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.
In 2005, a self-admitted member of a group called the Regulators filed suit against the County. He alleged the County was discriminating against him and other Latino members. He was awarded over $1 million dollars of taxpayer money. So, by the early 2000s, gang culture appears to have been normalized within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
In 2005, Deputy Angel Jaimes, a Latino man, was a deputy sheriff assigned to Century Station. He described the Regulators in court documents as a group of deputies “who are very confident in their abilities as deputies, those who know how to do their job well, those who do the job to ensure that they become an asset to the Sheriff’s Department, not a liability.” He told the Los Angeles Times that the gang was, “like the all-stars of a baseball team. You get the best.”
Jaimes would not tell the paper how many deputies belong to the group, but said he was the 63rd to join. By 2005, the gang’s members spread to other stations. The Times also reported that anonymous letters, allegedly written by deputies outside the group, accused members of extorting money from other deputies, acting like gang members, and heavily influencing shift-scheduling and administration at Century Station. Members of the Regulators claimed that the money went to deputies in need but denied pressuring fellow LASD members to contribute. In Jaimes’ deposition, he indicated that similar “social groups” were present at every station in the County.
Jaimes received positive performance reviews until Sergeant Arthur Scott was assigned to Century Station in October 2000. Jaimes claims Scott told others Jaimes was the head of a group called the “Mexican Mafia.” On June 29, 2004, Jaimes said Captain Denney held a meeting at the station to “clear the air regarding comments Sergeant Scott had made in the past,” but there was no discussion. When he asked to speak freely, Jaimes stated he felt Scott was getting “disparate treatment,” and was able to get away with things other personnel would not be able to.
Two weeks after the meeting, Jaimes was transferred. Shortly after, the Department filed a complaint against him for insubordination. Jaimes filed suit against the County. His attorney, Arnoldo Casillas, told jurors during the trial that the Regulators were singled out by supervisors and likened to the Mexican Mafia because of a stereotype that pegs male Latinos as likely gang members. The jury found in Jaimes’ favor, and he was awarded $1.1 million in taxpayer money. The County was also on the hook for attorney fees. Jaimes appears to have retired on disability in 2017 and receives over $110,000 in pension annually.
Jaimes’ case seemingly caused a fissure within the Vikings. Some older Vikings appeared to dislike the Regulators, while others lent their support to the younger gang.
A Fracture in the Gangs
Katherine Brown-Voyer joined the LASD in 1987, starting her career at Lynwood Station. She was named as an associate of “neo-Nazi” deputy gang the Vikings in a civil class action suit. In 1990, Brown-Voyer participated in a botched raid on the home of a Latinx family of seven, beating several of the members with batons and flashlights. By 2003, she was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to Century Station. But her career took a turn for the worse when she became an advocate for self-admitted Regulator, Deputy Angel Jaimes.
In June 2004, Brown-Voyer says Captain James Lopez asked if she heard Deputy Jaimes call Sergeant Scott a “piece of shit” during a briefing. She had not. In court documents, she alleges that Lopez became angry with her because she did not support Scott, and she was given a 15-day suspension. After she complained, she was transferred from her position and denied an approved transfer to the Homicide Bureau. Brown-Voyer claims she was also unjustly investigated and suspended for failing to respond to a deputy-involved traffic collision while out of town. She filed a lawsuit against the County for sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in 2004. The case was settled in 2010 for $790,000, paid for with taxpayer money.
Two captains testified that Voyer damaged her reputation by backing Jaimes and other Latino deputies. In a deposition, Captain Joaquin Herran said that following her lawsuit against the County, Bown-Voyer was not recommended for a promotion to captain as, “Lieutenant Voyer was associated with various Latino officers and was well-known to have testified in the discrimination claims of Deputy Angel Jaimes.” She wasn’t the only person who received such treatment: just a few years later, Brown-Voyer sued the County again along with another lieutenant, Nicholas Rampone.
In their complaint, the lieutenants alleged LASD listed Rampone’s race as Hispanic despite the fact that he is Italian. After he provided testimony for Deputy Jaimes’ case against the County, Rampone was passed over for promotion to captain, despite testing well for the position. Brown-Voyer remained stonewalled in her quest for a new assignment. The complaint says confidants of undersheriff and tattooed Viking Paul Tanaka reached out to Brown-Voyer to set up a meeting to iron things out, but Tanaka himself did not agree to meet.
Tanaka was appointed as Undersheriff of the Department in June 2011, where he served until he resigned in the midst of a federal probe into ongoing abuse in the County jails. During his time in the department, he also held several city government positions in Gardena. Tanaka was elected to the city council in 1999, and won his campaign for Mayor in 2005. He was re-elected to the seat in 2009 and again in 2013. Tanaka received a federal indictment in 2015, but continued to hold the seat. He served as mayor up until he was convicted in 2016 in a federal court for conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Tanaka had been accused of using his senior-level position within the department to extort members for contributions to his campaign for Mayor of Gardena. In exchange for a cash payment of at least $500 and an agreement to never report a fellow department member, gang members and associates could quickly climb the ranks, according to court documents. Some even earned an invitation to his exclusive cigar smoking club on a patio at the department’s headquarters. If deputies were caught not following procedure, or working in the so-called “gray area,” they were promised Tanaka’s protection. Tanaka also allegedly gave orders to manipulate Hispanic deputies’ test scores to ensure they would never advance in rank. Sheriff Baca was questioned in Voyer’s prior lawsuit about gangs within the department and acknowledged the existence of several, but refused to take any type of corrective action.
Brown-Voyer was also allegedly denied a doctor-recommended surgery for years. She finally received the treatment in 2011, five years after her doctor made the request. By this time, Tanaka had been accused of using his senior-level position within the department to extort members for contributions to his campaign for Mayor of Gardena.
Rampone and Voyer settled their suit in 2015 for $109,000, funded by Los Angeles County taxpayers. They are both now retired and collect pensions of over $100,000 each. Although their case exposed the varying influence of deputy gangs, Knock LA has found no evidence of internal corrective action as a result.
Deputy Gangs Infiltrate Men’s Central Jail
By the late aughts, Paul Tanaka promoted several LASD members who welcomed the gangs’ style of law enforcement to senior positions at Men’s Central Jail. Among them was Charles McDaniel, a floor sergeant who admitted under oath he was inked with the skull associated with the Regulators. He was on duty on October 16, 2009, when a group of deputies severely beat a man awaiting trial.
Deputy Anthony Vasquez allegedly started the confrontation by pulling Tyler Willis out of his cell and forcing him to strip naked, squat, and cough in a public setting, according to court documents. As Willis complied, Vasquez wondered aloud about the nature of Willis’s charges. Vasquez told Willis to give the details of his case or remain squatting. Willis refused and Vasquez returned to his cell, followed by four more deputies. Once inside the cell, the group of deputies beat Willis with their flashlights, causing multiple head injuries and fractures to his body. They beat him so thoroughly his leg was broken. Following the battery, a deputy repeatedly shocked Willis with a taser, burning him. Mark Pachowicz, who worked on Willis’s legal team, told Knock LA, “There was testimony during the trial about and from a deputy who had reviewed a large number of reports regarding use of force in the department and who basically outlined how things like this seem to happen all the time.”
Willis took his case to trial and was awarded a $1,141,408.39 verdict. Sheriff Lee Baca was eventually found responsible for $100,000 and the deputies $10,000 each, an unusual step taken as a result of a jury trial. Taxpayers picked up the remainder, as well as the lawyers fees. But none of the participants in the beating appear to have been disciplined for their participation. Pachowicz says lack of accountability shows deputies that when they do something wrong, the department will have their back. “When subordinates are allowed to do something wrong and the supervisors don’t take any action, those subordinates and others around them view that as the ratification of the conduct.” In time, the jails became the subject of another deputy gang scandal. Meanwhile, the Regulators continued to unleash their brutality on the people of Los Angeles County.
A Department in the Gray Area
On June 12, 2012, 27-year-old Kenneth Rivera was standing shirtless and unarmed in a pair of jeans outside of the La Siesta Motel in Lynwood. Documents from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office suggest he was in the midst of a mental health episode, worsened by drugs. A young girl allegedly witnessed Rivera grab a teenager sitting nearby and promptly run away. An observer called 911, which put out a dispatch for a potential kidnapping. Deputy Norma Silva was in the area and drove past Rivera, made a U-turn, and stopped just past where he stood in front of the motel. Several witnesses testified at trial that Rivera approached Silva with his hands up saying, “I’m the one you’re looking for.” She fired three shots as he turned away, severing one of his vertebrae. Rivera collapsed on the ground and bled profusely. According to the complaint, he was denied medical attention and instead handcuffed. He died shortly after.
Pachowicz, who also represented Rivera’s family, says Silva never got out of her car during the shooting. “Her story was that he went at her, dove into her, laid on top of her across the console in the patrol car. Her head was on supposedly a lunchbox that she’d had on the passenger seat and that he was reaching for her gun,” he says. “I say, ‘Well, where is this lunchbox?’ Because wouldn’t her hair be in anything on that lunch box to prove that she was actually laying on the lunch box? I know it’s not in the pictures. Where is it? ‘Well, we let her take the lunch box.’ But why? There was a shooting in the car. Was there blood on it before you let her take it? Was there hair on it? Were there prints? Was there anything? Like you guys know better. You have to know better. That’s where you start to go, ‘Why?’”
The Rivera family lodged a complaint against the County following Kenneth’s death, alleging that several LASD members participated in a cover-up of the shooting by seizing and destroying video camera footage. The Riveras’ suit also says Tanaka made a point at a meeting at Century Station about “working in the gray area,” or outside of the law, to threaten captains and supervisors. Tanaka said he would be “checking on them” and retaliate against any investigation of misconduct by deputies. Tanaka had previously expressed his disdain for the internal affairs department, stating that having 45 investigators was “44 too fucking many.”
Pachowicz says the entire department has an adverse attitude towards unbiased investigations. “Part of their job as it’s described to them is to protect the department… The bottom line is I view a lot of civil rights cases this way: there is the deputy who made the decision, whatever that decision was. But then there’s the people who follow up and deal with the investigation. I probably have more patience for the poor decision that was made in a very short period of time than I have for the countless decisions that get made during what should be a systematic gathering of facts that then determine whether something was done right or wrong,” he says. “Part of the concern that people should have is why, when nine civilian witnesses walked into a federal courtroom and testified they saw [Rivera] outside the vehicle when the shots went out, the Sheriff’s Department concluded that they were all wrong.”
The case settled for $1,500,000 during the trial, which was funded by taxpayer money. The County also paid for attorneys fees on both sides. The Regulators body count continued to grow.
Jason Zabala, an inked Regulator, is responsible for the deaths of at least two people and cost the County $4 million.
Deputy Jason Zabala admitted to getting a Regulators gang tattoo at a Sunset Beach shop and says he was the 140th person to receive the design. The tattoo depicts a skeleton wearing a star-shaped badge and cowboy hat and holding a pistol next to a tombstone displaying the Century Station logo – a diamond shaped crest with Nordic-appearing letters spell out CEN on top and the Roman numeral for 21 below.
The combination of the skeleton with the grave marker suggests that Zabala had ties to both the Century Station Regulators and the Palmdale Cowboys. In 2018, Deputy Oleg Polissky confirmed the existence of the Palmdale gang when he testified that he acquired the skull tattoo as part of an exclusive group of deputies in the station. While Polissky described the tattoo as signifying the wearer’s good morals—following the law and avoiding heavy-handed tactics—those characteristics do not seem to describe Zabala’s style of police work. In October 2011, an on-duty Zabala ran a red light and was involved in a collision. Sonya Benton, 49, was inside the other car. The impact gravely injured her spine, causing long-term damage and prompting a fusion surgery. At the beginning of the case, the County’s counsel asserted that Benton’s injuries weren’t serious and the surgery wasn’t necessary. The case settled for $80,000 before trial. Taxpayers picked up the bill for her award and everyone’s attorney fees. Zabala remained a deputy.
About two years later, around 9 PM on Sunday, May 18, 2013, Terry Laffitte was riding his bicycle home through the Van Ness neighborhood of South Los Angeles. According to court documents, Deputies Oscar Barrios and Jason Zabala did not see a safety light on Laffitte’s bike. They stated that they pursued Laffitte and he ignored their orders to stop. They chased him to his house and into the backyard to allegedly cite him for riding the bike without proper equipment, according to court documents. Inside the house were his sisters, nieces, and nephews, who heard the commotion and came outside to investigate. Laffitte’s nephew testified that upon coming outside, he witnessed the deputies tackle his uncle to a prone position on the ground without saying a word to Laffitte. As the young man’s sisters followed him outside into the melee, the nephew called his mother, Laffitte’s sister Sandra Cotton, for help.
Cotton, who was pregnant at the time, said under oath that she began filming the incident and that a deputy assaulted her. “When I started recording him, that’s when he kicked me in my stomach and pointed his gun in my face and told me he’ll blow my fucking face off,” she said. Laffitte’s nephew stated that the deputies ordered him to the ground at gunpoint, and a peace officer hit him. As he moved to lay down, the deputies placed Laffitte in a headlock. They beat Laffitte with their flashlights and then shot him execution-style in the back of the head. Immediately, several deputies descended on the scene and confiscated the cell phones of the witnesses to the fatal shooting. Several were also arrested. Neighbors told family members that the sheriff’s department members hung around in the backyard with Laffitte’s dead body for hours, cracking jokes and laughing. He is survived by three daughters.
The deputies later claimed Laffitte had a gun. However, Zabala said in his deposition that he never saw a weapon on Laffitte. A handgun was recovered from the scene, but it tested negative for Laffitte’s DNA, according to court documents. The testing did conclude, however, that at least two other individuals handled the gun. Shortly after the incident, Cotton said in a press conference, “I want revenge for my brother’s death. There will be no justice in Los Angeles until my brother’s murderers go to prison… I want them jailed for killing my brother and brutalizing my family.”
That didn’t happen. Laffitte’s family settled the case for $1,500,000 before it went to trial. Taxpayers, of course, footed the bill. But the deputies who killed Terry Laffitte were never charged, and it does not appear they were disciplined. It appears as if Barrios was still a member of the department as recently as 2019. Horrifyingly, Zabala went on to kill another man in front of his family.
The Murder of Johnny Martinez
Johnny Martinez moved in with his parents, Roberto and Antonia, in the Florence neighborhood of Los Angeles shortly after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. His toddler-aged daughter lived out-of-state with her mother. He was mostly on good terms with the neighbors, but he did get into a verbal argument with one on the evening of October 14, 2014. According to Ryan Casey, who represented the Martinez family in a lawsuit against the County, Martinez was eating just before the argument. When things got heated, Martinez bearhugged Jose Hernandez, cutting his face with a fork in the process. Hernandez’s 13-year-old son called 911 and was put through several dispatchers who erroneously reported Jose as stabbed, according to a transcript reviewed by Knock LA.
The final dispatcher called the younger Hernandez “slow” when he attempted to correct her and communicate that Martinez was calmly sitting on his porch with his parents nearby. She also insisted that the 13-year-old caller approach the deputies and clarify mistakes made in this dispatch himself. Casey says when responding Deputies Jason Zabala, Jay Brown, Ernesto Hernandez Posadas, and Pedro Guerrero-Gonzales arrived at the scene, they ignored both the neighbors who called for help and the Martinez family’s attempts to explain what was happening. “They completely ignored all the people that were there trying to tell them that the guy was not a threat, not a danger. He was having a mental episode. And deputies, rather than listening to anybody, chose to kind of essentially march down the driveway to take control of the situation,” Casey says.
Martinez remained seated on his parents step as the deputies approached. He held a small steak knife in his hands and laid it on the ground when asked, according to the complaint. Despite his compliance, the deputies stated that they shot a taser at Martinez, then employed pepper spray. Next, all four fired their weapons, shooting Martinez at least 36 times. One of the bullets also struck Hernandez, who was standing nearby, injuring him. Martinez died on the steps in front of his family, neighbors, and the child who called 911.
“There were actually records in our case that some of the deputies who were involved in the ultimate shooting that led to [Martinez’s] death had actually been to this house previously on another call due to a disturbance as a result of Johnny’s mental illness,” says Casey. “And yet, the way they chose to engage with him violated multiple protocols of how you should deal with individuals with mental illness.”
The deputies who shot Martinez were found to have acted in self-defense, and no charges were filed. Zabala was even promoted to a gang detective unit, Operation Safe Streets. Both the Martinez family and Jose Hernandez filed civil suits against the County and were awarded $2,500,000 and $2,000,000, respectively, paid for by County taxpayers.
The Regulators were unphased and had gained standing as a respected deputy gang.. They now had security, power, and nothing stopping them.
READ NEXT: The Perfect Breeding Ground