‘Gang-like’ deputy clique exerts ‘undue influence’ at East L.A. station, report says

Sheriff Alex Villanueva, behind a podium, speaks to the media on Sept. 30. in downtown L.A.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, with Homicide Bureau Captain Kent A. Wegener, speaks at a recent news conference.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County’s top watchdog says in a report released Monday that substantial evidence exists that a secretive group of tattooed deputies at the East L.A. sheriff’s station are “gang-like and their influence has resulted in favoritism, sexism, racism and violence.”

In the 32-page report probing activities of the Banditos clique, Inspector General Max Huntsman says Sheriff Alex Villanueva “continues to promote a code of silence regarding these sub-groups” which have plagued the agency for decades.

The inspector general’s report is largely centered around the Sheriff’s Department’s criminal investigation of a fight in 2018 at an off-duty party at Kennedy Hall, an event space near the station, where several deputies said they were attacked by members of the clique. The Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau interviewed dozens of deputies but, according to the report, “almost completely ignored” evidence of the Banditos’ role in the events.


“Minimal questions were asked about the Banditos and in the interviews during which the witnesses brought up the Banditos by name, very few follow-up questions were asked,” the report says, adding that 23 witnesses declined to give interviews. The report also criticized the failure of prosecutors to scrutinize the Banditos in their review of the case.

The L.A. County district attorney’s office in February declined to file charges against a sergeant and three deputies involved in the off-duty brawl, saying there was “insufficient evidence” that they committed battery or any other crimes.

“Having received what appears to be a purposefully perfunctory investigation by ICIB (which did not gather evidence of the motive behind the alleged assault at Kennedy Hall), the Los Angeles district attorney’s office did not request statements be taken from the uncooperative witnesses or empanel a grand jury to compel statements,” the IG’s report says.

Villanueva has fired back against criticism of his handling of deputy cliques. On Monday, he called Huntsman’s actions “purely politically driven and an attempt to undermine the reputation” of the department.

“The report alleges investigators did not conduct a thorough investigation into the Kennedy Hall deputy-on-deputy fight. This is false,” Villanueva said. “Both criminal and administrative investigations were conducted where investigators interviewed over 70 involved parties and witnesses in the case.”

He said he shook up the leadership at the East L.A. station and transferred 36 people early in his tenure and, more recently, moved to discipline 26 employees for misconduct related to the Kennedy Hall incident.


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 have left the station since January, and that the departures were voluntary, some because of promotions.

Some of the employees who received disciplinary letters were the alleged assault victims, who faced punishment for actions that included failing to report the Kennedy Hall incident to their superiors, their attorney Vincent Miller said. He said they reported the incident right away to a lieutenant they trusted. The Times has reported that only three deputies of the 26 employees were facing termination.

“This announcement of an exaggerated number of 26 Banditos being disciplined is consistent with past false statements that have been made by you and your office about your handling of the deputy gang problem,” Miller wrote to Villanueva last month in a letter obtained by The Times.

The administrative investigation conducted by the Sheriff’s Department found that some employees at the station were acting as so-called shot callers, controlling scheduling and events at the station, Cmdr. April Tardy has said, using a term often used to describe top leaders in prisons and gangs.

Several members of a watchdog agency have called on Sheriff Alex Villanueva to resign, marking a further escalation of tensions between the sheriff and his overseers.

Sept. 17, 2020

Villanueva also has said he has implemented — and is vigorously enforcing — a new policy that prohibits membership in illicit groups. Investigators will ask deputies accused of misconduct about their membership in deputy cliques such as the Banditos, he said.

The inspector general’s report echoes some of the department’s findings, pointing to evidence that a group of veteran deputies with ties to the clique have “undue influence over the daily activities and assignments” at the station. Some younger deputies allege that the group has used its influence, and sometimes force and violence, to push deputies out of the station for “failing to live up to the Banditos’ work ethic,” the report says.

In a lawsuit filed against the county last year, eight deputies alleged that they were routinely harassed by the clique, denied backup on dangerous calls, pressured to quit or leave the station and overloaded with calls at the end of their shifts, among other complaints.

The IG’s report recommends that the Sheriff’s Department thoroughly investigate internal criminal allegations and compel statements from all witness deputies who do not invoke their right against self-incrimination.