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 Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has embraced deputy gang culture for the past 50 years. Although the names have changed, these groups all participate in the systematic terrorization of the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. John Sweeney, a civil rights attorney who has been practicing in the Los Angeles area for 40 years, says that the Department has continued to get worse. “There has been an uptick just in the last 15 years of these police shootings. Especially in the South command district that is Compton Station, the Century Station, South LA Station, and the East LA Station. They are notorious for these gangs popping up, and they are notorious for violating citizens’ civil rights.”
Since at least 2016, a gang of deputy sheriff’s called the Executioners have prowled the streets of the City of Compton. WitnessLA reports that the Executioners were founded by former 2000 Boy Andy Toone, who appears to no longer be working at the Compton Station. Members each have a tattoo of a skeleton wearing a Nazi helmet emblazoned with the letters CPT. The skeleton holds a rifle marked with the Roman numeral for 28, surrounded by flames. Sweeney says that an expert tattoo artist testified the design appears to come from a stencil. “The Executioners have the symbol, the Jump Out Boys have the symbol, and several other people have the symbol, which is a skeleton, a symbol of death.”
The tattoos are allegedly awarded for killing a civilian, and given out at parties. Recruits are reportedly chosen for the gang based on their propensity for violence against members of the community. Black people and women are not allowed to join. Samuel Aldama, a tattooed member of the Executioners, testified under oath that he had ill feelings towards African Americans. Sweeney says that the gang is racist.
Violence committed to further the gang’s agenda is rewarded with permission to skip shifts. Those who don’t comply with the gang’s way of doing business receive non-preferential assignments. Membership is estimated at around 80 people. Of 100 patrol deputies in Compton Station, 40 are alleged to be affiliated with the gang. The Executioners have cost the County of Los Angeles at least $7 million, and the tab and body count continue to grow.
A life interrupted
Sheldon Lockett lived in the Harbor City neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was a talented football player who earned a college scholarship. In early 2016, he was working at the Superior Grocers in the Crenshaw area. After finishing his shift and clocking out around noon on January 15, he decided to visit his godmother’s house in the Compton area. Lockett did not own a car, so he took the bus south to Hawthorne. From there he walked east until he could afford a Lyft and completed his trip to the house around 2:38 PM.
Deputies Samuel Aldama and Mizrain Orrego stated in court documents that a driveby shooting took place at 910 Spruce Street in Compton, CA, at 3:05 PM. Sweeney says that both deputies’ arrest records show they detained Black people at a disproportionately higher rate than other groups. The deputies account of the incident is inconsistent at best.
One person was hit in the shooting and a radio call went out for an attempted murder. The description of the suspect was minimal: a Black person in a blue beanie driving a Silver Pontiac. Even still, Lockett did not match the description. As he stood out on the front lawn with two friends, Aldama and Orrego drove up in their patrol vehicle. “Orrego and Aldama came rolling up like cowboys at a high rate of speed, threw their doors open before the car stopped, which is customary for these deputies out there to intimidate, pointing guns at them,” Sweeney says. “There’s a psychological phenomenon where your life is being threatened, you either fight or you run. And [Lockett] ran.”
Sweeney says that Aldama broadcast to a dispatcher he had seen a man with a gun and asked for the call to be put out on Patch, meaning all deputies could hear. “If you have an emergency or you want to make sure that every deputy hears your conversation with the dispatcher, you ask for the patch and they patch you into every deputy on duty in Compton. Every deputy is going to come rolling.” Aldama continued to chase Lockett into a backyard, where he cornered and severely beat him. Lockett was also tasered and pepper sprayed by other deputies. Ortega joined in, and Lockett says that both of the deputies called him a racial slur. When asked why the deputies targeted his client, Sweeney says, “They were chasing ink and any n***** would do. And you can quote me on that.”
Despite the fact that it was impossible for Lockett to have committed the shooting, deputies brought a victim of the driveby to where Lockett had been detained. The County alleges that the victim positively identified Lockett as the shooter. On that basis, Lockett was arrested and taken into custody. The following day, Lockett’s mother filed a citizen’s complaint against Aldama and Orrego for using unconstitutional excessive force. The complaint was never investigated. On January 20, 2016, Lockett was charged with attempted murder. He remained in custody for about seven months.
About one month into Lockett’s wrongful incarceration, deputies searched the home of his mother and her husband. The search was done while the couple was out. They were informed by a neighbor that LASD personnel had descended on their home. According to the complaint, deputies on scene stated they were looking for a gun. Sweeney believes the search was the result of the Department’s desperation to make a case against Lockett. “They knew that he wasn’t the right person… The superiors always protect their rank and file. They know what’s going on. They knew that a gang existed. The commanders knew it, the captain knew, they just didn’t do anything about it.”
Lockett’s case against the County is still pending. Sweeney says that the LASD never found the person responsible for the driveby that initiated the incident. The case against Lockett was eventually dismissed. “He came within a fraction of an inch of being one of those statistics,” Sweeney says. “Twenty-five years from now, you’re watching the news and some smart law student from Stanford in the Innocence Project [comes out with] Sheldon Lockett comes with gray hair and a beard.” He tells Knock LA that Lockett is in “horrible” condition today and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. “He doesn’t trust police officers. When he sees a police officer in the rearview mirror he gets frightened, starts sweating. This is five years post arrest, he still has those same unabated symptoms.”
The hunt continues
Seven months after Samuel Aldama and Mizrain Orrego unlawfully detained and beat Sheldon Lockett, they killed another man in Compton. The family retained Sweeney for the case. He says the whole incident could have been avoided if the Department had followed up on the complaint filed by Lockett’s mother. “All they had to do was investigate… to see that these officers were untruthful.” Sweeney discovered Lockett’s case in the course of investigating this fatal shooting.
On August 25, 2016, Aldama and Orrego were assigned to a gang suppression detail, a unit assigned to areas the department deems have high gang activity during the summer months. A District Attorney’s report states that the deputies spotted 31-year-old Donta Taylor walking on Wilmington Avenue near Brazil Street around 8:26 PM. The deputies stated in a report that they stopped Taylor because he was wearing a red hat with the letter “C” on it, which they believed symbolized the Cedar Bloc Piru gang. The deputies told different versions of what happened next. Aldama says he pulled next to Taylor and asked if he was on parole or probation, to which Taylor said, “I’m not,” pulled out a gun, and ran. Orrego says Aldama pulled over and that as he stepped out of the vehicle, Taylor pulled out a gun and ran. No gun was ever recovered.
Taylor fled down a nearby trail overlooking a water runoff. Sweeney says Taylor ran out of fear. As Aldama and Orrego chased Taylor, they requested to broadcast over Patch that they were chasing a man with a gun, just as they did with Sheldon Lockett. “He ran just like Sheldon Lockett ran. But Sheldon Lockett had witnesses and he lived to tell the story,” Sweeney says. “Donta Taylor, it was night in a desolate, backwashed section of Compton and death sealed his lips. So we’ll never know the absolute truth.”
After Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael P. Vicencia ruled that Aldama and Orrego had to reveal whether they knew the names of deputies who have matching skull tattoos at the Compton Station, the County settled the case for $7 million, funded by taxpayers. LA County residents also footed the bill for attorney fees on both sides. “I think they wanted to sweep it under the rug and didn’t want there to be political fallout from Sheriff McDonell, who was running for office re-election,” says Sweeney. McDonnell went on to lose his bid for re-election to current Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has a history with several gang affiliated deputies. Orrego was discharged from the department in 2017. Aldama was transferred to another station, and appears to be working as a deputy today.
Art Gonzalez speaks out
By the summer of 2020, the Executioners had thoroughly taken over the Compton Station, according to a deputy who attempted to whistleblow. Austreberto “Art” Gonzalez started working for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 2007. Before joining the department, he served in the Marine Corps. He’s also the parent of a young daughter with a severe medical condition that requires constant care and attention, which placed him on a special work schedule.
In 2016, Gonzalez attempted to get time off of work in order to care for his daughter. Deputy Jaime Juarez, the so-called shot caller who succeeded Toone as commander of the Executioners, was then the Training and Scheduling Deputy. Juarez was reportedly part of a reform effort put forward under former Sheriff Jim McDonnell that stationed deputies who had been involved with multiple on-duty shootings behind a desk. Juarez took this as an opportunity to control the operation of the station.
Juraez refused to accommodate Gonzalez’s request and placed him on an early morning shift that he could not complete without abandoning the needs of his child. The change was allegedly made to accommodate the needs of Deputy Jesus Sandoval, an inked Executioner. Gonzalez says in a complaint filed with the County that his supervisors would not have a conversation with Juarez about the time off request because of Juarez’s gang ties. When Gonzalez complained to Scheduling and Training Sergeant Lopez about the situation, Lopez informed him that he would support Juarez. Gonzalez says he was forced to take paid family leave.
In 2017, after Gonzalez returned, Compton Station Captain Michael Thatcher allegedly implemented an illegal arrest quota policy, where deputies were instructed to arrest people for misdemeanors that would not ordinarily result in a citation, let alone arrest. Gonzalez states in his claim that during this time he was partnered with Deputy Iliana Vargas, who was Juarez’s girlfriend. Vargas would routinely make misdemeanor arrests and immediately release the person in the field to skew arrest statistics as a favor to Thatcher.
A few weeks after the implementation of the policy, Lieutenant John Wargo held a briefing and told deputies their arrest statistics were too low. Wargo also said that it was their job to arrest people, “so go do your job.” Deputies with low arrest numbers were placed in what are described as undesirable assignments like the front desk at the station, traffic detail, or the Compton Town Mall Center.
Gonzalez and Deputies Jonathan Alcala and Gabriel Guzman complained about the illegal arrest quotas to Acting Watch Commander Sergeant Andy Leos, who admitted that deputies who didn’t comply were being retaliated against. Leos allegedly raised his voice and told the deputies, “You should have known… Do your job, I’m trying to save your career.” Alcala told Leos that doing his job meant completing service calls for the community. Following the meeting, Alcala, Guzman, and Gonzalez were placed on traffic duty. Alcala was previously slated for a promotion to the Special Assignments Office, but Leos informed the Sergeant in command of the office not to give Alcala the transfer. Average arrests per deputy in Compton went up from 2.5 arrests per month to 7. Thatcher called a meeting with deputies to tell them he was happy with the results of his illegal policy.
The Executioners maintain control of the Compton Station by instituting work slowdowns in response to policies they don’t like. One slowdown occurred in 2019 when shot caller Juarez confronted Station Lieutenant Larry Waldie Jr. and demanded that Waldie replace the current Training and Scheduling Deputy with Executioner Deputy Anthony Bautista. The gang wanted control over that position because the deputy was responsible for assigning shifts and granting days off. Waldie told Juarez that he would not be intimidated by the gang. In response, Juarez and the Executioners implemented a work slowdown. Deputies continued to receive their full salaries for completing little-to-no work. Waldie informed Captain Thatcher about the gang’s antics, and Juarez was transferred to the City of Industry Station. But Waldie was later overruled and Juarez returned to Compton.
The Executioners in the spotlight
In the summer of 2019, deputies who were allegedly part of the Executioners were involved in two incidents that briefly caught the attention of local media. In June 2019, TMZ captured three Compton deputies severely beating a man. As the man is held to the ground by the group of peace officers, they tell him to get on the ground. They then began to punch and kick him repeatedly. WitnessLA reports that all three deputies were Executioners. On July 3, 2019, deputies chased a vehicle owned by rapper YG through Compton. LASD personnel claimed that occupants of the vehicle had an AK-47, which was never recovered. The deputies in pursuit shot at the vehicle, killing 65-year-old Rick Starks. Mary Starks told KCAL9 that her son had been riding his bike to get her cigarettes, as was his custom, when he was killed.
On October 25, 2019, Deputy Gonzalez was promoted to Field Training Officer. His first trainee was Deputy David Battles, who completed his training period with Gonzalez in January 2020. The Master Training Officer told Gonzlaez that he had done his job well. One month later, inked Executioner Edwin Barajas failed Battles out of the training. Gonzalez believes that Battles was punished for their association with each other.
The Executioners began to get more aggressive with fellow LASD personnel. Deputy Eugene Contreras returned to the Compton Station in 2020 after a temporary assignment in the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB). According to Gonzalez’s complaint, Contreras bullied deputies in an attempt to raise his standing with the gang. In February 2020, Contreras was working as a Field Training Officer. He threatened another FTO, Deputy Thomas Banuelos, which escalated into Contreras assaulting Banuelos while on duty. The attack was also allegedly done to raise the reputation of the gang. Contreras was placed on the list for promotion to the rank of Sergeant.
On February 8, 2020, Banuelos texted Gonzalez and told him about Contreras’ violent behavior. Gonzalez made what he believed to be a confidential report to the IAB. However, Gonzalez states that he learned the Executioners had infiltrated IAB. The gang obtained a recording of his phone call placing the complaint. Gonzalez was approached by Alcala who informed him that, “[The Executioners] are saying that it was you who called IA.”
Gonzalez feared violent retribution at the hands of the gang, so he took several days off work. When he returned, he told Operations Lieutenant Ruiz that he had been the one who made the complaint and wished to remain anonymous. He requested another week off work out of fear. During his time away from the station, Alcala texted him a photo of graffiti in a very visible place in the Station which read: “ART IS A RAT.” Gonzalez also spoke with Captain LaTonya Clark about the gang and his fear of retribution.
Clark informed Gonzalez that investigators from the Office of the Executive wanted to speak with him. The next day, two investigators came to the station unannounced and requested to speak with Gonzalez at the front desk. Gonzalez says this placed him further at risk because the entire station now knew the investigators were there. Deputy Anthony Bautista, who was serving as Watch Deputy, told Gonzalez’s partner Deputy Adrian Garcia that, “two IA investigators are here to talk to Gonzalez, so get over here.” Gonzalez met with the investigators and told them he wanted to remain anonymous due to the threat of violence from the gang. He also said that any future meetings would have to be done somewhere other than the Compton Station.
When Gonzalez returned from his time off he was approached by Scheduling Sergeant Frank Barragan, who reprimanded him for using paid family leave to care for his daughter. Barragan told him that as a result he was being demoted from the position of Field Training Officer saying, “It would be a disservice to your trainee if you are taking FMLA days off.” Gonzalez states he had not used any state-awarded time off on the days he was training the new deputy. Barragan also told Gonzalez that, “there are two ways to do this, you can voluntarily not take trainees and the other way is we start documenting,” which Gonzalez understood to mean that unless he accepted the demotion, Barragan would start the process of “documenting” Gonzalez for discipline, setting him up to be fired. Gonzalez felt threatened and signed a document Barragan had prepared that stated he was voluntarily relinquishing his position as an FTO.
Barragan authorized the use of “temporary” FTOs following the meeting, and Juarez was given the position. Bautista, an inked Executioner who worked in dispatch, began routing an excessive number of calls to Gonzalez in comparison to other deputies on the same shift. When Gonzalez complained to his supervisor, Lieutenant Ruiz, he told Gonzalez that he could make another complaint to IAB. Gonzalez did not think that was a viable option. He requested a transfer to another station and met with the investigators who visited the station again. Captain Clark told him he could immediately start working at the East LA Station, home to the Banditos gang. Ultimately, Gonzalez’s transfer request was denied.
Between March and April 2020, Gonzalez says Barragan called him and said that he was going to be placed on the early morning shift. Gonzalez refused because the schedule wouldn’t allow him to take care of his daughter. Barragan said in response that tattooed Executioner Contreras would also be on the day shift with Gonzalez, who took that to mean he would be harassed by the gang at work. Two weeks later, Ruiz told him he could leave patrol for an assignment in the Detective Bureau (DB) where he would be responsible for filing cases on behalf of the station at the Compton Courthouse. Gonzalez accepted the transfer to DB and saw it as an opportunity to get away from the gang. However, Bautista was loaned out to DB and used a pencil holder, mouse, and mousepad adorned with the Executioners logo. His screensaver showed a black and white photo of a Sheriff’s Department vehicle surrounded by people who appear to be detained. The caption of the photo read, “Some people worked Compton, others just claimed they did!!!”
Earning your ink
The Executioners were behind several violent incidents in the Compton area in 2020. On April 13, 23-year-old Jesus Alegria was at Wilson Park skateboarding when Deputies Miguel Vega and Christopher Hernandez drove up in a patrol vehicle. Deputy Michael Vega had been trained by Deputy Contreras, an Executioner who harassed Gonzalez, WitnessLA reports. According to a complaint Alegria filed against the County, Vega and Hernandez began bullying and harassing young people gathered around the park. Alegria told the deputies to leave the youth alone. Vega and Hernandez approached Alegria, grabbed him by the wrist, and threw him in the back of their patrol car. The deputies drove with Alegria in the backseat without handcuffs and a seatbelt, in violation of department policy. He told the Los Angeles Times that the deputies threatened to drop him off in a neighborhood controlled by a gang and tell people on the street he belonged to their rivals.
As they drove, the deputies spotted a group of teenagers on bikes. Vega accelerated towards them as they scattered. Hernandez climbed out of the vehicle and began to chase a few of the kids on foot. Alegria says that the deputies did not radio in about the chase. Vega drove the car quickly through a narrow alley but there was a car parked next to a concrete wall and he crashed the patrol vehicle, smashing Alegria’s head into the case divider. Vega had inadvertently trapped himself and was unable to open his door, so the deputy climbed out of the window and onto the hood of the car. Alegria begged the deputies to let him leave, and Vega told him to, “Get the fuck out of here.”
Alegria walked away and said that a family unloading groceries from their car gave him water and let him call his father. When his father arrived, Alegria was arrested by another deputy who handcuffed him and placed him in the back of a patrol car. Alegria told the Times that every 10 minutes a deputy would come ask if he needed medical attention. When he said that he did, he wasn’t given any. He was taken to the hospital almost one hour later and given stitches. At the hospital, Alegria said a deputy forced him to sign a citation for being under the influence of meth in order to be released.
According to the complaint, Vega and Hernandez attempted to cover up what happened with Alegria. In their report, they claimed that a “large crowd” of 15-20 people gathered around an erratic Alegria. The deputies said that they took him into custody and transported him in a manner outside of policy because they were afraid the group would try to help Alegria. The charges against Alegria were dropped at a preliminary hearing. He filed a suit against the County, which is pending. Vega and Hernandez remained on the street.
A family broken
In the summer of 2020, the Guardado family lived in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. Elisa and Cristobal Guardado fled violence in El Salvador stemming from the Salvadoran Civil War and raised a family in the city. Their 18-year-old son Andrés, a recent high school graduate, was studying at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Andrés also worked as a security guard for Street Dynamic Auto Body in Gardena. His life was cut short while he was working one evening shortly after an encounter with Deputies Vega and Hernandez.
On June 18, 2020, at 5:53 PM, Guardado was standing outside of the body shop talking to two people parked in a white Lexus. According to a complaint filed against the County, Vega and Hernandez parked their patrol vehicle next to the driver’s side of the Lexus and quickly got out. Guardado was frightened and fled behind the gate of the property and into an alley. The deputies pulled out their guns and chased him. Andrew Haney, who worked at the body shop and witnessed the shooting, told LA Taco that Guardado got to his knees and was shot by a deputy. Vega fired his weapon at Guardado six times, striking him five times in the back. Each of the wounds had lethal capacity. Haney also told LA Taco that deputies searched the body shop without a warrant and destroyed several surveillance cameras.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva initially placed an “emergency hold” on Guardado’s autopsy report. Department officials stated at the time that the hold could last “months to years, depending on the investigation and the agency.” An independent report concluded Guardado had been shot five times in the back. Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas defied Villanueva’s order and released the report in July 2020. Lucas said in a statement, “I believe that government can do its part by being more timely and more transparent in sharing information that the public demands and has a right to see.” He ruled Guardado’s death a homicide.
Several local government officials issued statements on the shooting. Representatives Maxine Waters and Nanette Diaz Barragán released a joint statement calling on then California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to independently investigate Guardado’s killing. Compton City Attorney Damon Brown sent a letter to the LASD demanding the removal of Vega and Hernandez. LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas also called for an independent investigation.
Following the death of Guardado, several protests were held throughout the Los Angeles area. On June 21, 2020, about 500 protestors gathered at the intersection of Figueroa Street and West Redondo Beach Boulevard to march to the Compton Sheriff Station. When they arrived, they were greeted by LASD personnel in riot gear. Peaceful demonstrators, observers, and members of the press were fired upon with less-lethal munitions and tear gas. At least eight people were hit by projectiles and injured. The group filed a federal complaint against the County and Sheriff Villanueva, along with several other protesters who were rallying against police violence in demonstrations across Los Angeles County. Jorge Gonzalez, an attorney for the case, tells Knock LA that he has “every reason to believe” the deputy gang influenced the actions of the LASD that day. “It’s supposed to be they’re stopping a threat, not punishing for something.”
Gonzalez attended a press conference organized by the National Lawyers Guild in response to the treatment of protesters on September 11, 2020. Attorneys and witnesses gathered outside South LA Station a few days later to speak about the incident. Deputies outfitted in riot gear surrounded the small group that had gathered and barricaded them in. “They encircled us and basically trapped us in there,” says Gonzalez. “I could see the look on their faces, they’re looking at us like we were trash, like we were the enemy.”
Freelance journalist Vishal P. Singh captured David Cunningham III, a candidate for City Council who was there as a legal observer, being grabbed by a deputy. As Cunningham attempts to exit the barricaded area, a deputy hands his shield to a colleague and grabs Cunningham in what appears to be an attempt to pull him over the barricade. Lieutenant John Satterfield, a spokesman for the department, told the Los Angeles Times that the Sheriff’s response team secured the parking lot of a business at the request of a manager. He did not say which business made the request.
In November 2020, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors ordered an inquest into the killing of Andrés Guardado – something that hadn’t been done for nearly 30 years. The proceeding was intended to be a judicial examination of the incident. However, the two Sheriff’s Homicide Detectives investigating Guardado’s death appeared at the inquest but refused to answer questions, citing their Fifth Amendment rights. Vega did not appear at inquest. Instead he submitted a declaration saying that if he was called to testify, he would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights and not answer questions. Retired Court of Appeals Judge Candace Cooper found that she felt it wasn’t necessary to call more witnesses and obtain more evidence, concluding the matter. Her decision essentially means the Sheriff’s Department’s account of Guardado’s death will be the official version until and unless it’s revisited during a trial. The following month, Vega and Hernandez were suspended from the Department for crashing their vehicle with Jesus Alegria in the back.
The Guardado family has filed a civil complaint against the County and department, which is pending. Ryan Casey, one of the attorneys representing the family, tells Knock LA that the case has been delayed because of the ongoing criminal investigation. “The position they’re taking is making it difficult to get discovery.” But Casey says his firm is determined to expose the truth. “We’re not going to put a pause or stop on anything unless the court tells us. We’re going to continue to use all the tools at our disposal.”
READ NEXT: What We Don’t Know
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