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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 24 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. Deputy gangs have killed at least 40 people, all of whom were men of color. At least 10 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.
Origins of LASD Gangs
The LA County Sheriff’s Department has prowled the streets of the Southland since the mid-1800s. The Department’s own internal history paints the period as one “so chaotic that lawlessness was the rule, rather than the exception.” While the department lacked a training facility or even uniforms for much of its early history, that didn’t stop it from expanding its operations throughout the County.
Peter Pitchess, the 28th Sheriff of LA County, oversaw a new wave of aggressive expansion and modernization following his election in 1958. He introduced policies that drove disproportionate violence towards Black and Latinx communities, and whose legacies persist today: billy clubs, helicopters, freeway pursuits, and the County’s first SWAT team. The freshly armed forces were on full display on August 29, 1970, a day that haunted Pitchess for the rest of his career: the Chicano Moratorium.
Dawn of the Little Devils
That Saturday was muggy and filled with smog, but an estimated 25,000 Angelenos still made their way to East LA’s Whittier Boulevard to march against the Vietnam War. Sheriff’s deputies began the day peacefully directing traffic, following Pitchess’ instructions to keep a “low profile.” But around 1:30 in the afternoon, hundreds of additional deputies arrived on the scene outfitted in riot helmets. Los Angeles historian Mike Davis, who was there that day, writes in his book Set The Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, “after a desultory warning that the rally was an ‘unlawful assembly,’ they began pushing, prodding, and–where there was any resistance–beating people.” Deputies arrested roughly 150 people and four more were killed, including journalist and law enforcement critic Ruben Salazar.
The night before his death, Salazar informed friends and colleagues that he suspected he was under police surveillance. He was hit with a tear gas projectile as he sat inside a café drinking a beer with his team, waiting for things to calm down outside. Deputy Thomas Wilson, who fired the fatal shot, was never disciplined for his actions.
Salazar’s death ignited criticism of the department and resulted in the longest coroner’s inquest in the County’s history. Salazar’s family eventually settled with the County for $700,000. Pitchess maintained “there was absolutely no misconduct on the part of the deputies involved [in the incident] or the procedures they followed.” However, three years later in an internal memo, department management acknowledged the first deputy gang: the Little Devils. Members allegedly inflicted violence on demonstrators during the Chicano Moratorium. Captain R.D. Campbell compiled a list of 47 known members with the signature red devil tattoo, but it isn’t clear if anyone was disciplined.
Deputies working at the East Los Angeles Station appeared to take pride in the terror they inflicted on the community during the Chicano Moratorium – a now infamous logo for the station immortalized the violence wrought that day. The Fort Apache logo depicts a police riot helmet over a boot 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 Pitchess’ instructions to the deputies on duty at the Chicano Moratorium. The logo was banned by Sheriff Jim McDonnell in 2016 because he found it to be “disrespectful” to the East LA community. The Fort Apache reference dates back to a 1948 John Ford western of the same name. The story is centered on a remote U.S. cavalry outpost surrounded by enemies whom the white officers regard as dangerous “savages.” Current Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva revived the logo shortly after he took office in 2018, but declined to comment on why. Villanueva worked at the station earlier in his career, and even met his future wife there.
“We were all Cavemen”
Deputy gangs continued to develop at the East LA Station after the Little Devils were exposed. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported on a new gang called the Cavemen. Captain Ramon Sanchez told the Times that the moniker came from a nickname for a bunk room in the men’s locker area of the East LA Station. The “cave” was used by male deputies at the end of night shifts to rest when they had to testify in court later in the day. For many years, there was a Cavemen mural on a wall in one of the conference rooms. Sanchez went on to describe the group to the Times as a “mixture of whites and Hispanics and Blacks” who spent time together outside of work or who engaged in department sports competitions. Sanchez began looking into the group in the late 1980s when he heard rumors that some deputies had Cavemen tattoos. The design included a Neanderthal-like cartoon with flies near its head, each one marking an incident of violence against a civilian. Sanchez claimed that some deputies had Cavemen tattoos, but no flies. It’s unclear if any of the deputies with tattoos were disciplined.
Now, nearly 30 years after the gang came to light, one alleged Caveman made it all the way to the senior ranks of the Department: Sheriff Villanueva’s current Undersheriff, Timothy Murakami. Sheriff Villanueva himself stated that when he worked at the East LA Station he knew about the Cavemen. At a March 12, 2019, Board of Supervisors meeting, he made a bizarre statement about his past service there, saying, “we were all Cavemen.”
The Wayside Whities
The culture of gangs carefully curated at the East LA Station soon found its way into other parts of the County. The Center for Juvenile Law & Policy at LMU Loyola Law School has identified the group Posse which operated in the Twin Towers Correctional facility. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1998 that the gang used coded messages to communicate with each other. Sheriff Block told the paper, “This is not acceptable to us. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — people are placed in our custody as punishment, not for punishment.” Members of Posse also allegedly targeted incarcerated people that were struggling with their mental health. On August 1, 1998, Danny Smith, a Black man who had been diagnosed with a mental illness, was beaten to death at the jail. One deputy said that he had gotten on his colleagues’ bad side for “mouthing off.” Just nine days after Smith’s death, the Times reported another beating at Twin Towers where the man had been left with flashlights mark on his back and boot mark on his side. Block stated that although the eight deputies involved in Smith’s beating had been relieved of duty, six other members of Posse continued to work in the jail.
In 1990, a new group formed within the Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center, then known as the Wayside Honor Rancho. The Wayside Whities’ alleged mission was to bring to heel any incarcerated Black men, especially those who fought with white prisoners. They used hand signs with their middle fingers crossed, creating a “W,” and exchanged signs with incarcerated gang members. The Whities apparently existed without reprimand for some time throughout the 1980s before coming into the public eye.
When Clydell Crawford was a young man, he wanted to be a police officer – in college he even took up criminal justice. While his uncle, who worked for the sheriff’s department, told him that Black men like him struggled in that line of work, Crawford was not deterred. His affinity began to change when he got his first ticket during his senior year of high school. “The officer treated me there and I knew something was wrong,” Crawford says. “He had the attitude.” Unfortunately, that encounter was just the beginning of more than 30 years of abuse Crawford has faced at the hands of law enforcement. “I’ve been arrested four times and I didn’t do nothing. And there was nothing I could do.”
On December 2, 1989, a 21-year-old Crawford was incarcerated at the Wayside Honor Rancho. He got into an argument with another inmate, who was white. The man swung at him, and Crawford swung back. “I got the better of him,” he remembers. But someone alerted the sheriff’s deputies. Crawford says a deputy came into his barracks, handcuffed him, and put him against the wall. Several other officers gathered around them.
“He didn’t ask me what happened, he just said he’s going to teach me about beating up on white guys. And that’s when they all started. They had a Black officer there, he didn’t help me up. Then they targeted my leg and they were yelling Wayside Whities,” Crawford told Knock LA. At the time, he had no idea what that meant. The deputies beat Crawford with their flashlights, striking over 30 blows to his head, torso, and legs. They continued to beat his leg until it was broken. “I remember that flashlight kept hitting me in the same spot over and over and over until it started bleeding and snapped,” he says. “[The deputy] was making sure I was going to feel his wrath, making sure I was going to understand wherever it was, that the Wayside Whities were here… I thought I was going to die that night.”
After beating him, the deputies told Crawford to hop on his uninjured leg to the medical department. Once inside a treatment area, the officers negligently left Crawford laying in a gurney underneath a row of pay phones. “I was nervous and really scared about it, but I didn’t know where it was going to go from there because I felt they tried to kill me. And I thought if I had tried to make a statement against them that it will go all bad. So I picked the phone up and I called my parents.” He told them where he was, and they came the following morning. Crawford hired attorney George V. Denny III and never went back to Wayside.
In the late 1980s, George V. Denny III was one of only a handful of attorneys pursuing cases against police structures in Los Angeles County. He served as a deputy district attorney for some years, which gave him unique insight into the functions of law enforcement. Denny and the Police Misconduct Lawyer Referral Service retained David Lynn, a former Marine who’d just returned to LA after several years abroad investigating human rights violations for various organizations, including the United Nations, to look into the Wayside Whities.
“That was the first gang that we heard of,” Lynn says of the group. “And such a blatantly horrific name.”
Lynn discovered the Whities maintained a strong presence throughout the jail and passed his findings on to Denny, who filed a lawsuit in federal court. He also sent a letter to Sheriff Sherman Block, District Attorney Ira Reiner, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Schabarum, County Counsel, and the presiding judges of the criminal and superior courts detailing the case and asking for disciplinary action to be taken against the deputies. It’s unclear if any of the deputies who participated in the attack on Crawford were ever disciplined.
Crawford’s case never made it to trial. Lynn says that’s common with deputy gang cases: “The County does not want these cases going to trial because then you get deputies and victims under oath, and they avoid that at all costs. The County just keeps throwing money at the defendants and the lawyers. It’s a business.” Crawford settled for $60,000 and signed an affidavit that he wouldn’t pursue any action on residual injuries. Crawford says he chose to settle because his father was ill with colon cancer, and with no insurance, he was set to lose the family home. He never considered that over 30 years later he’d still suffer from splitting headaches and consistent aching in his leg.
His life has been complicated by his felony offender status, which he credits with setting people up for failure through stigmatization. “They got away with it,” Crawford says looking back on his case. “I’ve told people throughout my life about the incident. A lot of people just can’t believe that police officers were evil. I mean, they really are.” Denny and Lynn, however, were only just beginning their investigations into the gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The Murder of Hong Pyo Lee
Hong Pyo Lee was driving through the Compton area in the early morning hours of March 8, 1988. Despite past struggles, things were looking up for the 21 year old. He was working 50 to 60 hours a week at his family’s liquor store in Anaheim and had just signed up for auto mechanic classes at an LA-area trade school. Sadly, his life was cut short.
LASD deputies claimed they witnessed Lee run a stop sign and pulled behind him, asking him to stop. They said Lee accelerated and led them on a chase across freeways and surface streets towards Long Beach, with two local police officers joining in; Lee’s speeds never exceeded 45 mph. He came to a stop at a railway siding across from a factory – the area only had one way in and out. Sheriff’s Sergeant Paul Tanaka, who went on to serve as second in command of the department and be convicted for crimes committed while in that position— along with Deputies Robert Papini, Daniel McLeod, and Brian Lee stopped about 15 feet behind Lee and drew their guns. Deputy John Chapman approached Lee’s car and ordered him to surrender.
Investigators say that, out of nowhere, all of the deputies opened fire. They shot Lee nine times in the back, killing him. Long Beach police officer Richard R. Boatwright turned to his partner and said, “We just observed the sheriff’s execute somebody.”
The 12-page report from then-District Attorney Ira Reiner acknowledged several inconsistencies between the accounts shared by the officers on scene that night. The deputies told investigators that Lee started to back his car up when they shot at him, but they could not agree on how fast he was moving. The two Long Beach officers said Lee never reversed his vehicle. Reiner’s report noted Lee’s car was found crashed into a fence 120 feet away from where the shooting occurred. His family also noted bruising on his face. Still, Reiner ultimately found that the sheriff’s deputies acted in self-defense when they fired. No charges were filed, and the department never publicly indicated that any of the deputies were disciplined.
Lee’s family filed a federal lawsuit shortly after his death alleging that his civil rights were violated. They retained attorney George V. Denny III, who again turned to David Lynn to investigate the shooting. Although they didn’t know it yet, the pair had stumbled upon another sheriff deputy gang: The Lynwood Vikings.
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