17 New Defendants Identified in Ongoing Suit Against the Banditos and LASD
More names have been revealed in connection with alleged ties to the Banditos deputy gang.
Attorneys representing a group of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies who claimed to have been harassed and brutalized by the Banditos deputy gang at the East Los Angeles Station have filed a fifth amended complaint naming 17 additional associates of the group. The plaintiffs originally filed claims in 2019, stating they had been attacked, beaten, and denied backup as a result of refusing to cooperate with the gang.
Before this amendment, alleged members and associates of the gang included; Commander April Tardy; Captains Ernie Chavez (an alleged Vikings gang member), Richard Mejia, and Chris Perez; Lieutenants Eric Smitson, Anthony Easter, Edmundo Torres; Sergeant Angelica Estrada (AKA the Pink Hand); Rafael “Rene” Munoz (AKA Big Listo); Gregory Rodriguez (AKA G-Rod); David Silverio (AKA Silver); Michael Hernandez (AKA Bam Bam); Vincent Moran; Hector Soto Saavedra, who killed Paul Rea in 2019; Jeff Hamil; Jeff Chow; William Jaeger; Scott Chapman; Raymond Mendoza; Luis Carbajal; Braulio Robledo; Jonathan Rojas, who killed Anthony Vargas in 2018; Eldemira Para; Andrea Villa; Marc Elizondo; Nikolis Perez, who killed Anthony Vargas and Jorge Serrano in 2018; Kelly Porowsky; Woodrow Kim; Juan Sanchez; Aaron Abellano; Silvano Garcia; Joanna Macs Moran; Joanana Palombi; Jose Aceituno; Anthony Pacheco; Soraya Sanchez; Karla Sepulveda; Marcelo Ortega; Diana Woodward; Eduardo Muniz; Rebecca Cortez; Joe Mendoza; Erin Rosario; Jessica Santos; John Soria; Miguel Ortiz; Claudia Perez; Brian Goodwin; Manuel Palacios; Jodi Hutak; Pablo Partida; Noel Lopez; and Christopher Moore.
In this latest filing, the plaintiffs have identified 17 additional alleged associates of the Banditos by name: Undersheriff Timothy Murakami (a tattooed Caveman), Sergeant Hugo Reynaga, Edmundo Torres, Hugo Ramos, Mario Castro, Manny Navarro, Nikki Hanamaki, Vincent Choi, James Wolack, Chris Blasnek, Albert Maldonado, Leo Sanchez, Elizabeth Aguilera, Luis Valle, Bobby Denham, and Anthony Rivera.
Deputies Alfred Gonzalez, Oscar Escobedo, Ariela Lemus, Art Hernandez, Mario Contreras, David Casas, Louis Granados, and Benjamin Zaredini, the latter of whom was previously accused of being a Bandito, claim to have suffered at the hands of the gang for the past four years.
Deputy gangs have existed within the LASD for at least 50 years. Deputy gang members, or those seeking membership, have shot at least 19 County residents to death in that time. Gang culture is reinforced by older employees who reward newer recruits who subscribe to it. Those who do not are pushed out. The Banditos are at least the third gang to emerge from the East LA Station. Membership for the gang is exclusively Latino: women and Black employees are not allowed to join. Many who are not recruited go along with the gang’s requirements for fear of retaliation.
In their claim, the deputies allege that Raymond Mendoza, Jonathan Rojas, Woodrow Kim, Juan Sanchez, and Luis Valle have recently served and continue to serve as field training officers (FTO). In this role, the FTOs are able to abuse their trainees without any accountability. Bandito FTOs would demand “taxes,” handing their trainees empty envelopes and telling them to fill them with money, sometimes up to $2,000, by the end of the day. The money has been used for legal fees for some defendants in the claim and vacations for Banditos members to Thailand.
The trainees were reportedly told that if they stole anything from a suspect, they should dispose of it outside of the station. Gregory Rodriguez would also allegedly advise the younger deputies to carry a bag with them to plant evidence on suspects. Rodriguez also bragged that “If [civilians] run from me, I make sure they come back with broken bones.” Hector “Little Listo” Soto Saavedra allegedly drove around solely to attack civilians. Banditos prospects Rojas, Perez, and Saavedra were allegedly given membership tattoos following the shooting deaths of Vargas and Rea. None of them appear to have been disciplined for the shootings.
The complaint alleges that the Banditos have controlled scheduling, assignments, and promotions at the East Los Angeles Station until relatively recently. Sergeant Angelica “Pink Hand” Estrada and John Soria were able to carry out the Banditos’ wishes with the blessings of station leadership such as Lieutenant Eric Smitson and Captain Ernie Chavez. Members of the gang are given special privileges, like preferred parking spaces. Decisions such as station fundraisers and events must be roundtabled at the home of Noel “Crook” Lopez or Marc Elizondo.
The Banditos initially attempted to recruit some of the plaintiffs. Rafael Munoz approached Casas on at least two occasions to ask him to be his “eyes and ears” in the southern part of the precinct. After Casas rejected the Bandito’s recruitment attempts, he faced harassment. Casas also says he received several intimidating messages from the Banditos, including demands to stop working at the station and threats of assault. In 2016, Munoz, Deputies David “Silver” Silverio, Vincent Moran, Anthony Pacheco, Leo Sanchez, and associate Andrea Villa forced Casas to pay “taxes” to the gang — a scheme allegedly cooked up by Noel Lopez, Mark Elizondo, Munoz, Rodriguez, and Silverio. The same crew also allegedly hatched a plan to overload deputies who did not obey the Banditos with emergency calls.
In fall of 2017, Munoz sent Raymond Mendoza, an alleged Banditos shot caller, to confront Deputy Zaredini about not being hostile enough to Deputy Alfred Gonzalez. When Zaredini did not follow the Bandito’s orders to pressure Gonzalez to leave the station, Mendoza knocked him unconscious behind the East LA Station. Zaredini did not report the incident for fear of retaliation by the gang. However, he and Deputy Louis Granados reported harassment that they had observed at the hands of Banditos to Captain (then Lieutenant) Richard Mejia. Mejia opened an inquiry into Munoz and reported it to Lieutenant Eric Smitson and Captain Chris Perez. However, the claim states the memo only focused on Munoz’s harassment and intentionally downplayed the role of the gang in the station’s operation. Smitson, Perez, and Sergeant Estrada informed the Banditos that Granados and Zaredini had blown the whistle.
Soon afterwards, Zaredini was removed as an FTO and lost his bonus pay. The claim charges that Mejia admitted the action was improper, and that Commander (then Captain) Ernie Chavez and Commander Eli Vera (a candidate for sheriff) stated the action was retaliatory. Zaredini retroactively received the bonus pay, but was denied a promotion by Captain Chavez and Undersheriff Timothy Murakami.
Deputy Louis Granados claims that his number of calls went up in 2018 after he blew the whistle on the Banditos with Deputy Zaredini. Munoz, Eldemira Parra, Andrea Villa, and Claudia Perez controlled the calls through dispatch, and would send Granados and other plaintiffs out at the end of their shifts, forcing them to stay past their work time. Although the plaintiffs were overwhelmed with calls, they were also denied backup by Munoz, Silverio, Rodriguez, Hector Soto Saavedra, Braulio Robledo, Jonathan Rojas, Nikolis Perez, Juan Sanchez, Aaron Abellano, Silvano Garcia, Claudia Perez, Vincent Moran, Edelmira Parra, Andrea Villa, and Eldimerra Parra.
The claim states that it is easy for deputies to record that they provided backup when they did not, by manually inputting the data into the Mobile Digital Computer inside their patrol vehicle. Deputy Zaredini was allegedly left without backup for most of the summer of 2018 under the direction of Munoz, Eldemira Parra, Andrea Villa, and Claudia Perez. The other plaintiff deputies would provide assistance, despite the fact they would have to go outside of their respective areas of service. Zaredini’s partner worked 12-14 hour shifts because he feared what would happen to Zaredini alone.
The claim states that Captain Mejia wrote a memo in June of 2018 to the County recommending an investigation into the Banditos. The memo included an anonymous letter detailing the Banditos’ wrongdoings. Mejia later lied in a deposition and claimed he didn’t see the letter until 2019. Lieutenant Eric Simpson allegedly buried the memo under the orders of Chief Bobby Denham. Mejia also claimed to have forgotten texts and phone calls he received from Deputy Oscar Escobedo reporting the hostile work environment.
Just a few months later, Deputy Gregory Rodriguez made one final attempt to recruit Deputy Mario Contreras to the gang. Rodriguez told Contreras that he was going to be assigned to ride along with Munoz. When Contreras reported this to Captain Mejia, he instead suggested that Contreras ride with Deputy Juan Sanchez instead, who is allegedly affiliated with a street gang, as well as being an inked Banditos member.
On September 26, 2018, Deputies Munoz, Silverio, Rodriguez, and Moran apparently planned to attack Deputy Gonzales in order to make an example out of him. Munoz, Moran, and Rodriguez cornered Gonzalez and pressured him to leave the station. The next evening, LASD held a department-sponsored party at Kennedy Hall. Several members of the Banditos showed up, which was uncommon, according to court documents. Vincent Miller, an attorney for the whistleblower deputies, says that the gang was looking for Gonzalez, but didn’t hesitate to beat up other deputies as well, including: Deputies Jose Fuentes, Art Hernandez, Oscar Escobedo, and David Casas. Deputy Christopher Moore, who was on-duty and assigned to the party, stood by and watched the assault. Moore allegedly reported the attack directly to Banditos shot caller Raymond Mendoza.
Escobedo and Hernandez were brutally beaten and went to the emergency room for treatment.
Deputies Garcia, Rodriguez, Munoz, and Silverio fled the scene in Garcia’s car and drove to the East LA Station. Art Hernandez’s lawsuit charges that there is a video which shows members of the Banditos gathered at the station following the fight, preparing a cover story together. Prospects like Deputy Hector “Little Listo” Saavedra sent texts laughing about the “245” (assault and battery) and advised others to “burn” and “destroy” evidence. LASD does not appear to have disciplined anyone for the text exchange.
Lieutenant Eric Smitson allegedly confronted Hernandez and pressured him to lie and say the attack at Kennedy Hall had been an isolated, drunken two-way “altercation.” Sheriff Alex Villanueva also repeated that claim to Captain William Jaeger, Chief Kelly Porowski, and investigators Jeff Chow, Vincent Choi, Jeff Hamil, and Scott Chapman. Hernandez’s former FTO Marcelo “Reaper” Ortega and Contreras’ former FTO Elizondo also told him not to speak about what had happened. Bandito godfather Sergeant Eric Valdez told Hernandez to tell the truth, as he was horrified with the gang’s behavior. Hernandez told investigators the truth. Chief Bobby Denham moved to initiate a fake investigation into the attack. Denham was later promoted to assistant sheriff by Sheriff Villanueva, and retired in 2019.
When Sheriff Villanueva took over the department in December of 2018, he made it a priority to reinstate former employees with ties to deputy gangs, including Undersheriff Murakami and Caren “Carl” Mandoyan, a Grim Reaper. Former Undersheriff Ray Leyva stated in a deposition that Villanueva made a settlement with Deputy Gregory Rodriguez, a Bandito, shortly after Rodriguez was involved in the attack at Kennedy Hall. Rodriguez was rehired despite being charged with falsifying the police report concerning the unlawful detainment and beating of Christopher Gray. According to court documents, Villanueva also reinstated Danny “Batman” Batanero, one of the original 10 Banditos, and made him head of his security detail. The lawsuit also charges that Banditos shot caller Manny Navaro was hired to be Villanueva’s driver, and that Bandito Joe Mendoza was promoted to “Commander of LASD Media Relations.”
The Banditos grip on the station tightened in the months following Villanueva’s swearing in. Two weeks after the ceremony, the Banditos gang removed ammunition from Deputy Zaredini’s shotgun. The incident was never investigated, despite it being reported, according to the complaint. The gang also denied Zaredini and Lemus backup. The other plaintiff deputies continued to face harassment from Banditos associates. When the Internal Affairs Bureau initiated an investigation into the Banditos, lead investigator Jeff Hamil allegedly followed Villanueva’s orders to complete a fake investigation. Inspector General Max Huntsman said that the investigation “almost completely ignored evidence of the involvement of the Banditos which led to the assaultive conduct at Kennedy Hall,” and that the investigation into the Banditos was a “cover up” by the sheriff and LASD. Huntsman also said LASD ignored evidence that “exists to support the conclusion that the Banditos are a gang-like clique and their influence has resulted in favoritism, sexism, racism, and violence… ICIB did not want to delve into the Banditos’ involvement.”
In May 2019, Contreras was denied backup by Deputies Nikolis Perez and Jonathan Rojas, both Banditos. Instead of assisting Contreras, Perez and Rojas drove by and mocked him, according to the complaint. Deputies Alfred Gonzalez, Oscar Escobedo, Ariela Lemus, Art Hernandez, Mario Contreras, David Casas, Louis Granados, and Benjamin Zaredini filed an internal complaint with Los Angeles County in March of 2019. Immediately afterwards, then Banditos prospect Hector “Little Listo” Saavedra allegedly claimed Zaredini called him a homophobic slur over one year prior. Deputy Woodrow Kim, who was listed as a witness, stated Saavedra was lying about the claim in the IA investigation. However Deputy Brian Goodwin, Commander Chris Blasnek, and Commander James Wolak rigged the investigation to support a seven-day suspension of Zaredini, according to the lawsuit. Murakami instructed Wolak to uphold the suspension on Villanueva’s orders. Saavedra also attempted to have Gonzalez investigated for wrongfully sitting in a car with a victim, a claim that the complaint alleges to be completely fabricated.
Deputy Lemus was overloaded with calls by the alleged morning Banditos shot caller, Raymond Mendoza. According to the complaint, Mendoza also conducted personal business while on duty and ordered her to do his work. When Lemus went to Captain Chavez with a complaint, Chavez told her he liked how Mendoza “controlled the line.” Afterwards, he and Lieutenant Anthony Easter reopened a citizen complaint against Lemus where a victim charged she had taken too long to take him to the hospital. Lemus’ supervisor, Hugo Reynaga, initially marked the matter as resolved. Following her complaint to Chavez, Internal Affairs opened an investigation into the matter, resulting in a two-day suspension.
Internal Affairs investigator Eric Barron, allegedly a member of the Regulators, argued with plaintiff Deputy Mario Contreras’ counsel that the Banditos’ conduct did not constitute racial discrimination, because Latinos were targeting other Latinos. Contreras and the other plaintiffs requested transfers out of the station, which were denied without explanation for weeks. Lemus, Contreras, Hernandez, and Escobedo were told they could move to another gang-dominated station, or a station far from their homes. This method of punishment is known as “freeway therapy.” Zaredini’s transfer was allegedly denied in order to initiate another investigation into him for being “stern” with the trainee of Regulators associate Deputy Karla Sepulveda, resulting in a two-day suspension.
A second investigation into the Kennedy Hall incident initiated by Sheriff Villanueva resulted in the termination of Deputies Gregory Rodriguez, David Silverio, and Sergeant Michael Hernandez, all members of the Banditos. However, the inquiry did not examine the allegations of withholding backup, according to the complaint. Instead plaintiffs Oscar Escobedo, Art Hernandez, Mario Contreras, and Ariela Lemus were disciplined for charges stemming from the party at Kennedy Hall, effectively punishing them for being assaulted. The Sheriff’s wife, a retired LASD employee, allegedly put out messages telling deputy gang members to keep their heads up.
During the course of the investigations, the complaint alleges multiple Banditos members and associates lied about their knowledge of the gang and said they did not see the attacks. Between 2019 and 2020, Sheriff Villanueva lied when he repeatedly claimed he transferred 36 Banditos out of the East LA Station and directed the Captain to investigate the gang. Commander Ernie Chavez has admitted Villanueva did not transfer any Banditos, nor ask Chavez to investigate. In reality, Villanueva sent notices to terminate Banditos Rafael Munoz, Gregory Rodriguez, and David Silverio, as well as discipline plaintiff deputies in what appears to be retaliation.
The lawsuit also alleges that the plaintiff deputies have been continually harassed through the filing of the amendment. Deputy Lemus was stormed by Bandito associate Rebecca Cortez at a County detention facility. While Deputy Granados encountered other deputies firing guns at a suspect and pulled over his vehicle, he was written up for misconduct by Diana Woodward. Granados reported this to Woodward’s supervisor, Sergeant Albert Maldonado, who initially discarded the write-up. But after Captain William Jaeger was named in the lawsuit, the write-up was resurrected and escalated to an Internal Affairs investigation. On social media, the deputies have been mocked as “rats.”
Other new Latino deputies have faced similar treatment — court documents allege Bandito member Jose Aceituno shoulder checked another employee inside the East LA station. Chavez said that the two men had been playing a game of chicken, and no investigation appears to have followed. Aceituno recently did the same thing again and received no consequences from East LA Captain Richard Mejia, according to the complaint. Mejia also appears to have lied in the civil suit concerning the killing of Anthony Vargas by stating he only knew about the Banditos gang through media reporting, and that he was unfamiliar with the criminal associations with the word “shot caller.” Those statements contradicted prior testimony in internal investigations.
Sources within LASD told Knock LA that the Banditos recently held an inking party to add 10 new tattooed members to their ranks and take membership to 100. Traditionally, once deputy gang membership reaches 100, a new group is introduced. Despite ongoing litigation related to the Banditos, the gang appears confident that they can operate with impunity, and multiply.