LOS ANGELES — When Sgt. Jefferson Chow started investigating a fight between deputies assigned to the East L.A. sheriff’s station, he was instructed by a supervisor to question witnesses about groups of deputies that behaved something like street gangs.
But, within a few weeks, that instruction changed. The sergeant was told questions about the Banditos or other similar groups in the department didn’t need to be part of his investigation, according to a log Chow kept.
The about-face in late 2018 came as Alex Villanueva, who had recently been elected sheriff, was beginning to exert his control over the department.
Parts of Chow’s log were made public Tuesday on the first day of public hearings that are part of an investigation into “deputy gangs” launched by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, which oversees the Sheriff’s Department.
“I believe the manner in which this case was investigated and presented amounted to a cover-up — essentially obstruction of justice,” Inspector General Max Huntsman testified at the hearing.
Chow, who did not testify Tuesday, was assigned to the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau at the time, a unit that investigates criminal misconduct by deputies. The district attorney’s office declined to file charges in the case, but Huntsman claimed prosecutors didn’t know the full story because Chow’s investigation did not look meaningfully at allegations that deputies who instigated the fight were Banditos members.
Along with Huntsman, three others — Lt. Larry Waldie, who once led the Compton sheriff’s station, retired Cmdr. Eli Vera, who is running against Villanueva for sheriff, and an anonymous Sheriff’s Department member assigned to East L.A. station — testified under oath at Tuesday’s four-hour hearing. They were questioned by Bert Deixler, a former federal prosecutor who is leading the commission’s investigation.
The Sheriff’s Department for decades has been roiled by allegations that the groups run roughshod over several stations, controlling commanders and glorifying aggressive policing tactics.
In a statement posted to social media, Villanueva said that the hearing featured “wildly unconstitutional and bizarre theatrics.”
“This scripted and well-rehearsed political stunt was designed to influence the outcome of the election. No judge, no opposing counsel, no objections, no cross-examination, a true kangaroo court,” he said.
He has taken credit for addressing the groups by instituting a policy that prohibits deputies from joining groups that promote behavior violating the rights of others.
“The term ‘deputy gang’ has become a racist dog whistle, a fact-free straw man argument designed for political purposes and financial gain,” he said.
The testimony and exhibits presented Tuesday mostly focused on two groups: the Banditos at the East L.A. sheriff’s station and the Executioners at the Compton station.
The anonymous employee testified using voice distortion technology. The person said that there are about 12 to 15 Banditos currently at East L.A. station, and that about a year and a half ago, 10 new Banditos were “inked,” receiving the matching tattoos that allegedly signal membership.
The person also alleged the Banditos called for a work slowdown last summer after deputies believed they were getting unfairly disciplined.
Waldie said there were about 10 to 15 Executioners assigned to the Compton station — none were women or Black people — when he was the acting captain in 2019.
He identified the head of the group as Jaime Juarez, who he testified had been previously removed from patrol and put in a role where he had “no contact with the public” because he’d been involved in multiple shootings. Deixler presented documents showing Juarez had been in four shootings from 2006 to 2015.
Waldie testified that when Undersheriff Tim Murakami permitted Juarez to return to patrol assignments, Juarez suggested a list of people to replace him as scheduling deputy, a powerful assignment.
Waldie told Juarez he was going to pick a scheduling deputy that had no affiliation with any tattoo “for the fairness of the community.”
“I said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you,’” Waldie testified. Juarez then told him that he and others were going to initiate a work slowdown, meaning that deputies would do less proactive police work and take longer to respond to calls for service, Waldie said. Over a four-week period in March 2019, crime went up and arrests went down, Waldie said.
In one case, he said, it took 45 minutes for deputies to respond to a disturbance. And when a deputy who refused to participate arrested someone for a gun-related offense during that period, the deputy was reprimanded by an Executioner, Waldie said.
Deixler presented text messages between Waldie and another department member discussing the slowdown at the time.
As of Friday, Juarez was second on an eligibility list to be promoted to detective, according to a promotion list Deixler presented. Juarez could not immediately be reached for comment.
A few months after the slowdown, Waldie said, the Executioners were going to a bar in Fullerton to celebrate a shootout two deputies had been involved in. When Waldie reported the celebration to his supervisor, the supervisor told him it “shouldn’t be a problem.”
Waldie testified that he had been particularly concerned about the celebration because an uninvolved bystander had been killed in the shootout — and the deputies who initiated the pursuit that led to the shootout had someone detained in the backseat of the patrol car during the pursuit.©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.