The story behind the L.A. sheriff gun permit investigation

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks at a news conference in November.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Sept. 19. I’m Ben Poston writing from the unseasonably cool San Fernando Valley.

My intrepid colleague Alene Tchekmedyian came to me earlier this year with an intriguing question: How many people who received permits to carry guns in public from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also donated money to Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s reelection campaign?

She had been hearing from sources that some applicants seeking weapons permits also gave money to the sheriff in an attempt to get preferential treatment.


The tip came amid a frenzied atmosphere Villanueva created around the permits, which are called licenses to carry concealed weapons, or CCWs. Villanueva has repeatedly touted his efforts to increase the number of legal gun carriers. The number of people issued permits to carry weapons was 18 times higher this spring compared with 2020.

I got to work matching several years of grainy PDF lists of concealed weapon permits approved and denied by the department to a spreadsheet of county campaign donations to the sheriff and found dozens of matches. We reached out to those people to ask if their donations had any bearing on their applications. We also later obtained redacted applications and many of them left us scratching our heads.

One of the donors said he needed a weapon because he and his boss “hike to remote areas like in the high mountains to meditate with nature where there is no law enforcement readily available.” The donor received his permit in a month, much more quickly than the average wait time cited by the sheriff.

Another applicant cited a climate of “hatred towards law enforcement officers” and claimed she was in danger because she was married to one. Two months after being granted her permit in October, she donated to Villanueva’s campaign and, earlier this year, helped host a fundraiser for him.

After months of interviews, records requests and data analysis, our investigation published last week revealed that among the several thousand people who received permits under Villanueva were at least 50 donors to his election campaigns and others with special links to him. They often gave questionable reasons for needing to be armed, received their permits more quickly than the average wait or were assisted by two deputies who worked directly for Villanueva.

As we were finishing the story, Alene got another juicy tip that checked out. Those two deputies, along with others with ties to the sheriff, have since come under suspicion of wrongdoing.


Earlier this month, the Sheriff’s Department announced it was conducting a criminal investigation into “irregularities discovered in the CCW application process” that it described as a “possible long-term scheme to defraud” county residents and “weapon law violations.” The two deputies, Gisel Del Real and Carrie Robles, were relieved of duty.

Gisel Del Real
Deputy Gisel Del Real, who worked directly for Sheriff Alex Villanueva, assisted people seeking permits to carry weapons.
(Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Yearbook)
Carrie Robles
Deputy Carrie Robles also worked directly for Sheriff Villanueva and assisted people seeking permits to carry weapons.
(Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Yearbook)

Although the department said in a statement that Villanueva was “disappointed at the alleged conduct this investigation uncovered,” the owner of a gun shop that was raided as part of the investigation recently held a fundraiser for the sheriff’s reelection campaign, which Villanueva attended.

It was one of several events at which Villanueva has appeared with people now under investigation. A campaign spokesperson said Villanueva did not know the gun shop owner was under investigation when he attended the fundraiser last month.

To report the story, we analyzed gun permit applications submitted before the U.S. Supreme Court rewrote the rules regarding permits when it decided in June that Americans do not need to have a reason for wanting to be armed in public. Because the Sheriff’s Department refused to provide us with copies of every permit application, it was tough to determine whether people connected to the sheriff were treated differently from others who applied.

With some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, California has long required gun owners to have “good cause” to carry weapons in public. To clear that bar, permit applicants had to convince their local police department or county sheriff’s department that there was a credible threat to their safety or they had some other legitimate reason.

But in June, the Supreme Court found that New York’s “proper cause” restriction — akin to California’s good cause requirement — is unconstitutional because “it prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms.”

Shortly after the ruling, Villanueva announced that county residents would no longer be required to give a reason when applying for permits. He speculated that 50,000 people in L.A. County could eventually receive permission to arm themselves in public.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department said that campaign donations have “no bearing on the issuance” of a weapon permit. “Over 3,400 people have donated to Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s reelection campaign, and it stands to reason some may have also applied for a CCW,” Lt. Oscar Martinez wrote in an email late last month.

L.A. County Sheriff’s Sgt. Nikolai Vavakin, who was transferred to the permit unit in January as a supervisor, said some people have mentioned their donations to the sheriff when they call to ask about the status of their application, Vavakin said. He has responded by telling them their place in line.

“Obviously, they weren’t happy,” he said. “But most people were very polite.” Los Angeles Times

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Reita Green, left, and Beverly Pate hang wallpaper at a client's home in Newhall in August
Reita Green, left, and Beverly Pate hang wallpaper at a client’s home in Newhall.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Reita Green the Wallpaper Queen has been running her own wallpapering business for 60 years. But a few years ago, she had to accept that eventually she might need some help. In 2020 she met Beverly Pate — a woman 58 years her junior, who exudes patience, kindness and a can-do attitude. Within months Pate had become Green’s partner in wallpapering, her protege and — most important — her best friend. (I’m not crying. You’re crying). Los Angeles Times

A triathlete training in Malibu was bitten by an animal believed to be a seal. The athlete, Vasco Vilaca, was not seriously injured in the encounter off Zuma Beach, according to a post Friday by Super League Triathlon. At some point a wave pushed the animal against him, so he pushed the animal away more aggressively, which he believes scared the creature and caused it to bite, Vilaca said. He also sustained cuts on his hand while grabbing the animal’s mouth to try to pry himself loose after it wouldn’t let go. Los Angeles Times.

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“Need an abortion? California is here to help.” That’s the message on one billboard paid for by Gov. Gavin Newsom after congressional Republicans announced a new effort to limit abortion access nationwide. Newsom has planted 18 billboards in seven states with some of the nation’s most restrictive laws. In Texas, the message is more specific: “Texas doesn’t own your body. You do.” The $100,000 campaign was paid for from Newsom’s reelection campaign and invites people to visit California’s new website that offers help securing an abortion, San Francisco Chronicle

Newsom has agreed to a gubernatorial debate. No one is more surprised than his Republican challenger. Newsom can use his mega-soapbox as governor to command media attention or he can dip into the nearly $5.7 million from his campaign account to spread his message. But his opponent, state Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber), has nothing to lose. With about $300,000 in his campaign coffers at last tally, a debate offers the Northern California farmer a chance to boost his name recognition and make his case to a larger audience than he can turn out on his own. Los Angeles Times


LAPD officers shot and killed a South L.A. man who brandished a toy rifle on his porch. The young man had called police for help during a dispute with his family Saturday afternoon. Grieving father Vicente Herrera said his son Luis opened the door holding a black airsoft rifle after officers arrived. “I shouted, ‘That’s a fake gun, it’s a fake gun, don’t shoot him.’ But they shot him six times,” Herrera said. “They never told him, ‘Put the weapon down’ or nothing.” Los Angeles Times

Despite a questionable medical furlough, the mastermind of a Navy corruption scandal managed to avoid jail. Two weeks ago, Leonard Francis cut off a GPS ankle bracelet he had worn since 2018, and went on the run. Francis — who allegedly defrauded taxpayers out of millions of dollars — continued to avoid federal lockup under an unusual medical furlough, living at times palatially under house arrest with his own paid security until Sept. 4. The history of his unusual medical furlough has become more relevant in the aftermath of a trial of four Navy officers recently convicted of accepting bribes. San Diego Union-Tribune

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A Southern California Mountain yellow-legged frog before it is released into a creek in the San Gabriel Mountains.
A Southern California mountain yellow-legged frog. The species thrived for thousands of years in streams running down the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The yellow-legged frog thrived for thousands of years in streams across Southern California’s mountains. Today, federal biologists say about 200 yellow-legged frogs are barely hanging on in isolated wild populations along a handful of hard-to-reach streams. U.S. Geological Survey biologists recently released another 200 of the frogs, effectively doubling the population. Whether they spur future generations in the Angeles National Forest remains to be seen. Los Angeles Times

The Bay Area tends to use less water per capita than Southern California. But the region can learn a lot from the Southland. Although still wasting a lot of water despite historic drought, Los Angeles and San Diego have worked to diversify their supplies. By contrast, the Bay Area’s water agencies often rely almost entirely on runoff from rain and snow, making communities particularly vulnerable to dry spells. “The Bay Area could learn some stuff from Southern California,” said Felicia Marcus, former chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “I know they don’t like to think that.” San Francisco Chronicle

Recent data from the L.A. County Department of Public Health have been encouraging. They’ve reported much smaller daily coronavirus infection numbers. But more than a dozen people are still dying each day in the county — and the daily COVID-19 death toll remains in the hundreds nationwide. At that rate, COVID still represents one of the biggest causes of death in the U.S., even as officials trumpet the availability of vaccines and treatments. Los Angeles Times


Margherita Galicia unpacks boxes of tortillas in the storefront of La Gloria Mexican Foods.
(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Going behind-the-scenes at Tito’s Tacos. On a slow day, Tito’s Tacos serves about 3,000 to 5,000 crunchy tacos. On a busy day, they fry up around 8,000 of those sweet, sweet tortillas. Filled with shredded beef, iceberg lettuce and brimming with cheddar cheese, the tacos are the top seller. Food columnist Jenn Harris recently visited for an exclusive look at how Tito’s makes its fried tacos and so much more. Los Angeles Times

Table for one? Don’t sweat it, we all do it. If you’re traveling for work or just sightseeing in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle has you covered with its guide of best restaurants for solo dining. “When you’re alone, there’s not much to separate you from the sensorial pleasures of eating,” writes Soleil Ho. “Undistracted, you sit, whether at a bar or a small table, taking in the sounds of the room and the particular textures of a dish.” San Francisco Chronicle

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Los Angeles: 79, sunny. San Diego: 75, sunny. San Francisco: 72, rainy. San Jose: 76, partly cloudy. Fresno: 75, rainy. Sacramento: 72, rainy.


Today’s California memory is from Fred Ryan:

I moved from Michigan to California in October 1978. I can remember my excitement when arriving via I-10 at night and seeing all the magnificent lights as I wound my way down to the ocean. From listening to “California Dreaming” in my teens, California has always appealed to me ... and it has delivered! I’m in my 70s now and have had a successful business career plus a fun and interesting personal life. I live on the Venice canals and still love living the California dream after 50-plus years here.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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