Crime & Courts

Friends puzzled by trio accused of creating fake police force

Friends puzzled by trio accused of forming fake police department

The crowd erupted in applause as state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris prepared to speak at the Second Baptist Church in South Los Angeles about the late Martin Luther King Jr.

One of Harris' aides, Brandon Kiel – who was known as a savvy staffer with a bright future – proudly introduced his boss to the congregation.

"I'm deputy director for the attorney general of California," Kiel told the crowd, "and I have the best job in the world because my job is simply to serve."

The January 2014 event was captured on video posted to YouTube, and a photo on Harris' official Facebook page showed her with U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and one of the organizers, Minister Tonette Henry, whose actual name is Tonette Hayes.

Last week, Hayes, Kiel and a third person, David Henry, were arrested and each was later charged with impersonating a police officer in a bizarre case in which prosecutors say the three operated a bogus law enforcement agency called the Masonic Fraternal Police Department. Kiel is also charged with misusing his Department of Justice ID in connection with the rogue group that said it operated in 33 states and Mexico.

David Beltran, a state Department of Justice spokesman, said Kiel was placed on paid leave April 30 — the date he was arrested. He is paid $67,416 annually as deputy director of community affairs.

Harris has received regular briefings on the case since it began. "Our office has been cooperating with investigators from the beginning and will continue to do so," Beltran said.

Prosecutors say the police force was a ruse, though its purpose remains unclear. Kiel, Hayes and Henry have not responded to requests for comment.

Public records and interviews with those who dealt with them over the last few decades offer a glimpse into how a group of apparently civic-minded people seemed to establish a fictitious police department, complete with badges, uniforms and weapons.

Over the last 25 years, Henry has been a sporadic member of a South L.A.-based Masonic group called the Prince of Peace Lodge, according to the group's leader, 75-year-old Van Hibler.

Henry left the group in 2011 and launched his own lodge in Santa Clarita with Hayes, which they dubbed the Most Worshipful King David Masonic Prince Hall Grand Lodge, according to Hibler and public records.

Hibler said he kept in touch with Henry. In a phone call a few years ago, Hibler recalled lamenting the trash-talk among some current and former members, and said Henry made him an offer:

"He said, 'Grand, if you have that kind of problem, call me. I got my own police department,' " Hibler said.

Henry had told Hibler before that he wanted to create a police force — something along the lines of the Knights Templar Order that was formed during the First Crusade to protect Jerusalem.

"He wanted to take it into that area," Hibler said with a chuckle."I didn't see a reason for it."

It is unclear when the faux police department took shape. In 2010, Hayes and Henry created the Masonic Investigative Bureau to "investigate potential candidates for the Masonic Fraternal Order," according to filings with the secretary of state. Both were also state-licensed security guards, records show.

In the spring of 2013, records show, the duo's Masonic lodge added a new chief financial officer: Kiel, who was hired for Harris' office that summer.

At political and community events, the three became familiar faces: Hawthorne Mayor Chris Brown remembers meeting Hayes in 2013 at a free haircut event at a local barbershop. At the event — which Kiel and Henry also attended — Hayes introduced herself as a minister. Either Hayes or Henry appear in photographs with Waters, Harris and former Assemblyman Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles).

Patrisse Cullors, a civil rights activist and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said she first met Kiel at a League of Women's Voters event at which he mentioned his work for the attorney general.

"He was super clean-cut and seemed really legit," she said.

Kiel later introduced her to Henry and Hayes, who was wearing a priest's collar.

Hayes and Henry described themselves as Freemasons but did not offer more specifics, Cullors said. Both would later stand alongside Cullors at a downtown news conference denouncing violence in L.A. County jails. But Cullors said she stopped associating with them last summer.

"Things got really odd," Cullors said. "It wasn't clear what was happening with them."

In November 2014, a site that claimed to be the Masonic Fraternal Police Department's official website was registered. In late January, the group mailed letters to police chiefs across California announcing Henry's role as the head of their police force.

Appearing at a restaurant in Santa Clarita and a march in Pasadena in recent months, Hayes and Henry wore crisp, pleated uniforms with stars pinned to the collars and official badges, according to witnesses and photos on social media.

Henry told a server at the restaurant that he could pull over drivers and issue tickets "like a normal cop can," according to some of the restaurant's employees.

At a meeting in Santa Clarita in February with sheriff's Capt. Roosevelt Johnson, Hayes and Henry wore their uniforms, but Kiel — who sometimes sported a Masonic pin on his lapel — wore a navy blue suit.

That a rising political star like Kiel may have become tangled up in the group has stunned longtime friends like Dallas Fowler, a member of the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women who attended college with Kiel in Florida.

"He was always focused, always on the job," said Fowler, recalling that their last conversation was regarding a training session that Harris' office was organizing. "He had to have truly believed what he was doing, or was misled in some way."

joseph.serna@latimes.com

javier.panzar@latimes.com

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

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