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.
Although some stations home to gangs were eventually closed, such as the Viking’s Lynwood Station, gang members continued on in the department and promoted their violent way of policing. The Grim Reapers were originally based out of Lennox Station, which closed in 2010 when the South Los Angeles Station opened. Members of the Grim Reapers wear a tattoo on their leg of a black-hooded skeleton holding a scythe, resembling the medieval symbol of death. In order to receive the ink, it’s alleged that deputies need to participate in the fatal shooting of a civilian.
On October 17, 2012, Deputies Samuel Gomez and Joshua Kelley-Eklund arrested 27-year-old Jilberto Gutierrez during a traffic stop for suspicion of possession of a controlled substance. Following his arrest, Gutierrez was transported by the deputies to his home which was promptly searched, according to court documents. While in custody, Gutierrez developed a pain in his chest and was transported to Centinela Hospital Medical Center. Around 1 AM on the morning of October 18, Deputies David Chevez and Lawrence Swanson, Jr. beat, shot, and killed Gutierrez as he lay handcuffed to the bed. Gary Casselman, an attorney who represented Gutierrez’s young children, said the shooting, “was a murder, as far as I am concerned.”
The deputies claimed Gutierrez attempted to grab their guns. His hospital roommate told investigators from the department that she didn’t see much. LASD homicide investigators Frank Salerno and Ronald Duval looked into the shooting, and the officers were cleared. However, Casselman says the science pointed a different way, “Mr. Chavez’s demonstration and description of what happened and where he was were inconsistent with the medical evidence from the coroner’s office.” Indeed, the medical expert’s description of the shooting stated that the deputies stood over Gutierrez when they shot him.
Gutierrez’s two young children and their mother filed a civil rights lawsuit against the County and involved deputies. Both Chevez and Swanson testified under oath that they went together to get their Grim Reaper tattoos, just six months after Gutierrez’s death. Deputies Ramon Munoz and Meza, who also have the Grim Reaper design, accompanied them. Chevez denied any negative association with the design, saying that deputies who had the tattoo, “… are just honest, hard-working, loyal people who are very proud of being members of the station.”
Gutierrez had a tattoo on his chest that read “Fuck the police,” which Casselman suspects may have contributed to the shooting. “He was given an EKG. They had to open his shirt and the deputies were standing there,” he tells Knock LA. “That may have gotten them off on the wrong foot with this guy.” Casselman and the other lawyers made the decision to exclude mention of Gutierrez’s tattoo at trial. He isn’t sure today if that was the right decision. “We were left with a situation of, ‘Well, if the deputy’s version isn’t what happened, why would this happen?’ And we had kept out a possible explanation.”
The County offered $2 million to settle the case before it went to the jury for a verdict. The family declined and ultimately lost the case in court. “We had a jury that was probably not the sharpest knives in the drawer and pro-police. They got the verdict on a Friday evening… and they wanted to go home,” Casselman says. “They just found for the defense and washed their hands of the whole thing.”
Intimate partner violence
In late 2013, Deputy Caren “Carl” Mandoyan began dating a deputy he met a year earlier at West Hollywood station. She remains unidentified for her safety. The woman was initially his trainee, according to Mandoyan’s testimony. After Mandoyan transferred to South Station, the two regularly communicated and began a relationship, which she characterized as “hostile.” The woman alleged that Mandoyan repeatedly attempted to control who she spoke to throughout their relationship, told her not to attend mandatory meetings at work, and even stole keys from her patrol car, leaving her stranded in a parking lot while on duty. Mandoyan also followed her home and refused to leave if she attempted to break up with him. When she didn’t answer his phone calls, Mandoyan logged into her home security system to watch what she was doing and listen to her conversations. She said she felt trapped because he was a “Reaper,” which he appears to confirm in a phone call she recorded. Mandoyan called her things like a, “Fucking disrespectful cunt,” and threatened her saying, “You deserve what you got coming,” and, “This is what happens to fucking disrespectful fucking bitches. You’ll see.”
In September 2014, Mandoyan met the woman and a friend of hers at an El Segundo bar. She says things became awkward when he showed up and they headed back to her home. Once her friend left, she says Mandoyan ripped her jeans and strangled her, leaving marks around her neck. When she was able to get away and lock herself in a bedroom, he allegedly kicked the door so hard he left a gaping hole. At that point she told him to leave. He did, taking her cell phone with him. Mandoyan says nothing physical happened between him and the woman that night, and that a cat toy caused the damage to the door.
The romantic relationship had ended by December 2014, but Mandoyan and the woman remained in contact. He also continued to harass her. Things escalated around December 27, 2014, when Mandoyan attempted to break into her home. She recorded three videos of Mandoyan, one of which shows Mandoyan crouched at the victim’s sliding glass door using a metal object to manipulate the bottom of the door.
The woman also reported that Mandoyan tried to break into her home during the early morning of January 26, 2015. She recorded him in her dark bathroom as he opened a window near her shower. She tells him, “Get the fuck out of my house, Caren! Get out! Stop, dude!” as Mandoyan tells her to come outside.
She later testified that Mandoyan threw toiletry items on the windowsill at her. She said she didn’t call the police about these incidents because she didn’t want to get law enforcement involved or Mandoyan to lose his job.
Later, she received threatening, anonymous text messages she believed were from Mandoyan. Around June 21, 2015, she met with Mandoyan at her apartment to ask him to stop texting her. Shortly after, one of her friends told her that Mandoyan was following her. She reported Mandoyan’s behavior to her supervisor, who filed a report with the department, and the anonymous texts stopped. The department determined Mandoyan potentially committed criminal acts and told her to report to the El Segundo Police Department (ESPD). Mandoyan was relieved of duty on July 10, 2015. A few days later, the woman took out a temporary restraining order against Mandoyan and made her report. A mutual stay-away order was later executed. The ESPD presented a case to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, who declined to file.
Mandoyan’s attorney, Gregory Smith, maintains that the department has misrepresented Mandoyan when he was initially discharged. He says that his client lived at the house with the deputy, and that the two of them, “had arguments constantly.” He says that the woman’s claims are a result of Mandoyan breaking up with her.
Mandoyan was discharged from the LASD on September 14, 2016. He appealed the decision to the Civil Service Commission a little over a week later. They held his hearing over five days in 2017. The hearing officer issued a 29-page report in January 2018 upholding the discharge. Mandoyan filed objections, which the Civil Service Commission overruled. But Mandoyan filed again in Los Angeles County Superior Court, attempting to vacate the Civil Service Commission’s final decision and get his job back. While Mandoyan’s cases made their way through the system, he spent time working on the sheriff’s campaign of an old friend of his: Alex Villanueva. Villanueva himself sued the County once, and settled profitably, over mistreatment by the department.
Both of Mandoyan’s cases remained active until they were purportedly resolved by a “settlement agreement” executed on December 28, 2018, without County approval – just one month after Villanueva’s elevation to sheriff. Villanueva’s former-Chief of Staff Lawrence Del Mese emailed former-Chief Alicia Ault looking to, “achieve the goal of returning [Mandoyan] to work.” Ault later resigned over the request. Villanueva was sworn in on December 3, 2018, and Mandoyan was one of those most visible on the stage during the ceremony. Ten days later, Chief Steven Gross received a memorandum documenting a “manageable chronology and summary analysis of key evidence” to be used by an anticipated “Truth and Reconciliation Panel” for re-examining the cases of deputies previously discharged from the department.
Villanueva said of the case, “I initiated the review. I requested, ‘Okay let’s start the review, let’s pick, let’s start with these low hanging fruit that we need to address’ and that’s when we gave the process over to Chief Gross and then he took off on his own to decide, ‘Okay is this sustainable or not?’”
On December 21, 2018, eight days after the memorandum, the Truth and Reconciliation Panel met to discuss the Mandoyan case. The Los Angeles Times reported viewing a document that stated that Mandoyan’s case was reviewed by then-Assistant and tattooed Caveman Sheriff Timothy Murakami, Chief Eliezer Vera, and Chief Steven Gross. One week later, an additional report found that Mandoyan faced excessive discipline. The panel recommended rescinding Mandoyan’s discharge and, instead, imposing a 12-day suspension. On December 28, 2018, Mandoyan rejoined the department. His settlement included back pay accrued since his discharge. On January 8, 2019, then-Assistant Sheriff Timothy Murakami requested Mandoyan be reinstated to full-duty effective December 30, 2018. The Board of Supervisors filed in court against Villanueva in March 2019 for his decision to reinstate Mandoyan. On August 19, 2019, LA County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ordered a preliminary injunction against Mandoyan’s rehiring. Beckloff ruled on September 28, 2020, that Villanueva’s reinstatement of Mandoyan was unlawful. Mandoyan’s latest appeal was dismissed in March 2021. Smith says that he is planning to continue the battle to get Mandoyan’s badge back. “I’m optimistic the law is on our side. I’m pessimistic because of all the notoriety [the case] got.”
Other deputies have been successful appealing the department’s decision to discharge them after being found out for wrongdoing. In 2010, several lawsuits filed with the Civil Service Commission indicated that a group of deputies on the Gang Enforcement Task force (GET) were successful getting their positions back after being fired for being in a newly formed gang.
The Jump Out Boys
In 2007, Deputy Curtis Sykes joined GET at Palmdale Station. Deputy Douglas Parkhurt recommended Sykes, whom he had worked with earlier in his career at the North County Correctional Facility. (Deputies generally begin their careers in the County’s correctional facilities.) Sykes and Parkhurt later became partners in Palmdale and worked together for almost two years. They were, “like brothers and developed a strong bond based upon mutual respect and trust that they still share to this day,” according to court documents. In 2009, Sykes moved to the Compton unit and worked with Deputy Steve Vargas. A year later, Sykes and Vargas decided to get a tattoo.
They went to a shop together in Pico Rivera and worked with a tattoo artist to come up with a design: a revolver-toting skull with red eyes wearing a bandana with the letters OSS, appearing to represent the unit Operation Safe Streets (which GET falls under). Behind the skull are two playing cards, the Ace and 8 of Spades, or what’s known as a “Dead Man’s Hand.” Each tattoo is numbered and placed on the lower leg. Sykes contacted his old partner, Parkhurst, who was working on Catalina Island, about getting the tattoo in 2011. Parkhurst said he was “honored to be asked since he was no longer a member of GET,” and agreed to get inked.
Deputy Julio Martinez worked in GET at Compton Station between 2009 and 2010 with Deputy Ronnie Perez. Around 2010, Martinez transferred to the unit in East Los Angeles and briefly partnered with Deputy Anthony Paez.
Vargas occasionally exercised in the gym at the East Los Angeles Station in 2011, which is where Martinez says he noticed Vargas’ tattoo. Martinez told his partner about the design and both of them allegedly decided to get it done. Parkhurst, Martinez, Perez, and Paez were all tattooed together on the same day. Deputy Jason Lanksa saw the design as well and received the tattoo about a week later.
The Jump Out Boys were in business. They even received the tacit blessing of senior-level members of the department to operate outside of the law. Then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka insisted at a Century Station meeting that LASD members “work in the gray area.” LASD personnel engaged in activity that was plainly illegal.
On August 24, 2011, Martinez and Paez claimed they witnessed a drug deal in progress while on patrol. LA Weekly obtained video surveillance that captured footage of what actually happened. A man, later identified as Antonio Rhodes, is seen exiting the Superior Herbal Health Dispensary followed by security guard Dante Benton. The two exchange a fist bump. Martinez wrote in a report that Rhodes then saw the officers and reached for a gun, which does not occur on the tape. Rhodes goes back into the dispensary’s display room, returns a bag of marijuana to the cashier, and stands still against the wall. Martinez’s report stated that he looked through a window and saw Rhodes stashing a gun. Next, Martinez and Paez are seen entering the room and ordering everyone to leave. Once they are out, Paez reaches into a drawer in the display room then places a handgun on a chair. In his report, Martinez wrote that after a “protective sweep” of the building the pair uncovered an unregistered gun, along with three others belonging to the security guards. The deputies arrested Rhodes and charged him with possessing an unregistered weapon. The charges were later dropped.
The Jump Out Boys red-eyed skull logo began to draw some unwanted attention. Deputy Jason Lanksa said in a court filing that Captain Robert Rifkin spotted the tattoo at the annual OSS Golf Tournament in 2011 and asked Lieutenant Henry Saucedo to investigate. Curtis Sykes eventually left GET to work in the Parole Compliance Unit. But before his departure, he was at the center of an incident which led to the exposure of the Jump Out Boys to senior-level LASD membership.
The Boys expose themselves
In February 2012, Sergeant Patrick Tapia and Lieutenant Henry Saucedo looked in the trunk of a squad car Sykes and Vargas had been using. They found a fitness magazine in the trunk of the car and, inside of it, four pages of an article titled “Police Gang Discovered” and three pages of a document entitled “Jump Out Boys Creed.” It contains sections titled “Jump Out Boys Mission,” “The Initiation,” “General Information” (which is blank), “Tattoo Meaning,” and “Revisions” (which is blank). The document outlines rules on how to become a member and how the board will run the group. The only reference to a tattoo states that “red eyes will be on all Jump Out Boys tattoos” and “if the gun is smoking then that means the member has been involved in at least one shooting.” It states that each member will receive a number to indicate their membership in the “organized brotherhood that follows a structure in order to compile and review the members who are entered into a booklet.”
Tapia and Saucedo took the documents they discovered to Lieutenant Marks, who instructed Saucedo to inform the GET team that the conduct outlined was unacceptable.
The Killing of Arturo Cabrales
On March 7, 2012, 22-year-old Arturo Cabrales was hanging out at his home with his friend Freddie Solis. As he was standing in the yard, he saw a group of deputies harassing his uncle, Jen Ramos. Deputies William Turpin, Eduardo Hernandez, Steve Espercueta, and Anthony Paez approached and attempted to enter the home without a warrant. Cabrales told Paez as much, and Paez responded by telling him he didn’t need a warrant and forcing his way in. Cabrales turned and ran away from Paez who began shooting, killing him. Cabrales’ family filed a lawsuit which claimed Deputies Paez, Turpin, Espercueta, and Hernandez did not provide medical care to Cabrales and let him bleed out on the pavement.
Jump Out Boys Curtis Sykes and Steven Vargas responded to the scene. Upon arrival, Deputy Martinez allegedly recovered a gun on the other side of Paez’s fence. LASD homicide detectives investigated the incident. They concluded Cabrales turned and pointed a gun at Paez, who then shot him in self-defense. Based on the finding of the medical examiner, that was impossible. “My client could not have thrown a gun over a 10-foot fence. The way he was shot in the back could not have done it,” says Humberto Guizar, an attorney for the Paez family. “It’s interesting that the Sheriff’s Department homicide investigators don’t look at the gang evidence at all involving deputies.” The case was eventually settled, the family received $1.5 million, with taxpayers on the hook for the award, along with attorney costs.
The Jump Out Boys investigation
In April 2012 a number of Jump Out Boys became “concerned” about changes within LASD, according to court documents. In protest, Martinez rallied a group of employees to sit out participation in the department’s annual Baker to Vegas “charity” run. They later changed their minds and participated. During the run, the Los Angeles Times published a story about the gang and their tattoos. The article also claimed the group was the subject of a probe.
The department’s Internal Affairs investigation interviewed 21 GET deputies. Five of them said they were asked to get the tattoo. Deputy Chad Sessman stated in his interview he was “honored” to be asked because he “considered the deputies as hard working deputies who go out and take bad guys to jail.” The investigation also uncovered an email Deputy Douglas Parkhurst sent to Mike Zollo, a former GET member, asking if he wanted to get the Jump Out Boys tattoo. Ronnie Perez sent a photo to his girlfriend displaying his tattoo on his lower leg. Julio Martinez sent a group text message to several deputies of a photograph of several LASD personnel, including then-Undersheriff Tanaka, flashing their respective gang signs and showing off tattoos.
The Los Angeles Times reported that at some point during the investigation, Captain Bob Rifkin gathered the deputies in the gang unit and told them that although the Jump Out Boys’ creed had brought shame on the department, no one would be fired for it. Witnesses said he encouraged them to continue to “peek over” or “bend” the line to get results, which the deputies understood to mean bending the rules, according to internal documents. Rifkin asked Martinez to look into the gang. He met with Vargas who identified Jason Lanksa, Anthony Paez, Douglas Parkhurst, Ronnie Perez, Curtis Sykes, and himself as members. Vargas also identified Martinez, the deputy investigating the gang, as a gang member. In May 2012, they were all relieved of duty and put on administrative leave. In March 2013, they were discharged from the department. The seven deputies all filed to appeal their discharges. Sykes and Vargas lost their claims and were not allowed to return to the department. However, the Civil Service Commission voted in 2015 to overturn the discharges against Lanska, Perez, and Parkhurst, instead reducing the discipline to 30-day suspensions.
That May, Internal Affairs took a second look at the dispensary raid Martinez and Paez carried out in 2011. Martinez lied in his report, stating he and Paez found a chrome-plated gun in the dispensary’s display room and a black handgun on a desk. In fact, Martinez placed the gun on the desk himself, an event which is captured on film. Martinez pled guilty to falsifying police reports and was sentenced to 300 hours of community service. The deputies filed civil suits to have those suspensions removed. Meanwhile, Sykes and Vargas filed their own cases to reclaim their jobs. Chief James Lopez, who ordered the group fired, testified that allowing the Jump Out Boys to keep their jobs would be “devastating to the public trust.” Despite this, Lanska, Perez, and Parkhurst won their cases in 2017, scrubbing the Jump Out Boys disciplinary actions from their records. They were also awarded payments of $103,480.92, $163,236.20, and $196,995.38, respectively.
The Civil Service Commission recommended in 2016 that Anthony Paez, who killed Arturo Cabrales and lied about planting guns at the dispensary, be rehired. In September 2018, his termination was reduced to just a 15-day suspension, while he was still in the midst of litigation for his role in the dispensary incident. In a hearing on July 29, 2020, Paez’s petition was granted, vacating his suspension and discipline. He also won back pay, with interest.
Paez is only one of several deputies identified as part of a deputy gang yet allowed to remain on the force. And as time passed, more were able to get away with killing civilians, again and again.
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