LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva appeared before the Los Angeles Civilian Oversight Commission during a special hearing on deputy gangs held Jan. 12.
Villanueva told the panel that sheriff’s subgroups “have always existed in one shape or another across time” and likened them to “softball teams.”
Special counsel Bert H. Deixler, who is leading the county’s probe, then asked Villanueva — who is running for county supervisor against incumbent Janice Hahn — whether elected officials and those seeking office have an obligation to speak truthfully when addressing the public.
“Always,” the former sheriff responded.
Deixler: “You haven’t always told the truth to the public about deputy gangs, cliques, and subgroups in the sheriff’s department, have you, sir?”
Villanueva answered, “False.”
Deixler then played a tape of a debate between Villanueva and current LASD Sheriff Robert Luna during the retired sheriff’s failed re-election bid two years ago. In the tape, Villanueva insists that the phrase “deputy gangs” has become “a political buzzword” and such groups are, in fact, “like unicorns — everyone knows what a unicorn looks like, but I challenge you (to) name one, name a single deputy gang member.”
Deixler then held up a photo of a unicorn and a former deputy who had a caveman tattoo.
Inspector General Max Huntsman is alleged to have the names of 41 deputies that he’s identified as belonging to a deputy gang and attempted to have them appear before him to show their tattoos.
The union representing the deputies filed a legal challenge on the matter. The most recent activity on the case indicates the defendants, L.A. County, Sheriff Luna, and Huntsman, didn’t file certain records with the court that were agreed to in August of last year.
The commission was notified of Villanueva’s decision to appear in a letter last month stating that the former lawman “is very willing to testify” at the meeting and will “answer any questions you have under oath.”
The decision came days after a county judge scheduled a hearing to decide whether to order the former sheriff to comply with the commission’s subpoenas.
In an interview with ABC7 last month, Villanueva maintained his position that “there are no deputy gangs,” describing the cliques as “subgroups of people that somehow occasionally engage in misconduct.”
Villanueva’s nearly four-hour testimony touched on such issues as his appointment of Tim Murakami, an allegedly tattooed member of so-called deputy gang the Caveman, to the position of undersheriff, and his alleged order to Matthew Burson, a captain in the department, to pause an investigation into an off-duty brawl at a party in East Los Angeles in 2018 where older members of the Bandito deputy gang were said to have assaulted younger non-Bandito deputies.
Deixler questioned why Villanueva’s top 3 commanders had tattoos, that could be classified as deputy gang related, and if the goal was to eradicate gangs how would it be possible when they had them?
Villanueva retorted that the current undersheriff, also has a “tattoo” that should be questioned.
It was made public that Sheriff Robert Luna’s Undersheriff April Tardy has a tattoo from the time she worked at the Temple Station. She alleges it is a “station tattoo” and not a “gang tattoo”.
Luna and Tardy are adamant they are here to “eradicate” deputy gangs with many being labeled as such due to tattoos that are alleged to be received for committing crimes against the public.
Luna appeared before the commission last March and indicated there were different tattoos that deputies get in the department.
A Rand Corporation report last year found that 15% to 20% of LASD deputies join gangs, whose membership is usually confirmed by a leg tattoo often bearing a number.
Questioning at the oversight hearing also touched on Friday’s Los Angeles Times story regarding a 2022 fight between off-duty deputies and a group of teenagers outside a Montclair bowling alley where one of the deputies allegedly flashed a handgun, and one deputy punched a 19-year-old in the face. Two of the men in the group — one deputy and one sergeant — allegedly admitted to investigators that they had matching tattoos, which officials linked to the Industry Indians gang, based out of the City of Industry sheriff’s station.
Asked about the bowling alley incident, Villanueva denied it was an example of deputy gang or “subgroup” behavior, instead labeling it “misconduct among deputies.”
Asked if he found the story “outrageous,” the ex-sheriff said he did not have enough information to form an opinion.
The former lawman also suggested that deputy cliques were “actually disappearing” as personnel changes, and tattoos are becoming prevalent in the department.
Deixler provided the department’s policy on tattoos which prohibits certain ones but allows the candidate to pause the hiring process while they have it removed. Once it’s removed, the candidates can continue through the process.
Villanueva agreed to return for more questioning in March after the Primary Election which will be held March 5.
“I hope I see a subpoena to former Sheriff’s [Jim] McDonnell, [Lee] Baca, and current Sheriff Robert Luna otherwise you are showing the public that this is a political vendetta and not a mission to get to the truth,” said Villanueva in closing.
Villanueva is the first sheriff to be subpoenaed to speak about deputy gangs since the civilian oversight commission was granted those powers by Los Angeles County voters. Deixler hasn’t indicated that the previous sheriffs would speak before the commission on the matter.
Last year, the commission’s 70-page report said at least a half dozen deputy gangs or cliques are currently active throughout the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, and that misbehavior by members has already cost taxpayers more than $55 million.
Many lawsuits filed by current deputies, alleging deputy gang activity, have been dismissed in court for lack of evidence.
City News Service contributed to this report.