Contact Form

    News Details

    Former LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva grilled in public about deputy gangs
    • January 13, 2024

    Over four tense hours, defiant former Sheriff Alex Villanueva sparred with Los Angeles County’s sheriff’s oversight commission Friday, Jan. 12, over allegations he condoned and protected deputy gangs while in office.

    Villanueva, who was ousted by voters in the 2022 election, denied the allegations and verbally assailed the panel for impugning his character.

    “That’s disgusting, appalling,” Villanueva tersely responded to a barrage of questions from the commission’s special counsel, Bert H. Deixler, during a hearing at the Loyola Law School.

    For several years, Villanueva rejected subpoenas from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to testify about the existence and proliferation of deputies allegedly tattooed with symbols for gangs with ominous names, including the Banditos.Cavemen, Compton Executioners, Cowboys and the Grim Reapers.

    Villanueva’s refusal to testify until Friday wasn’t lost on Deixler. “I’ve been trying to meet with you since March of 2022,”  Deixler said at the outset of the hearing. “I have heard you say on television that if the CSC wanted to hear your testimony they should have invited you.”

    Villanueva shot back: “This is not a real courtroom, there is no cross-examination possible.” That prompted the audience to erupt with a string of insults. “Show us your Bandito tat,” one person shouted at Villanueva.

    Deixler, who is running for seat on the Board of Supervisors against incumbent Janice Hahn, then asked Villanueva if it was accurate that while serving as sheriff he had not been truthful about the existence of “deputy gangs, cliques, and subgroups.”

    “That’s false,” Villanueva replied.

    His testimony touched on such issues as his appointment of Tim Murakami, an allegedly tattooed member of the so-called Cavemen deputy gang, to the position of undersheriff, and his alleged order to department Capt. Matthew Burson 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.

    “Is he a Caveman?” Deixler asked, referring to Murakami. “It’s no secret that he was a member of the Cavemen, is it?”

    Villanueva appeared to dodge the question about Murakami.

    “He served honorably,” the former sheriff said. “You are disparaging him by the name on a tattoo. He’s a retired member of law enforcement in good standing. No, never referred to him (as a Caveman).”

    Deixler then played a tape of a debate between Villanueva and current Sheriff Robert Luna during the retired sheriff’s failed re-election bid two years ago. In the tape, Villanueva insists the phrase “deputy gangs” has become “a political buzzword” and that 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.”

    At one point during the contentious hearing, Villanueva defended his decision not to judge deputies based on any tattoos they might have.

    “There are a lot of deputies with tattoos, and if you try to eliminate all the deputies with tattoos with no evidence of misconduct, you are going to create a gargantuan public safety crisis,” he told the panel.

    The commission was notified of Villanueva’s decision to appear in a letter last month stating that the former top law enforcement officer of L.A. County “is very willing to testify” at the meeting and will “answer any questions you have under oath.”

    The decision came days after a 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.”

    Questioning at the oversight hearing also touched on a Friday article in the Los Angeles Times about 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 former sheriff said he did not have enough information to form an opinion.

    Villanueva also suggested that deputy cliques were “actually disappearing” as personnel changes, and tattoos are becoming more prevalent in the department.

    Despite often sarcastic, contentious questions and answers, Villanueva appeared to agree to return for more questioning in March.

    Last year, the commission’s 70-page report said at least a half-dozen deputy gangs or cliques are currently active throughout the Sheriff’s Department, and that misbehavior by members has already cost taxpayers more than $55 million.

    The report determined that new deputy cliques form as members of existing groups retire or otherwise leave the Sheriff’s Department.

    The special counsel also found evidence to suggest that gangs are reemerging in the Men’s Central Jail after efforts over the years to eradicate the problem of excessive force behind bars.

    The Board of Supervisors voted to create the commission in January 2016, giving it a mission to oversee and improve transparency and accountability in the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.

    Related Articles

    News |

    8 probation officers placed on leave after ‘significant incident’ at LA County juvenile hall

    The legal dispute with Villanueva began in 2020, after the supervisors granted the commission subpoena power, which voters then affirmed by approving Measure R. A few months later, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law granting subpoena power to oversight bodies statewide.

    Also in 2020, the commission issued a subpoena directing the sheriff to testify about his response to COVID-19 inside the jails, and the dispute ended up in court, with Villanueva avoiding a contempt hearing by agreeing to answer the commission’s questions voluntarily.

    Oversight officials issued more subpoenas, and Villanueva resisted them, which led to multiple court cases.

    A Rand Corp. 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.

    City News Service contributed to this report.

    ​ Orange County Register