions. And me, I'm always full of questions like, Why do we do what we're doing, and can we do better?

Frank Stoltze  16:30

But the things Villanueva identified as problems, the things he wanted to do better, they didn't have much to do with police violence or deputy gangs. They were more Quixotic quests. And they frequently brought him into conflict with his higher-ups. Villanueva decided smoking should be banned inside LA County's jails- which was not a popular opinion at the time. But he took it all the way up to the guy who ran the jails.

Sheriff Villanueva  16:56

And I remember telling, uh sir, the problem- the hazard is today, not 10 years from now. And he just turned I mean, beet red, veins popped out of his neck. And it's like, how dare you suggest that I don't care about my employees. And he threw me out of his office and I, I walked out, thought- he's full of it.

Frank Stoltze  17:19

You know what gets me is you weren't daunted at all. I mean, you're, you're wet behind the ears, you're still considered a rookie really, for a few years, right? You're a rookie. [AV: Mmm hmm.] Um, you weren't, you weren't daunted you know, by pushing this as a brand new guy?

Sheriff Villanueva  17:33

Um, it was the right thing to do.

Frank Stoltze  17:34

I mean, you weren't nervous?

Sheriff Villanueva  17:36

I didn't think of it as, as something bad. It was the right thing to do, and if people thought doing the right thing was a bad thing, I thought, well, maybe more of the problem is on you, not on me.

Frank Stoltze  17:46

Villanueva actually prevailed. And eventually the Sheriff ordered a smoking ban inside the jails. He was a man who wanted to change things. So he decided to get into politics. [pause] In 1992, he ran for city council in San Dimas, a community east of LA. He lost. But that was just a warmup. The next year, he ran for Sheriff. He told the LA Times that deputy morale was low, and he was the guy to fix it.

Frank Stoltze  18:15

Sheriff- that's pretty ballsy for you to even consider running, as a guy with eight years and 30, 33 you said? [AV: Mmm hmm.] [AV laughs] Do y-, I mean, do you have some awareness of how unusual that is?

Sheriff Villanueva  18:32

Oh, definitely unusual. But if, because we're talking about LA, but if you expand your pool to the rest of the nation, it happens all over the place.

Frank Stoltze  18:41

Sometimes I'm not sure Alex Villanueva is aware of just how out there his ideas are. A guy who has known Villanueva forever, Matt Rodriguez, told me something similar.

Matt Rodriguez  18:54

I go back to Alex Villanueva back to 1998. He and I were staff instructors at the Sheriff's Academy.

Frank Stoltze  19:00

Matt Rodriguez is a retired sheriff's captain. I interviewed him in January 2022, after a debate. Back then, he was running against Villanueva for sheriff. He ended up losing in the primary. So, take what he says with a grain of salt.

Matt Rodriguez  19:14

Well, you know, when we were sergeants, Alex Villanueva was a pretty rogue sergeant. And uh, you-

Frank Stoltze  19:20

What do you mean rogue?

Matt Rodriguez  19:21

Wait a minute. You, you cut loose your friend uh, for your own career?

Matt Rodriguez  19:21

He sent an email to the command staff, calling them morally bankrupt. Now, as a sergeant, you know, that's not probably the wisest career decision. It worked out for Alex, but it wasn't going to work out for me. So it was made very clear to me that if I wanted to have a career, and my three young children and my wife at the time that didn't work, wanted to have a career in the future, I probably should put some distance between Alex Villanueva and I, and I did that and had a successful career after.

Matt Rodriguez  19:34

Oh, why not? Yeah, I sure did. Because Alex was actually out of control. You don't send a uh, an email to the command staff calling them morally bankrupt when you're a sergeant. So yeah, you know what, I kinda had to look out for my family, Frank.

Frank Stoltze  20:01

So he's kind of had this streak in him all along. This uh, this streak of, of bucking the system, of fighting the establishment.

Matt Rodriguez  20:13

He calls it uh, speaking truth to power. But for, really, it's a very personal thing for him. He always had felt like he's the underdog or discriminated against and, you know, very, the first person uh, to claim racism and you know, that he was discriminated against because of his race. I'm Mexican American. He's uh, Puerto Rican. So you know, I couldn't support that any longer.

Frank Stoltze  20:34

In the year 2000, Villanueva was promoted to sergeant, but he had trouble making the next rank, lieutenant. He thought he knew why.

Sheriff Villanueva  20:43

I think as a Latino, I was supposed to have my hat in my hand and be thankful to have a job and, and be quiet. Y- you should not be contemplating anything about sergeant or lieutenant- if you get lucky.

Frank Stoltze  20:55

Villanueva spoke up loudly and frequently about the discrimination he believed he was facing. He wrote a letter to his command staff- the one Matt Rodriquez told me about. And while he didn't call them "morally bankrupt," he came pretty close. He said, "Deliberately attempting to suppress or retard the upward mobility of Latinos on our department is illegal, immoral, and politically incomprehensible." When he wrote his dissertation for a doctorate in public administration, it was on this very topic- that big law enforcement agencies didn't promote people of color. He also filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department. [music in] He said the lieutenant's exam was rigged, and that when he reported it to his superiors, they retaliated against him. And on that second point, he was vindicated. An investigation later found that the answers in fact were being given out and scores were being altered for favorite candidates. The man behind this scandal, Paul Tanaka, a man whose name would become notorious for his part in a jail violence cover up in just a few years.

Frank Stoltze  22:09

What was the takeaway from you, from that whole experience?

Sheriff Villanueva  22:13

That uh, you know, sadly, it was a wakeup call that that people are corrupt, and they will, they will um, alter and game any system they have control over to basically achieve their goals.

Frank Stoltze  22:27

At the time that Villanueva was suing the department, a man named Lee Baca was Sheriff. His right-hand man was a guy named Paul Tanaka. Remember the Lynwood Vikings deputy gang? Tanaka was a tattooed member. So, Villanueva told me Tanaka was the one keeping him down, preventing him from advancing, because it was Tanaka, who was rigging the lieutenant's exam. [music out]

Sheriff Villanueva  22:54

He wanted to run the entire department, have every single person loyal to him. So he was promoting people that were shy of being brain dead- They had a uh, an ethical dilemma. They had a bad uh, Internal Affairs case where they should have been fired or maybe got fired and got their job back. They always had something where because the department brought them back in the fold, they had to be loyal to the decision maker that brought him back. In this case, it was always Paul Tanaka, and that would rear its ugly head later on down the history of the department.

Frank Stoltze  23:26

That's after the break. [break]

Frank Stoltze  23:32

Around 2005 or so, when Tanaka started overseeing the jails, the ACLU started hearing terrible stories from inside. By this time, I was covering criminal justice for KPCC Public Radio, and I reported on this at the time. Here's Gordon Grbavac, who had been in jail.

Gordon Grbavac  23:50

I was taken, uh, I believe, to an attorney's room by two deputies. They handcuffed me, and they slammed my head into a glass wall over half a dozen times. There was blood on the glass, there was blood on the cement floor.

Frank Stoltze  24:08

Jail chaplains, a jail volunteer, and even a former deputy also have described beatings. Tom Parker, the former head of the FBI's LA office, examined the jails for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Tom Parker  24:21

I have never seen anything that approaches the level of violence that currently infects the Los Angeles County jail system.

Frank Stoltze  24:33

It's hard to overstate the sadistic nature of some of the brutality. Here's a recording from inside the jail.

Reporter  24:40

[audio from LA County jail] [sounds of a struggle, someone screams] It's video the LA County Sheriff's Department did not want you to see- Inmates screaming, dragged bleeding and unconscious from their cells in 2008. Good evening, I'm... [duck under]

Frank Stoltze  24:53

Deputies would create what they call extraction teams, and they would don metal helmets and football pads to drag people out of their cells. I don't think it's any coincidence that one of the co- founders of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Cullors, became an activist after her brother was beaten inside LA County Jail. Much of the violence was carried out by these two deputy gangs. They were the 2000 Boys and the 3000 Boys, and they wore matching tattoos. The numbers referred to the floors they walked inside Men's Central Jail. Sheriff Baca denied it all.

Lee Baca  25:30

I believe that uh, people in jail deserve to be respected, not for the crimes they've committed, but for the humanity that they have. And the objective of course, in me respecting the inmates, is to get them to turn their lives around and get into the programs that I'm providing them. [music in]

Frank Stoltze  25:50

By 2011, unbeknownst to Baca, the FBI had opened an investigation into the jails. They began using a man being held in jail as an informant and gave him a cell phone. Paul Tanaka found out, and he decided to hide the informant from the FBI, erasing his name from jail records and shuffling him around. And Sheriff Baca warned the FBI to stay out of his jails. But two years later... [music out]

News Anchor  26:19

[audio clip] Several former and current deputies with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department were just arrested as part of a major sting that targeted everything from corruption to inmate abuse.

Frank Stoltze  26:30

The FBI arrested 12 sheriff's deputies affiliated with the jail scandal. A few weeks later, Baca held a press conference.

Lee Baca  26:39

I'm not going to seek re-election for a fifth term as Sheriff, and I will retire at the end of this month. And I don't see myself as the future. I see myself as part of the past.

Frank Stoltze  26:55

Federal prosecutors later filed obstruction of justice charges against Baca and Tanaka.

Federal Prosecutor  27:01

No one is above the law. This is a fundamental principle in our society. And when it is violated, it's the job of the Department of Justice to step in and hold individuals accountable. And that is why we are here today.

Frank Stoltze  27:18

Both Baca and Tanaka went to prison. This was a department in a leadership crisis, where gangs of deputies were brutally beating people in jail, and where you got ahead not based on merit, but on a corrupt system of loyalty. And so, it was no surprise that in 2014, voters elected an outsider, the former Long Beach Police Chief, Jim McDonnell, as their next Sheriff. I reported on it at the time for KPCC.

Frank Stoltze  27:48

[KPCC audio clip] [applause and cheers] Tuesday night, sounding every bit the Irishman from Boston that he is, Jim McDonnell promised to restore trust in the six-pointed metal star that serves as the badge of LA County Sheriff's Deputies.

Jim McDonnell  28:00

[KPCC audio clip continues] We are all at a defining and historic moment for our Sheriff's Department. Working together we can move beyond past problems, rebuild the fractured relationship with our community, and usher in a new era for this great department.

Frank Stoltze  28:14

McDonnell promised to clean up the department. He instituted a harsher system of discipline and modelled it in part on the LAPD where he'd spent more than three decades. It was a shock to the rank and file, who didn't like the idea of an outsider in the first place. They said he was unfair. Deputies came to loathe McDonnell. So did Lieutenant Alex Villanueva, which I found surprising given how Villanueva had been affected personally by the corruption under Baca and Tanaka. Why wouldn't he support a guy who said he was here to clean it up?

Sheriff Villanueva  28:50

I had no love for McDonnell. I had, three times I had written to him, his chief of staff, that I wanted to interview for three positions, Captain-rank positions that I knew I was competitive, if not the most competitive for the job. And all three, they politely told me to basically pump sand. I couldn't even ever interview for the job.

Frank Stoltze  29:11

Talking to Villanueva, it seemed like his advancement and the reform of the department were inextricably tied together. At first, he couldn't get promoted under Baca and Tanaka. Now, they were in federal prison, and he was working for a new Sheriff, but his career was still stalling. So he quit and asked voters to give him a promotion to the top job.

Sheriff Villanueva  29:32

[announcement audio] [music in] ...I was already a tenured deputy. So was my wife. And we learned a lot through the process. And how the organization morphed into this... [duck under]

Frank Stoltze  29:41

On June 28, 2017, Villanueva made his announcement on the grass outside the East LA Sheriff's station. He's wearing a suit and a striped tie, and his salt and pepper hair is clipped to a tight buzz. He shifts back and forth on his feet, gesturing with one hand. The video was later posted on Facebook. It's nearly impossible to hear him over the wind.

Sheriff Villanueva  30:04

[announcement audio] And my intention as Sheriff is to wipe the slate clean by cleaning house first. You gotta get rid of corruption. You got to get rid of the mechanism with which corruption survives within your organization. That's not going to happen with the path McDonnell chose unfortunately. He had the opportunity to do it.

Frank Stoltze  30:24

30 seconds into his speech, whoever is filming suddenly switches the camera from horizontal to vertical. At this point, it's just Villanueva, his wife, and his nephew working on the campaign. It's amateur hour- a longshot bid for Sheriff that everybody thinks is going nowhere. And it was classic Alex Villanueva- the upstart, the underdog, Don Quixote. On the next episode of Imperfect Paradise, The Sheriff...

Audio Clip  30:55

[woman: I, Alex Villanueva...] [AV: I, Alex Villanueva...] [woman: During such times as I hold the office...] [AV: During such times as I hold the office...] [woman: the Sheriff...] [AV: the Sheriff...] [woman: of the county of Los Angeles...] [AV: the county of Los Angeles...]

Max Huntsman  31:08

Politicians are famous for not actually doing what they say they'll do. So you never really know until they sit in the chair, what kind of person they're going to be.

Frank Stoltze  31:17

That's next time on Imperfect Paradise.

Frank Stoltze  31:20

[music transitions to credits music] Imperfect Paradise is a production of LAist Studios. This episode was written and recorded 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. Mixing by E. Scott Kelly. Original music by J. Valle. 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 program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This podcast was made possible with support from the Committee for Greater LA in partnership with the Weingart Foundation. [music out]