The L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy-Gang Crisis

Villanueva has started referring to Huntsman, insinuatingly, by his birth name, Max-Gustaf Huntsman. In April, he announced that he had information that Huntsman is a Holocaust denier—an unfounded accusation that appeared connected to Huntsman’s father, a German, who did not raise him.

Villanueva has also targeted other public officials, searching the offices of a domestic-violence-prevention nonprofit, whose executive director served on the Civilian Oversight Commission, and pushing for an inquiry into Sachi Hamai, the county C.E.O., to determine if her pro-bono service on the board of the local United Way had been a conflict of interest, because the organization backed a county ballot initiative to fund social services. She filed a defamation claim, and won a settlement that included money for personal security.

Failing to eradicate the deputy gangs creates financial liability for the county. Since 1990, according to the Office of the Inspector General, settlements involving deputies with gang affiliations have cost taxpayers at least fifty-four million dollars. There may also be a less visible cost. Sean Kennedy, of the Civilian Oversight Commission, told me that deputy gangs threaten the integrity of the criminal courts. “If nearly twenty per cent of the department is gang-affiliated, that means that every day there are investigating officers and gang experts testifying in L.A. Superior Court against accused people who are gang members,” he said. “And yet no one is telling the accused or the public defender representing them that this person testifying is known to be, or believed to be by the department, a Bandito.” When he was in private practice, Kennedy represented at-risk juveniles with “gang enhancement” charges, which can add ten to fifteen years to a sentence for anyone convicted of committing a crime while in a gang. Kennedy’s teen-age clients pointed out the absurdity of the situation, he said: “They’d be, like, ‘The gang expert against me is in a gang himself!’ ”

Last year, the mid-career deputy told me, Carl Mandoyan approached her as she was coming due for a promotion to explain how she could gain advancement. Though he was no longer employed there, he was lingering around the sheriff’s department, trading on his relationship with the Villanuevas. “He said I needed to call Vivian, take her to lunch, buy her a nice gift, and ask her for career advice,” she said. “He told me about other people getting her expensive tequila, ’cause she likes tequila, and also getting her personalized gifts about their dog, Alvin, that had died—shadow boxes with the dog’s picture and all kinds of memorabilia.” (Mandoyan’s lawyer says that he has not been involved with the department since he was removed in 2019, and claimed that complaints about him were motivated by professional rivalries, adding, “There should be no doubt, Carl Mandoyan was seen as a threat by some.”)

In a recent story, the L.A. Times described Vivian as a power broker, working outside traditional channels to influence transfers and promotions. Several sources with direct knowledge of the situation told me that she makes critical personnel decisions, according to her sense of political expediency and personal loyalty.

The deputy who worked with Villanueva said that in the early days of the administration a promotion list was sent out to the department, according to protocol. “Alex was livid,” the deputy told me. “He said, ‘From now on, every list has to come through me.’ We soon realized that it was something that had to be taken home and vetted, and Carl was part of that discussion.” At times, the deputy said, these informal consultations could upend normal decision-making: “You can have the top five people in the department in the room, and they’ll convince him one way, and then he goes home and he’ll come back and completely reverse it.” Before long, the deputy said, Villanueva started calling Vivian from meetings and giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down based on her opinion: “He’d say, ‘Hey, babe, we’re talking about this.’ You could hear her voice on the phone.”

The deputy who worked with Villanueva said that he tried to protect the Sheriff from incriminating himself. “They didn’t want to hear it,” he said. “They were the rainmakers and they wanted to be involved in every decision.” When Vivian was angry at someone, the deputy said, she’d demand that Alex “send them to Siberia!” The deputy was tasked with explaining the constraints. “I’d say, ‘Ma’am, I get you’re upset, but we’re not going to do that,’ ” he told me. “She finally said, ‘Get him out of here.’ ” The deputy was removed from his position.

At some point, the East L.A. deputies figured out that Vivian was accessible. “She started building her network,” the mid-career deputy told me. “People associated with East L.A. have gotten promotions multiple times.” The deputy who worked with Villanueva said, “I call it the secret formula—get an introduction from someone in the inner circle, text her, and tell her your sob story.” The arrangement helps Vivian advance loyalists. According to the former insider, Vivian boasts, “I’ve got spies everywhere,” keeping tabs on those who might undermine her husband.

In a recent civil complaint about retaliation and workplace harassment, a recruit-training officer alleges that, when she dismissed an unqualified friend of Vivian’s, Vivian verbally abused her and sullied her reputation, saying, “I will go off on that bitch.” (The department disputes this account, and denies that Vivian has improper influence, noting, “Her input is always welcomed and taken from the perspective of a devoted wife supporting her husband in defending their community.”)

One particular friend of Vivian’s, Carrie Robles-Placencia, seems to have had her career saved by her proximity to power. One evening in November of 2017, Robles-Placencia, a trainee at East L.A. Station who reportedly had previously worked under Vivian, was driving a department S.U.V. to a call. Without turning on her siren, she ran a red light and collided with another car. In the resulting multi-car accident, Robles-Placencia accelerated onto the sidewalk, where she struck and killed two children, aged seven and nine, who were standing with their mother.

The L.A.P.D., which responded to the accident, found Robles-Placencia at fault, and the county has paid out more than $22 million in settlements. But the district attorney declined to file criminal charges, and Robles-Placencia has reportedly received no discipline. After Villanueva took office, he made her part of his Executive Projects Team, a group, made up largely of Vivian’s friends, that plans town-hall meetings and other events. Robles-Placencia still drives a county car and has often been seen with Vivian, whom she calls Mom.

Some deputies are discouraged by what they see as the corruption of Villanueva’s administration. The sheriff’s department is not “a criminal organization,” the retired East L.A. deputy said. “I’m not a crook. And it does a disservice to me and all the other good men and women. At East L.A., you’ve got a group of people there who need to be rooted out, and he’s an executive who won’t do it.”

At the recent Civilian Oversight Commission hearing, a current deputy from East L.A. testified under oath that the Banditos continue to disrupt the operations of the station. Fearing retribution, the witness called in, using voice alteration. Ten deputies, the witness said, had received Bandito tattoos eighteen months ago. Unprofessional and illegal behavior was going unpunished: Banditos and their associates loosened lug nuts on unpopular deputies’ vehicles; one associate pointed a gun at another deputy’s head in the locker room. After the hearing, Villanueva released a statement describing talk of deputy gangs as a “racist dog whistle” and the hearing as a “kangaroo court.”

At this point, Villanueva’s critics say, he is no longer an outsider to gang culture. “His conduct protects the gang, and in that sense he now has a gang affiliation,” Huntsman told me. “Anybody who believes in democracy or the rule of law should be very scared. Having a shadow government that actually controls what happens on the street can cause all the laws you write to have no impact on whether you get shot dead.”

Not long ago, I went to a rally outside Villanueva’s office at the Hall of Justice—or, as the organizers of the event call it, the Hall of Injustice. Operating under the banner of the Check the Sheriff Coalition, the activists were calling on the Board of Supervisors to introduce an amendment to the county charter that would allow them to impeach Villanueva. People filled the sidewalk, wearing buttons with slogans like “Cancel the Sheriff” and “Google LASD gangs.”

One woman, slight and pale, with neat center-parted hair, wore a jacket with large lettering on the back that read “Fuck the East L.A. Sheriff’s Department.” As she approached the microphone, she was introduced as Stephanie Luna.

“I am the aunt of Anthony Vargas, who was murdered in August of 2018,” she said. “My nephew was murdered by two deputies that were chasing ink, from the East L.A. sheriff’s station.”

The deputies, looking for an armed robber, had come across Vargas, who was twenty-one, walking through the Nueva Maravilla housing community. He ran away, stumbling; when they tackled him, they said, he refused to show his hands. One of the deputies said he saw a gun in Vargas’s hand and thought that he was about to kill them. They shot him twelve times in the back and the head, and once in the arm. A semi-automatic handgun was reported found under Vargas’s body. According to the district attorney, who ruled the shooting lawful, “the gun was registered to an unknown party in the state of Arizona.” DNA analysis of the gun was inconclusive: there were fragments from two men, one of whom could have been, but was not definitely, Vargas. The gun, which the deputies maintained he’d held in his hand, had no prints on it.


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