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Sheriff’s deputies sue county, accusing Banditos colleagues of beatings, withholding backup

Several sheriff’s deputies working at the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station say they were harassed by former colleagues.
Several sheriff’s deputies working at the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station say they were harassed by former colleagues.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The Banditos walked around the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station handing trainees empty envelopes with a request: By the end of the day, fill them with money.

They’d sometimes get up to $2,000 at a time, so-called “taxes” they’d later use for a vacation to Thailand and other personal expenses.

The allegations are included in a lawsuit filed against Los Angeles County this week by eight Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who say they were routinely harassed by the Banditos, a clique of predominantly Latino deputies who wear tattoos of a skeleton with a sombrero, bandoleer and pistol. Its members’ monikers include “the Godfather,” “Big Listo” and “Bam Bam,” according to the lawsuit.

Members of the group are accused of repeatedly denying backup to the plaintiff deputies on dangerous calls, pressuring them to quit or leave the station, sending hostile messages on work computers, overloading them with calls at the end of their shifts and denying them overtime, going back to 2016.

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In one September 2018 incident, two deputies were knocked unconscious at a department party, the lawsuit says. A few months later, it alleges, the Banditos secretly removed ammunition from another deputy’s shotgun.

“They’ve had this problem literally for decades — they’re admitting it now,” said Vincent Miller, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “They were allowed to get away with what they were doing.”

For decades, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has been under pressure to break up tattooed gangs of deputies accused of misconduct.

The lawsuit comes as the FBI is investigating the Banditos along with similar gang-like groups elsewhere within the Sheriff’s Department, The Times has reported. In interviews with several deputies, FBI agents have asked about the inner workings of the Banditos and the group’s hierarchy, sources have said.

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The Sheriff’s Department did not return a request for comment on Thursday. In the past, it has said it would not tolerate any form of hazing or harassment within the organization.

But the lawsuit says that a former high-ranking veteran of the Sheriff’s Department told the agency’s Civilian Oversight Commission that 15-20% of deputies are members of a clique. The county Office of Inspector General is seeking subpoena power — a legal mechanism that would allow the office to compel information from the Sheriff’s Department related to these secret societies of deputies at several stations who wear matching tattoos.

The groups have been accused of committing abuses against jail inmates, fellow deputies and while on patrol. Some deputies, though, have defended the societies and the tattoos they share simply as a show of camaraderie and a way to boost morale.

The Banditos are accused by other deputies of using gang-like tactics to recruit young Latino deputies into their fold and retaliating against those who rebuff them.

Some deputies reported the alleged misconduct. The tension at the East L.A. station boiled over in September 2018 at a department party at Kennedy Hall, an event space near the station, to celebrate the end of training for new deputies. Alex Villanueva, who would be sworn in that December as Los Angeles County sheriff, was in attendance, the lawsuit says.

Several Banditos members showed up to the party with a plan to beat up Alfred Gonzalez, one of the deputies who filed the lawsuit, who had begun training at the station in May 2017, the lawsuit alleges. They approached Gonzalez and told him he didn’t belong at the station, the document says.

Later, as the party wound down in the early morning hours, they approached Gonzalez in the parking lot, at one point threatening his family, the lawsuit says.

“If I can’t do it directly, I can find someone who can,” the lawsuit quotes one of the alleged Banditos members, Sgt. Michael Hernandez, as saying.

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Other deputies tried to intervene. One, plaintiff Art Hernandez, was reportedly knocked to the ground and punched multiple times in the face. When he got up, he was knocked unconscious. Another was strangled and lost consciousness. Both were later hospitalized.

During the attack, dozens of deputies stood around and watched and some cheered, the lawsuit says. Miller said Villanueva had left before the attack took place.

“The fact that none of the deputies at the party called the cops (themselves) on the Banditos was very revealing about how deeply ingrained the corrupt gang culture and hostile work environment is,” the lawsuit says. “There is no question they could have been killed.”

Later that day, Hernandez was pressured by a lieutenant to lie and say the attacks were “just some isolated drunken two-way fight that got out of hand,” the lawsuit says.

Deputy Rafael Munoz, also known as Big Listo, reportedly bragged that Villanueva, whom he described as his friend and former training officer, had his back and would make sure he and other Banditos were not prosecuted, the lawsuit alleges.

Following the fight, three deputies and a sergeant were placed on paid administrative leave as part of an internal investigation into the incident, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said at the time. The men named in the lawsuit could not immediately be reached for comment.

The sheriff has said that he transferred from the station 36 people who were associated with the Banditos or were otherwise identified as problematic.

But Capt. Ernie Chavez, whom Villanueva said he brought in to quell the Banditos situation, has told The Times that the 36 transfers simply reflect the general group of deputies who left the station since January and that the departures were voluntary, some because of promotions. He said he did not know how many people allegedly tied to the Banditos were transferred.

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Miller said the problem still persists. The key to solving it, he said, is ending the abuse of trainees, which he said is the No. 1 vehicle for gangs to recruit new members.

“Of all the demands we’re making, the No. 1 thing is to end the abuse of trainees at the Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

Times staff writers Maya Lau and Joel Rubin contributed to this report.


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