When Alex Villanueva appeared onstage in December to be sworn in as Los Angeles County sheriff, his son was standing nearby cheering him on.
Now, 33-year-old Johannes Jared Villanueva is working for the department as a deputy sheriff trainee, on track to graduate from the academy in November.
The son, an Army veteran, was hired in June despite a record that department watchdogs said would generate scrutiny. It comes as the sheriff is facing questions about other hiring decisions.
In 2009 and 2010, the younger Villanueva was the subject of two bench warrants for failing to comply with a court-ordered treatment program tied to his 2009 conviction of a misdemeanor DUI in San Diego County, resulting in an extension of his probation until 2015, according to court files.
His Instagram account has included a post making light of the Holocaust.
Those in law enforcement said this record would not necessarily prohibit Johannes Jared Villanueva from becoming a deputy, but would likely have drawn scrutiny from evaluators.
No Sheriff’s Department policies prohibit family members from working in the same agency, but guidelines state that supervisors should not directly manage their relatives, said department spokeswoman Elizabeth Espinosa. Candidates are generally eliminated if they have misdemeanor convictions of violent crimes or sex crimes, but lesser misdemeanors are not necessarily disqualifying, she said.
Johannes Jared Villanueva applied to become a deputy last July, when Jim McDonnell was sheriff and Alex Villanueva was running against him. The younger Villaneuva was assigned a background investigator last August. After Alex Villanueva won the election and took office, his son was cleared to be hired in March and entered the academy in June, according to a department statement sent by Capt. Michael Hannemann.
It’s unclear what role, if any, Villanueva played in his son’s hiring.
“He met all of the standards for the position of deputy sheriff, which has not changed because of the change in administrations,” the department’s statement said. “He was not provided any preferential treatment at any point in his hiring process. In fact, he was required to report to a background investigator at a location over 100 miles away from his residence, during his background process.”
Johannes Jared Villanueva said Thursday that he could not speak about any aspect of his hiring and directed all queries to the Sheriff’s Department. Minutes after he received a call and text messages from a Times reporter, his Instagram account, which had been public, was made private.
Alex Villanueva won an upset victory against McDonnell in November’s election. A longtime sheriff’s lieutenant, he railed against what he said was rampant cronyism and favoritism in the department, arguing he would end a system that allowed corrupt leaders to place their loyalists in key positions and block his own advancement.
J.P. Harris, a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission who retired as a lieutenant after 35 years in the Sheriff’s Department, said it was common and even encouraged for family members to serve in the same agency in law enforcement. But he said those in government hiring positions should not play any role in job offers for their relatives, even if there are no explicit rules against the practice.
“The sheriff has ultimate authority over the hiring process,” he said. It’s important that police leaders avoid having their relatives apply for jobs in the same organization because “you want to make sure your background investigators can do their jobs without any fear of repercussions for what they uncover.”
Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who focuses on ethics, agreed there is a long tradition of children following their parents into law enforcement.
“The question whenever someone hires a relative or family friend is, would that person have gotten the job anyway? If you changed the name on the resume, would that person have otherwise been qualified?” Levinson said.
Johannes Jared Villanueva’s entrance into the department academy comes at a time when his father’s hiring judgment is under scrutiny. Soon after taking office, Alex Villanueva brought back a deputy fired for violating department policies regarding domestic violence and dishonesty and who had worked on his campaign. The move sparked legal action against Villanueva by the county, which says the reinstatement was unlawful.
A former high-ranking sheriff’s official recently said under oath that she chose to quit rather than carry out what she said was a “highly unethical” directive of Villanueva’s to reinstate the deputy, Caren Carl Mandoyan, before the new sheriff was even sworn in, according to deposition testimony filed in court on Wednesday. Villaneuva’s former second-in-command, Ray Leyva, also said in a deposition that none of the sheriff’s top advisors agreed with Villanueva’s decision to return Mandoyan to duty.
The younger Villanueva started his career in the Army, serving as a tracked vehicle mechanic from 2003 to 2007 when he was in his late teens and early 20s, according to Army public affairs officer William Sharp. The sheriff has said his son served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
After being arrested and convicted of driving under the influence on a state highway in San Diego County in June 2009, he was ordered to attend a first-offender program. Two bench warrants were issued for him, one in October 2009 and another in November 2010, for failing to comply with the program, court records show.
The records do not indicate whether he completed the program.
As of last year, Johannes Jared Villanueva, who was based in Murrieta, owned and operated a pool services company called Liquid Logic Pools.
On Aug. 21, 2017, Johannes Jared Villanueva posted on his Instagram account a meme picturing a man in a deep slumber with the caption, “Did you sleep well?” and a response that says, “Like God during the Holocaust.”
Brian Levin, a former police officer who now serves as director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said the post could be interpreted in different ways.
“The first way is that God doesn’t care about Jews and is content with them being exterminated, and that’s an incredibly hurtful post. But the point could also be that God doesn’t exist, which is a legitimate point of debate, but not through something so crude and hurtful as diminishing the suffering and lessons of the Holocaust,” he said, adding that officers have an added responsibility to be judicious in their social media posts.
The agency has accepted candidates with questionable histories in the past, notably when the department absorbed about 280 officers from the now-shuttered county Office of Public Safety in 2010. A Times investigation showed most of those officers had been rejected by other police departments and nearly 100 of them had been disciplined for serious wrongdoing.
Former Sheriff Lee Baca was criticized for hiring his nephew as a deputy through a controversial program known as “Friends of the Sheriff.” The nephew was brought on during a hiring freeze for rookie deputies.
At the same time, family members serving alongside one another is a familiar sight in the Sheriff’s Department and throughout law enforcement, sometimes spanning generations. Former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck was newly appointed when his son, Martin, became an officer in the agency in 2009. Beck, whose father and sister had served the LAPD, also had a daughter on the force while he was chief.
“The difference is the individuals who were hired have to make it on their own and go through the kind of training and assessment that ensures that they would be an asset to the agency,” said Lael Rubin, an oversight commissioner and former prosecutor. “Overall, the posts [by Villanueva’s son] raise a question as to the fitness of somebody to be a deputy in the Sheriff’s Department.”
Alex Villanueva has also vowed to fix a chronic deputy shortage in the department by the end of next year. He says he’s doing it by overhauling a slow hiring process and simplifying background checks to make sure that qualified applicants aren’t unduly rejected.
Villanueva says he and his staff have picked apart every aspect of the background process for applicants, including the medical and physical agility tests, the oral interview and the polygraph exams. He said in particular the polygraph procedure has been pared down.
“They were unnecessarily eliminating applicants because they were getting a positive [polygraph result] on domestic violence or some type of misconduct, and they weren’t doing further study and realizing that person lived in a home where there was domestic violence, or was a victim themselves of sexual abuse of some kind, or child abuse as a kid, and it would register on the polygraph,” Villanueva told The Times in May.
He said instead of rejecting an applicant based on a questionable polygraph, it’s now up to background investigators to dig further and determine whether the applicant should be disqualified.
“We’re recruiting from our communities, particularly Compton and East L.A., low socioeconomic places where people grow up in a lot of adversity.... We’re losing them unnecessarily,” he said.
Capt. John McBride, who heads the department’s personnel administration bureau, says the hiring process took 11 to 13 months under previous administrations. The process now takes seven to nine months, with the goal of reducing it to three months.
Villanueva’s nephew was also recently hired as a student worker focusing on social media in the Sheriff’s Information Bureau. The nephew, Jason Lopez, worked on social media for Villanueva’s campaign. Undersheriff Tim Murakami’s son-in-law, Anthony Chavez, is also training to become a deputy in the same academy class as Villanueva’s son, a department spokesman confirmed.
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.