Records show Eli Vera had six shootings and skipped ranks to promotion. He also pushed his station to enter more people into the CalGang database.
Records obtained by Knock LA reveal Eli Vera, a candidate for Los Angeles County sheriff, has six shootings on his record. Vera has repeatedly claimed he had only been involved in five incidents — four where no one was hit, and one in which Vera killed a teenager in 1999.
Emails sent by Vera in 2013 and reviewed by Knock LA reveal Vera’s enthusiasm for entering LA residents into CalGang, and his desire to lead the department with the most entries. CalGang is a database police agencies across California use to store the names and personal details of nearly 90,000 people suspected of being, or simply knowing, suspected gang members. The database has long been deemed racist, and officers have been repeatedly found to have falsified entries.
Vera also claims he was subjected to retaliation and demoted after announcing his run for sheriff of Los Angeles County. In fact, Vera has sued the county twice over similar allegations, claiming his political affiliation prevented him from being promoted. However, Knock LA’s analysis of sworn declarations and pay data reveals that Vera consistently lied about past positions held inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). Vera himself has been accused of carrying out reprisal against department personnel who voted against Alex Villanueva.
Eli Vera did not comment on his shooting record in time for publishing.
Checkered Shooting History
In the early morning hours of January 11, 1999, 16-year-old Julio Castillo had a tense argument with his mother, Gloria Santos. According to the Los Angeles Times, Castillo’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Araceli Pena, attempted to calm him down. Castillo had a shotgun, and she told the paper she was trying to take it away from him. Santos, meanwhile, called the police.
Sheriff’s deputies, Vera among them, arrived at the 3700 block of Fernwood Avenue in Lynwood, where Castillo had taken refuge in an embankment along the 105 freeway. LASD says Castillo began firing at the deputies, hitting one in the side of the face and the other in the chest with shotgun pellets. According to the department, neither deputy was seriously injured.
Ubel Perez saw the shooting from his apartment door. He told the LA Times Castillo was shot twice by deputies. The first shot wounded him, prompting him to wave his hands and signal he was giving up. Pena said that the shot forced Castillo to drop the weapon. “He put his hands up in the air … I was screaming at [the deputies] that he was shot and couldn’t get up.”
During a Zoom meeting with the Culver City Democratic Club on March 9, Vera confirmed that Castillo’s hands had been up. “His mother perceived that when his hands were in the air that he was surrendering. And unfortunately, he was actually, you know, flipping, giving the bird off to the helicopter.”
While Castillo waved in surrender, Pena made her way from the embankment to where Vera and another deputy stood in an attempt to diffuse the situation. She was taken away for questioning. Later, the deputies fired two shots. Vera’s was fatal. “I had to fire a single round that ended up taking his life,” he tells Knock LA.
Vera told Spectrum News 1 that killing 16-year-old Castillo inspired him to become a foster parent.
Records from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office indicate that this was not Vera’s first shooting. A prior incident generated an investigation in 1997. According to the DA’s office, the file was destroyed, and Knock LA was unable to verify the outcome.
Vera’s shooting did not keep him from advancing through the ranks inside LASD. In fact, despite having at least six shootings on his record as of 2018, Vera was promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, and then captain by 2012, according to state records. With six shootings, Vera has one of the highest records of shooting incidents in the entire department, second only to a personnel member who has seven.
Vera Promoted Profiling with CalGang Database
In November 2013, Vera was a captain overseeing unit command of the South Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station. On November 13, he received an email thread that had been circulating among the department’s top brass discussing the department’s entries into the CalGang database by unit. The units are ranked on Excel sheets from most to least entries; South LA Station is not on the list.
A 2016 report from the California state auditor found that CalGang was violating the rights of the 150,000 people then listed within it. The report also found the database was filled with mistakes and questionable entries, like the inclusion of children as young as a year old. Many LASD personnel boast about the number of entries their station has into CalGang, according to multiple people working within the department.
Vera sent the email to all sergeants and lieutenants at the South LA station, urging them to put more people into the database, writing, “I’ve attached our year to date stats for FI’s [field information cards, where officers write information that goes into CalGang]. As you can see we are not amongst the leaders. No doubt we contact a ton of gangsters; I think we just need to fill out a few more FI’s. Any thoughts?”
The 2014 election for LA County sheriff caused a stir in the department. Then-Sheriff John Scott, who was appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to finish out the term of Lee Baca — who resigned amidst a jail abuse scandal that would land him in federal prison — endorsed Jim McDonnell, an outside officer who served as chief of the Long Beach Police Department, to be his successor in October 2014. Paul Tanaka, former undersheriff and then-mayor of Gardena, had also thrown his hat into the ring. He would lose the election, and also be convicted of federal obstruction of justice charges.
Tappan Zee, then a reserve deputy, claimed in a 2015 lawsuit that McDonnell attempted to first have him resign, then attempted to terminate him for being a vocal Tanaka supporter. Zee alleges Vera sent him correspondence at McDonell’s instruction terminating him from LASD and threatening him with civil and criminal action if he did not return a plastic flashlight, plastic whistle, disposable CPR mask, leather belt, and rain jacket to the department. The case was settled in 2018, just a few weeks before Alex Villanueva, then a friend of Vera’s, announced his candidacy for sheriff.
Vera also claims that he was retaliated against for supporting candidate James Hellmold in the 2014 election. In a lawsuit filed in 2017, Vera alleges he was given a poor job performance evaluation, transferred from unit command at the South LA Station, and denied promotions, bilingual pay, and internal requests after supporting Hellmold in 2014. Interestingly, Hellmold backed McDonnell on June 4, 2014, after losing the primary. Vera conditionally settled the case last month.
A Villanueva Beneficiary
While Vera claims that his support for Hellmold held him back in the department, his friendship with Alex Villanueva appears to have been behind his rapid ascent to top brass. Following Villanueva’s victory in the election on November 6, 2018, Vera was promoted from the rank of captain to the rank of chief — completely skipping the rank of commander.
A sworn declaration from Vera penned in December 2018 says that he “served as a Deputy Sheriff, Detective, Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, and Commander before being promoted to Chief in December 2018.” There are no records of Vera having the title of or being compensated as a commander before 2021.
Vera repeats the lie on his campaign website, saying, “In 2018, he was promoted to Commander at which time he assumed the Acting Chief position overseeing Central Patrol Division. In 2019, he was permanently promoted to the rank of Division Chief and remained at Central Patrol Division until transferred to his current assignment.”
While in the rank of chief, Vera participated in Villanueva’s so-called Truth and Reconciliation Panel, a team of top brass selected by the sheriff to reexamine the cases of deputies previously discharged from the department. First on the list was Caren Mandoyan, a deputy who was under Vera’s command at South Station in 2013. Mandoyan was discharged from LASD in September 2016 after a female deputy he trained alleged he had harassed, threatened, and physically assaulted her. Mandoyan appealed his case and bided his time by working on the campaign of Alex Villanueva.
One month after Villanueva’s election, then-assistant and tattooed deputy gang member Sheriff Timothy Murakami, then-Chief Vera, and Chief Steven Gross met as the Truth and Reconciliation Panel to discuss the Mandoyan case. According to Vera’s declaration, despite the woman providing video evidence, the panel found her claims to be both “unfounded” and “unresolved.”
Additionally, the panel concluded that Mandoyan was within his right to use the woman’s home security system to monitor her, because she had given him the password months earlier. Vera, Murakami, and Gross recommended rescinding Mandoyan’s discharge and, instead, imposing a 12-day suspension. On December 28, 2018, Mandoyan rejoined the department with a settlement including back pay accrued since his discharge. Mandoyan was later dismissed after the Board of Supervisors sued Villanueva. Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled on September 28, 2020, that Villanueva’s reinstatement of Mandoyan was unlawful.
Vera also advocated for returning Deputy Jaime Juarez, an alleged shotcaller in the Compton Executioners deputy gang, back to the streets, according to Lieutenant Larry Waldie Jr. Juarez was stationed on desk duty as part of a so-called reform effort under former Sheriff Jim McDonnell for deputies involved with multiple on-duty shootings. After being elected, Villanueva opted to get Juarez back on the streets. Juarez wanted to stay in scheduling, possibly to maintain control over station assignment. During testimony this week during a special Civilian Oversight Commission hearing on deputy gangs, Waldie said Vera insisted on returning Juarez to the field.
Vera says the process was out of his control. “I think already dating back to McDonnell that they were reevaluating his status on a yearly basis,” he told Knock LA after the hearing. “What the investigations had shown was that there were no valid reasons at that point to keep him from going back.” Vera also said he informed Juarez he would only be able to remain in the area for one year — but Juarez stayed in Compton.
Vera also says Villanueva offered to reward him with a promotion to assistant sheriff in exchange for overseeing a cover-up of an investigation into a brutal assault by Banditos deputy gang members on unaffiliated deputies at an off-duty party. “He actually told me that he wanted to make me the next assistant sheriff on more than one occasion … and I knew exactly what that meant, he wanted me to shut up. He wanted me to stop pushing back, fall in line. And then … I would benefit financially and in position and I absolutely refused to do that.”
When Vera returned from a medical leave in 2021, the Kennedy Hall investigation had already concluded with a cover-up. The assistant sheriff position instead went to Brendan Corbett on April 18, 2021. A few days later, Vera announced his candidacy for sheriff.
In August 2021, Vera was demoted to commander, marking the second time he would cry foul for his political beliefs. The department confirmed this in a statement to the LA Times from Captain John Satterfeld saying, “The law is firmly established that … those who serve as confidential advisors to an elected leader, cannot oppose him/her politically and keep their post. … Who has ever heard of a cabinet secretary running against the president who appointed them?” Vera retired shortly afterwards.
Local and state investigations into deputy gangs are ongoing, and pleas for the federal government to intervene looms. Vera has branded himself as someone who will “bring accountability, end corruption, and bring forward a new vision of public safety.” His record demonstrates he has conformed to the department’s status quo, upholding the practices that have consistently protected malfeasance in the LASD.