Vivian Villanueva — wife and confidant — holds sway in L.A. Sheriff’s Department, officials say
When Carl Mandoyan inexplicably turned back up at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to apply for a job, he should have set off alarms.
Fired years earlier over allegations of domestic violence and dishonesty, Mandoyan had been rehired by Sheriff Alex Villanueva and then exiled again by a judge, who blocked the move.
But instead of turning him away, a sergeant in the department’s recruitment office rolled out the welcome mat. In short order, Mandoyan was added to a list of recruits eligible for hire.
John McBride, the sheriff’s captain in charge of hiring at the time, got wind of Mandoyan’s visit and demanded an explanation from the sergeant.
“I got a call from the boss,” McBride recalled the sergeant saying.
“The sheriff called you?” McBride asked, incredulous.
“No, no — the other boss,” the sergeant replied. “The wife.”
The wife is Vivian Villanueva. And the 2020 incident offers a window into the unusual role she has carved out for herself within her husband’s inner circle that runs the Sheriff’s Department.
Villanueva denied playing a role in Mandoyan’s attempted return.
A judge on Monday overturned Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s controversial decision to reinstate a deputy who had been fired for violating department policies on domestic violence and lying — a dispute that sparked a rare legal battle among some of L.A. County’s most powerful elected officials.
In interviews, more than 20 current and former sheriff’s officials, including many who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation, said Villanueva exerts real influence within the department. Her involvement has pulled Sheriff Villanueva into low-level matters better suited for his subordinates to handle, they said, while also tipping the scales on more important issues including promotions and transfers.
Because she has no official position and operates outside the normal channels of authority, it is difficult to assess exactly how much sway Villanueva holds in the department. But several sheriff’s officials said the sheriff’s wife — a former deputy who retired four years ago — is widely viewed as a power broker who can open doors to advancement.
Her ability to influence decisions underscores the controversial, unorthodox way her husband has run the nation’s largest sheriff’s department since taking office in 2018. Branding himself a brash, no-nonsense leader, Sheriff Villanueva has cast aside norms and upended the department’s ties to the rest of the county power structure, aggressively attacking members of the Board of Supervisors and the watchdogs appointed to keep the sheriff in check.
Villanueva said her husband often brings home the many difficulties he faces on the job, including criticism from the Board of Supervisors and what she called unfair media coverage. She said she does not decide promotions or transfers and dismissed accusations about her influence as politically motivated.
“As you can imagine, like any wife married to a public figure, I have had many private discussions with my husband about many different aspects of the Sheriff’s Department, and if asked, I will voice my opinions,” she said. “Nevertheless, only my husband sets policy for the department, I do not.”
Her shadow in Sheriff Villanueva’s office nonetheless is large enough that a department form used to evaluate deputies’ performance was jokingly edited to list Villanueva as “First Lady & Co-Sheriff.” The Times reviewed a copy. Some in the department sarcastically refer to Villanueva as “the undersheriff,” the agency’s second-highest rank, multiple sources said.
And during a recorded conversation with a witness in a criminal investigation, a retired detective rehired by Sheriff Villanueva to investigate public corruption opined about the couple’s dynamic, saying Villanueva “breaks his balls.” He went on to say: “He in turn breaks other people’s balls.... It’s totally unprofessional.”
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Sheriff Villanueva declined to answer questions about his wife’s influence on the department and her role in specific episodes. In a statement provided by a spokeswoman, he said: “I am the Sheriff of Los Angeles County and I run the department. I am disappointed with the personal attacks against my family; however, I will remain focused on public safety.”
A supervisor in the department who asked to remain anonymous was advised by someone close to the sheriff that to maximize chances for a promotion, the supervisor should take Villanueva to lunch, buy her an expensive gift and ask her for career advice. Similarly, a lieutenant said he was given Villanueva’s cellphone number and told to call her to help get a promotion. Neither took up the offer.
Villanueva said the only gift she has received from an employee was a bottle of tequila. She said when she goes to lunch with friends in the department, they take turns paying. “I have never accepted anything of value from anyone in the department for promotional opportunities or transfers.”
Screenshots of her Instagram page reviewed by The Times show photos of a few personalized gifts given to her by sheriff’s employees, including a frame with photos and mementos of the couple’s late dog.
‘There wasn’t one boss — it was she and him’
Vivian Lopez met her future husband when she was a college student at Cal State Los Angeles interning with the Sheriff’s Department. Embedded with a narcotics team on a surveillance assignment, she watched as a deputy showed up unannounced in a marked patrol car and nearly blew the operation.
“Well, three years later, I marry the guy,” she told The Times in a 2018 interview.
She served as a sheriff’s deputy in various assignments, including patrol and as an instructor in the training bureau. She retired early in 2018, several months before her husband was elected sheriff in an upset victory.
In her 2018 interview with The Times, Villanueva said her husband had always been an underdog, and at points in her career, “I even had people who would not want to be near me because they thought Alex was a black cloud.”
Courtney Hamilton, who said she served for a short time as Sheriff Villanueva’s campaign manager in the run-up to the 2018 election, said the candidate and his wife were “sort of interchangeable.”
“There wasn’t one boss — it was she and him,” Hamilton said. Hamilton said she quit after an episode in which Villanueva erupted, yelling at her for setting up in a room at the campaign’s headquarters that was used by her husband.
Since her husband took office, Villanueva has remained largely in the background, appearing at the sheriff’s side at public events and popping up occasionally in the steady stream of photos the sheriff posts to social media. Her husband sometimes greets her during his regular broadcasts on Facebook.
But during meetings with his senior staff at the department’s downtown offices in the Hall of Justice, it has not been unusual for Sheriff Villanueva to speak with his wife on the phone to get her input on issues, according to Eli Vera, a former chief in the department who was once a close advisor to Sheriff Villanueva and is now running to unseat him as sheriff.
In one meeting early on in Sheriff Villanueva’s term, Vera said, the sheriff was considering whether to promote someone to captain and sought his wife’s opinion. When the sheriff hung up, he put his thumb down, signaling the promotion was a no-go, Vera recalled.
“He did it several times in front of us,” Vera said. “She disapproved, that person would be bypassed.”
Two others who attended the meeting corroborated Vera’s account. And Robin Limon, who served for years as one of Sheriff Villanueva’s highest-ranking aides, alleged in a recent legal claim filed with the county that she saw the sheriff send his wife photos of promotion and transfer lists.
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Limon, who is embroiled in an ongoing scandal over a cover-up she claims was directed by the sheriff, also alleged in the legal claim that Sheriff Villanueva pressured her to bring back to work a lieutenant who had been arrested on suspicion of domestic violence.
Limon said she argued the department should wait until criminal and administrative investigations into the lieutenant were complete, according to the legal filing. Sheriff Villanueva dismissed her concerns, saying that his wife had “talked to the employee’s wife and it was now ‘a big nothing,’” the filing alleged.
When asked about it, Villanueva did not directly address whether she discussed the incident with the lieutenant’s wife. She said: “I know the wife.... I had a private discussion with my husband that I’m not willing to discuss. As far as I know, the whole legal process played out. I played no part in any criminal or administrative investigation.”
The lieutenant’s wife told The Times she did not discuss the incident with Villanueva. She said that she had a verbal argument with her husband, who never hit or hurt her in any way, and that he “never should have been arrested.”
The district attorney’s office declined to file charges against the lieutenant, who has returned to work.
Months before the lieutenant was arrested, his wife gave the Villanuevas a dog tag for their new dog, Simon, that read “Deputy Simon,” according to a photo of the gift on Villanueva’s Instagram.
Former Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon filed a legal claim that offered the first eyewitness account of Sheriff Alex Villanueva allegedly lying.
‘I didn’t want to get caught blindsided again’
In the case of Mandoyan’s bid to get rehired, a county human resources official caught wind of the end run and, in a letter to Sheriff Villanueva reviewed by The Times, demanded Mandoyan’s application be rejected.
In an interview, Mandoyan said that the sheriff’s wife had nothing to do with the plan for him to reapply for a job, and that his attorney, Greg Smith, directed him to schedule a testing appointment using the department’s online registration system. In her comments to The Times, Villanueva also said Mandoyan’s test “went through the county’s online system.” A sheriff’s official, however, said he was told about the exchange between McBride, the former personnel captain, and the sergeant around the time it happened.
Smith, who also represents the sheriff’s wife, said he had “no conversations with Vivian about Carl taking the test.” The sergeant who McBride said received the call from Villanueva referred questions to the department’s public information office.
McBride said he was later pressured by John Burcher, the sheriff’s chief of staff at the time, to assist in the legal battle over Mandoyan’s rehiring by signing a prewritten sworn statement that allegedly contained false information about Mandoyan’s eligibility to be rehired. He refused and wrote his own statement about the incident.
Reached by phone, Burcher said he had no comment.
McBride said he also assigned staff to check the list daily to make sure Mandoyan didn’t advance further in the hiring process.
“They already snuck him by me without me knowing about it — I didn’t want to get caught blindsided again,” he said.
‘Stop setting off fireworks’
In another incident, Sgt. Rosa Gonzalez was presented with an odd proposal after she filed a formal complaint with the Sheriff’s Department alleging cheating on promotional exams and time-card fraud in the department’s personnel bureau.
Immediately after she accused her colleagues of the misconduct, Gonzalez said in a subsequent lawsuit, she was targeted by others in the bureau. Someone rummaged through her desk, files went missing and she was excluded from staff meetings, she said in the lawsuit.
Then, two people approached Gonzalez to pass on messages from the sheriff that he wanted her to “stop setting off fireworks,” said Gonzalez’s attorney, Vincent Miller. If she agreed, one of the messengers told Gonzalez, the sheriff’s wife would pick her up from the personnel bureau and take her to lunch so that “everybody can see” she was on good terms with the sheriff, Miller said.
Gonzalez declined the offer and, the same day, she was transferred out of the personnel bureau, Miller said.
Villanueva told The Times she never invited Gonzalez to lunch.
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Vera, the candidate vying to unseat Sheriff Villanueva, described a similar episode. He said Villanueva called Sgt. Vanessa Chow in September to pressure her to transfer a deputy out of her unit because the deputy was friends with Vera’s daughter and supported his candidacy. He said Chow, who works as the sheriff’s liaison to the Board of Supervisors, refused.
Chow declined to comment through her attorney. Three other sources in the Sheriff’s Department said they were told about the incident Vera described around the time that it happened. Villanueva did not address the incident in her response to questions from The Times.
‘It was like clockwork’
Other times, Villanueva’s involvement was over less serious issues but nonetheless affected the department, as they dragged the sheriff into the minutiae of day-to-day operations.
Multiple law enforcement sources said that after her husband took office, Villanueva regularly visited the unit where she used to work training other deputies, called the Advanced Officer Training Unit.
After visits to the unit by his wife, Sheriff Villanueva called the captain in charge and ordered minor changes be made, according to two sources. After one, Villanueva told the captain that staff could wear polo shirts instead of their formal Class A sheriff’s uniform when teaching classes.
Villanueva also decided to change the workweek for the unit to four 10-hour days and that the patrol school run by the unit should begin an hour or two earlier than it had been, the sources said.
“It was like clockwork,” one source said, adding that the sheriff’s wife would leave, and the calls would come in soon after. “It was very odd for a sheriff to call a captain directly on such small changes.”
Villanueva told The Times that she may have gone to the unit “once or twice” to have lunch with old partners.
“There is no truth that I had anything to do with any ‘minor’ changes, and have no idea what you are talking about,” she said. “I can say that occasionally deputies that I have known could raise minor concerns with me which I could possibly raise with my husband, but my participation ends with the communication. My husband is free to accept my comments or ignore them.”
‘Under your wings since day 1’
Villanueva’s impact on the department is most evident perhaps in a small team of the deputies that serves the sheriff directly.
Two of the four plum spots on the sheriff’s executive projects team, which organizes the sheriff’s appearances at town halls and community events, belong to employees with controversial track records who are friends with the sheriff’s wife. Their rise into the sheriff’s inner circle has triggered concerns within the department about staffing decisions under Sheriff Villanueva and his wife’s influence over them.
One of the women, Carrie Robles, had Villanueva as a training instructor in 2017 when she was moving to a patrol assignment after working the county jails, according to state and sheriff’s records and interviews.
Later that year, Robles, while still a trainee, ran a red light on her way to an emergency call, crashed her patrol car and careened onto a sidewalk in Boyle Heights. She killed two brothers, ages 7 and 9, and severely injured their mother. In 2019, the county agreed to pay the woman $17.5 million to avoid a trial in a lawsuit over the crash, one of the largest legal payouts that year. The county settled with their father for $5 million in 2020. A third case is still pending.
Robles was found to be at fault, but prosecutors declined to file charges, saying in a memo that there was insufficient evidence to prove she committed vehicular manslaughter.
It was the type of error that could derail or seriously hinder a new deputy’s career. But a year after the deadly crash, Robles, dressed in her department uniform, stood alongside Sheriff Villanueva and his wife on the day he was sworn in as sheriff.
“Truly humbling experience today I pinned our new Sheriff @alex4sheriff and my mom @vivan_bibi_villanueva_ with our station pin,” Robles wrote on Facebook to caption a photo of her with the couple.
Villanueva told The Times that patrol students nicknamed her “mom” “because I was protective of them.” She added: “That nickname has stuck with me with friends that I made at the department.”
Robles has donated to dog rescue fundraisers organized by Villanueva and posted birthday greetings to her on Facebook. In one, she thanked the sheriff’s wife for having taken her “under your wings since day 1” and proposed they go out to celebrate.
“I’ll be the DD ha!” Robles wrote, using the acronym for designated driver.
As of February, more than four years after the crash, Robles had not yet faced possible discipline, according to a source. Under Villanueva, the decision was made to put off the department’s internal investigation into the incident until multiple lawsuits over it played out, the source said. It is unclear when, or if, that investigation was or will be completed.
Robles did not respond to requests for comment.
A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy has filed a lawsuit alleging that her career was thwarted after she determined a deputy recruit who was a close friend of Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s wife was unfit for the job.
‘It wasn’t to be threatening or intimidating’
Natalie Garcia, who works alongside Robles, also appears in Villanueva’s social media feeds.
In December 2020, Villanueva posted a photo on Instagram of a gift from Garcia, according to a screenshot reviewed by The Times. Garcia had turned a portrait of the Villanuevas’ dog, Alvin, into a charm and strung it on a necklace. “#nataliegarcia hits another home run,” Villanueva wrote in the caption. “I will always wear it. My Alvin will be with me everyday!”
And about a year earlier, Villanueva and the sheriff allegedly came to Garcia’s aid when she was struggling to become a deputy after two decades working as a custody assistant in the county jails.
Garcia had twice failed to pass a required running test on a treadmill. Failing a third time would disqualify her for a year from being admitted to the department’s training academy.
On Garcia’s second try, Burcher and other sheriff’s officials showed up with holstered handguns to cheer her on, according to McBride, the captain in charge of the personnel bureau at the time. The doctor administering the test complained afterward to McBride that he had felt intimidated by them. Garcia did not pass.
Burcher said he showed up “for support” and was not wearing his uniform. “It wasn’t to be threatening or intimidating,” he said.
Before Garcia was supposed to return for her last attempt on the treadmill, the sheriff told McBride to look into getting rid of the requirement, McBride said. McBride and others sought input from other county officials and found the county’s Fire Department didn’t require a running test.
The test was eventually dropped as a requirement, sparing Garcia from having to pass it.
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Garcia, who did not respond to requests for comment, did not complete the academy.
Her training officer in the academy, Lina Pimentel, has filed a lawsuit saying Garcia falsely accused Pimentel of making her complete extra physical training requirements despite medical restrictions.
According to the lawsuit, Villanueva swept in to help her friend, badmouthing Pimentel to others in the office by calling her gendered slurs and warning that if she saw Pimentel, “I will go off on that b—.”
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