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.
The Vikings were emboldened by the lack of repercussions for their crimes. The deputy gang with white supremacist leanings ruled the Lynwood Station in the late 1980s, and soon after started targeting colleagues. In 1995, Aurora Alonso Mellado filed a damage claim against LA County and the Sheriff’s Department, claiming she was harassed and forced out after reporting that her training officer, Deputy Jeffrey Jones, planted narcotics on Black and Latinx suspects. Mellado and her husband, former Deputy Osborne, told the Los Angeles Times they believed they were perceived as “snitches,” and had no future in the department. Jones was charged with falsifying police reports and plead no contest. The month of Jones’ arraignment, someone shot at Mellado and Osborne’s home just before midnight as their children slept in the rear bedrooms. Osborne suspected the involvement of renegade sheriff’s deputies.
A New Sheriff in Town
By 1998, Sheriff Sherman Block had served in the department for 16 years. He spent the year campaigning for re-election, which he was expected to win. A mentee of his, Chief Deputy Lee Baca, launched his own campaign for the position but wasn’t gaining much ground in the polls. But when Block died unexpectedly just a few days before the election, Baca found himself the victor of the race. One of his first moves was promoting then-lieutenant and tattooed Viking Paul Tanaka. “So Baca won just because Block died,” says John Burton, an attorney who worked on a class action suit on behalf of people abused by Vikings. “I think Block kept [Tanaka] at a little bit of a distance. Baca’s biggest problem is he wanted to make everybody happy… to make deputies happy, he elevated Tanaka. It’s certainly a culture that tolerates thuggery and violence.”
Upon Tanaka’s promotion, the Vikings started attacking fellow LASD members. In the early 2000s, Sergeant Mark Moffett was harassed by a colleague. In a lawsuit against the County, Moffett said the abuse began when he and Sergeant Timothy Cooper were assigned to a gang investigations unit based out of Century Station. According to a prosecutor’s memo, Cooper and other members of the unit started at Century Station, but Moffett came from Lakewood. After the closure of the Lynwood Station following a civil class action suit, Century Station was inundated by Viking deputies. According to the District Attorney’s records, Moffett believed Cooper had ties to the “neo-Nazi” Vikings, and said Cooper taunted him for not being a “real” deputy. “I have seen cases where officers try to stand up against alleged cliques or gangs and they’ve clearly been retaliated against,” says Moffett’s attorney Bradley Gage. “Some got beaten physically, some got demoted, some had false allegations against them, and that’s a problem. Moffett’s stood up to one of the groups and reported it, and then they went after him.”
One day in 2009, inside the Compton Station, Cooper put a gun to Moffett’s head and mouthed, “I’m going to kill you.” Cooper’s attorney in the civil lawsuit declined to say whether her client was affiliated with the clique or comment on the case. The case moved to the department’s discipline committee, headed by Paul Tanaka, with a recommendation for Cooper’s demotion. But the group of executives allegedly opted for a more lenient punishment: a 15-day suspension. Moffett filed a lawsuit with the Los Angeles Superior Court and eventually settled in 2009 for over $87,000, which was funded by taxpayers. It’s unclear if Cooper was disciplined.
Whistleblowers are Pushed Out
Richard Robinson was consistently passed over for promotion; he also consistently reported bad (and sometimes illegal) behavior from his on-duty colleagues. In May 2002, Robinson testified against the Office of Public Safety (OPS), which provided law enforcement services to the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Health Services. It was consolidated with the Sheriff’s Department in 2010. According to court documents, Robinson reported an officer for corruption and misconduct, as he suspected the officer may have been working for another employer while on the clock. A few months later, Robinson discovered a group of high-ranking OPS officials drinking on-duty in their police vehicles while parked outside the Foreign Legion Hall in Downey.
The group was partying in the presence of at least 10 other sworn off-duty members of OPS, including an internal affairs investigator. Robinson contacted the on-call internal affairs member to have a command officer respond to the location before the drunk officers could drive away. Robinson’s complaint was initially ignored, but someone eventually responded. However, Robinson was not interviewed as a witness for his complaint for nearly three months. In May 2004, Robinson requested an investigation into an officer who may have assaulted a police explorer. The following month, Robinson became the subject of an internal affairs investigation for researching and investigating possible misconduct by another employee.
The investigation did not stop Robinson’s whistleblowing. According to court documents, in October 2004 he filed an official complaint with internal affairs on behalf of an officer experiencing racism and harassment. He also notified Chief of Staff Lamar Lafave about a possible use of force incident against a juvenile suspect detained by an OPS officer. Robinson did not witness the abuse himself, but spoke up on behalf of officers on scene who feared retaliation. The child was apparently knocked to the ground by the OPS officer and had a large bruise on his head. The sergeant who responded to the scene did not conduct a use of force investigation, and no medical treatment was provided to the injured child. In January 2005, Robinson initiated a complaint against a lieutenant who verbally abused him in front of other employees. None of the incidents were investigated, and no corrective action was taken.
Around March 2005, Robinson met with interim OPS Chief of Police William Nash to discuss Robinson’s promotion to lieutenant. According to court documents, Nash indicated that he thought Robinson was the most qualified candidate on the list but had concerns about promoting him because of the complaints. Robinson understood Nash’s statement to mean that he should stop reporting misconduct if he wanted to be promoted. Robinson said he would “keep quiet” in the future and Nash stated “then if that were the case he had no problem in supporting Robinson for promotion.” Nash concluded the conversation by telling Robinson he hoped this wouldn’t “come back to bite him someday.” Robinson was put on a list of eligible lieutenant candidates the following month but did not receive a promotion. He reached out to his Bureau Chief, Victor Turner, who indicated that the snub wasn’t because of the complaints he had lodged. Turner told Robinson that “sometimes things are better swept under the rug.”
Robinson continued to report internal misconduct. In December 2005, he filed a complaint against a lieutenant who threatened to kill two of his officers “by slitting their throats.”
The following year he took another exam seeking promotion, but alleged in a complaint against the County that Turner tampered with his score so he would not be eligible. In February 2007, he disclosed documentation indicating that a lieutenant lied during a court hearing and internal affairs investigations, and in official police documents. That June, Robinson reported approximately $50,000 worth of Beretta ammunition magazines missing and that officers may be selling them. In November, he received a negative comment in his personnel file. Around this time, Robinson provided the department a doctor’s note stating that he needed to use lightweight equipment. The equipment was never provided. During his January 2008 evaluation, supervisors lowered Robinson’s scores. That June, another office told Robinson that someone overheard a commanding officer say Robinson would never receive a promotion since he reports misconduct. He eventually settled with the County for $80,000, funded by taxpayers.
The Vikings’ Racist Undertones Persist in Department Practices
Current Sheriff Alex Villanueva sued the County in 2005 for discrimination on the basis of race, alleging that he was passed over for promotion because of his background. Four years prior, Villanueva inquired about a vacancy as the Operations Sergeant at Lennox station and was told that it was “unavailable” by his boss, Captain Richard “Rick” Adams. The suit says the position instead went to a Caucasian male. In 2002, Villanueva exchanged emails with then-Commander Paul Tanaka about the department’s diversity efforts. Tanaka told him that he was “disappointed” that Villanueva had a “negative view” of the department.
Villanueva applied for the job again in December 2003, and the position went to a “lesser qualified African American female,” according to the lawsuit. When he took an exam for a lieutenant promotion in 2004, he was passed over again. Villanueva sought an appeal on the basis of discrimination and was told by then-Assistant Sheriff R. Doyle Campbell not to “make a crusade.” Shortly after filing the appeal, Villanueva was transferred. At that point he filed an internal complaint of discrimination against Captain Adams and Undersheriff Campbell. His complaints “could not be substantiated,” and within a week Villanueva became the subject of an investigation, according to court documents. He allegedly violated department policy by failing to follow reporting procedures. Two months later, he was investigated again for failing to report Adams for referring to deputies as “whores and bitches.”
Shortly after the investigations commenced, Villanueva met with LASD Commanders Ralph Martin and Willie Miller to discuss hiring practices and was told “no one cares about diversity” and that he had “nothing coming.” According to the complaint, roughly a year after that meeting, Chief Ronnie Williams gave a speech for department employees claiming that LASD employs quotas in the promotional process and preference is given to white males. Villanueva eventually filed a suit against the department, which ultimately settled for $70,000 (funded by taxpayers). Looking back on the case, Villanueva’s attorney Bradley Gage says, “He became Sheriff eventually. I guess it worked out okay.”
But by 2010, other members of the department felt they’d been unfairly passed over for promotions due to their race. Attorney Bradley Gage represented several such employees in a series of cases in the early aughts and used Villanueva as an expert. Ageism was also a factor. Patrick Maxwell, who is white, and Sam Dacus, who is Black, served as captains in 2013 but were continuously passed over for promotion. Instead, they alleged senior department officials were hounded about when they would retire. “The way that they were treated, I thought was wrong,” says Gage.
In a deposition, retired Commander Joaquin Herran claimed that the prior Undersheriff, Larry Waldie, called him and another employee “w*tb*cks.” The incident wasn’t reported for fear of retaliation. The racism extended all the way up to Sheriff Lee Baca himself. In his deposition, Herran said, “Baca was at Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association meeting in the 1990s while he was a Chief of the Sheriff’s Department. Baca said, ‘You know the difference between a bucketful of crabs on the American side of the borders, and a bucketful of crabs on the Mexican side of the border?’ The audience said, ‘No.’ Baca replied the American crabs are helping each other out of the bucket to freedom and the Mexican crab at the top is kicking everyone back to the bucket so he could be the only one out.’” Herran also said Baca passed over Hispanics until 2014, while white captains were advanced despite falsifying documents. Tanaka stated in his deposition that he heard Baca say, “Mexicans shouldn’t be put in charge of things.” Baca is Mexican-American.
Gage says the Sheriff’s Department is no different than any other organization. “These people carry guns, they have a lot of power. And they have the ability to create very, very dangerous and hostile environments for the employees,” he continues. “The difference really between law enforcement racism and racism elsewhere is it transcends from law enforcement sometimes to the public with racial profiling, false arrests, and those things… Certainly people that have raised that over the years have had problems.”
Retired Commander Herran also testified that, “There was a list of all individuals in the rank of captain or above. That list was referred to as the ‘hit list’ or ‘death list’ because it listed the dates that an employee reached age 55 and age 60… Baca looked at [the hit list] to decide whether or not to promote a person from captain to commander.” Patrick Maxwell, who is white, and Sam Dacus, who is Black, served as captains in 2013 but were continuously passed over for promotion.
In a deposition, Commander Ronnie Williams said Baca referred to people over 70 as “dead.” Paul Tanaka, who eventually became undersheriff, made a reference to the “hit list” in a deposition himself, acknowledging its existence and stating that there was no legitimate reason for it to exist. According to his complaint, Maxwell found himself increasingly at odds with Tanaka, who did not approve of Maxwell’s reports of misconduct on fellow personnel. In 2010, Maxwell complained to Waldie about Tanaka, claiming Tanaka solicited contributions to his campaign for Mayor of Gardena from department employees. In exchange for “campaign contributions,” Tanaka promoted or transferred personnel as requested. Some contributors even received one of Tanaka’s personal challenge coins, small medallions often exchanged by law enforcement members. The select few with coins were invited to participate in Tanaka’s exclusive cigar smoking club on a patio at department headquarters. In a deposition, Commander Ralph Webb said a scared-looking Maxwell told him he had to write a check for at least $200 for Tanaka’s campaign as not to, “get on Tanaka’s bad side or seem disloyal.”
Tanaka eventually got wind of Maxwell’s complaints, and told a department chief that Maxwell was “fucking dead” to him and could expect consequences. Lieutenant Chris Blasnek testified that Tanaka cut off resources to Maxwell’s unit. Tanaka also harbored negative feelings about the department’s Internal Affairs division, saying that having 45 investigators was “44 too fucking many,” according to depositions from Maxwell and Commander Michael Claus. Shortly after Maxwell filed another complaint against Tanaka for retaliating, angering Sheriff Baca.
Claus said in a deposition that Baca was also involved with illegal campaign contributions. Claus alleged that Maxwell claimed Horacio Vignali, an LA real estate developer and Baca contributor, approached him asking for assistance delivering $200,000 to then-President Bill Clinton. The money was a bribe to get his son Carlos, a convicted cocaine trafficker, out of prison. The younger Viganli was released just before Clinton left office. Maxwell’s attorney, Bradley Gage, said of the allegations, “We get interesting things in my field… I am positive that there are people that give bribes to other people with cash and powerful people get powerful bribes. Other than that, I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s true or not. I hope it’s not true.”
In mid-2012, Maxwell faced Tanaka’s wrath again after testifying before the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, a temporary group established by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors in response to reports of excessive use of force in the jails. Maxwell said that Tanaka insisted at a Century Station meeting for LASD members to “work in the gray area,” meaning that they should operate outside the confines of the law. According to LASD records, Century Station consistently had the highest numbers of shootings of any station between 1996 and 2011, nearly double the number of incidents as the second-most-violent LASD station.
Maxwell also discussed the pay-to-play system Tanaka instituted to benefit his campaign for Mayor of Gardena. By this point Tanaka was Undersheriff, and as such held a significant amount of influence over who would be promoted. Commander Williams testified that after complaining about Tanaka, Maxwell was forced to see a psychologist, which is inconsistent with department policy. He eventually settled his case for $140,000, which was funded by taxpayer dollars.
Looking back on the litigation, Gage says the department should have taken more corrective action. “It goes like anything, even plumbing, we have a little leak and we won’t fix it, all of a sudden you’ve got a swimming pool in your living room.” Indeed, the lack of action taken on the Vikings led to the formation of several new deputy gangs, more deputies killing residents, and no internal investigations.
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