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.
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.
Deputy gangs have a significant impact on the operation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and East Los Angeles Station is the clearest example. Over the past 30 years, litigation related to deputy gangs at the East LA Station has cost taxpayers more than $36 million. The Fort Apache insignia, which depicts a riot helmet and a boot with the words “Low profile” and “siempre una patada en los pantalones” or “always a swift kick in the pants,” was created at the station during the Chicano Moratorium, when deputies brutalized hundreds of people gathered to protest the Vietnam War. Those tactics were immortalized in a mural of the logo in the East LA Station floor. The station has been home to several deputy gangs, including the Little Devils, Cavemen, and newest addition, the Banditos.
The Banditos consist primarily of Latinx LASD personnel, and allegedly do not allow women to become full-fledged members. Members have a common tattoo on their legs of a skeleton with a bushy mustache wearing a sombrero and bandolier holding a pistol, all of which are sequentially numbered. Members have gang nicknames and use slang like “ese” and “homes” when speaking with each other. One deputy alleges in a complaint against the County that activities like fundraisers, training parties, and staff barbecues at the East LA station must be “roundtabled” by the Banditos. The gang also established a culture at the station where deputies “work backwards,” meaning they arrest civilians then later come up with probable cause by planting and manufacturing evidence.
Current leaders include Rafael “Rene” Munoz AKA Big Listo, Gregory “G-Rod” Rodriguez, David “Silver” Silverio, Michael “Bam Bam” Hernandez, Silvano “Cholo” Garcia, Vincent Moran, and Raymond Mendoza, who call themselves shot callers. Banditos meetings are held at the home of Deputy Noel “Crook” Lopez. The group embraces the tradition of violence passed down by the gangs that came before them and turns on anyone who questions them.
Meet the “Godfather of East LA”
Guadalupe Lopez started her career at LASD in 2003. She was assigned to the Los Angeles County Jail until transferring to the East LA Station in 2011 where she began training to become a patrol officer, according to court documents. She began training with Field Training Officer Eric Valdez, who deputies called the “Godfather of East LA.”
During her first two weeks of training, Valdez assigned Lopez to work a shift with Deputy Christopher Wargo, who was a prospect or “puppy” of the Banditos. On that shift Lopez saw Wargo “purchase reports,” meaning that Wargo would write arrest reports for other deputies as part of initiation into the gang. When she asked Wargo what was going on, she was told that she was a trainee and to mind her business. Lopez states in her complaint that around this time, she became the subject of sexual harassment by male deputies. Many of those men were also members of the Banditos. Deputy Joshua Smilor, a Banditos associate, told her that she needed to call Valdez, “Daddy” and that she needed to “submit” to the program of his “kids.” Deputy Ortega informed her that there were were explicit photos of other women in the department having oral sex with Banditos members working as training officers.
Lopez was informed by other women in the department that Valdez expected “female” trainees to “submit” to male training officers, meaning she had to drink, party, and provide sexual favors upon request. If she didn’t comply, she wouldn’t pass her probationary period and it could be extended indefinitely. Lopez was also subjected to intimidation: Deputy Benjamin Zaredini once followed Lopez into the garage area at the East LA station. He kicked over a garbage can in front of incarcerated people working there and yelled to Lopez, “Hey trainee, why don’t you come over here and clean up the fucking mess you made?”
Halfway through her training, Lopez was reassigned to Field Training Officer Edwin Hernandez. She quickly learned there was a power struggle going on between FTOs Hernandez and Valdez, along with the latter’s Banditos associates. People familiar with the schism described it to Knock LA as similar to the movie American Me (1992), which depicts the creation of the Mexican Mafia: Valdez was pushed out of the gang by younger, more aggressive deputies. Valdez appears to currently work as a sergeant at a different station.
Lopez’s lawsuit states that the harassment continued after she complained. “They were treating her like a housewife,” says Gregory Smith, Lopez’s attorney. “Once she rejected them, they retaliated against her.” In November 2011, Deputy Andrew Hernandez, a Banditos associate, leered at Lopez’s breasts in the hallway as she was leaving the women’s locker room. Hernandez pointed at her body and turned to another male deputy saying, “Look at these!” and, “What do you think, bro?” He said to Lopez, “What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do?” On December 23, 2011, Deputy Eduardo Sanchez, another Banditos associate, swore at Lopez and demanded that she “meet up with him.” There were sexual implications to his request and she told him that she would not meet up with him alone. Sanchez continued to harass her saying, “I don’t understand why you don’t want to meet up, are you worried about your reputation?” When Lopez saw Sanchez two days later, he swore at her again for not going to “meet up” with him alone.
In late December 2011, an on-duty Lopez reported to a priority call. Deputy Christopher Wargo drove to the location and blocked Lopez’s patrol car so she could not move and ordered her out of the vehicle. Once she was out, Wargo began screaming at her. When she tried to get away by getting back into the patrol car, Wargo blocked her path and said “You are a product of Valdez, and he is God at East LA Station, and if you don’t submit to the program, you will have problems here!” In January 2012, Lopez ran into Deputy Andrew Hernandez again on another call. As she was completing a victim interview, Hernandez began cursing at her. At the end of the call he followed Lopez to her car. He slammed his hands on the side of the vehicle and said, “What the fuck is wrong with you? You meet up with us when we tell you to!” Her answers didn’t satisfy him and he told her, “Fuck you!” and, “You are on your own!” Around January 16, 2012, Deputy Benjamin Zaredini attempted to knock Lopez to the floor while she was carrying a loaded shotgun. She was able to maintain control of the weapon but fell backwards into a wall, hitting the back of her head.
In early March 2012, someone posted a phony Department Personnel Transfer Request at the East LA station with Lopez’s name on it. FTO Hernandez brought the fake request to Sergeant Jennifer Barsh, who ordered Lopez back to the station. At that point, Lopez informed Barsh about the harassment she had been subjected to by the Banditos. On March 8, 2012, Barsh filed a Policy of Equity (POE), a practice that prohibits discrimination against County employees on a variety of bases, on Lopez’s behalf and told Captain Henry Romero about the Banditos’ threats and harassment. Romero offered Lopez a transfer in response, which she didn’t think she deserved as she had done no wrong. Lopez also believed that she would be subjected to further harassment if she went to another area. She was moved to the day shift in an attempt to alleviate the abuse she was facing, but still worked near FTO Valdez and Christopher Valente, who had been implicated in her complaint. Deputies Christopher Wargo, Benjamin Zaredini, Andrew Hernandez, and Eduardo Sanchez, who were also mentioned, were loaned out to other stations.
After Lopez’s POE was filed, the harassment escalated. According to a complaint, Lopez wasn’t given adequate time to prepare administrative paperwork, supervisors at the East LA station refused to sign off on her reports, and detectives didn’t file or investigate her cases. Dispatch refused to respond to her calls or provide backup. She was also regularly sent on calls with just a few minutes left on her shift. Rosa Gonzalez, a deputy who later sued the station, said under oath that she heard Lopez referred to as “The Glob.”
On March 26, 2012, Deputy Zaredini ran Lopez’s vehicle off the road. On August 10, 2012, Deputy Troy Krautkramer, who had also been loaned out as a result of Lopez’s POE, drove up to her in the rear parking lot of the East LA Station and used his vehicle to spray dirt on Lopez. On October 25, 2012, her car was vandalized while parked at the East LA Station.
According to Lopez’s complaint, the employees who had been moved as a result of her complaint were returned to the East LA station on December 27, 2012, without her receiving prior notification. She immediately began to experience chest pains and shortness of breath, and was diagnosed with a stress-induced pre-heart attack condition. She was placed on medical leave. Lopez attempted to come back to work just over a month later, but was met with the same harassment as before. Her doctor placed her on medical leave again. On April 10, 2013, Lopez found a dead rat underneath the driver’s side door of her vehicle. The next day, eggs were thrown at her car and someone wrote “fuck you” on the rear window. She signed up to take the sergeant’s exam to seek a promotion in July 2013, but was unable to take it because of continued harassment, despite her not coming into the station regularly.
On August 8, 2013, Lopez was taken off of disability leave and cleared to return to work. She contacted the Back to Work Unit but was told they could not help her, and advised her to contact the station Director. Lopez spoke with Sergeant Betty Lascono, who placed her on the schedule to return to work the following day. She was contacted by Lascono again, who told Lopez to report to work on August 11. Lopez was nervous about returning to a hostile environment, so she contacted the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) who told her they could not help. Lopez was later contacted by ALADS union representative Julie Patrelli, who told her that East LA Captain James Wolak was willing to send Lopez to Cerritos Station.
Lopez told Patrelli that she would go anywhere except for East LA. Patrelli contacted her again and told her that she would actually be going to the County Services Bureau USC Hospital location. She also told Lopez she would contact her on August 11 with a work schedule, which Lopez received. The next time she heard from Patrelli, she informed Lopez that Wolak wouldn’t be sending her to the hospital location after all. Patrelli instead scheduled a meeting with Lopez and Division Commander Henry Romero, who had been her captain at East LA. Patrelli refused to accompany Lopez to the meeting or send any other union representation saying, “You should be grateful that Commander Romero is willing to meet with you!”
During the August 14, 2013, meeting, Romero asked Lopez where she wanted to go. He showed her a transfer request form with two choices: San Dimas or Walnut Stations. He informed her that she would be put on loan to Century Station pending the approval of her transfer, but refused to give her a copy of the paperwork.
Once she arrived at Century Station, Lopez was assigned to the Youth Activity League, which significantly impacted her career prospects, according to her lawsuit. Lieutenant David Infante, who previously worked at the East LA station and knew about the complaint, made it known to Lopez’s supervising Sergeant, Veronica De La Rosa, that he didn’t want Lopez at Century Station. In December 2013, Lopez was informed that if she didn’t immediately request a transfer to Century Station, she would have to return to East LA. She attempted to contact Romero about the status of her transfer request, but he was allegedly unavailable. Lopez went to Area Command to request a copy of the paperwork and discovered it had never been filed.
Lopez filed a complaint against LA County in 2014 and eventually settled for $1.5 million, funded by taxpayers. But her attorney, Gregory Smith, says the damage was done. “She left the department. She was very damaged by what happened,” he tells Knock LA. He says that Lopez left California altogether in an attempt to leave the trauma behind. “She was not in a good way.” Many of the people who violently harassed Lopez are still with the department. Eric Valdez and Veronica De La Rosa were promoted to the rank of sergeant, which they held as recently as 2019. David Infante was a lieutenant as recently as 2019. Joshua Smilor, Benjamin Zaredini, Andrew Hernandez, Eduardo Sanchez, and Troy Krautkramer were deputies as of 2019.
Weeding out the problem
Rosa Gonzalez became the latest target of the Banditos abuses in December 2011, shortly after she arrived at the East LA Station. Gonzalez said under oath that in the summer of 2013, shortly after being given the day off and mentioning plans to travel to Hawaii, she received a text message sent to a group she was in with Deputy Jose Rauno. In the message, he said that Queen FUPA, meaning Fat Upper Pussy Area, was not going to make it to work today because she was going to Hawaii. While under oath in a deposition, Rauno confirmed that he sent the message to the group. In 2014, Gonzalez took the exam to become a Field Training Officer, and in July of that year, Master Field Training Officer Angelica Estrada assigned Gonzalez to be a mentor to new deputies. Just a few days later she was summoned into the Watch Commanders Office by Sergeants Hish and Florence, who were not her supervisors. Hish told her that Gonzalez had allegedly hazed a deputy, which she denies. The pair demanded she immediately resign from her mentoring position, and she was removed the following day.
Around August 4, 2014, Gonzalez filed a formal grievance against Sergeant Peter Hish, an alleged Banditos member, and Sergeant Joel Flores, an admitted tattooed member of the gang, alleging that she was subjected to gender discrimination. Gonzalez was transferred to the Norwalk Station, but no action was taken against the sergeants. Despite Gonzalez’s high test performance in the Sergeant’s promotional exam, she was repeatedly passed over for the promotion. She even contends that Hish manipulated her score in order to keep her from moving up in rank. Instead of investigating her claim, the department began investigating her. Gonzalez developed high blood pressure and a heart condition which led to her removal from the field. Gonzalez filed a lawsuit against the County in April 2016. “We had a captain that was gracious enough to take her in [his unit] and she just hid,” says Gonzalez’s attorney, Gregory Smith. Her case settled for $1 million in 2019. Smith says that current Sheriff Alex Villanueva reached out to Gonzalez after taking office and assisted her with study for the Sergeant’s exam. Gonzalez passed the exam, and Smith says she is currently a Patrol Sergeant.
Earning your stripes
Christopher Gray, who is Black, is originally from Idaho. He was a nuclear physics major in college and relocated to Los Angeles to work on some construction projects. He met his wife and the mother of his children in LA. The County’s deputy gangs also subjected him to an experience that left him traumatized.
On August 23, 2012, LASD personnel descended upon the 1300 block of South Marianna Avenue in East Los Angeles. They were detaining and taking Gray’s brother-in-law into custody according to Gray’s attorney, Olu Orange. Several neighbors came out of their houses and filmed the incident. Gray is visible on the tape observing the arrest from a distance. “One of the deputies approached him and told him to step back and he said, ‘I’m nowhere near what’s going on. I’m not bothering anybody. This is America,’” Orange recounts.
Deputies Gregory Rodriguez, Monica Farias, Steven Miller, Alejandro Lomeli, and Marc Elizondo pounced. “A deputy grabbed him and cuffed him. Pushed him up against the police car. Took his hands and bent them up so far behind his back that you could see his fingers behind his ears and he tore his shoulder.” The report falsely described Gray as trying to open the door of the patrol vehicle. Several videos taken at the scene show him standing several feet away from the car until he is arrested and taken into custody. Orange says that Gray told him he was beaten by several deputies. “The deputy kept hitting him in his testicles and calling him a monkey. And any time you’re a Black man, somebody calling you a monkey, in my book, that’s racism,” Orange tells Knock LA. Gray was detained again on October 15, 2012. A deputy came to his home as Gray was moving a car into his driveway. According to the lawsuit, the deputy detained, battered, and searched Gray without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
Gray was charged and prosecuted for intentionally obstructing a law enforcement officer from performing their duties. The charges were dismissed at a pre-trial hearing by the prosecutor after reviewing the cell phone video of Gray’s arrest. Gray filed a lawsuit against the County, and accepted a settlement of $549,000, which taxpayers financed. Gregory Rodriguez was charged with perjury by the office of then District Attorney Jackie Lacey for lying in his report. However, he was found not guilty by a jury.
Orange says he doesn’t think Lacey was interested in prosecuting police officers. “But I don’t think she had a choice on this one because the video and the report were all over the news and the internet… [she] wasn’t interested in winning the case in my opinion. The DA’s office didn’t put adequate resources into prosecuting the case. I went to the trial for a day or two and the Deputy DA who was trying the case had no partner. She had no investigators. She had no assistants trying this case. And as I understand it, she really would have liked to have all of those things.”
Rodriguez was discharged from the department as a result of the charges, but later was given his job back and returned to the department. His return, along with the elevation of other Banditos associates, solidified the gang’s grip on the station. The Banditos now ran East LA.
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