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.
The Banditos of the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station seemed not only to embrace the tradition of terrorizing surrounding communities, but celebrate the normalization of violence first started by earlier station gangs like the Cavemen and the Little Devils. Like their predecessors, the Banditos cherished the station’s celebrated Fort Apache logo. The image depicts a police riot helmet over a boot with the number 2 emblazoned on the ankle – the number appears to be a callback to the expression “Second II None,” which East LA employees use in reference to their station. The boot and riot helmet sit within a circle of mottos reading “siempre una patada en los pantalones,” which translates to “always a kick in the pants.” The other motto, “Low Profile,” appears to mock Sheriff Pitchess’ instructions to the deputies on duty at the Chicano Moratorium. Over the past 30 years, the Banditos alone have cost Los Angeles County taxpayers over $20 million in settlement awards for the wrongful deaths of civilians who happened to cross their paths.
On June 24, 2014, 24-year-old Antoine Hunter and his friend Geremy Evans, who are both Black, attended a vigil for a friend who had recently died. Around 9:50 PM, Deputies Timothy Lee and Gregory Rodriguez, a tattooed Banditos member, spotted the two men — Hunter driving as Evans rode in the passenger seat — heading eastbound on Rosecrans Avenue in Compton. According to a report from the Los Angeles District Attorney, Lee and Rodriguez began following Hunter’s car. The patrol vehicle collided with the back of Hunter’s car, which then crashed into a parked car near the intersection of East Palmer Street and North Poinsettia Avenue. After Hunter’s car was pinned between the two vehicles, the deputies exited their patrol unit. Humberto Guizar, an attorney for Hunter’s family, believes the deputies intentionally collided with Hunter’s vehicle. “These guys were just on the hunt free, just looking for a reason to just shoot at people,” he tells Knock LA.
Guizar says that Hunter was carrying a gun due to increased violence in the area. Once the deputies stopped the two men, Hunter placed his arms on the steering wheel in surrender. “They came up on him right away. He had his hands on the steering wheel and they shot him anyway. They shot that car up,” says Guizar.
Lee fired one round as Rodriguez simultaneously shot off four to five additional rounds, according to the DA report. Both deputies then continued firing. Evans later said in court documents that he dove into the back seat as the deputies fired. Evans fell out of the vehicle as Hunter lay in the back of the car bleeding profusely. Lee and Rodriguez did not give Hunter medical attention or summon emergency services in a timely manner. “When they removed [Hunter] from the car, his body was still stiff in the position of holding the steering wheel,” Guizar says. “I thought that was a really good piece of evidence to show that he was not reaching for a gun, and did not have the gun at the time they fired.” A number of people in the area witnessed the shooting.
Hunter’s family filed a complaint against the County in December 2014. In a deposition, Evans testified that Sheriff’s deputies regularly targeted him prior to the incident. In the past, deputies had transported him to areas dominated by Latinx gangs where he would be in danger – those gang members let him go because they witnessed the deputies set him up. Hunter’s father, Donald, was shot by deputies from the Compton Station in 2006, according to his deposition. The case settled for $475,000 in 2016 with taxpayers picking up the tab for the award for the family as well as attorney’s fees.
The case of Antoine Hunter and Geremy Evans was settled for a substantial sum. The large settlement wasn’t tied to Deputy Rodriguez’s deputy gang membership: his involvement in the Banditos wasn’t revealed publicly until fellow deputies filed claims naming Deputy Gregory Rodriguez, AKA “G-Rod,” while describing a September 2018 attack on fellow East LA Station LASD personnel. Rodriguez was prosecuted for filing a false police report and cost County taxpayers $549,000 in a related settlement. Rodriguez had also participated in an attack where the gang had beaten non-affiliated deputies at an off-duty party in 2018. The County and the LASD knew Rodriguez was a member of the Banditos and had a gang tattoo, but had not given the information to Hunter’s family counsel.
Killers on the job
On December 30, 2014, just a few months after Hunter’s settlement, Darren Burley, who is Black, was detained by Deputies David Aviles, a 3000 Boys associate, and Paul Baserra. Timothy Lee, who was involved in the death of Antoine Hunter, was also present during this incident, according to a deposition. During a misdemeanor arrest, Aviles and Baserra punched, choked, and tasered Burley. According to a complaint filed by Burley’s family against the County, he suffered a brain injury that resulted in his death 12 days later. The case went to a jury trial, which is a rare occurrence for civil rights claims brought against the County. Lee and Baserra denied that they had choked Burley, and claimed that he had died as a result of sudden cardiac arrest brought on by substance abuse. A jury found Aviles liable for intentional battery by use of excessive force and Baserra liable for negligence resulting in Burley’s death, granting his family an $8 million award. Baserra and Lee appear to have worked as deputies through 2018.
The deaths at the hands of the Banditos were not limited to adults. On November 16, 2017, Deputy Carrie Robles-Plascencia was driving a patrol vehicle with Vincent Moran, an alleged Banditos shot caller with a history of harassing deputies and was involved in an attack at an off-duty party between gang members and unaffiliated deputies. Robles-Plascencia and Moran were driving through East Los Angeles towards South Indiana Street and Whittier Boulevard where Maria Veronica Solis Munoz stood with her two children, 9-year-old Marco Antonio Hernandez and 7-year-old Jose Luis Hernandez. As Robles-Plascenica drove, she ran a red light without her siren on and was struck by another vehicle, pushing her patrol car onto the sidewalk and into the mother and her young children. The boys died shortly after the crash.
Solis Munoz suffered a crushed pelvis and several broken bones, according to a memo from the District Attorney’s office. No charges were filed against Robles-Plascencia due to a “lack of evidence,” despite the fact an investigation conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department determined Robles-Placencia’s decision to enter “the intersection on a red light without due regard for the safety of all persons” caused the crash. Several other pedestrians were also injured. According to court documents, Robles-Plascencia’s Internal Affairs Investigation was on hold until the criminal case was completed. It completed just one week before current Sheriff Alex Villanueva took office. Once Villanueva took over, the matter appears to have been buried. One deputy charges in a complaint that Villanueva may have had some personal say in the matter, as Robles-Plascencia reportedly calls him and his wife “mom” and “dad.”
Solis Munoz filed a civil suit against the County in 2018 which was settled for $17.5 million. Taxpayers footed the bill and picked up the costs of attorneys, too. Carrie Robles-Plascencia is currently working within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Knock LA received an email from Robles-Plascencia regarding a scheduled East Los Angeles Sheriff Station Community Conversation in March 2021.
The death of Anthony Vargas
Anthony Daniel Vargas grew up in the Maravilla neighborhood of East Los Angeles in a close-knit family. He was a twin, very compassionate, and loved to be around people, his aunt Valerie Vargas remembers. “He was just always so attentive. If he saw you sad, he would sit down next to you, and he would just like to comfort you.” He loved to barbeque on Fridays when the family gathered to play lotería. Valerie laughingly recalls it wasn’t always the best. “We would check and the meat would still be pink.” Anthony was also very involved in his church and led fishing trips with younger members. “A lot of them were having problems at home,” Valerie says. “He would tell them, ‘I think it will get better. I had a hard time. Just keep coming to church, and I’ll be there.’” His life was taken by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies on August 12, 2018.
According to a District Attorney report, a man walking back to his car from a Denny’s located on Mednick and East Caesar Chavez Avenues was allegedly robbed for his watch by a group of men standing outside the Nueva Maravilla Housing Community, a large public housing complex. He contacted his girlfriend who drove him around the area until they located the people they believed were responsible for the theft and called 911. The LASD dispatch then broadcast that a man had been robbed at gunpoint, and Deputies James Duran, Adrian Rendon, as well as Nikolis Perez and Jonathan Rojas, who were both prospects for the Banditos, responded. The deputies observed a group of men run into the housing community. Rendon advised Perez and Rojas to follow the suspects. After not seeing anyone in the search area, Perez and Rojas headed to another housing tract. As they drove, they spotted Anthony Vargas and ordered him to stop.
Deputies say Vargas ran but quickly fell. They also said they thought Vargas had a gun. As they approached him, Perez punched Vargas in the back of the head repeatedly. The deputies told investigators that they wrestled with Vargas on the ground but he broke away, which led them to believe Vargas was going to kill them with a gun they believed he had in his waistband. “Deputy Rojas had the cord from his radio wrapped around Anthony Vargas’s arm, constricting his arm. They claim that while that was happening Anthony Vargas reached in his waistband with his right arm, the same arm that’s wrapped around with that cord. That doesn’t make sense,” says Humberto Guizar, a lawyer for the Vargas family. Rojas and Perez both opened fire on Vargas, striking him 16 times.
The Vargas family asserts in a claim against the County that killing Vargas earned Perez full member status in the Banditos gang. “I think that they got into a struggle with him and they were just pulling him and beating him, punching him and hitting him. Then when the cord got wrapped around his arm, [Rojas] got frustrated and he decided to start opening fire,” Guizar says. “It was just complete gross disrespect.” The complaint also says Vargas was denied medical attention, making his death drawn out and painful. Val Vargas tells Knock LA that her nephew’s body was left in the street for hours, leaving it distorted.
A criminalist said under oath that a gun recovered from the scene that deputies stated had been in Vargas’s possession had no fingerprints on it. She also said that she had not been given the weapon to test, and that samples had been collected for her. Two other experts stated they found two DNA profiles on the weapon. “That means someone’s DNA is on that gun,” Guizar tells Knock LA. “They should do a test.”
The inconsistencies with the handling of evidence in Anthony Vargas’s death don’t end with the gun. “It’s really spooky with the gang issue,” says Guizar. “There was blood splatter all over from [Vargas’s] arm into his body. And allegedly the gun was in the stomach, and there’s not a scintilla of blood on a gun, it looks clean as hell, but right next to his body. There’s blood all over the place. All over the uniform, all over the radio cord that was wrapped around Anthony’s arm. The sergeant that arrived at the scene, she untangled that cord and they turned him over. She says she saw a gun pop out of his waistband and fly in the air. OK, how is that physically possible that the gun flies in the air? And she didn’t see where it came from, she was distracted, she wasn’t paying attention, but she saw a gun, flying in the air.” Guizar said that in all of his years of practicing law, he had never seen a sergeant as afraid as the woman was during her deposition. “The radio cord, it was full of blood, was right there around Anthony Vargas’s hand. She took possession of it and took it to the station. When they photographed it, it was clean, as clean as a brand new item. That’s classic tampering with evidence.”
Guizar says he believes that the sergeant may have witnessed a gun being planted at the scene of Vargas’s killing. “They have not taken any DNA of all the officers who were there and tried to see if it matches that gun. That would be the right way to investigate this case.” As of publishing, the Vargas family case against the County is still pending. Additional complaints filed by Guizar state that instead of re-training Perez and Rojas after the shooting, they were both given promotions before an internal review of their actions for discipline and criminal charges had completed.
Anthony’s aunt Valerie Vargas says that since the case was filed, the family has been regularly harassed by LASD personnel. “We see Anthony’s killers on the street all the time. We can’t go to the 7-Eleven without seeing Nikolas Perez. He fucking shows up to our house. He’s right across the street,” she says. “I took it as a sign. I know what he’s capable of doing.” Vargas also says that her family members have been regularly detained on their way to work for no apparent reason. She and other relatives have started to walk around wearing body cameras out of fear.
“I haven’t felt safe since 2018.”
Nikolas Perez kills again
Deputy Nikolis Perez was involved in another fatal shooting just a few months after he killed Anthony Vargas. Around 5:30 PM on December 16, 2019, Jorge Serrano was walking on 4th Street near Ditman Avenue in East Los Angeles. Serrano’s sister, Ashley Miranda, recalled the afternoon in a conversation with Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and other victims of violence at the hands of law enforcement last week. She shared that her brother, also a twin, had been killed on her 20th birthday. “It was really traumatizing for me because now every single birthday I have, I have to live with remembering his death and the way he was killed.”
Perez spotted Serrano as he was riding in a patrol car with another deputy, according to an incident report. Serrano was aggressively approached by both of the deputies and fled in fear, according to court documents. A lawsuit filed against the County by Serrano’s family states that he gave up and stopped running after one block and dropped to his knees with his hands up to show he was not a threat. Perez shot him seven times. Miranda says the deputies shot Serrano in the neck and groin, destroying it. His kidneys were also damaged, and his fingers were broken. Serrano was left bleeding profusely in the street and did not receive immediate medical care. He died shortly after the shooting.
“We believe it’s consistent with what [Perez] did in the Vargas case. He shot the guy in the back and he overreacted,” says Humberto Guizar, who is handling claims for the Vargas and Serrano families. “[Serrano] should not have been shot in the back.”
The Rea Family’s multigenerational trauma
Paul Rea is remembered by his community as someone who was loved by all. He was naturally athletic and loved to climb trees and on top of buildings. He once hid his sister’s hamster on the roof of the family home as part of a prank. By June 2019, Rea started to venture out on his own. He had recently moved into his own place and was pursuing his dream of becoming an electrician. Although Rea’s family says he was an upbeat, cheery young man, he had experienced severe trauma at the hands of Sheriff’s Deputies when he was just 7-years-old.
On November 30, 2008, 18-year-old Salvador Zepeda Alarcon, Paul Rea’s father, was on his way home from a party. Nearby, deputies received a call of shots fired. Paul’s Rea’s mother, Leah Garcia, tells Knock LA that what was reported as shots were really balloons popping at a nearby party. The deputies claimed that Alarcon pointed a gun at them, and shot him to death. Witnesses said he had no weapons on him. Several people stated that they saw deputies plant a gun on Alarcon. Garcia says that strangely enough, a friend of hers had been pulled over shortly before the shooting. During the stop, the deputies allegedly confiscated an air pistol belonging to the friend’s son. “That’s what they do. They take from somebody they pull over,” she says.
Garcia says Alarcon’s family asked her and other people to stop speaking out about his death because members of the sheriff’s department threatened them with deportation. Deputies also began regularly pulling her over. Her son would often be in the back seat watching, terrified. “This is when I’m pregnant. I had a lot of complications just with all the stress. I was having twins, I lost one twin,” she says. “It was just really traumatic.” Garcia says she never thought her son would meet an identical fate to his father.
On June 27, 2019, 18-year-old Paul Rea was riding in his friend Tommy Sanchez’s black Audi sedan near 312 Gerhart Avenue in East LA around 11 PM. The two childhood friends had recently stopped by a cannabis dispensary and purchased some goods. According to a District Attorney report, Deputies Hector “Little Listo” Saavedra, an alleged Banditos prospect, and Argelia Huerta spotted the friends riding along and stopped them for allegedly running a stop sign and not having any visible insignia on the car. Garcia believes the deputies targeted the young men. “They were outside of the shop. They were harassing other people to get them out of their cars. And then they see these two young boys with a nice car so they think a certain way and stereotype them and profile them.”
Sanchez says that the deputies followed the young men as they drove. When he reached a stop sign, the deputies pulled him over. Sanchez was searched, his cannabis was confiscated, and then he was cuffed and placed in the patrol vehicle. The deputies then asked Rea to exit the vehicle. A lawsuit filed against the County by Rea’s family states that he exited the car when asked and attempted to run away. Saavedra shot Rea, killing him. Like other cases, LASD personnel claim to have recovered a handgun from the scene.
Sanchez was taken back to the station and allegedly beaten and threatened by a number of deputies. Rea’s sisters went down to the scene to investigate and discovered he had been killed. Garcia says that Sheriff Alex Villanueva never reached out to her after deputies killed her son – she has only spoken to homicide detectives. She tells Knock LA that the last contact she had with the detectives was in early March 2021 when she was scheduled to pick up her son’s phone, which for some reason had been held for forensic evidence. The detective never called her. Rea’s family and Tommy Sanchez filed a complaint against the County in February 2020, which is pending.
On October 30, 2019, a few months after Rea’s death, his sister Jaylene Rea attended a town hall with LASD personnel in Temple City and was photographed by a deputy in uniform and a woman in plainclothes. Following the meeting, Jaylene visited the area where her brother died and set up a memorial for Dia de Los Muertos. Deputies drove by in a patrol vehicle and made rude hand gestures, according to the lawsuit. The deputies arrested two of Paul Rea’s friends, which Jaylene captured on her cell phone. Jaylene was also taken into custody that evening and driven recklessly across East LA in a patrol vehicle until 1:00 AM the following morning. Once she arrived at the station, the personnel working refused to release her until 7 AM.
The harassment has continued. Garcia says that she fears for the lives of her daughters who are determined to speak out against the LASD. “I feel like I’m constantly watching my back. I could be at a gas station, I could be driving and they’re shining the lights on me,” she says. “They’ll ask me what gang am I from. They’ll say, ‘Where do you live now?’”
Her attorney, Humberto Guizar, believes the misconduct that has been uncovered is just a small part of a much bigger problem. “I think there’s a lot more because if they saw something and they didn’t report it, guess what? They’re on the hook…. They’re like organized crime, they’re like the Mafia. They say they’ll never rat on each other.” He says, “If you’re a cop and you see something bad happen, something illegal, you are actually guilty of a crime.”
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