Part of A Tradition of Violence, an extensive investigation into more than five decades of abuse, terror, and murder carried out by gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Content Warning: This series explicitly details acts of violence (including murder) carried out by law enforcement officials. Please exercise self-care and check in with yourself before choosing to read.
There are at least 18 gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Officials at various government agencies, including the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles County District Attorney, the California Senate Senate Subcommittee on Police Officer Conduct, and the United States Commission on Civil Rights have heard testimony on the violence inflicted on communities at the hands of deputy gangs for decades. And yet, there have not been any internal investigations or significant policy changes to address the issue. Deputy gangs have killed at least 19 people, all of whom were men of color. At least four of them had a mental illness. Los Angeles County keeps a list of lawsuits related to the deputy gangs. Litigation related to these cases has cost the County just over $100 million over the past 30 years. Under section 186.22 of the California Penal Code a criminal gang is described as any organization or group of three (3) or more people that 1. has a common name or identifying sign or symbol, 2. has, as one of its primary activities, the commission of one of a long list of California criminal offenses, and 3. whose members have engaged in a "pattern of criminal gang activity" ... either alone or together. Sheriff's gangs fit the description. Despite requests, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department did not provide comment to Knock LA for the series.
During the early 2010s, the East Los Angeles Station fell under control of the Banditos deputy gang. The gang allegedly established a culture at the station where deputies work backwards, meaning that they arrest civilians and come up with probable cause by planting and manufacturing evidence.
Deputy Gregory “G-Rod” Rodriguez unintentionally exposed these tactics in 2013 when he filed a false police report regarding the arrest of Christopher Gray. Banditos members advise younger deputies that if they steal property from suspects and later dispose of it, make sure to be smart enough to get rid of it outside the station. All officers at the East LA station were aware of the gang, and as many as 30 had raised their concerns to management. 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 in the gang, filed complaints stating that the environment at the station had become toxic.
Art Hernandez, a deputy who worked at the East Los Angeles Station, filed a lawsuit with several other deputies alleging they had been threatened and harassed by Banditos members for years. According to the complaint, the gang became more violent in 2017 after Rafael “Rene” Munoz, AKA Big Listo, succeeded Eric “The Godfather” Valdez as top shot caller of the gang. Munoz was trained by current Sheriff Alex Villanueva. He was also previously discharged from the department following a domestic violence incident, but was later rehired. Vincent Miller, an attorney representing a group of deputies who have filed suit against the County alleging they were harassed and assaulted by members of the Banditos, says that once Munoz took over the gang, things changed. “There’s a couple of things they do to maintain control of the station. One of the things they do is they knock out deputies unconscious,” Miller says. The beatings happen in the parking lot of the East LA Station or at El Capiro Bar across the street. “If someone’s not going along conforming to the game, they’ll say, ‘We’re not going to give you back up.’”
Between 2016 and 2017, Munoz repeatedly confronted Hernandez. Munoz regularly mocked Hernandez’s performance in messages over the police radio and told him to find work elsewhere. Munoz also mocked Hernandez for being a good cop and “not the East LA way.” Deputy David “Silver” Silverio, an alleged shot caller in the Banditos, joined Munoz at an in-person meeting with Hernandez and other young deputies where they were pressured to leave the station.
Granados states in his lawsuit against the County that he witnessed other young Latino deputies subjected to harassment at the hands of the Banditos. He says that the so-called “brothers” push young Latinos to make more arrests by enforcing illegal arrest quotas, throwing the legitimacy of those detentions into question. If deputies didn’t comply, the Banditos would send them out for extra calls at the end of their shifts or exaggerate others.
Lemus began training in 2017 with Zaredini, an alleged associate of the Banditos, according to court documents. He had been accused of repeatedly harassing Guadalupe Lopez, even attempting to knock her to the floor while she carried a loaded gun. His relationship with the Banditos changed, though, when he thought the gang went too far. In June 2017, Hernandez went out on his first murder call, Miller says. Because Hernandez was blacklisted by the Banditos, Munoz sent a message over the vehicle computer system instructing department personnel not to back him up. Miller says this was too much for Zaredini. “[He] just didn’t see it as being right that you would do that to a partner.” Shortly after Zaredini responded to Hernandez’s call for backup, he was knocked unconscious behind the station.
Contreras’ complaint states that Munoz harassed him for almost two years beginning in February 2017 by regularly sending him disparaging messages over the patrol vehicle’s computer. Escobedo claims he began being harassed in September 2017. He also received threatening messages and was pushed to arrest as many people as possible, according to documents filed with the County. Gonzalez alleged that Banditos would stare down Latino deputies at the station. After he arrived at East LA Station in May 2017, he says he was “blacklisted” by the gang – members shunned him and acted with open hostility.
Casas finished his training in September 2017 and quickly became subjected to harassment, according to a complaint he filed with the County. He was summoned into a meeting with other Latino deputies hosted by David Silverio and Munoz, where the pair suggested that the others did not belong at the East LA station. Munoz asked Casas to join the Banditos and be part of his “team” as his eyes and ears in exchange for protection, as Munoz had “numbers on his side.”
Blowing the whistle
The Banditos also sexually harassed women working at the East LA station. Two women who had been sexually harassed by the Banditos had already come forward demanding that the County take action. No significant steps were taken, and the behavior continued. Concepcion Hernandez Garcia began training to be a patrol deputy in March 2018. She was assigned to Field Training Officer Silverio, a member of the Banditos. Silverio repeatedly subjected Garcia to intimidation and sexual harassment. Silverio touched Garcia’s hands, breasts, and hips without her consent on multiple occasions.
After Garcia filed her complaint, the department placed her on administrative leave. Silverio, however, remained at the East LA station. Her lawsuit states the LASD did not interview her after she reported the harassment, nor did they investigate her allegations. She says that supervisors told her the complaint “did not rise to the level of requiring further investigation,” and that Silverio would not be disciplined. Garcia was then transferred to the Century Station around July 30, 2018: the sudden change in assignment put a negative air about her that she believed impacted her chances of advancing in the department. Garcia filed a lawsuit against the County on January 4, 2019, which is ongoing.
Deputies Granados and Zaredini took their concerns about the treatment of young Latinos in the department to supervisors in the spring of 2018. They met with Lieutenant Richard Mejia, who allegedly launched an investigation into the Banditos. Around 20 deputies interviewed acknowledged that the gang caused problems at the station. Miller says that action amounted to nothing. “The sheriff’s department did nothing. They did a fake, half-hearted investigation. They told the Bandidos that they were reported on and then that’s when things got really started getting nastier.” According to their complaint, once Granados gave his statement to Mejia, Sergeant Angelica “Patty” Estrada informed the Banditos that Granados had blown the whistle. Estrada also allegedly uses the moniker “The Pink Hand,” a nod to the Mexican Mafia. Miller describes Estrada as, “the brains of the operation behind the scenes,” as alleged in the complaint. Estrada had power over captains as far as assigning trainees, and with them, bonuses. Miller says that the gang would abuse rookies in the training program by not allowing them to eat and forcing them to work long hours and pay “taxes” to the Banditos. Former deputies who trained with the LASD confirmed the use of these tactics to Knock LA. “There’s no organized group of good cops standing up to the Banditos,” Miller says.
Nothing came from either Granados or Zaredini’s complaint. Court documents state Lieutenant Eric Smitson altered Mejia’s memo detailing his findings on the Banditos under the orders of Chief Bob Denham. Furthermore, once Estrada told the Banditos what Granados had done, Granados, Zaredini, and the deputies they were trying to protect all became targets.
Banditos leader Munoz began sending Granados harassing messages. The gang also did not provide back up to Granados when he was on high risk calls, such as those with reportedly armed suspects. Zaredini and Lemus both recount an incident after the complaint was filed where the Banditos emptied the ammunition out of Zaredini’s shotgun. Zaredini also charges that he was denied a promotion and demoted from the position of training officer. Granados also says he tested highly for a promotion but, after making his report, it never happened. He asked Estrada when he should expect to be promoted, and she lied and claimed there were no openings.
In the summer of 2018, LASD administration and the Board of Supervisors received an anonymous letter from a deputy at the East LA station detailing the hostile environment the Banditos gang created. The letter named Eric Valdez, Patty Estrada, Rene Munoz, Lt. Smithson, Rich Alvarez, Marcelo Ortega, and Manny Navarro as Banditos. However, the deputies who went on to pursue a lawsuit against the County were unaware of the letter’s existence until after they filed. Neither the LASD nor the BOS took action, and the harassment of deputies continued.
The attack at Kennedy Hall
On the night of September 26, 2018, Deputy Alfred Gonzalez was getting dressed in the locker room at the end of his shift. He had previously been subjected to the Banditos intimidation tactics and harassed. He was confronted by Deputies Gregory Rodriguez, Rafael “Rene” Munoz, and Vincent Moran, a Banditos shot caller. The Banditos members pressured Gonzalez to follow their illegal arrest quotas, work overtime without pay, and even told him to quit. The following evening, the gang led a coordinated attack that sent several people to the hospital.
On September 28, 2018, trainees held a department party at Kennedy Hall for officers in East Los Angeles to celebrate the completion of training. On-duty personnel were assigned as designated drivers so attendees could drink. Soon-to-be-elected Sheriff Alex Villanueva was there. Several members of the Banditos also showed up, which was uncommon, according to court documents. Deputies Silverio, Rodriguez, Munoz, Hector “Little Listo” Soto Saavedra, Silvano “Cholo” Garcia, Braulio Robledo, and Sergeant Mike Hernandez, a Bandito then assigned to Men’s Central Jail, were among the group of gang members who came to the event intent on beating up people who had not conformed to their “program.” Miller says that they were looking for Gonzalez, but found other people to beat up instead.
Once Villanueva left and the party began to wind down, Gonzalez walked his friend to her car. He heard Silverio calling his name. Silverio told Gonzalez that he had heard bad things about him, and that Silverio had no respect for Gonzalez. As Silverio yelled and attempted to physically confront Gonzalez, a crowd formed around the two deputies. Sergeant Hernandez, who also appeared drunk, joined in and told Gonzalez that he had no problem physically assaulting him because Gonzalez knew “no one here” would do anything, in reference to management and administration. Gonzalez replied, “Come on, Sarge.” Sergeant Hernandez continued to threaten Gonzalez saying, “I have no problem fucking with you and your family and if I can’t do it directly I can find someone that can,” and “This is East LA, I grew up here!”
Some other deputies were temporarily able to diffuse the situation, but at 3:30 AM Rodriguez approached Gonzalez and said he wanted to speak with him. Deputy Jose Fuentes approached and tried to calm Rodriguez down, but Rodriguez got in his face, bumping his forehead against Fuentes’. Rodriguez then pushed Fuentes and Gonzalez. Deputy Art Hernandez saw the fight and grabbed Rodriguez, asking him to let it go. Munoz ran over and pushed Gonzalez and Deputy Hernandez, bringing himself, Rodriguez, and Deputy Hernandez to the floor. As Deputy Hernandez lay on the floor, Munoz punched him in the mouth. Hernandez curled into a ball and asked Munoz, “Hey, sir, why are you hitting me?”
Four other LASD members pulled Munoz off of Deputy Hernandez. But the attacks continued. Sergeant Hernandez approached Fuentes and shoved him across the parking lot into the street. Gonzalez ran to his car and got in. From there, he saw Sergeant Hernandez go after Escobedo and put him in a headlock. Escobedo says that Munoz told him, “I’ve been waiting for you,” and began punching him. Deputies Christopher Moore and James Duran, both Banditos associates, as well as Deputy Barrigan stood by in uniform and did nothing. Gonzalez yelled for Moore to get units from the station on site to stop the attacks. Moore responded, “Let me get Ray Ray,” referencing Banditos shot caller Raymond Mendoza. Deputy Braulio Robledo, an alleged Banditos prospect, began egging the Banditos on and yelled “Say something now, say something now!”
Escobedo was thrown to the ground where three people surrounded him and began kicking and punching him as Silverio held him down. Escobedo yelled, “Sir, let me go, I’m just trying to separate people. Why are you letting them hit me?” Once he stood up, he was sucker punched to the ground again by Sergeant Hernandez. Deputy Hernandez tried to assist and was knocked out cold. Banditos beat him as he lay unconscious. Escobedo broke free from the beating, but Sergeant Hernandez grabbed him and pinned him against a fence in the parking lot. Sergeant Hernandez strangled Escobedo with Escobedo’s shirt, bringing him in and out of consciousness. Deputies Eduardo Muniz and David Casas attempted to pull Hernandez off of Escobedo, but were pushed and hit themselves.
Escobedo finally got enough space to get out of his shirt and into Gonzalez’s car. Casas climbed into the driver’s seat and drove the three of them out. Escobedo later went to the emergency room. Deputy Martinez took Deputy Hernandez to his car. Deputy Hernandez had to get stitches following the brawl and was treated for a concussion. Deputies Garcia, Rodriguez, Munoz, and Silverio got into Garcia’s car and drove to the East LA Station to look for the deputies they had assaulted. 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.
Following the incident, Deputies Art Hernandez, Alfred Gonzalez, Benjamin Zaredini, David Casas, Louis Granados, Mario Contreras, Oscar Escobedo, and Ariela Lemus filed a lawsuit against the County. Vincent Miller, an attorney representing the deputies who were assaulted, sent a letter to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in March 2019 detailing the actions of the Banditos gang at the East LA Station, as well as the events of Kennedy Hall. Miller’s letter asked for a third-party investigation into the gang. After an investigation into the incident conducted by the Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles County prosecutors declined to file charges in February 2020 against Sergeant Michael Hernandez and Deputies Rafael Munoz, Gregory Rodriguez, and David Silverio. However, a report by the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General found that the internal investigation was not sufficient and did not follow department procedure, even going to far as to call it a coverup. Investigators did not delve into allegations about the Banditos made during witness interviews.
According to the complaint, Munoz, Silverio, Rodriguez, and Sergeant Hernandez were put on leaves of absence. Sergeant Hernandez then retired. Estrada, Garcia, and Lieutenant Smitson were moved to another station. Garcia and Deputy Vincent Moran, who had allegedly harassed newly trained deputies, continued to work at the East LA Station on overtime shifts. However, most Banditos remained at the East LA Station, including Deputy Noel “Crook” Lopez, who hosted Banditos meetings at his home. “You have the Inspector General making a statement that the criminal investigation was covered up, that basically there was a dishonest and fraudulent report sent over the district attorney to make sure that the Banditos wouldn’t get prosecuted,” Miller says. “That also tells you what’s going on in the Sheriff’s Department with Villanueva.”
A systemic issue
Following the filing of the lawsuit, the Banditos did not provide backup to Zaredini on a call involving an alleged shooting: Deputy Ariela Lemus, his trainee, was the only one to respond. Banditos harassed Lemus, saying that she did not “come from a good bloodline,” because she did not concede to performing sexual favors for advancement. Lemus states in her claim that she hoped that the new East LA Station Captain Ernie Chavez would change the environment, but that didn’t happen. When she blew the whistle on Raymond Mendoza, Chavez told Lemus that he would not discipline him, because he liked how Mendoza kept deputies in line.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who trained Munoz, has acknowledged that the Banditos maintained control of the East LA Station. Villanueva told the Civilian Oversight Commission in April 2019 that deputy gang activity is “an intergenerational rivalry and it’s all centered on hazing that has gone unchecked for a long time,” and that any violence was the misconduct of individuals, not gangs. Villanueva worked at the East LA Station himself during the era of the Cavemen, an earlier generation of the East LA deputy gang. Villanueva said of his time at the station at a County Board of Supervisors meeting in 2019, “We were all Cavemen.” Timothy Murakami, Villanueva’s second in command as Undersheriff and a tattooed Caveman, said at a meeting in 2019 that the department was not looking into the Banditos or other gangs as a “systemic issue.”
President of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) Ron Hernandez, a tattooed member of the Pirates, says that the groups are, “just a camaraderie thing.” An event at the East LA station billed as the “East Los Gathering” recently featured the auction of pillows and blankets depicting the logos of the station’s gangs. A flyer also featured the names and contact information for the three men who allegedly founded the Banditos: Joe “Mariachi” Mejia, who created the Banditos logo and tattoo, Leo Noyola, and Danny Batanero.
On April 30, 2019, the LA County Board of Supervisors acknowledged that the Sheriff’s Department has a “long and troubled history” of “exclusive and secretive Department groups consisting of sworn deputies” who have engaged in “intimidating gang-like behavior” as well as “harassment” and violence. The Board also said that the Department had not, “been terribly effective in investigating, or thwarting the rise of sheriff gangs, and this ambivalence has likely enabled their continuation and expansion” and that “actions of these groups have actively harmed residents of the County, other Sheriff’s deputies.” One month later, the group of deputies who blew the whistle on the Banditos requested transfers out of the East LA Station. The Sheriff’s Department refused to grant the transfers, prompting the group to file internal claims on May 28, 2019. Afterwards, they were approved for transfers and Villanueva admitted that the Banditos, “controlled the Captain, and that the Plaintiffs were attacked due to a lack of supervision,” and that supervisors actually added to the problem. “Some of the supervisors were part of the problem, they were facilitating this and that really made matters even worse—it’s like pouring gasoline on fire… it became toxic – and they did not do their job as supervisors. They just kind of looked the other way,” according to court documents.
Villanueva also admitted that, “pretty much they [the Banditos gang] were calling the shots, they were dictating the decisions of the station and that has a very bad outcome obviously,” with personnel “disproportionately targeted Latino and Black deputies.” In July 2019, the Board of Supervisors resolved that their approach to deputy gangs would be an outreach campaign to increase deputies’ awareness of their ability to report bad behavior.
Deputy Concepcion Hernandez Garcia sued the County in 2019 for the sexual harassment Silverio subjected her to when she began training to be a patrol deputy in 2018. Following the filing of her complaint, Lieutenant Chavez of the Century Station informed her that he, “got a call from East LA about your POE (Policy of Equality complaint) and they wanted me to tell you that it did not rise to the level of a crime.” Lemus states in her complaint that the Sheriff’s Department’s sister agency, the LAPD, “had a bad cop problem of their own and a Consent Decree was signed and enacted; subsequently, LAPD began a strict policy of accountability that is lacking in the Sheriff’s Department… The Sheriff’s Department should immediately implement these policies regarding trainees and make sure they are enforced immediately.” Her word was ignored.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has stated that he transferred 36 people and disciplined 26 employees as a result of the attack at Kennedy Hall. The Department transferred Banditos associate Captain Chris Perez out of East LA Station, while Silvano “Cholo” Garcia left on his own, according to Miller. He says Estrada has requested a transfer to Walnut Station. However Ernie Chavez, the Captain of East LA, admitted in the course of litigation that Villanueva didn’t have him identify the problem players or address the issue at all. Miller says that Chavez also admitted that the 36 transfers never happened. Many Banditos members remained. Raymond “Ray Ray” Mendoza has been promoted to a detective, according to Miller. In a deposition, former Undersheriff Ray Leyva testified that Gregory “G-Rod” Rodriguez was reinstated as a deputy with six months of back pay, which is highly unusual.
Contrary to feeling punished, the gang felt empowered. According to the deputies’ complaint, the Banditos feel that Sheriff Villanueva is their “friend.” Batanero was made head of Sheriff Villanueva’s security detail on February 4, 2019, according to court documents. Around February 2020, Sheriff Villanueva hired Banditos shot caller Manny Navarro as one of his drivers. Sources familiar with the East LA Station tell Knock LA that about four months ago, the Banditos held an inking party and initiated 10 new members. Now, as the Banditos have continued to thrive at the East LA station, the tradition of terrorizing the neighborhood they occupy has continued unchecked.
READ NEXT: The Carnage
CORRECTIONS 4/2/21: A previous version of this article stated that Deputy Alfred Gonzalez completed his training at East LA Station in May 2017. In fact, May 2017 is the time period Gonzalez arrived at East LA Station.
Additionally, an earlier version of this article misquoted attorney Vincent Miller, and in fact Silvano “Cholo” Garcia left East LA Station of his own accord, as opposed to being transferred out by command.
Finally, Deputy Eduardo Muniz was misidentified with the last name “Munis.” Changes have been made to this article to reflect these facts.
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