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.
When Lee Baca won a fluke election for Sheriff of Los Angeles County in 1998, there was a cultural shift within the Department. Baca’s predecessor, Sherman Block, kept a nonchalant attitude towards the deputy gangs, once telling a reporter, “Flashing a sign? That’s meaningless. In fact, I’m sure the gang members out there get a kick out of deputies flashing a sign, having their own gang.” But when Baca took over, he elevated prominent Lynwood Viking Paul Tanaka to the position of Assistant Sheriff and later Undersheriff, second-in-command of the entire department. For some, this move signaled approval of deputy gangs and their style of law enforcement.
From this position Tanaka oversaw operation of the County’s jails and installed several other gang members to high-ranking positions in exchange for money and a promise to keep the blue code of silence. Among them was Charles McDaniel, a sergeant on the 3000 bloc who admitted, under oath, that he was inked with the skull associated with the Century Station Regulators. Under the watch of leaders like Tanaka and McDaniel, Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) became the birthplace of perhaps the biggest gang within LASD: the 3000 Boys.
The County’s jails are an ideal breeding ground for gangs. Most deputies are assigned to work in the system straight out of the academy. Sources close to jail operations say that many are eager to prove themselves. The Citizen’s Commission for Jail Violence found in a report on deputy gangs that the 3000 Boys have a common tattoo on the calf depicting the Roman numeral “III.” Deputies earn the ink by beating inmates and filing false reports to cover up the abuse. The report describes the walls of the deputy booth in the 3000 bloc as full of graffiti and derogatory writings, including a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t feed the animals.”
Abuse is normalized on the 3000 floor
The first known incident alleging violence at the hands of the 3000 Boys occurred on April 17, 2008. Deputies Scott Erskin, James Krase, Armando Diaz, and Jonathan Pera ordered Velton Boone out of his cell and beat him. Following a lengthy investigation into the 3000 Boys, Boone settled his case before trial in 2013 for $950.
In August 2008, Deputy Juan Abel Escalante, who worked at Men’s Central Jail, was killed by members of the Avenues street gang in a reported case of mistaken identity. Following Escalante’s death, deputies at MCJ began beating and threatening to kill incarcerated Latinos, because they (incorrectly) believed one of them put a hit out on the deputy, according to court documents. Following a severe attack on an incarcerated man, inmates refused to leave their cells. Body camera footage obtained by ABC shows Lieutenant Christopher Blasnek, a supervisor at the jail, briefing a group of deputies including Justin Bravo, Enrique Cano, Alejandro Hernandez Castanon, Ivan Delatorre, Herman Delgado, J. Demooy, Arthur Diaz Jr., Adolph Esqueda, Michael Frazier, Antonio Galindo, Armando Gonzalez, Nicholas Graham, Brendon Jackson, J. Hill, Mario Juarez, R. Langarcia, M. Lockhart, John McNicholas, Jose Mendoza, Anthony Montes, Matthew Nowotny, Blake Orlandos, R. Patterson, Jason Puga, Aaron Rivera, G. Rodriguez, Joseph Sanford, Matthew Thomas, Hector Vazquez, Kelley Washington, and Sergeant Michel McGrattan before they unleashed a merciless six-hour attack on the incarcerated men.
Heriberto Rodriguez lay on the floor of his cell in the 3300 module covering himself with a mattress, not responding to deputy commands. According to the complaint, several deputies fired projectiles at his leg, then entered the cell and kicked him as he lay on the floor. One deputy pulled the shirt around Rodriguez’s neck and choked him until he was unconscious. Rodriguez was shocked back into consciousness with a taser, used on his testicles, armpits, back, buttocks, and backs of knees until its charge extinguished. One deputy applied his knee to Rodriguez’s right elbow, in what Rodriguez believed was an attempt to break it. Another clubbed him in the back of the head with a flashlight. Rodriguez was left with a tablespoon-sized fracture of his skull.
Carlos Flores was incarcerated in Cell #4 of A Row when a group of deputies approached and fired rubber bullets. He collapsed after impact, but the two deputies who entered the cell picked him up. They pinned his arms to his sides as others took turns beating him in the head with flashlights until he lost consciousness. Flores was also brought back with the shock of a taser. The deputies beat him until he lost consciousness again. Body camera footage of the extraction shows Captain Daniel Cruz, the commanding officer of MCJ, looking on as Flores is dragged through the halls of the jail. Flores’ next memory is waking up in an emergency room. Following the attack he suffered multiple fractures to his right eye socket (requiring the placement of a metal plate), along with a fractured sinus bone and persistent seizures.
Across the row, deputies doused Erick Nunez with pepper spray and hit him with what he believes to be 40mm less than lethal rounds and a stinger grenade. Several deputies entered his cell, beat his upper body, and shot a taser on his legs until he lost consciousness. In Cell #12, Juan Carlos Sanchez was also hit with less than lethal rounds and beaten in the head with flashlights by deputies. As deputies dragged Sanchez through the jail, he lost consciousness three times: once in his cell, once just outside of it, and again in the dining hall. Just down the hall, deputies beat Juan Trinidad, leaving him with two fractured ankles and a fractured hand.
In total, 19 people went to the hospital with broken bones as a result of the extraction. James Muller, who represented victims of the Lynwood Vikings as well as the men who filed against the County in this incident, says the victims of this attack were targeted because they were charged with serious crimes. “I remember the defense attorneys saying, ‘Oh, nobody’s going to care about these guys,” he tells Knock LA. “The feeling of the deputies and the supervisors is, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to beat the shit out of these guys, we’re going to break their bones, we’re going to torture them with tasers’… How could the captain and lieutenants and sergeants oversee an operation where 19 men had their bones broken and were tortured? How could that happen? The number of people involved shows you the sickness of the Sheriff’s Department.”
Looking back, Muller says it was the most gratifying case of his career. “It was hard to defeat all those lies. They never thought anybody would take their case. And if we did take their case, that there’s no way we could win.” Muller says that deputies staffing the jail were openly hostile to him when he first met with the clients he eventually represented in a civil rights lawsuit against the County regarding the attack. “They have some booths that are not private that people can overhear. And so you talk to these guys and you don’t have any confidence that what you’re saying is confidential. They were happy that someone was listening to them, that there was a chance of getting some justice.”
Muller’s clients were awarded over $1 million in a jury verdict. Appeals for the case through 2019 ran up a bill of over $7 million to the taxpayers of Los Angeles County. The LASD members involved in the incident faced no repercussions and testified as such under oath in depositions. In fact, no one was ever contacted by Internal Affairs. Muller says the inaction signaled to everyone involved that this sort of behavior was upheld by the department. “You hear the inmate screaming in agony. Sergeant’s right in front of the cell, looking in back a little bit further on the walkway. You’ve got the lieutenants… they’re all there. They know what’s going on.”
Captain Daniel Cruz casually joked with deputies about abusing inmates. The Los Angeles Times reported during a toast at the department’s annual Christmas party, Cruz allegedly asked a banquet hall full of deputies: “What do I always tell you guys?” They replied while laughing, “Not in the face.”
Muller says that a video exists where Cruz encourages LASD members to “live in the gray area.” Cruz was relieved of duty in 2011 due to his handling of several scandals related to MCJ, according to WitnessLA. He retired in 2013 from the department and appears to still collect a retirement pension. Muller says Cruz is the person most responsible for brutality at MCJ. “Those guys gossip like crazy. And that, I’m sure, sent the message to everybody, like, ‘Hey, Cruz, was there man. Yeah, we were tasering that guy… right between their balls and their anus. Yeah, dude, you know, Cruz was there, whole time, man.’ That sends a message to everybody.”
Lieutenant Christopher Blasnek, captured on film prepping deputies before they stormed the cells, held several positions in the department following the extraction at MCJ, including Captain of Crescenta Valley Station from 2017-2019. He was promoted to Commander of South Patrol Division by current Sheriff Alex Villanueva in 2019. Muller describes Blasnek as, “the most dangerous kind of Nazi, a seemingly reasonable Nazi… everybody would speak highly of Blasnek because he has this very reasonable air. But the reality is this guy stood by while people were being tortured and he never broke ranks.” In a deposition about the extractions, Blasnek stated that there was no fighting during the incident because deputies immediately took the incarcerated men to the floor. “The fact that Blasnek is a commander in the Sheriff’s Department after being involved in that incident is truly shocking, but it’s completely expected because he was never disciplined,” Muller says.
Blasnek wasn’t the only one promoted in the wake of this incident. As of 2019, Matthew Thomas and Matt Onhemus are lieutenants within the LASD. Kelley Washington and Jose Mendoza were sergeants. Blake Orlandos and Jason Puga went on to be involved in the fatal shooting of 23-year-old Joshua Quintero in 2016, where they were again cleared. Both appear to be serving as deputies as recently as 2019. The Los Angeles Times reported that Deputy Justin Bravo, one of former Sheriff Lee Baca’s nephews, went on to be caught by Commander Robert Olmsted looking at “inappropriate material” on a jail computer. FBI informant Anthony Brown told The Times that Bravo once smuggled him a cellphone while he was incarcerated. Bravo also appears to be serving as a deputy as recently as 2019.
Several other participants in the extraction appear to continue to serve as deputies as recently as 2019, including Clayton Stelter, Frank Quintana, Javier Guzman, Hernan Delgado, Adam Ruiz, Francisco Alonso, Enrique Cano, Alejandro Hernandez Castanon, Ivan Delatorre, Jeffrey Demooy, Arthur Diaz, Jr, Adolph Esqueda, Michael Frazier, Antonio Galindo, Armando Gonzalez, Nicholas Graham, Brendon Jackson, Mario Juarez, John McNicholas, Anthony Montes, Matthew Nowotny, Aaron Rivera, Joseph Sanford, and Hector Vazquez. Michel McGrattan appears to still serve as a sergeant as well.
“I’m sure the 3000 Boys that were saying, ‘Oh, look, Tanaka was a Viking and he’s Undersheriff now, so obviously being in a deputy gang is not going to hurt our careers.’ And, you know, maybe we’ll be Undersheriff,” Muller says.
On January 18, 2009, Bobby Willis was moved within MCJ by deputies David Aviles, Carlos Castillo, and Adrian Zuniga. During his transport, Willis complained about the handcuffs hurting his wrists and was told to shut up, according to a complaint. Willis told the deputy that he must feel “real big” and in response the group began beating him. The deputies sat and stood on his back during the attack, kicking Willis in the head. He was forced to get four stitches in his face. Despite his injuries, Willis lost his case in a jury trial. It’s unclear if any of the deputies were disciplined for this incident.
A death and more coverups
Twenty-two year old John Horton grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He had a passion for music and was working with his mother, Helen Jones, on her music label. Horton loved his community and his family; Jones says that her son promised her if he ever made it big, he would put a youth center in Watts. His dreams were cut short when he reported to Men’s Central Jail after he missed a court-ordered appointment with a drug program. He spent his last birthday in solitary confinement. Ten days later he was found dead.
Jail officials told Jones that her son had committed suicide by hanging himself, which she immediately rejected. “The community of Watts, nobody bought that,” she says. When her son’s body arrived at the mortuary, her suspicions were confirmed. “To see the scar on his head like that immediately you know, you can see that he was beat. I just couldn’t believe that they had sent him home like that. The expression on his face, I knew he went through a beating. I could imagine what his last minutes were like. I know he pled for his life… I didn’t know if I was going to be sane after I saw him dead.”
An autopsy report confirmed Jones’ suspicions. She says the coroner reported damage to Horton’s liver, kidney, pancreas, spleen, and pelvis. A muscle in his back was lacerated, his nose was broken, and his head had a blood clot and knot. “[They] hit him in the forehead with a flashlight, which left a print. He was also hit twice in the side of his temple… they hit him in his back with a flashlight right above his tailbone. He has three whacks right there.” There was a large pink ring of flesh visible around Horton’s wrist, which Jones says were caused by handcuffs. The Sheriff’s Department stated that Horton had died by hanging himself, which was eventually overturned to “unknown.”
Jones filed a civil rights lawsuit against the County in 2010. In court filings, Deputies Christopher Kidder and William Penhollow admit to going on a “chow run” for food outside of the jail with the blessing of Sergeant Clifford Yates, a self-admitted Lynwood Viking. Penhollow also explained that instead of performing his usual rounds, he used a barcode “cheat sheet” to try to document a security check. They claim that when they returned, Horton was dead from hanging. Penhollow says he did not observe anyone injure Horton at any time.
The case settled for $2 million in 2016, which was covered by taxpayers. Penhollow appears to be a deputy as recently as 2019. Yates retired in 2013 and appears to be collecting a pension of over $140,000. He has also written a book, Deputy, where he uses racist and transphobic slurs, describes instructing his subordinates to lie, and admits to committing crimes as well as routinely violating department procedures while on duty.
Evans Tutt survived a brutal beating on July 20, 2009, after complaining about the inhumane conditions in MCJ. In court documents, other incarcerated men describe witnessing deputies Hernan Delgado, David Aviles, David Ortega, Jason Snyder, Rivera, and Thompson calling Tutt a “fucking n*****” and unleashing a brutal beating on him. They tasered, kicked, and hit a handcuffed Tutt with flashlights. His nose was broken in multiple places, his tooth chipped, and bruises covered his head, legs, and torso. Although Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley filed against the deputies for filing a false report, 19 of the charges were dismissed. Tutt filed his own federal civil rights lawsuit against the County and was awarded $400,000 of taxpayer money.
Shortly following the beating, Deputy David Ortega was arrested at a bar in Fullerton, CA, after threatening to fight and kill the bouncer. Chris Barton told KTLA that Ortega spat on him repeatedly and said that he would “leave him in a pool of blood… to die.” He pled no contest, served probation, was demoted, and appears to have been working in MCJ as recently as 2019.
Michael Holguin was incarcerated inside of MCJ in October 2009. For three weeks, he was not allowed to shower. When he asked a Deputy Rico why he was not able to do so, the deputy responded, “Turn around and I’ll tell you why,” according to the complaint. Holguin complied, turned around, and was handcuffed. Rico took him to a secluded area then began beating his ribs and head. Holguin curled himself into a ball as Deputies David Ortega and Fernando Luviano joined in the beating. Holguin received eight suture staples in the center of his head and four stitches to the right eyebrow. He also suffered a broken tibia and was transferred to LA County-USC Medical Center. Deputy Rico taunted Holguin during the trip saying, “Bet you won’t ask ‘why’ anymore, will you?’” Holguin underwent surgery and was fitted with a cast. Upon returning to MCJ, he was not given crutches or a wheelchair and was placed in a cell without accessibility tools, forced to drag himself around. Holguin settled a federal civil rights lawsuit against the County for $475,000, with County taxpayers picking up the bill.
No one disrespects the 3000 Boys
The 2010 Men’s Central Jail holiday party was held on December 10 at the Quiet Cannon restaurant in Montebello. The evening started pleasantly enough. The department instructed several deputies to function as designated drivers so their colleagues could drink. But the festivities ended in chaos when members of the 3000 Boys brawled with fellow deputies.
Deputy Christian Vasquez spent the party drinking 10 beers and a shot of alcohol. Other partygoers said he appeared intoxicated. Vasquez, who worked in Visiting, says he had a conversation with a deputy from the 3000 floor about how his colleagues tended to be slow at getting incarcerated men to the visiting area. Around 11 PM he was approached by a group of 3000 Boys in a stairwell outside the banquet hall, who asked him why he was disrespecting them.
Deputy Elizario Perez saw the argument and tried to intervene but became caught up in the confrontation himself. Both Perez and Vasquez were punched repeatedly by Deputies Alfonso Andrade, Hernan Delgado, Joseph Gonzales, Christopher Hernandez, Juan Navarro, Jeffrey Rivera, Mauricio Rodriguez, and Jason Snyder. Over 200 people witnessed the brawl, including Captain Daniel Cruz, who ran Men’s Central Jail at that time. Several photographs taken that night show the 3000 Boys flashing their gang sign before the fight. Deputy Sussie Ayala, who also worked in visitation, confronted some of the deputies attacking Perez and Vasquez. Andrade punched her in the face. Several Montebello Police Department (MPD) officers reported to the Quiet Cannon in response to a 911 call and were told that their help wasn’t needed. The MPD officers left without any further investigation.
An Internal Affairs Bureau investigation into the brawl resulted in the firing of only six deputies. It’s unclear if there was an appeals process which could have resulted in the reinstatement of these deputies.
Vasquez and Perez filed federal civil rights suits, alleging that LASD was “inadequate” with disciplining deputies. Jason Snyder, one of the 3000 Boys, brought another civil rights suit against Paul Tanaka, alleging retaliation. Both cases were settled. They did not reduce the power or influence of the growing gang. The 3000 Boys remained intact and continued to terrorize Men’s Central Jail.
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