Advertisement
Share

Investigators probing ‘deputy gang’ violence were told not to ask about Banditos, chief says

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at a news conference
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said that there are no “gangs” in the Sheriff’s Department, but problems stem from deputies who get drunk and get into fights.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was transitioning into office late in 2018 when then-Capt. Matthew Burson was overseeing a high-profile criminal investigation into an alleged assault involving East L.A. deputies at a station party.

At the time, Burson said he was given instructions on behalf of the incoming sheriff on how to handle the case: Investigators, he was told, should avoid questions about the Banditos, the gang-like group of deputies whose members were accused of instigating the fight.

“I assumed there was a valid reason for it, and followed orders,” Burson said in a sworn declaration filed in court Tuesday. “I did not at that time suspect any ulterior motives, including a cover-up.”

Villanueva did not respond Tuesday to questions from The Times — Capt. Lorena Rodriguez, a department spokesperson, said the sheriff is infected with COVID-19.

Another spokesperson, Lt. Oscar Martinez, said in a statement the department was “not in receipt of the declaration,” even though The Times sent a copy to Rodriguez. He said Burson was “aware of the issues involving deputy gangs when he oversaw the investigation of deputy gangs.”

Top watchdog for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has identified dozens of deputies who are allegedly members of gang-like groups that operate out of two stations.

Burson’s declaration was made public as part of a lawsuit by deputies who say they faced pervasive harassment by the Banditos while working at the East L.A. station.

It corroborates testimony presented in May at a Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission hearing on “deputy gangs.” It also highlights other failures by the Sheriff’s Department to properly crack down on the groups.

Advertisement

The agency has long struggled with deputies who have matching tattoos running amok at sheriff’s stations and in county jails, controlling their command staff and using violence.

Martinez, the sheriff’s spokesperson, said Tuesday that the oversight commission’s investigation “suffers from a lack of legitimacy as it is neither a true hearing, a civil court, or a criminal court with appropriate constitutional safeguards. Its sole purpose appears to be inflicting political damage to influence the outcome of the sheriff’s race, nothing more.”

The oversight commission last month disclosed a log kept by Sgt. Jefferson Chow, the investigator probing the East L.A. station party fight. In it, Chow wrote that, before Villanueva took office, he was instructed by Burson to question witnesses about the gang-like deputy groups.

Within a few weeks though, that instruction changed. The sergeant wrote in the log that Burson told him questions about the Banditos or other similar groups didn’t need to be part of his investigation.

Burson had been subpoenaed to testify at the commission’s second hearing on June 10 to clarify who gave him the instruction and why, but he did not show up. His declaration released Tuesday fills in some of those gaps.

Burson communicated the orders from the sheriff’s office to Chow twice — once before Villanueva was sworn in, and again after. The first time, ask about the Banditos; the second time, don’t.

By the second time, Burson had been promoted from captain to chief. He said in his declaration that he was not offered a “quid pro deal” to cover up deputy gangs in exchange for a promotion, though he did acknowledge that “the timing of it might look suspect.”

Burson could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday morning.

According to his declaration, Burson was told by the sheriff’s chief of staff the second time that what happened at the party was no big deal — just “drunken mutual combat.” Larry Del Mese, the chief of staff at the time who has since retired, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday morning.

Villanueva has echoed that line in the past, saying there are no “gangs” in the department but that the problems stem from deputies who get drunk and then get into fights. But the sheriff has also taken credit for addressing the problem of rogue groups with a policy that prohibits deputies from joining cliques that promote behavior that violates the rights of others.

Burson claimed in his declaration that Villanueva’s policy has “never actually been enforced.” He also said Chow’s investigation into the station party incident rebutted the characterization of it as a two-way brawl. Chow testified in a deposition in the lawsuit recently that prosecutors should have filed criminal charges.

At the oversight commission hearing, Inspector General Max Huntsman testified that the prosecutors who declined to file battery charges in the station party fight case didn’t know the full story, because the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation did not look meaningfully at allegations that the deputies who instigated the fight were Banditos members.

“The manner in which this case was investigated and presented amounted to a cover-up — essentially obstruction of justice,” Huntsman testified.

The Banditos, a group of tattooed deputies at the East L.A. station, enable ‘racism and violence,’ an inspector general report has found.

A district attorney spokesperson told The Times earlier this month that officials “monitored the testimony and are evaluating the information,” but refused to answer whether they would be taking another look at the case.

Burson said he expects — and himself requests — the Department of Justice to step in to assess the matter.

“It is not my position and role to determine if the sheriff and his office purposefully engaged in a cover-up,” he said in the declaration. “But if I was unwittingly used in such a cover-up and interference in a criminal investigation, I find this deeply troubling.”

Burson’s declaration highlighted other missteps.

At a news conference in August 2020, Burson announced plans for a full-scale investigation that would examine the “deputy gang” problem across the entire organization, not just at a single station.

“Our intent is to examine the department in its entirety,” Burson said at the time. “I am absolutely sickened by the mere allegation of any deputy hiding behind a badge to hurt anyone.”

But he said that investigation never happened.

Burson said in the declaration that he was instructed by the Sheriff’s Department to hold off until the research firm hired by the county’s Board of Supervisors to study the groups had completed its report. By the time that happened in September 2021, Burson was on medical leave. He retired a few months later.

Martinez, the sheriff’s spokesperson, also pointed to that August 2020 news conference, saying Burson assured the public then that Villanueva’s administration was taking an “aggressive stance” on combatting the issue.

“His statement or declaration now which contradicts his own words back in 2020 appears to be motivated by the pending litigation and potentially is politically motivated,” Martinez said.

Martinez did not address why there was a delay and why the investigation never happened after the study was published.


Advertisement