Former LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva testifies on deputy gangs

After defying subpoenas to testify under oath about deputy gangs, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva finally appeared Friday before a civilian policing hearing and acknowledged the existence of "subgroups" within the sheriff's department.

Refusing to label the groups "gangs," Villanueva told the panel that sheriff's subgroups "have always existed in one shape or another across time" and likened them to "softball teams."

The statement was a reversal from the ex-sheriff's previous stance that such cliques did not exist within LASD.

Special counsel Bert H. Deixler, who is leading the county's Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission probe, then asked Villanueva -- who is running for county supervisor against incumbent Janice Hahn -- whether elected officials and those seeking office have an obligation to speak truthfully when addressing the public.

"Always," the former sheriff responded.

Deixler: "You haven't always told the truth to the public about deputy gangs, cliques and subgroups in the sheriff's department, have you, sir?"

Villanueva answered, "False."

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

The hearing Friday before a packed house at Loyola Law School was broadcast online on several platforms, including YouTube.

The commission was notified of Villanueva's decision to appear in a letter last month stating that the former lawman "is very willing to testify" at the meeting and will "answer any questions you have under oath."

The decision came days after a county judge scheduled a hearing to decide whether to order the former sheriff to comply with the commission's subpoenas.

Villanueva has maintained his position that "there are no deputy gangs," describing the cliques as "subgroups of people that somehow occasionally engage in misconduct."

However, a report last April by the commission's special counsel described deputy gangs as a "cancer" that "must be excised."

Villanueva's nearly four-hour testimony touched on such issues as his appointment of Tim Murakami, an allegedly tattooed member of so-called deputy gang the Caveman, to the position of undersheriff, and his alleged order to Matthew Burson, a captain in the department, 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.

A Rand Corporation 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.

Questioning at the oversight hearing also touched on Friday's Los Angeles Times story regarding 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.

A 2021 Loyola Law School report identified 18 such groups, known by names like the Grim Reapers, the Banditos and the Executioners -- and now the previously unknown Industry Indians, according to the Times.

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 ex-sheriff said he did not have enough information to form an opinion.

The former lawman also suggested that deputy cliques were "actually disappearing" as personnel changes, and tattoos are becoming 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 L.A. County 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 re-emerging in the Men's Central Jail after efforts over the years to eradicate the problem of excessive force behind bars.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to implement the commission in January 2016 with the mission to oversee and improve transparency and accountability with respect to the department.

The legal dispute with the former sheriff 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.