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New Lawsuit Focuses On Alleged L.A. County Deputy ‘Gangs’

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was elected on the promise of reforming the scandal-plagued sheriff’s department. But eight deputies now accuse Sheriff Villanueva of allowing a violent group, the Banditos, to thrive in his department’s ranks.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow.

A 63-page civil lawsuit, filed on Sept. 18 in California Superior Court, alleges that the gang’s power stems from its close ties to Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who was elected in 2018 on the promise to “reform, rebuild and restore” the scandal-plagued department. Since then, however, disillusionment with Villaneuva has grown over several of his decisions, including deactivating misconduct investigations. In July, Los Angeles Magazine dubbed him “the Donald Trump of L.A. Law Enforcement.” And the eight deputies allege in their complaint that Villanueva protects the Banditos and other deputy gangs, even rehiring deputies fired for misconduct.   

According to the lawsuit, the approximately 90-member Banditos maintain a “stranglehold” on the unincorporated communities east of downtown through a reign of unlawful policing, violence, and intimidation from their base at the East Los Angeles station. Members sport tattoos featuring a pistol-wielding, sombrero and bandolier-wearing skeleton with a thick mustache and a unique number for each member.

The litigation comes at a moment both deputy gangs and Villanueva are under heightened scrutiny. In July, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI is examining alleged violent acts committed by deputy gangs, including the Banditos. According to the new lawsuit, a former veteran of the sheriff’s department told the agency’s Civilian Oversight Commission that 15 to 20 percent of deputies are gang members. On October 1, The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to freeze sheriff’s department’s spending, citing its “staggering” budget deficit. 

“The sheriff is trying to wrongfully minimize the impact of these gangs,” plaintiffs’ attorney Vincent Miller told The Appeal. In addition to monetary damages, Miller is seeking to have a judge compel formal reforms to internal policies in the sheriff’s department to dismantle the deputy cliques and prevent their further rise. 

Deputy gangs such as the Grim Reapers, the Jump Out Boys, and the Regulators have been accused of brutality and unconstitutional policing in Los Angeles for decades. But the sheriff’s department has not cracked down on the gangs, despite the recommendations of three independent oversight bodies since the early 1990s. Former Sheriff Lee Baca’s second in command, Paul Tanaka, was allegedly a former member of the Lynwood Vikings, described by a federal judge as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang.” In 2016, Tanaka admitted that he sports the Vikings tattoo and he was also convicted of obstructing an FBI investigation. In 2017, Baca was convicted in federal court for obstructing an FBI inquiry into abuses in county jails by a deputy gang known as the 3000 Boys

The lawsuit alleges that Sheriff Villanueva fails to hold Banditos members and allies accountable for egregious, sometimes deadly misconduct. In 2017, according to the lawsuit, Deputy Carrie Robles-Plascencia ran a red light in a patrol vehicle, which left two children dead and their mother seriously injured. The lawsuit alleges that Sheriff Villanueva “buried” an Internal Affairs investigation into the incident because he has a personal relationship with Robles-Plascencia, and she calls Villanueva “dad” and his wife “mom.”

Miller told The Appeal that while researching the lawsuit, he was struck by the contrast between the internal culture at the sheriff’s department and the Los Angeles Police Department. “You have one department that doesn’t have a cop gang problem and the other one does,” Miller said. “You can trace that back to the Rampart scandal and the changes that were forced on LAPD by the consent decree.”

Sheriff Villanueva and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Appeal. 

According to the lawsuit, Banditos leader Rafael “Big Listo” Munoz has claimed that he is protected by Sheriff Villanueva. Villanueva rehired Munoz after he was terminated for a domestic violence incident and, according to the complaint, his return led to an increasingly violent Banditos culture “where he could severely abuse the trainees and create a new breed of aggressive prospects.” Another alleged senior Bandito, Gregory “G-Rod” Rodriguez, was reinstated after being relieved of duty for falsely detaining a suspect resulting in a $549,000 legal settlement

The lawsuit also claims that when Munoz ran over an elderly immigrant, a Banditos-connected sergeant traveled to the scene and “took care of the situation by advising Big Listo to arrest the victim and have him deported so he could not talk.” 

Deputies who don’t obey the gang, the plaintiffs allege, are routinely harassed and even denied backup in the field. According to the lawsuit, on Sept. 19, 2018, Banditos allegedly refused to provide backup to two deputies who pulled over a van in East Los Angeles. A gunfight ensued, ending with both deputies wounded and one suspect shot dead. On another occasion, Banditos members allegedly removed ammunition from the shotgun of one of the plaintiffs, “hoping to set him up to be killed in the field,” and withheld backup from that deputy when he responded to dangerous calls. 

The Banditos allegedly support themselves through “taxes” levied on other deputies in the form of fraudulent fundraisers. Female deputies are not permitted to join the gang, but are allegedly pressured to perform sexual acts on members. The lawsuit claims that by occupying key positions at the East Los Angeles station, Banditos members are able to undercut the authority of their commanding officer and effectively run the substation themselves. 

The prevalence of the Banditos at the East Los Angeles station came to light after a September 2018 melee outside a promotion ceremony that left two deputies hospitalized.  Before the fight, one Bandito allegedly threatened to kill another deputy, stating, “I have no problem fucking with you and your family and if I can’t do it directly I can find someone who can.” Alleged Banditos leader Munoz was later placed on paid administrative leave as part of an investigation into the incident. 

The complaint ties broader claims of excessive violence, false arrests, and racially motivated stops by law enforcement in East Los Angeles to the Banditos, harking back to some of the worst allegations leveled against anti-gang officers in the Los Angeles Police Department. During that time, one officer, David Mack, openly claimed allegiance to the Bloods when he began his federal prison term on drug charges. 

“Due to the illegal policing practices by the Banditos gang, and its culture which dominates the station, the numbers of stops and arrests of community members in East Los Angeles are excessive,” the lawsuit claims. “The East Los Angeles station also generates an inordinate number of lawsuits, harassment claims, and acts of violence, including violence against fellow deputies.”

Brutality is celebrated at the East Los Angeles station, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that Deputy Gregory Rodriguez boasted about physically harming fleeing suspects. “If they run from me, I make sure they come back with broken bones,” Rodriguez said, according to the complaint.  

Deputies in other gangs have been linked to fatal police shootings and excessive force. In June 2016, 31-year-old Donta Taylor was gunned down during a foot chase by two deputies, who falsely claimed that Taylor was armed with a pistol. Samuel Aldama, one of the deputies who shot Taylor, admitted in a May 2018 deposition that he had a tattoo corresponding with a gang that operated out of the Compton station. Aldama insisted that the tattoo did not signify gang allegiance. However, in a deposition he admitted to having ill will toward African Americans.  In June, Los Angeles County settled the Taylor family lawsuit for $7 million

Despite the costly litigation and increased media attention, accountability for deputy gangs appears to be fleeting. Indeed, the Banditos lawsuit claims that Sheriff Villanueva boasted of his ability to survive political turmoil. “My career has been killed so many times over I’ve been like Freddy Krueger,” Villanueva allegedly said, referring to the horror movie character. “I keep rising from the dead. They think they got me, but I rise again.”