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‘This is getting stupid.’ How the quest to build a helipad next to Sheriff Villanueva’s home turned ugly

When aides to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva wanted to build a helicopter landing pad near the sheriff’s home, they sought help from a familiar face.

J. Isaac Gonzalez, a former sheriff’s deputy, now works for the parent company of the Southern California Gas Co. The utility owns a plot of land on a hill above Villanueva’s La Habra Heights house that sheriff’s officials decided was a suitable spot for a helicopter to land in an emergency.

“Sounds easy,” Gonzalez texted to a Sheriff’s Department lieutenant who had pressed him to get the gas company’s approval for the project.

But it hasn’t been easy.

After sheriff’s officials sent in a work crew last month to grade and pack down a roughly 50-foot by 50-foot landing zone, attorneys for the gas company fired off a cease-and-desist letter, saying the department did not have permission to do any work on its land and demanding the “unauthorized” activity stop.

The sheriff, in turn, has insisted publicly that his department did have the company’s blessing. Villanueva dedicated much of a recent live broadcast on Facebook to the dispute, reading from emails that he said proved his case and criticizing The Times for its coverage of the controversy.

The Times obtained internal Sheriff’s Department documents under the state’s public records law to better understand what happened. The records show that the permission Villanueva claims the department received was not put in writing, and came from Gonzalez and another gas company employee whose name is unknown to the department.

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The documents, which include an internal memo detailing the effort by the Sheriff’s Department to get the landing pad made, text messages and emails, also show that when officials in the gas company and La Habra Heights City Hall learned of the work, Gonzalez scrambled to come up with an explanation for why he had met with Villanueva’s team.

“If anyone ask why you were at our meeting that day, I invited you to see review the newly installed chain link fence and efforts we took to better secure our site from trespassers and vandals,” Gonzalez texted a sheriff’s lieutenant, whose name was redacted by the Sheriff’s Department. “This is getting stupid.”

Gonzalez could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for SoCal Gas declined to answer questions about the sheriff’s claims and whether Gonzalez or the other company employee had the authority to approve the landing zone. The company stands by its claim in the cease-and-desist letter that the Sheriff’s Department did not have permission to do the work, the spokesperson said.

The idea that a Sheriff’s Department helicopter needs to be able to land near Villanueva’s home to quickly extract him came about in August, when a threat assessment was done to identify risks to the sheriff’s safety. The review was done in the wake of “credible threats, doxing incidents, and protestors targeting law enforcement officials at their personal residences,” according to the memo, which was written by an LASD captain. Several issues were identified, including the need for a landing area.

L.A. County was served with a cease-and-desist letter over the construction of a helicopter pad near Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s home.

Later that month, Gonzalez, whose LinkedIn profile says he left the Sheriff’s Department in 2000 and now works on security issues for Sempra Energy, met with an unnamed sheriff’s lieutenant at the company’s property to discuss leveling an area for the emergency landing spot, according to the memo and the cease-and-desist letter. It’s unclear if sheriff’s officials sought out Gonzalez or connected with him by chance.

Days later, a lieutenant followed up with a text message about the urgent need to protect the sheriff amid the protests. “Not sure if you heard yet,” the lieutenant wrote, “but Lapd chief Moore had his house stormed last night by a bunch of protesters and they vandalized his home.”

Gonzalez replied that he would speak with his supervisor about the plan. “I heard about the Chief’s house. Incredible...” he wrote.

Screenshots of text messages
Text messages exchanged between Isaac Gonzalez of Sempra Energy and a sheriff’s lieutenant. The Times obtained the messages under the state’s public records law.
(Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department)

In its cease-and-desist letter, SoCal Gas wrote that the company turned down a request it received from the Sheriff’s Department in August to build the landing pad.

It is unclear what, if anything, transpired in the ensuing months. Then, on January 12, Gonzalez emailed a sheriff’s lieutenant, inviting him to another meeting at the company’s property two days later, according to a copy of the email.

At the end of the meeting, Gonzalez and a site supervisor sheriff’s officials knew only as “Tom,” allegedly “gave verbal permission for the Sheriff’s Department to enter the property and level the hill for an emergency landing zone,” according to the memo.

The lieutenant quickly relayed the news and the Sheriff’s Department hired a contractor, Century Paving. The work was done on Feb. 2 for $4,950, the memo and a purchase order for the job show. A county spokeswoman said no payment has been made for the work.

That afternoon, the city of La Habra Heights fielded “some complaints” about the work, according to an email Asst. City Manager Rafferty Wooldridge sent to the utility the next morning.

“Staff was out to take a look and found a large flat pad area had been graded, this type of work would require grading plans and a grading permit,” Wooldridge wrote. “If you could please let us know what the area is going to be used for, we can help [identify] what type of plans and permits would be needed.”

About three hours later, Gonzalez texted the lieutenant asking for a phone call. “Make sure you tell the sergeant who got the call to keep it on the downlow,” he wrote. It was not clear what call Gonzalez was referring to, and the Sheriff’s Department did not answer questions about it.

Later that evening, Gonzalez texted the lieutenant again with the instructions of what to say if anyone inquired about one of their meetings. The lieutenant responded that he’d just heard that a cease-and-desist letter was in the works.

“Yeap...” Gonzalez said. “I just heard from the [Public] Affairs person who told me the same thing.”

Screenshots of text messages
Text messages exchanged between Isaac Gonzalez of Sempra Energy and a sheriff’s lieutenant. The Times obtained the messages under the state’s public records law.
(Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department)

In an internal email on Feb. 16, Dennis Allen, a manager in the Sheriff’s Facilities Services Bureau, wrote that he did not believe the Sheriff’s Department needed a permit from the city of La Habra Heights since the work didn’t include structural changes and the gas company had seemingly given its approval.

The sheriff’s memo concluded that “it appears the documentation supports that the Sheriff’s Department received verbal permission by SoCalGas and acted in good faith.”

After The Times first reported on the dispute, Villanueva reiterated this claim publicly in a live broadcast on Facebook last month.

“Let’s go to the main argument from Southern California Gas Company that we had no permission to do what we did,” Villanueva said. “Well it turns out, we did.”

During the broadcast, Villanueva also claimed that The Times did not ask for comment before publishing a story about the helicopter pad even though The Times had done so. Since then, he and a spokesman for the department have refused to answer questions from The Times about the meetings, Gonzalez, and whether the department plans to land helicopters on the gas company’s land.

Times staff writer Ben Poston contributed to this report.


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