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FBI investigating tattooed deputy gangs in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

FBI investigating tattooed deputy gangs in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
Community members speak out at a town hall in East Los Angeles on July 10, protesting the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department's handling of the Banditos, an inked deputy group. (Maya Lau / Los Angeles Times)

The FBI is investigating a secret society of tattooed deputies in East Los Angeles as well as similar gang-like groups elsewhere within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, multiple people familiar with the inquiry said.

The federal probe follows allegations of beatings and harassment by members of the Banditos, a group of deputies assigned to the Sheriff's Department's East L.A. station who brand themselves with matching tattoos of a skeleton outfitted with a sombrero, bandolier and pistol. The clique's members 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.

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In interviews with several deputies, FBI agents have asked about the inner workings of the Banditos and the group's hierarchy, according to three people with close knowledge of the matter who spoke to The Times on the condition that their names not be used because the investigation is ongoing.

In particular, the sources said, agents have been trying to determine whether leaders of the Banditos require or encourage aspiring members to commit criminal acts, such as planting evidence or writing false incident reports, to secure membership in the group.

The agents also have inquired about other groups known to exist in the department, which has nearly 10,000 deputies and polices large swaths of the sprawling county. They have asked for information about the tattoos and practices of the Spartans and Regulators in the department's Century station, and the Reapers, who operate out of a station in South Los Angeles, according to the sources.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he could not comment when asked about the FBI probe Wednesday. An FBI spokeswoman also declined to provide any information.

The inquiry marks the return of federal law enforcement authorities tasked with digging around in the Sheriff's Department, which has been beset by episodes of corruption and mismanagement in the last several years.

In 2011, the FBI secretly opened an investigation into reports of inmate abuse by deputies working in the county jails. The sweeping probe involving an inmate who served as an undercover informant upended the insular department, sending several deputies to prison for beatings and cover-ups. Former Sheriff Lee Baca, his second-in-command and other senior staff were convicted of conspiring to obstruct the FBI.

The current investigation appears to have been spurred by a group of deputies who in March filed a legal claim against the county accusing Sheriff's Department officials of failing to address a hostile work environment in the East L.A. station. The deputies say Bandito leaders, who are alleged to control key elements of station operations, put others' lives at risk by not sending backup to help on dangerous calls, enforced illegal arrest quotas and carried out other forms of harassment.

The claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, focuses on what deputies say was an unprovoked attack by members of the Banditos during an off-duty party in the early morning hours of Sept. 28 at Kennedy Hall, an event space near the station.

The altercation started when four Banditos began harassing a rookie, according to the claim. Two other deputies said they intervened; one was struck repeatedly in the face, while the other was punched and kicked multiple times before being choked and losing consciousness, the claim says.

The lawmen accused in the claim — Deputies David Silverio, Gregory Rodriguez and Rafael Munoz, and Sgt. Mike Hernandez — were placed on paid administrative leave after the incident. The Sheriff's Department presented a criminal case involving the four men to the district attorney's office on June 19.

Greg Risling, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said Wednesday that charges have not been filed and that the case remains under review. He declined to comment when asked whether federal officials have asked his office to hold off on the prosecution.

Villanueva has repeatedly downplayed the significance of tattooed deputy groups in his ranks, calling them a "cultural norm" and a source of intergenerational hazing among lawmen. He said there is nothing wrong with the clubs as long as they don't promote misconduct.

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Still, he acknowledged the pervasive influence of the Banditos at the East L.A. station, saying they "ran roughshod" over the previous captain and dictated where deputies would be assigned, enabled by the weak leadership of past administrations.

He said that his first act upon taking office Dec. 3 was to bring in a new captain, Ernie Chavez, to quell the Banditos situation.

"Chavez identified the problem and the problem players, and he's been doing a commendable job of sifting through them to get the station up and running to serve the community," Villanueva said.

Last month, Villanueva announced a new policy that specifically bars department members from participating in any groups that promote conduct that violates the rights of other employees or the public. The policy says such groups often organize under a symbol or tattoo and increase the risk of civil liability to the agency.

He said the 1st Amendment prevents him from barring deputies from getting tattooed, but he said having matching ink is a "dumb idea" because of potential lawsuits in "today's litigious society." He advises those with the coordinated tattoos to get them removed, if they can.

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

But Chavez, in an interview Wednesday, said 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.

Villanueva said he thinks there is no longer a hostile work environment at the East L.A. station.

"Now that it's been broken up and scattered, I'd say yeah, it's over," he said.

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Vincent Miller, an attorney for the deputies who filed the claim about the Banditos, said any changes at the station have been cosmetic and have failed to abolish the toxic work environment there. He said the department has not held the problematic deputies accountable and that some of his clients have suffered ongoing emotional stress because of the situation, prompting him to file additional grievances in the case.

"The captain and everyone else at East L.A. station knows they haven't transferred 36 deputies, and the real number is just six," Miller said. "We specifically filed the supplemental claims very recently because the cop gang problem has not been fixed."

Though reports about cliques of law enforcement officers occasionally surface across the country, no agency has received more public scrutiny for them than the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The secretive groups have been entrenched in the department for decades. Defenders say the cliques are harmless fraternities, likening them to close-knit groups in the military. But time and again, the deputy clubs have come under fire for promoting aggressive tactics and an us-versus-everyone mentality.

A watchdog panel in 1992 pressed the Sheriff's Department to address the problem. Two decades later, a blue-ribbon commission sharply criticized the department for turning a blind eye and allowing the groups to use excessive force against people in the county jails and on the streets.

The Times reported last year that a new tattooed club of lawmen surfaced at the Compton station after a deputy there admitted under oath to having ink of a skeleton holding a rifle. The deputy — who was accused of excessive force in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man — said as many as 20 of his colleagues have the same tattoo.

The county recently reached a $7-million settlement in a lawsuit after attorneys for the slain man's family said the shooting was driven by the hard-charging policing of inked deputies.

In a separate case last year, a Palmdale station deputy admitted in a deposition to having a tattoo of a skull in a cowboy hat that matched the ink of several other lawmen at his station.

More recently, internal documents showed that Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan — who was fired for domestic violence and dishonesty and later was rehired by Villanueva — acknowledged having a tattoo as a member of the Reapers.

Villanueva said Wednesday he does not believe there are problems with deputy groups at any other stations.

The alleged attack by Banditos on fellow deputies echoed a 2010 incident in which a clique of deputies from a high-security floor in Men's Central Jail brawled with other deputies at a Christmas party. Sheriff's Department officials accused the group of using gang-like hand signs and said jailers tried to "earn their ink" by breaking inmates' bones.

The recent allegations are not the first against the Banditos. In 2014, the county paid a female deputy assigned to the East L.A. station $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit in which she claimed she had been physically and mentally harassed by some of the clique's 80 members after refusing to go along with their "traditions and initiation rituals."

At the time, then-interim Sheriff John Scott announced that he would share the results of an investigation into claims of bullying by the Banditos. The probe, however, has remained confidential.

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