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.
By 2014, Sheriff Lee Baca had resigned after his bungled attempt to block an FBI investigation into the jails landed him with a federal indictment and later a conviction. He was replaced with interim Sheriff Jim Scott, then Jim McDonnell took over the role following an election. Despite the transfer, deputy gangs in the department continued to thrive. By the time McDonnell took office, Deputy Jason Zabala, an inked member of the Regulators gang based out of Century Station in Lynwood, CA, was responsible for the deaths of two people. His actions alone cost Los Angeles County taxpayers at least $4 million in settlement awards. By 2015, the station also had another gang present within its walls: The Spartans.
The Killing of Brian Pickett
Brian Pickett’s interactions with law enforcement mirrored the experiences of many people of color. Police frequently pulled him over in his car and questioned him on the curb without cause, says a family member. Despite the harassment, he had a successful football career and went on to play for the University of Texas at El Paso. He loved coaching children, especially his own young sons. His mother, Tammie Ford, tells Knock LA that Pickett began reading at the age of three himself, and helped his younger sisters with their homework throughout childhood. His girlfriend, Tamai Gilbert, says that the family spent a lot of time with Pickett’s relatives watching movies, going to the beach, or at the house. “His family is very, very close. And that’s not something that I had on my side,” she says. “After a while we all became really close and just hung out together all the time.” She met Pickett at a grocery store in their shared neighborhood of Compton shortly after she graduated from college. Although he was a little too corny for her at first, she says he was able to charm her. “We ended up talking and we just formed like a connection really quickly.” Gilbert had a young son when they met, and Pickett quickly stepped into a parental role. Ford says that her son loved to cook and frequently gathered relatives for family meals, “Even when I got ready to move into the house before he passed, he was the one who was like, ‘Mom, we need to get a house together.’ He wanted to keep the family all together.”
The couple went on to have two more boys. Gilbert says Pickett was very hands-on with the three of them. He read with the boys often and built them a playhouse in the yard. He was killed by deputies affiliated with the Spartans just nine days after the birth of his third son. Olu Orange, an attorney for the Pickett’s family, says that the deputies who killed him had, “No respect or appreciation for life. No value for human life.”
On January 6, 2015, Deputies Edward Martinez and Ryan Rothrock responded to a family disturbance call, according to a District Attorney report. Pickett had been acting strangely all day, and Orange says that the family requested assistance getting Pickett out of the house and to the hospital. Pickett was struggling with his mental health, and had been violently committed and tasered by deputies the year before. When the deputies arrived,he was in the bathroom, rapping to himself. Gilbert says that Pickett had a passion for music.
“He talked about that a lot, being harassed by the police,” she says. “And not being looked at or being taken seriously because of where he grew up or not having this and that.” As his mother and sister waited outside the house, Deputies Rene Barragan, Miguel Ruiz, Edward Martinez, and Ryan Rothrock went to the bathroom and knocked Pickett to the floor. Once Pickett was down, the deputies repeatedly tasered him. After Pickett was immobilized from the electricity that had surged through his body, the deputies hogtied him, and dragged him into the living room. Pools of blood gathered around his head, but the deputies did not provide medical attention. “I think that the deputy who did it… just wanted to show that he could be violent,” says Orange. Pickett died on the floor in front of his family. Orange says he was briefly revived at the hospital, and died again.
The family has been fighting in court since Pickett’s death, taking an incredible toll on them. “Micah was nine days old when [Pickett] died, so we literally had a couple pictures of them. Talk about postpartum, it was deep,” says Gilbert. “I still have all of these pictures and things in the house and they look at them and remember. It’s always the same look like, ‘I wish he was here,’” Gilbert says. “I never imagined that this would be my life.” She says that she didn’t tell her sons that their father had died for nearly three months. “I didn’t say anything, and they didn’t really understand the funeral and everything. They were kind of wondering why was he in that box? But I never really sat down and told them, ‘Look, he’s gone. Now you’re never going to see him again.’”
As her sons are getting older and becoming teenagers, she says she constantly worries about them falling victim to the same system that took their father away from them. “It’s hard enough just being Black. Then being a Black man, and then being a Black man that doesn’t have a father to protect you, teach you things,” she tells Knock LA. “The burden of raising them, I wouldn’t say it’s like driving me crazy, but it’s heavy because I don’t want to mess up. I don’t want to fail them. I don’t want to see them fall into this stuff or be harassed as they get older and they start to look different. They’re not kids anymore. Now they ‘fit the description.’”
Gilbert works for Los Angeles County, which is defending the deputies in a civil rights case for Pickett’s death. “I just go to work, do my job and go home. I’m not trying to make friends. I’m not trying to cause a stink or anything,” she says. “I took the victimhood away from them, like I’m not a victim I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us.” In a perfect world, she says that the deputies who killed Pickett would have to give something up as repentance. “A piece of them will need to be missing as well, like a piece of us is going to always be missing.”
A Symbiotic Relationship
Just four months after Brian Pickett’s death, deputies affiliated with the Spartans shot another man in South Los Angeles. On the evening of April 10, 2015, Teshawn Gathier was having a mental health episode, under the impression that people were after him. The actions of deputies that night made his nightmarish hallucinations a reality. In an attempt to escape what he perceived to be something chasing him, he went into a tow yard as its security gate was closing. His attorney, Eric Valenzuela, says that Gathier spotted a car with its keys in the ignition and climbed in. At that point, he was spotted by an employee of the yard who asked the owner to call police. The worker used his truck to block the entrance of the yard while he waited for sheriff’s deputies to arrive.
Deputies Jaime Huerta and Gregory Boling responded to a call of a possible burglary at the tow yard, according to a District Attorney report. They told the tow yard employee to get out of his car and walk across the street, which he did. Once he was gone, the deputies say they began ordering Gathier to exit the car. “First [Gathier] drives into the fence of the tow truck yard, puts it in reverse, and then tries to go towards the entrance. He never tried to hit a cop or anything. He’s basically trying to get away. And none of the officers were really in any danger of getting struck by him, they were off to the side,” Valenzuela says. As Gathier drove, the deputes shot pepper balls into the car, shattering the window. Additional deputies, including Christopher Valente, Travis Dowdy, and Jay Brown, arrived at the scene and approached the car.
Valenzuela says that the deputies fired another round of pepper balls while Deputy Jay Brown used a gun. “If you’re going to use pepper ball guns, then why are you shooting him with real guns? That gives you an indication that at least some of the police did not think it was reasonable to use deadly force at that point.” Valenzuela says that the shooting was not a quick incident. “He hits this tow truck, puts it in reverse, goes forward again, puts it in reverse, does that about two or three times. That’s the fastest he’s going when they shot him.” Valenzuela thinks that Gathier refused to exit the car, which made the deputies angry. “I think finally they just kind of got frustrated with him and lost patience with him… then they just basically lit him up.” Valenzuela says that after Gathier was shot, he was pulled out of the vehicle and beaten by deputies. “By the grace of God, he’s lucky he even survived and is not in a wheelchair or anything like that. His injuries could have been a lot, lot worse.”
Although the incident took place in an area that was under very heavy video surveillance, Valenzuela tells Knock LA that he was unable to obtain any footage of the shooting. “The owner of the tow truck yard said when the shooting occurred, the County came in and they took the hard drive of the surveillance footage. So I contacted the County and said, ‘Hey, you guys have the surveillance footage, turn it over.’” Once he made the ask, the County told him that the file containing the video of the incident was corrupted and they had been unable to retrieve it. “That was the most giant load of crap I ever heard. I believe that the video showed that first of all, the shooting was unjustified. But I think the video would have also shown that after they pulled him out of the car, they beat the crap out of him. Since we ended up settling it, we didn’t really fight it as much as we would have if you had not settled.”
The video was not the only issue with the County’s version of events that proved inconsistent. “The officers’ statements contradict each other so many times you would think they would do a better job of getting the story straight before they get interviewed. They start giving these self-serving accounts and they have their union lawyers that are with them to help them, and they’re allowed to consult with their lawyers,” Valenzuela says. The Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights (POBRA) guarantees all law enforcement officers early access to the nature of the investigation, who will interrogate them, and their name, rank, and command. The investigation must finish within a year, otherwise the officer cannot be disciplined. “Whenever a police officer shoots someone, the union automatically gives them a lawyer. They start coaching them up. They allow them to see any surveillance or body camera footage before the interview. The system is designed to help them.”
Valenzuela’s decision to accept a settlement for the case was affected by other aspects of the system that discourage people from speaking out about violence they encounter during arrests. “Part of the problem with his lawsuit that we were having is that he had pled guilty to a resisting charge,” Valenzuela says. In 1994, the US Supreme Court decided the case of Heck v. Humphrey, establishing the Heck Doctrine. According to that case, suits for police brutality are barred if allegations would be in conflict with a plea, finding of guilt, conviction, or factual finding entered into by an earlier court. Because Gathier had already entered a guilty plea to an earlier criminal charge, his claims of excessive force could be jeopardized in the civil case. “That’s part of the game… When the person survives, this is when the DA’s are also complicit, they charge them through the teeth. ‘We’re going to charge you with resisting. We’re going to charge you with everything. But if you plead guilty, you’re going to be out of jail in three days and you go on with the rest of your life.’ If you don’t have good representation and you’re going to be let out of jail, you’re not thinking about a lawsuit down the line. You’re thinking of getting the hell out of jail because you almost died. That’s how they’re able to kind of minimize when they have these bad shootings.”
Valenzuela describes the relationship between the District Attorney’s office and the Sheriff’s Department as “symbiotic… When the criminals are charged by the District Attorney, they rely on the police to come into court and testify and write their report. So you could see why the DA’s are so hesitant to criminally charge officers even when they kill unarmed people. Remember, unions play a huge part in this. They basically tell them if you go against our guys, don’t rely on us when it comes trial time and you need us, especially in your bigger, higher profile case.” He believes that until there is an independent body to review law enforcement shootings, there will not be a change.
Deputy Jay Brown, who was found to have shot Gathier, had a history of excessive force leading up to death of Brian Pickett
In 2010, Brown broke 22-year-old Christopher Lee Wilder’s jaw by punching him repeatedly while he was imprisoned inside Twin Towers Correctional Facility for a total of 17 hours. A jury later awarded Wilder over $80,000, funded by taxpayers. In the early 2010s, Los Angeles County jails were overrun with members of two deputy gangs. In 2014, Brown shot and killed Johnny Martinez, who was having a mental health episode, in front of his family and 13-year-old neighbor. Brown carried out the shooting with Jason Zabala, a deputy with a tattoo linking him to both the Regulators and Cowboys deputy gangs. “It’s no coincidence that you’ll make a correlation between the members of these cliques to those who have the personnel files with repeated uses of excessive force, repeated allegations of complaints against them. They have a celebration after they shoot and kill somebody, ‘Welcome to the club’ type of thing. Some of the senior higher ups in the department who are members of these gangs, they’re really popular among their fellow officers. Those are the kind of people that have a tendency to rise through the ranks.” Valenzuela says. “The ones that speak against, they’re going to talk down to them like they’re wimps. This whole code of silence, that you never speak against another fellow officer, it’s so ingrained in these people’s DNA.”
Indeed, the Spartans seemed to utilize a particular brand of cruelty, perhaps stemming from the fact that many of its affiliates had cut their teeth in the jails overseen by former Undersheriff and tattooed Viking member Paul Tanaka. Tanaka is currently incarcerated for obstruction of a federal investigation into abuse in the County’s jails. Even though Tanaka was gone by 2014, his policy of not charging deputies for wrongdoing persisted.
Around 4 AM on March 16, 2016, Christian Medina was standing on a sidewalk in the Florence neighborhood. Medina’s sister later told investigators that he struggled with severe depression. A report from the District Attorney’s office alleges that Medina dialed 911 from a pay phone to report a robbery that never occurred, and described himself as an armed suspect. Deputies Rene Barragan, who killed Brian Pickett, and Jay Brown responded to the call. Brown told investigators that once he saw Medina, “I shot one round through the front driver’s side windshield of my patrol car.” Shooting from a vehicle is outside of department policy.
Brown further stated that he continued to drive towards Medina with his driver’s side door open and fired another 10 to 12 shots at Medina. “Ultimately, after I ended shooting at him, he fell to the ground, and that’s when I realized that my threat had been stopped.” Barragan said that he also fired his weapon at Medina and did not radio for assistance until after the shooting. Medina was shot 13 times. Several gunshot wounds were consistent with Medina laying on the ground, according to a County medical examiner. Both deputies claimed that Medina had a gun and had taken a “shooting stance.” No gun was recovered at the scene. Then District Attorney Jackie Lacey concluded that Brown and Barragan had acted lawfully in self-defense. Medina’s family filed a lawsuit against the County, which was settled in 2017 for $650,000. Taxpayers picked up the bill for the award, as well as attorney’s fees for all parties which were not included in the settlement.
It’s unclear if attorneys for the families of Brian Pickett and Christian Medina are aware that Deputy Rene Barragan helped kill both of their loved ones.
Killings at the Hands of the Spartans Continue
On August 16, 2017, around 7 PM, two deputies assigned to the Century Station’s Summer Violent Crime Enforcement Team were driving a marked patrol vehicle near the Nickerson Gardens neighborhood. As they drove up to a car parked in the wrong direction, a man standing near the vehicle ran away. Documents from the investigation of the incident state that Deputy Ryan Rothrock chased 34-year-old Kenneth Lewis through a housing complex. After Lewis fell while running, Rothrock claims Lewis pointed a gun at him, prompting Rothrock to shoot. After Lewis was on the ground bleeding, Rothrock shot him several more times. A third deputy from Century Station later recovered a gun that Rothrock claims Lewis pointed at him. Deputy Ryan Rothrock was also one of the deputies that killed Brian Pickett, according to a Knock LA review of court documents. It’s unclear if families and attorneys for the Pickett and Lewis families know that Rothrock helped kill both of their family members.
Lewis died later at the hospital. He is survived by his girlfriend and then three-month-old son. His family settled with the County for just over $1 million, funded by taxpayers. The County was additionally responsible for picking up the cost of everyone’s legal fees. County records state that the next known deputy gang killing occurred just two months later.
Ricardo Cendejas Sr. remembers his son as a hard worker. He told Knock LA through a translator that he started taking his son with him to help him work at the swap meet on the weekends starting when Cendejas Jr. turned seven. Cendejas Jr. was the oldest son and took on the role of the family’s protector. Shortly after his parents separated, Cendejas Jr. began exhibiting symptoms of a mental health issue. Both father and son entered individual therapy. Cendejas Sr. says he was worried about what would happen to his family if he died.
Jorge Gonzalez, an attorney for the Cendejas family, says that Cendejas Jr.’s mental health was made worse by family members that encouraged him to use cannabis. Gonzalez met the family once Cendejas Jr. had gained the label of status offender, meaning he had committed acts that were illegal to juveniles – namely, smoking pot. That landed him in LA County’s Dorothy Kirby Center, where he was brutally beaten by another youth who was incarcerated. Gonzalez says the young man who hit Cendejas Jr. has already been hospitalized 43 times for similar behavior and that the other detainee should not have been placed with Cendejas Jr. The family sued the County and settled. But once Cendejas Jr. was back at home, his father says his son’s mental health got worse. Cendejas Sr. says that the problem was that his son had reverted to a childlike state. The father hoped to relocate the family to a relative’s ranch in Bakersfield, where he thought his son wouldn’t be able to get into trouble. Cendejas Sr. says that on a ranch his son could run, yell, and scream and be surrounded by family. That was not to be the case.
On November 2, 2017 Cendejas Jr. was in his father’s yard in Compton, wearing just basketball shorts, socks, and slides while holding an assault rifle. A neighbor saw him and called 911. Deputies Edgar Cuevas and Samuel Aldama, the latter of who was a member of another deputy gang and stated under oath that he has ill feelings toward Black people, spotted Cendejas Jr.. Cuevas later told investigators that he heard and felt a gunshot go off in his immediate vicinity, prompting him to put out a dispatch for assistance. The alleged bullet was never recovered.
Numerous deputies from the Compton and Century Stations responded to Cuevas’ call for help. They blocked off streets surrounding the Cendejas home, established a command post, had a helicopter circle overhead, and requested a SWAT unit to report to the area. The Gardena Police Department also dispatched an armored vehicle to the scene. “He knew what he was doing and he knew what he was asking people to do. And he knew people would do it. The minute they hear the guys are armed and that’s it. There’s not one single crime that you can commit that is more dastardly in terms of Deputy Sheriff than to shoot at one of their brother Sheriffs.” Gonzalez says. “Not only will they be able to justify the use of lethal force, but then everybody’s going to take them out to the bar or they’re gonna slap on the back, ‘Man, you fucked that dude up.’”
Cendejas Jr.’s stepmother Maria arrived with her young children as law enforcement began to gather near the house, according to court documents. “Usually when a family member comes out and starts saying, ‘Let me talk to him, you don’t have to shoot him. You don’t have to hurt him.’ They want to remove them. They take them out of there. And that’s what they did,” Gonzalez says. Maria attempted to explain to deputies on the scene that her stepson was struggling with his mental health and was instead placed under arrest with her daughter. A neighbor realized that the other children had been left in Maria’s car and took them into her house. Deputies came to the home and demanded the keys to the car from one of the children and threatened to remove them from their parents’ home if they did not comply. Out of fear, the child complied. Minors do not have the authority to grant deputies consent to enter the family home. Despite this, deputies entered the Cendejas residence and searched it.
Cendejas Sr. says he was arriving home from work when he saw what was going on. When he tried to talk to the deputies they took his cell phone, handcuffed him, and put him in the back of a car. As the scene began to get more populated, Cendejas Jr. moved through an alley between his house and the neighbor’s to knock on their window and ask if they would let him in. After the neighbor declined, Cendejas Jr. set down his gun near a gas meter. As he turned towards the street, clearly unarmed, Deputy Juan Rodriguez of the SWAT unit fired three shots at Cendejas Jr., killing him. “This SWAT team, you think these are like the best trained, most ethical of all the officers, really the leadership corps,” says Gonzalez. “In the end, you get the impression that they’re like trained assassins.”
Cendejas Sr. was sitting in the back of a patrol vehicle when he heard the shots that killed his son. He asked what was going on, and the deputies would not tell him. Instead he was taken to a nearby park, then a station, where he was held until the early morning. His wife and daughter also remained in custody overnight. Once the family was released, they tried to find out what had happened to Cendejas Jr. The father says he went back home and when his son wasn’t there he returned to the station to ask what had happened. No one would tell him. Finally, a sergeant said that Cendejas Jr. had been shot. The family began calling nearby hospitals, but were unable to locate Cendejas Jr. because he had been listed under the wrong birthday. Cendejas Jr. died alone that day. His family brought a civil rights lawsuit against the County, which was recently settled for $825,000. County taxpayers paid for the settlement and attorney fees on all sides, which were not part of the settlement.
Although Gonzalez did not turn up information about deputy gangs in the case, the County keeps a list of litigation related to deputy gangs. The Cendejas case is on it. Gonzalez was unaware that the County associated the Cendejas litigation with LASD gangs until contacted by Knock LA. “We’re very interested in finding out more, but if [Darren] Thomas was any lesson, they’re not going to give that information up very easily,” he says. “This is a culture that exists within the department. It’s really very nefarious. And scary.”
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