The federal probe follows
allegations of beatings and harassment by members of the Banditos, a
group of deputies assigned to the Sheriff’s East L.A. station
By Maya Lau and Joel Rubin
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — The FBI is investigating a secret
society of tattooed deputies in East Los Angeles as well as similar
gang-like groups elsewhere within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s
Department, multiple people familiar with the inquiry said.
federal probe follows allegations of beatings and harassment by members
of the Banditos, a group of deputies assigned to the Sheriff’s East L.A.
station who brand themselves with matching tattoos of a skeleton
outfitted in a sombrero, bandolier and pistol. The clique’s members are
accused by other deputies of using gang-like tactics to recruit young
Latino deputies into their fold and retaliating against those who rebuff
In interviews with several deputies, FBI agents have asked about the
inner workings of the Banditos and the group’s hierarchy, according to
three people with close knowledge of the matter who spoke to The Times
on the condition their names not be used because the investigation is
In particular, the sources said, agents have been trying
to determine whether leaders of the Banditos require or encourage
aspiring members to commit criminal acts, such as planting evidence or
writing false incident reports, to secure membership in the group.
agents also have inquired about other groups known to exist in a
department that polices the sprawling county and has nearly as many
peace officers as the LAPD. They have asked for information about the
tattoos and practices of the Spartans and Regulators in the department’s
Century Station, and the Reapers, who operate out of a station in South
Los Angeles, according to the sources.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva
said he could not comment when asked about the FBI probe Wednesday. An
FBI spokeswoman also declined to provide any information.
inquiry marks the return of federal law enforcement authorities tasked
with digging around in the Sheriff’s Department, which has been beset by
episodes of corruption and mismanagement in the past several years.
2011, the FBI secretly opened an investigation into reports of inmate
abuse by deputies working in the county jails. The sweeping probe
involving an inmate who served as an undercover informant upended the
insular department, sending several deputies to prison for beatings and
cover-ups. Former Sheriff Lee Baca, his second-in-command and other
senior staff were convicted of conspiring to obstruct the FBI.
current investigation appears to have been spurred by a group of
deputies who in March filed a legal claim against the county accusing
sheriff’s officials of failing to address a hostile work environment in
the East L.A. station. The deputies say Bandito leaders, who are alleged
to control key elements of station operations, put others’ lives at
risk by not sending backup to help on dangerous calls, enforced illegal
arrest quotas and carried out other forms of harassment.
claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, focuses on what deputies say was an
unprovoked attack by members of the Banditos during an off-duty party in
the early morning hours of Sept. 28 at Kennedy Hall, an event space
near the station.
The altercation started when four Banditos began
harassing a rookie, according to the claim. Two other deputies said
they intervened; one was struck repeatedly in the face, while the other
was punched and kicked multiple times before being choked and losing
consciousness, the claim says.
The lawmen accused in the claim —
Deputies David Silverio, Gregory Rodriguez and Rafael Munoz, and Sgt.
Mike Hernandez — were placed on paid administrative leave after the
incident. The Sheriff’s Department presented a criminal case involving
the four men to the district attorney’s office on June 19.
Risling, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said Wednesday
that charges have not been filed and the case remains under review. He
declined to comment when asked whether federal officials have asked his
office to hold off on the prosecution.
Villanueva has acknowledged
the pervasive influence of the Banditos at the East L.A. Station,
saying they “ran roughshod” over the previous captain and dictated where
deputies would be assigned, enabled by the weak leadership of past
He has repeatedly said that his first act upon
taking office Dec. 3 was to bring in a new captain, Ernie Chavez, to
quell the Banditos situation.
“Chavez identified the problem and
the problem players, and he’s been doing a commendable job of sifting
through them to get the station up and running to serve the community,”
Last month, Villanueva announced a new policy
that specifically bars department members from participating in any
groups that promote conduct that violates the rights of other employees
or the public. The policy says that such groups often organize under a
symbol or tattoo and increase the risk of civil liability to the agency.
sheriff claims he transferred from the station 36 people who were
associated with the Banditos or were otherwise identified as
But Chavez, in an interview Wednesday, said that the
36 transfers simply reflect the general group of deputies who left the
station since January, and that all of the departures were voluntary,
some because of promotions. He said he did not know how many people
allegedly tied to the Banditos were transferred.
Villanueva said he thinks there is no longer a hostile work environment at the East L.A. Station.
“Now that it’s been broken up and scattered, I’d say yeah, it’s over,” he said.
Miller, an attorney for the deputies who filed the claim about the
Banditos, stated in supplemental claims that the department has not held
all of the problematic deputies accountable and said some of his
clients have suffered ongoing emotional stress because of the situation.
reports about cliques of law enforcement officers occasionally surface
across the country, no agency has received more public scrutiny for them
than the Sheriff’s Department in Los Angeles County.
secretive groups have been entrenched in the department for decades.
Defenders say the cliques are harmless fraternities, likening them to
close-knit groups in the military. But time and again, the deputy clubs
have come under fire for promoting aggressive tactics and an
A watchdog panel in 1992 pressed the
Sheriff’s Department to address the problem. Two decades later, a
blue-ribbon commission sharply criticized the department for turning a
blind eye and allowing the groups to use excessive force against people
in the county jails and on the streets.
The Times reported last
year that a new tattooed club of lawmen surfaced at the Compton Station
after a deputy there admitted under oath to having ink of a skeleton
holding a rifle. The deputy — who was accused of excessive force in the
fatal shooting of an unarmed man — said as many as 20 of his colleagues
have the same tattoo.
The county recently reached a $7-million
settlement in a lawsuit after attorneys for the slain man’s family said
the shooting was driven by the hard-charging policing of inked deputies.
a separate case last year, a Palmdale Station deputy admitted in a
deposition to having a tattoo of a skull in a cowboy hat that matched
the ink of several other lawmen at his station.
internal documents showed that Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan — who was
fired for domestic violence and dishonesty and later was rehired by
Villanueva — acknowledged having a tattoo as a member of the Reapers.
alleged attack by Banditos on fellow deputies echoed a 2010 incident in
which a clique of deputies from a high-security floor in Men’s Central
Jail brawled with other deputies at a Christmas party. Sheriff’s
officials accused the group of using gang-like hand signs and said
jailers tried to “earn their ink” by breaking inmates’ bones.
recent allegations are not the first against the Banditos. In 2014, the
county paid a female deputy assigned to the East L.A. Station $1.5
million to settle a lawsuit in which she claimed she had been physically
and mentally harassed by some of the clique’s 80 members after refusing
to go along with their “traditions and initiation rituals.”
the time, then-interim Sheriff John Scott announced that he would share
the results of an investigation into claims of bullying by the Banditos.
The probe, however, has remained confidential.