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.
Private Investigator David Lynn has spent years examining deputy gangs in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He says that in the late 1980s, the neighborhoods in South LA “were wild in a way” largely because of law enforcement. “One of them told me was that in order to beat the gangs, you had to fight them on their own terms. You had to be like a gang member, and that’s kind of their mentality,” he told Knock LA.
Lynn has his own theories about why deputy gangs are so pervasive within the department, which he draws on from his time as a Marine in Vietnam. “In Vietnam, we served in a place where we didn’t belong. We really didn’t care what happened to the people who lived there. When it was over, we were going home. We were taught that the lives of the Vietnamese didn’t carry the same weight as ours and that of our fellow soldiers,” he wrote at the time in an opinion piece for the Long Beach Press-Telegram in 1990. “Similarly, Lynwood deputies are paid to drive in to fight a war in a community they have no vested interest in. They spend their days and nights in Lynwood abusing and maliciously disrupting the lives of those who look, act, and live differently than they do… Lynwood deputies now know, as we knew in Vietnam, that their superiors approve of their actions and that there are no consequences for their acts.”
The rise of the Vikings
The Lynwood Vikings referred to their gang as LVS25, Lynwood Varrio Sheriffs (Station) 25. The August 1990 issue of ALADS Dispatcher, the official newspaper of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, printed a photo of three Lynwood deputies flashing the Viking hand sign.
“The ’25’ is our station identifier,” Deputy Al Martin told the Press-Telegram. “The deputies [are] saying with their hand sign, ‘This is our station. We’re proud of it.'” An anonymous Viking told the newspaper that, “It’s the neighborhood, the environment, what we’re up against that makes us Vikings. You have to have a strong ID out there because of the minority element. It’s like a war.” The Los Angeles Times reported that the Lynwood Station boasted a, “map of Lynwood in the shape of Africa, the racist cartoons of black men, the mock ‘ticket to Africa’ on the wall.”
Lynn says regular activities for the Vikings included murder, assault with deadly weapons, trespassing in the homes, and torture. “The people were just terrified,” he says. “If you are Black or Brown and walking down your street, it’s fair game. It’s really not that much different from today.”
The Vikings spray-painted walls and power poles around their jurisdiction to mark their “turf.” An LVS25 tag even reportedly turned up at the Los Angeles County Criminal Court outside of the door of Judge Lance Ito, who oversaw the O.J. Simpson case. Two deputies also reported seeing LVS25 carved onto two additional vehicles. The Vikings even adopted street terms to communicate with each other, referring to members as “homeboys” and veteran officers as “OG.” A group of Vikings who covered the early morning shift called themselves “OGCF.” The term started off as an acronym for “Original Gangster Crime Fighter” but later came to incorporate a Spanish language slur for Black people.
The fight within the department
In 1985, the Vikings found a new set of victims: other deputies. Deputy Kathy Kay recorded former Lynwood Lieutenant Walker Force’s personal car as stolen into a county computer. Kay also said the driver of the vehicle was “armed and dangerous,” according to court documents. Kay was charged with making a false criminal report, but was ultimately acquitted by a jury after a 10-day trial. Force’s testimony illuminated the tactics the Vikings employed to harass other LASD members.
Force testified that he and other top Lynwood brass were repeatedly harassed by fellow deputies. He said the captain of the station at the time, Nick Popovich, had obscene phrases spray-painted in his parking spot. Force received prank phone calls, had the fender kicked off his car, and received a Valentine’s Day gift with a dead rat inside. He also said that two deputies tried to run him down in their car. In a separate police report, Force wrote that two hearses were dispatched to his house at 3 AM.
In 1989, Captain Bert Cueva arrived at the Lynwood station and publicly pledged to phase out the Viking symbol after a resident expressed concern over how it was perceived in the majority POC neighborhood. The new captain said he knew of at least one instance where the gang’s tag was scratched into the horn on the steering wheel of a patrol car. Cueva removed a large Viking flag hanging in the station and replaced it with one showing a representation of the area. The replacement flag was promptly stolen, and “the Viking deputies became more recalcitrant,” according to a Viking who spoke with the Press-Telegram. Members of the senior brass were subjected to constant harassment from deputy gang members.
Sergeant Pippin, a Black man later inked as a Viking, received a loaded gun in the mail rigged to fire upon the package opening. Sergeant Stan White allegedly had dead dogs placed in the back of his car, animal feces placed under the hood of his car, cow tongues hung in his locker, and guns pulled on him. White was eventually relocated outside of Lynwood Station. One Viking bragged to a reporter for the Press-Telegram that the gang had “ran him out.”
They continued to oust their superiors. After Cueva ordered the transfer of alleged Vikings, four sued him for discrimination. Clifford Yates, a deputy at the Lynwood Station during this time, recalls in his book Deputy: 35 years as a Deputy Sheriff from Upstate NY to LA, “Five deputies, myself included, were advised that we were being transferred out of the station… We sued to stop the transfers.” The suit was eventually dismissed.
Yates also writes that, “We were all transferred to what would be considered choice assignments. The problem in our view was that in lieu of what was said in the newspaper articles, our transfers would link us to deputies that had been involved in misconduct, and we were the cancer that needed to be cut out.” Yates went on to rise to the rank of sergeant within the department. He describes his time in law enforcement as “Hunting for humans. It’s a lot of fun.” Yates declined to comment on this article series. In 1992, after only three years at the Lynwood Station, Cueva retired from the force.
Joining the Gang
Lynn says that to join the gang a deputy had to be a “hard charger.” That meant doing things like falsifying reports to prove loyalty to fellow deputies. James Mueller, a civil rights attorney who went on to pursue cases against the Vikings, says this mentality is common throughout law enforcement. “Since 1988, I’ve been doing this, I have never, ever seen a deputy or a police officer… report another officer for excessive force.” Lynn’s investigation confirmed that the Vikings would award tattoos to members who “proved themselves.” Each member of the gang had a numbered tattoo of a Viking: the highest number Lynn found was 98. The design was always located on the left calf, and numbered. While the gang was mostly made up of white men, they would occasionally recruit deputies of color, like Paul Tanaka. The gang also added some Latinx and four Black members, but deputies of color who joined the group had their tattoos modified to denote their heritage.
As the investigation into the Vikings wore on, the County’s stance on the killing of Hong Pyo Lee at the hands of Viking Paul Tanaka changed. In the months following Lee’s death, the County District Attorney ruled the deputies acted in self-defense. But in April of 1990, two years after the killing, Lee’s family accepted a $999,999 settlement, funded by taxpayers. Lee’s father, Sung Kyu Lee, said at a press conference that “I hope, now, my son’s name has been cleared. Now it’s time to take care of the rest of the family.” Lynn suspects that Tanaka’s role in the killing of Hong Pyo Lee solidified his position in the gang, earning him both his Viking tattoo and promotion to lieutenant: “If we were wrong about what happened out there, they wouldn’t have given us one million dollars to go away. This is how you earn the stripes, by body counts.” Facing no financial repercussion nor disciplinary actions, the Vikings were emboldened by the settlement.
As part of his investigations into the Lynwood Vikings, Lynn uncovered several incidents that later became part of a federal lawsuit. “On Friday and Saturday night, they just basically would go out and gang bang,” says Lynn. “They had all the earmarks of a regular street gang and should have been treated as such, but of course they never were.” Around October 16, 1989, Demetrio Carrillo stopped to speak with a woman receiving a citation from a deputy sheriff. Carillo was approached by Deputies Elizabeth Smith and Anthony Campbell and beaten. As they hit him, the deputies used racial slurs. They arrested Carillo and charged him with resisting arrest, but he was ultimately acquitted in trial. Carillo’s experience was similar to nearly 100 other victims named in the federal case.
The lawsuit also states that on or about February 11, 1990, at or near 11162 Virginia in the City of Lynwood, Deputies Jason Mann, Edward M. Nordskog, John Chapman, Gary Blackwell, Michael Wilber, Lance Fralick, Juan Alvarado, and at least 10 others attacked and savagely beat 21-year-old half Black, half Latino Lloyd Polk. Polk was arrested, imprisoned for 17 days, and charged with assault. Lynn looked into Polk’s case and found an independent witness who saw the Deputies Nordskog and Mann hitting Polk with clubs and kicking him in the street. Lynn says, “[She] saw the beating going on from her window and called 911 saying that gang members were beating up somebody in her alley. Then she saw a badge flashing up on the street. She said, ‘Oh, my God, that is the deputy.’”
The reports the deputies filed lacked sufficient evidence, and the criminal charges against Polk were dismissed at the preliminary hearing. But by that point, Polk was determined to take the deputy gangs down.
READ MORE: Lynwood’s Worst Nightmare