They call themselves the Regulators.
They wear tattoos of a skull-faced man holding a shotgun, fire screaming from its barrels. They refuse to testify against their buddies. They've been accused of extorting and intimidating those outside their ranks.
No, they're not members of a street gang. They're Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies at the Century station in Lynwood. And their "club" is part of a culture that's dogged the nation's largest sheriff's department for years.
A decade after the county paid $9 million to resolve a series of brutality lawsuits involving a different group of Lynwood deputies known as the Vikings, the Regulators are the focus of litigation alleging racism in the department and involving accusations that a group of deputies is behaving like a gang.
This time the lawsuit was filed by a deputy, Angel Jaimes, a Regulators member who alleges that black administrators in the department unfairly stalled his career by referring to him and other Latino deputies as the Mexican Mafia, a notorious prison gang.
Jaimes, a beefy 43-year-old who joined the department in 1989, said the Regulators are nothing more than a close-knit group of deputies, not exclusively Latinos, who support one another and promote aggressive, ethical policing that keeps communities safe. Only deputies who work hard and follow policy are encouraged to join, Jaimes said.
"It's like the all-stars of a baseball team. You get the best," he said.
Jaimes would not disclose how many deputies belong to the group, but he says he was the 63rd to join when he signed up years ago. They don't all still work at the Century station, which is staffed by more than 100 deputies.
Allegations of misconduct by Regulators have simmered for more than four years. Anonymous letters, purportedly drafted by deputies not in the group, have accused members of extorting money from other deputies, acting like gang members and heavily influencing shift scheduling and administration at the Century station. But no allegations have been proved, Sheriff's Department officials say.
Concern about the Regulators is reminiscent of one of the department's darkest chapters: allegations in the early 1990s that Lynwood station deputies -- many of them members of a group dubbed the Vikings -- brutalized minorities, falsely arrested suspects and engaged in wrongful shootings.
A federal judge referred to the Vikings as a "neo-Nazi white supremacist gang," and the county agreed as part of a 1996 settlement to spend $1.5 million retraining deputies to prevent such abuses and $7.5 million to compensate victims of alleged abuses by Lynwood deputies.
Since then, Sheriff Lee Baca has tried unsuccessfully to discourage deputies from forming cliques. But the club culture is deeply rooted in the department, and clubs exist at virtually every station, officials say. Even one of Baca's top managers, Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka, got a Vikings tattoo while assigned to the Lynwood station in the 1980s. Tanaka has said that the tattoos are harmless and that he didn't know of any inappropriate behavior by deputies who had them.
Baca declined to comment for this report, citing concerns about interfering with the pending lawsuit. But his office issued a statement that said he opposes "any clique, organization or club that does not embrace the core values of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department."
In 2003, the first of two anonymous letters was sent to Sheriff's Department executives about the Regulators. The letter referred to the group as the Mexican Mafia and accused Jaimes and another member of "strong-arming" deputies to contribute money for deputies in need.
"They don't ask for a contribution, rather they demand and enforce the payment of a set price," according to the letter, which was signed by "a concerned deputy." A second letter, mailed in 2004, said, "Something has to be done immediately, maybe a cleaning of the station to get rid of the gang mentality of the Mexican Mafia."
Members of the Regulators acknowledge that they raise money for deputies in need, including some who have been suspended without pay for violating department policy. But they deny ever pressuring fellow deputies to contribute.
Jaimes' lawsuit, which seeks to overturn his 2004 transfer from the Century station, has led to allegations of racial tension within the department and has shed new light on the culture of groups like the Regulators.
One of Jaimes' potential witnesses is Lt. Terri Williams , who has testified previously that two black Sheriff's Department executives told her they were concerned that Century station "was run by Mexicans and they were going to change that."
But many of the group's activities and members remain cloaked in secrecy. Deputy James Grubb, a longtime member of the Regulators, refused under questioning from Los Angeles County attorneys to confirm whether some deputies were members of the group.
"You want me to talk to you about somebody else that may not want their business known. I can't do that for you," Grubb said while under oath in a deposition for Jaimes' lawsuit. "It's not up to me to bring somebody else out."
Grubb would not answer many questions from Christy L. O'Donnell, a lawyer representing the county in the lawsuit:
"Are you the leader of the Regulators?"
"There's no such thing as the leader," Grubb replied.
"How do decisions get made, then, by the Regulators?"
"I won't discuss that. It's not something that's public knowledge," Grubb said.
"You do understand, though, that when you refuse to answer questions . . . it has the negative inference of the code of silence?"
"As does a lot of things in general life," Grubb said.
Grubb confirmed that deceased Deputy Jerry Ortiz, slain by a gang member in 2005, was once a member of the Regulators. Grubb said he drove Ortiz to a Huntington Beach tattoo shop to get his Regulators tattoo in 2000 or 2001.
Ortiz's killer, Jose Luis Orozco, was sentenced to death in May. In a recent interview, defense attorney Stan Perlo said he was unaware of Ortiz's membership in the Regulators. Had he known about it, he might have presented it as evidence during the penalty phase of the trial, which focused largely on Ortiz's character and Orozco's history of gang membership.
Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Lowell Anger, who prosecuted the case, also said he didn't know Ortiz was once a Regulators member.
Perlo said the Sheriff's Department should have told prosecutors about Ortiz's membership in the Regulators. He said it could become an issue in his client's appeal.
Baca said he did not consider the issue relevant.
"The murderer was convicted of his cowardly act of gunning down a deputy sheriff in cold blood. Justice was most assuredly served," Baca said.
Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the sheriff's Office of Independent Review, which monitors internal affairs investigations, said he was concerned that groups like the Regulators hurt morale and divide deputies.
He said that the name itself, the Regulators, is a cause for concern. In jail culture, regulators are inmates who control other inmates' behavior.
In 1994, rapper Warren G's hit single "Regulate," began: "Regulators we regulate any stealing of his property and we damn good too. But you can't be any geek off the street. Gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean."
"The name and connotation and symbol they have selected can cause sinister perceptions, even if in reality nothing sinister is going on," Gennaco said.
Jaimes said Regulators' members have done nothing inappropriate. No deputy has ever been disciplined for activity related to the group, he said. Rather, he said, department administrators wronged him by referring to the group as the Mexican Mafia, a gang implicated in murders, drug dealing and extortion.
"Everybody in the Sheriff's Department knows the name Mexican Mafia, because we work the jails," he said. "You're talking to a Mexican Mafia expert. I testified against the Mexican Mafia. So having them call me this hurts me."
Sheriff's Sgt. Arthur Scott, one of Jaimes' former supervisors, testified at a deposition in the lawsuit that he once saw Latino deputies gathered in a room at the Century station and said, "This looks like a meeting of the Mexican Mafia." Scott said he made the statement "in a joking fashion."
It was a confrontation with Scott that ultimately led Jaimes to sue the department that has employed him for 18 years. Jaimes said he confronted Scott at a briefing and used profanity while criticizing the sergeant's management style and for failing to apologize for using the Mexican Mafia term.
As a result of that incident, Jaimes was suspended for 25 days and transferred out of the Century station. His lawsuit against the department seeks to overturn the discipline and the transfer. A hearing on the county's efforts to have the lawsuit dismissed is scheduled for Monday.