The Man Who Cracked the Code of L.A.’s Notorious Sheriff Gangs

“Nobody believed that the cops could lie like this,” says John Sweeney.

Photo: Stewart Cook/AFP via Getty Images

John Sweeney, a 70-year-old civil-rights attorney from Los Angeles, doesn’t have the name recognition of Ben Crump, who has represented the families of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd and appears, Zelig-like, seemingly whenever there is a major police shooting. Nor does Sweeney much resemble Johnnie Cochran, a mentor to the young Sweeney when they worked together at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in the late 1970s.

“He was a real peacock,” Sweeney remembered recently. “I mean, what’s the last time you see somebody at the DA’s office driving a Rolls-Royce?” Sweeney— who is tall, walks with a careful grace, and has freckled skin, a thin mustache, and closely cropped hair—is more like the Atticus Finch of the world of police-misconduct litigation: a gentleman who is brutally effective.

Sweeney has built his career, as well as a sizable fortune, on exposing violent gangs that reside on the other side of the thin blue line — within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. These “deputy gangs,” as they are known, have been accused of hunting down Black men and framing the victims as instigators. In 2020, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors estimated that legal settlements related to deputy-gang misconduct have cost taxpayers $55 million. “I’m not saying this in a self-aggrandizing fashion,” Sweeney said in November, “but $30 million of that $55 million have been my verdicts and settlements against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department just in the last seven or eight years.”

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“I feel that I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish — get this out in the open,” Sweeney told me. “If history remembers my 40-year career, I hope it’s because my work began eradicating deputy gangs from the department.”

The deputy gangs have long been a problem, but Sweeney’s campaign was rooted in events that took place the night of August 25, 2016. A pair of deputies with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department pulled their patrol vehicle to a stop in front of 401 North Wilmington Avenue in downtown Compton, a gray stucco building housing Flamingos Beauty Salon and González & Luis Lawn Mower Shop & Repairs. Mizrain Orrego was at the wheel of the black-and-white unit, and Samuel Aldama was in the front passenger seat. About one month earlier, the New York Times profiled the two deputies for a piece about the perils of policing Compton, “made famous by violence and gangster rap.” As Aldama and Orrego approached a group of young people outside what they claimed was a hangout for the South Side Compton Crips, Orrego told the reporter, “Every time you get three of these guys together, you know they have a gun somewhere.” Yet while the deputies boasted that they had seized 18 guns from the streets during a nine-week period, they admitted they found no weapons when the reporter rode along with them on their shift.

On that late August night, the pair spotted Donta Taylor, a 31-year-old Black man, wearing a red hat with the letter C on the front on North Wilmington Avenue, an area controlled by the Cedar Block Piru gang. Aldama and Orrego asked Taylor if he was on probation or parole. “No, I’m not,” Taylor said and then, according to the deputies, drew a semiautomatic, stainless-steel handgun and ran. The deputies radioed in a “417” — person with a gun — and gave chase on foot. Three minutes later, Aldama and Orrego cornered Taylor as he emerged from a hole in the fence that encloses a dirt path by the Compton Creek. Orrego said Taylor pointed a gun at him, and Orrego fired three shots in response. Hearing the gunshots, Aldama fired approximately ten to 12 more rounds at Taylor, who Aldama said was holding something in his chest area. Orrego fired two or three additional rounds at Taylor and saw him fall to the ground. An autopsy determined that Taylor had six gunshot wounds to his upper- and lower-right extremities and his left lateral back.

But contrary to the deputies’ claims, Taylor did not have a gun. There was not a gun anywhere on his person, near his body, or at the scene of his killing. And there was seemingly no purpose for the stop; Taylor was not a suspect in a crime, nor had he committed one. Taylor’s family said he simply encountered Aldama and Orrego as he was walking to a nearby market. Grieving and shell-shocked — Taylor’s parents were celebrating their wedding anniversary the night he was killed — the family turned to Sweeney, who held a press conference that October announcing a $50 million claim against Los Angeles County. “The story the deputy sheriff’s came up with is fabricated. It is a lie, and we will prove that,” Sweeney said. “No gun was found because there was no gun.”

In April 2017, Sweeney sued the LASD on behalf of the Taylor family, claiming assault and battery, negligence, wrongful death, and civil-rights violations. An August 2017 review of the fatal shooting by then–Los Angeles County district attorney Jackie Lacey admitted that “it appears that Taylor was unarmed at the end of the foot pursuit because there was no gun located in the area of the shooting” and that it was evident “Taylor was not armed at the time of the shooting and Orrego was mistaken.” Nonetheless, the DA’s office concluded that “the available evidence is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that Aldama and Orrego did not act in self-defense and the defense of others. The case was closed.

Though no criminal charges would be brought against the deputies, Sweeney continued litigating Taylor’s civil case. “Taylor, it was a hunt for an animal,” Sweeney told me. “It just reminded me of a hunt for an animal through the wilds of Africa.” During the discovery process in the spring of 2018, Sweeney learned that Aldama and Orrego nearly killed another Black man just months before they gunned down Taylor. On January 15, 2016, Sheldon Lockett, 29, stood outside his grandmother’s home in Compton when he was approached by Aldama and Orrego, who were in the area investigating a report of a drive-by shooting. The pair drew their weapons on Lockett, who fled on foot. Aldama and Orrego called out on their radios that Lockett had pulled a gun; then they cornered him in a backyard. When Lockett attempted to surrender, Aldama and Orrego allegedly beat Lockett with their fists, feet, and batons, stung him with Tasers, and called him the N-word.

In a handheld video shot by LASD investigators that I obtained — the department didn’t begin using body cameras until the fall of 2020 — Lockett sits handcuffed in a department vehicle bruised, bloodied, and confused, repeating when questioned, “I got my ass beat.” Even though no gun was found on Lockett and he hadn’t committed any crime, he was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Unable to afford bail, Lockett was locked up in the county jail. About one month later, Lockett’s mother, Michelle Davis, filed a citizen complaint against Orrego and Aldama. But the LASD didn’t investigate or discipline the deputies. Instead, it executed a search warrant on Davis’s home, apparently looking for the weapon the deputies claimed Lockett had when he was arrested. Although the LASD’s search of the Davis home didn’t produce any weapons, Lockett wasn’t released from jail until August 2, 2016 — an eight-month stint behind bars — when the case against him was dismissed for lack of evidence.

“The only reason why we got Lockett’s name was because his mother filed this complaint,” Sweeney said. Sweeney contacted the Lockett family and, in July 2018, filed a lawsuit in federal court against Aladama, Orrego, and the LASD, claiming excessive force, false imprisonment, assault, battery, false arrest, and civil-rights violations. In a separate claim, Sweeney alleged the LASD failed to “properly hire, train, instruct, monitor, supervise, evaluate, investigate, and discipline” Aldama and Orrego.

But while Taylor was killed and Lockett was maimed — Sweeney claimed one of the deputies “purposefully and violently rammed the end of a police baton” in his eye socket — neither case received significant media attention. That all changed on July 10, 2018, when the Los Angeles Times published a front-page story about Sweeney’s questioning of Aldama during a May 2018 deposition for Taylor’s case. Under oath, Aldama admitted that he bore a tattoo on his leg of a deputy gang called the Executioners. The tattoo features a skeleton holding a Kalashnikov-style rifle encircled in flames. On the weapon’s magazine are the Roman numerals “XXVIII,” which stands for the LASD’s 28th substation: Compton. The letters “CPT” — short for Compton — are also part of the design. Aldama said that as many as 20 Compton deputies had the tattoo, but he denied that he was part of the gang. He said he was inked for “working hard.”

A clip of the deposition — in which Sweeney asked Aldama, “Do you have any ill feelings towards African Americans?” and Aldama replied, “I do, sir” — went viral on social media. The story was picked up by BuzzFeed and the Daily Mail. (Aldama later said he misunderstood the question and denied having ill feelings toward Black people.) The Los Angeles Times piece featured photographs of Aldama’s and Orrego’s Executioners tattoos taken during the course of the Sweeney depositions over strenuous objections from Aldama’s legal team — a major victory for Sweeney.

Photo: The Sweeney Firm

The evidence of Deputy Mizrain Orrego’s Executioners tattoo was a major breakthrough for Sweeney’s case. 

“I asked him about tattoos,” Sweeney remembers. “He lied, said he had them on his arms only. And when he finished describing those, I said, ‘What about the one near your leg?’ He looked like he had seen a ghost.” It was, Sweeney says now, “the tattoo that shook the world and broke this whole thing open.” In June 2019, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $7 million settlement to the Taylor family, one of the largest legal payouts in LASD history.

The $7 million settlement was followed by a 2020 California Supreme Court decision restoring the full $8 million judgment reversed by an appeals court to the family of Darren Burley, who was killed by Compton deputies in 2012 after they pinned him to the ground, pressed a knee against his neck, put him in a headlock, hit him multiple times with a flashlight, placed him in a “hobble restraint,” and Tased him. Much of the LASD narrative of the incident was disputed by witnesses including a Compton Fire Department captain who said the deputies did not call for medical help. Later, when Sweeney deposed an LASD whistleblower, he identified one of the deputies in the Burley case as an Executioners member. “There is a cancer that has metastasized within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney comes from a distinguished line of pastors and lawyers. His father, Paul, was an attorney and his mother, Arminta, was, in his words, a “southern belle” from Georgia. His grandfather Samuel was a pastor at Harlem’s St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, which counted Black luminaries such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Paul Robeson as members. “My father was from an extremely — I don’t say that lightly — an extremely prominent family in New York City,” Sweeney said. A January 17, 1955, piece in the New York Times — headlined “Pastor Suggests ‘Tearing Up’ Evil” — described Samuel Sweeney inveighing against injustices like school segregation.

When the Sweeney family moved to Los Angeles, they lived in Baldwin Hills, then a haven for the Black upper-middle class. Redd Foxx, Tina Turner, and Ray Charles were neighbors. “You can see how I was raised,” he said. “And it speaks volumes about why I am where I am today.” Sweeney was not the only member of his family who rose to prominence: His sister, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, is president of Trinity College in Connecticut. “That’s part of the reason I’ve always been able to transcend my race — because of my upbringing, background,” Sweeney said. “I can tell stories that other Black people can’t tell that neutralize race and take it out of the picture.”

Sweeney graduated from the University of Southern California in 1973 and the California College of Law in 1979. After law school, Sweeney was wooed by the Los Angeles County DA’s office, where Cochran became first assistant district attorney in 1978. Although it was decades before his famous turn as O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, Cochran was already a mythological figure in the Los Angeles legal community. In the mid-1960s, he represented the family of Leonard Deadwyler, a 25-year-old Black man killed by an LAPD officer as he drove his pregnant wife to the hospital. Deadwyler’s death, which was ruled an accidental homicide by a jury, received extraordinary attention, the case being the first legal proceeding in California to be broadcast on live television.

In June 1966, Deadwyler’s story was the subject of a nearly 5,000-word New York Times story by Thomas Pynchon. “The killing of Leonard Deadwyler has once again brought it all into sharp focus; brought back longstanding pain, reminded everybody of how very often the cop does approach you with his revolver ready, so that nothing he does with it can then really be accidental; of how, especially, at night, everything can suddenly reduce to a matter of reflexes: your life trembling in the crook of a cop’s finger because it is dark, and Watts, and the history of this place and these times makes it impossible for the cop to come on any different, or for you to hate him any less,” Pynchon wrote.

Cochran told Sweeney they would tackle police prosecutions together there. But soon after Sweeney joined the DA’s office, Cochran left to go into private practice and urged Sweeney to come with him. “He said, ‘John, will you come work for me?’” Sweeney remembers. “I said, ‘Bye-bye, DA’s office.’” Because he was litigating civil cases, Cochran was freed from the legal system’s high standards for prosecuting the police in criminal court, and there were huge courtroom wins and monetary awards. In 1981, Cochran represented the family of Ron Settles, a 21-year-old Black college-football star who died in the custody of the Signal Hill Police Department. An initial autopsy concluded that Settles died by suicide at the jail, but a coroner’s jury found that Settles died “at the hands of another.” Cochran sued the department, and in 1983 the lawsuit was settled for $1 million — an enormous amount at the time. “Sweeney sat at the feet of the master trial attorney,” said Priscilla Ocen, a law professor at Loyola Law School and a member of the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission.

The string of successes under Cochran inspired Sweeney to strike out on his own, and he founded the Sweeney Firm in Beverly Hills in 1985. By the early aughts, it had racked up a series of big wins in torts, civil-rights, and criminal cases. Perhaps his most significant police-misconduct case involved the June 2000 shooting of Charles Beatty, a 66-year-old Black man, by a pair of LAPD officers who were angered that Beatty pulled around them at a traffic light. In 2002, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded Beatty, who was shot four times in the back and had a bullet stuck in his spine, $2 million. One of the officers pleaded no contest to a felony charge of shooting into an occupied vehicle and was sentenced to five years in prison, a rarity in police-shooting cases. “I’ve never seen anybody have more command of the courtroom than John,” said Steve Glickman, an L.A. attorney who has served as co-counsel and expert witness for Sweeney.

It would prove to be a life-changing year for Sweeney far beyond the historic Beatty case. In 2000, the Compton City Council disbanded its police department and replaced it with an LASD contract. It was meant to be a milestone for police reform driven by high homicide rates, gang violence, and most important, rampant misconduct and corruption by the Compton police, which brought the city unwanted international attention thanks to the anti-police anthems of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. “From my understanding, they were excited about the opportunity to come into Compton,” said Aja Brown, Compton’s mayor from 2013 to 2021. “It was one of their largest contracts that they had at the time.”

But reform quickly proved illusory. At around midnight on June 26, 2001, a Compton sheriff’s deputy stopped a van that was leaving the area of a burglary. A Black woman named Shanara Batiste pulled her car up to the scene, saying that the vehicle was her cousin’s and that he hadn’t done anything wrong. Things escalated from there, and Batiste ended up being slammed onto the hood with such force that she was left with two broken teeth and a broken jaw. In 2003, Sweeney obtained a $375,000 settlement for Batiste.

On July 5, 2009, Compton deputies stopped 16-year-old Avery Cody Jr. with a group of friends outside a McDonald’s. When the deputies ordered him to raise his shirt to check for weapons, Cody panicked and ran. Deputy Sergio Reyes gave chase and shot him to death. Reyes said Cody was armed and took cover behind a newspaper rack to defend himself. Cody’s family was skeptical of the story and hired Sweeney. Sweeney obtained surveillance video from a nearby store showing that Cody was holding a cell phone, not the revolver deputies said they recovered. Surveillance tape also showed Cody running from Reyes, not ducking behind a newspaper rack.

“The surveillance camera has them walking past the camera coming from McDonald’s back home,” Sweeney remembers. “Then about, oh, a minute and a half later, you see little Avery running back past the camera, back eastbound, and angling out into the street to get away from the cops. And you can see this deputy sheriff chasing him and getting into a crouch and firing and killing him.” In 2011, Los Angeles County settled the Cody case for $500,000.

After the case settled, Sweeney got a call from Avery Cody Sr., who had become an anti-police-violence activist in the wake of his son’s death: “I got a case for you.” It involved Robert Thomas Jr., who was shot to death by Compton deputies in what was becoming a familiar set of circumstances to Sweeney. On November 8, 2010, a group of deputies spotted Thomas, 21, standing outside a party they believed was thrown by the Carver Park Compton Crips. He was not committing a crime or suspected in any crime. The deputies said he was acting suspiciously and alleged, with no clear corroboration, that he was a gang member. “They went around asking people to lift up their shirts because these gang people — they wear these long, pristine white T-shirts that are baggy that go down to your knee,” Sweeney said. “That’s very important in this whole story. And Robert Thomas Jr. had one on.” One deputy asked Thomas to raise his shirt, and he complied. But when another made the same request, Thomas ran. The deputy said Thomas reached for a gun in his pocket, prompting the deputy to fire in response, killing him.

Like the Cody family, the Thomases didn’t believe the law-enforcement narrative. “They’re lying, basically saying that my son pulled a gun on them. But you can’t pull a gun with your back turned from them and get shot 12 times in the back,” Robert Thomas Sr. said. The LASD admitted that Thomas did not fire a weapon but claimed a handgun was recovered at the scene. Thomas, Sweeney found out, was unarmed, and the gun at the scene didn’t have his DNA on it. In June 2013, a Compton jury awarded $7.5 million to the Thomas family. “We were the first firm to really, really challenge on these cases,” Sweeney said. “Because not many people were taking these because you couldn’t win them. Nobody believed that the cops could lie like this.”

Sweeney was establishing a pattern by Compton deputies of questionable stops, claims of a gun, fatal shootings, and framing of victims. Sweeney said he has no evidence that the deputies who killed Cody or Thomas were in a deputy gang, but “after these shootings I said, ‘Something is going on. There is a gang out here. We just don’t know it.’ I knew that I had a gang because of the history of deputy gangs within the sheriff’s department — from the Little Devils and the Regulators to the Vikings to the Jump Out Boys or the Grim Reapers. It stood to reason there was a gang at the Compton station. I just had to prove it.”

The strange and sadistic subculture of the deputy gang has been a part of the LASD for more than 50 years. They are often referred to by law enforcement as social clubs or “subgroups” that engage in proactive policing. But Roger Clark, a former high-ranking member of the LASD who joined a deputy gang called the Little Devils in 1965, wrote in a court filing in the Lockett case, “I understood that they were a group of white deputies who were responsible for wreaking havoc with the aggressive policing of largely African American and Hispanic communities.”

Clark’s contention about the true nature of deputy gangs has been borne out repeatedly in Los Angeles history. On August 29, 1970, Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar was killed after being struck by a tear-gas canister fired by a sheriff’s deputy during an antiwar protest called the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. The deputy was based at the East Los Angeles station, which had adopted a “Fort Apache” logo featuring an image of a boot with a riot helmet and the phrase “Siempre una patada en los pantalones,” Spanish for “Always a kick in the pants.” The logo was later removed, but the East Los Angeles station has been the home of the Banditos deputy gang for decades.

In the early 1990s, a group of residents in Lynwood, a city in Los Angeles County patrolled by the LASD, filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit claiming they were subject to excessive force and warrantless arrests by deputies in the Vikings deputy gang, who “engage in racially motivated, anti-black, white-supremacist hate crime activities, use racist speech, and glorify and celebrate the use of excessive force and other official misconduct by deputies.” One plaintiff said he was kicked in the face, choked into unconsciousness twice, and Tased by a group of deputies who told him, “Yeah n – – – – -, you ain’t got no rights. We are going to make sure you don’t ask any more questions!” A federal judge in the case referred to the Vikings as a “neo-nazi, white supremacist gang.” The LASD settled the case in 1996 for $7.5 million.

The Kolts Report, compiled in the aftermath of the 1992 riots over the exoneration of Rodney King’s police assailants, devoted a chapter to deputy gangs. The report said certain “cliques” were “found particularly at stations in areas heavily populated by minorities — the so-called ‘ghetto’ stations — and deputies at those stations recruit persons similar in attitude to themselves.” But the authors stopped short of classifying them as gangs: “The evidence does not conclusively demonstrate the existence of racist deputy gangs.”

In the aughts, an explosion of federal lawsuits and ACLU reports came in response to brutal acts committed by deputies at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles County. These included the so-called 3000 Boys, who worked in the jail’s 3000 block, the site of a 2008 uprising by incarcerated people that was violently crushed by deputies. “This is the kind of stuff you imagine seeing in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq,” said one attorney. The victims were eventually awarded more than $5 million in attorney’s fees.

In a 2012 report from a Los Angeles County commission, the 3000 Boys — who have tattoos with the Roman numeral “III” on their calf area — were described as “highly resistant to supervision” and “involved in an unusually high number of force incidents.” Because LASD deputies often start their careers at the Men’s Central Jail — dubbed “a dungeon” by the current sheriff — the 3000 Boys can be an entry point into the violent world of deputy gangs. Aldama worked as a guard on the 3000 block and, according to a 2014 lawsuit, allegedly pinned a prisoner to the ground while other deputies beat, Tased, and pepper-sprayed him. (A use of force report prepared by Aldama’s supervisor said Aldama simply used handcuffs and a knee in the back to bring a non-compliant prisoner under control.) In 2019, an alleged member of the 3000 Boys killed Ryan Twyman, who was shot at more than 30 times as he sat unarmed in a car with a friend.

Still, deputy gangs remained largely unknown in Los Angeles except among minority communities, their victims, and civil-rights attorneys like Sweeney.

If Sweeney’s depositions of Aldama and Orrego thrust deputy gangs into the spotlight, his questioning of an LASD whistleblower, Deputy Austreberto “Art” Gonzalez, supercharged the story.

At about 6 p.m. on June 18, 2020, Deputies Miguel Vega and Chris Hernandez saw Andres Edgardo Guardado Pineda, 18, speaking to someone in a car blocking the entrance to an auto-body shop in Gardena, a small city south of Los Angeles. Investigators said Guardado then “produced a handgun” and fled, and deputies gave chase. When the deputies reached Guardado, Vega shot and killed him.

A Guardado family lawsuit filed claimed that Vega, “without provocation or justification, and with willful and conscious disregard, fatally unloaded, at least six shots at Andres’ back.” The manager of the auto shop near the site of the shooting said that the deputies shot Guardado several times in the back and that other deputies later removed several of his security cameras. An independent autopsy concluded that Guardado was shot five times in the back; Vega’s attorney has said his client shot Guardado in self-defense.

That August, Sweeney deposed Gonzalez, a Marine Corps combat veteran who worked at the Compton station five and a half years, as part of the Lockett case. Gonzalez said Vega and Hernandez were Executioners prospects. Gonzalez explained that such prospects are described as “chasing ink” and that “they get inked oftentimes after a shooting.” He said deputy gangs hold “998 parties” after a shooting. “Some people say it’s to celebrate that, you know, the deputy’s alive,” he said, “and others believe it’s, you know, to celebrate that, you know, they’re going to be inking somebody.” He said deputies radio in false reports of a weapon in order to justify use of force. “We call it a ghost gun because it never existed,” Gonzalez said.

“I now call them a gang,” he said of the Executioners. “Because that’s what gangs do — they beat up people. Their focus is not this job. Their focus is this group.”

In September 2020, Gonzalez filed a lawsuit against the LASD claiming he was retaliated against for whistleblowing. Gonzalez alleged that Compton station deputies “become inked as ‘Executioners’ after executing members of the public, or otherwise committing acts of violence in furtherance of the gang.” Gonzalez’s attorney said that when his client called a confidential tip line for internal affairs at the LASD, the call was leaked to the Executioners and graffiti was scrawled at the Compton station parking lot reading, “Art Is a Rat.”

Vega did not appear at the Los Angeles County coroner’s inquest into Guardado’s death in November 2020; instead, he submitted a declaration saying he would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights if called to testify. Hernandez, Vega’s partner, also said he would plead the Fifth. Two homicide detectives investigating Guardado’s death appeared at the inquest but cited their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions.

The coroner’s inquest failed to provide any substantive movement in the Guardado case, but the revelations from Sweeney’s depositions of Gonzalez attracted the attention of national politicians — and had a radicalizing effect on Los Angeles activists.

“It is outrageous that the officers involved in the killing of Andres Guardado are now refusing to testify in the coroner’s inquest into Guardado’s death,” California representative Maxine Waters said in a statement. “It is this type of obfuscation by the LASD that has fueled decades-long outrage and resentment among the communities who find themselves victims of police violence time and time again. LASD has a known history of serious abuses and allegations of misconduct that include racist gangs, the targeting of people of color, and shootings of civilians.”

California representative Jimmy Gomez and Maryland representative Jamie Raskin wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice calling for an investigation into deputy gangs. And an activist collective called People’s City Council Los Angeles, founded just as COVID-19 began its spread in March 2020, started an aggressive campaign to target Sheriff Alex Villanueva and raise awareness about deputy gangs. At a May 20, 2021, meeting of the Civilian Oversight Commission, Ricci Sergienko of the People’s City Council called Villanueva “the lead gang member of L.A. County.”

In the fall of 2019, eight deputies at the East Los Angeles station filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court claiming that the Banditos deputy gang — who sport tattoos featuring a pistol-wielding, sombrero-wearing skeleton with a bushy mustache — maintain a “stranglehold” on the unincorporated communities east of downtown through a “reign of unlawful policing, violence, and intimidation.” The lawsuit alleges that one Banditos leader — Rafael “Big Listo” Munoz — is protected by Villanueva.

In August 2020, Villanueva moved to fire or suspend 26 people from the East Los Angeles station, including Munoz, who were involved in a 2018 brawl at an event space in which several deputies said they were attacked by Banditos members. “We did an investigation at East Los Angeles station resulting in 26 employees either disciplined or terminated,” Villanueva told CNN in September 2020. “And that means we’re taking steps forward.” But in the same interview, Villanueva insisted, “There are no gangs within the department. Let’s get that off the table.”

In January 2021, departing California attorney general Xavier Becerra announced a civil-rights investigation into the LASD, citing “allegations of excessive force, retaliation, and other misconduct as well as a number of recent reported incidents involving LASD management and personnel.” A few months later, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party called on Villanueva to resign and said it stood “in solidarity with the Guardado family, recognizing the systematic brutality of law enforcement that has continued to shake our county. Leadership and accountability start at the top, and while strides have been made to reform police culture in Los Angeles, it’s simply not enough.”

In July 2021, Waters sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice demanding “an independent investigation into the ‘Executioners,’” citing much of Gonzalez’s testimony about chasing ink and 998 parties thrown by the Compton station. But the state and federal scrutiny seems to have only hardened Villanueva’s resolve: In October, he refused a subpoena to testify before a Civilian Oversight Commission hearing on deputy gangs. Villanueva has become a regular on Tucker Carlson’s show, railing about everything from his refusal to enforce COVID-19-vaccine mandates to “woke DAs” like Los Angeles County DA George Gascón, a reformer who defeated Jackie Lacey, the Los Angeles DA from 2012 to 2020 who didn’t charge a single officer for an on-duty shooting despite the fact that more than 400 people were shot by law enforcement during her tenure.

In November 2021, a judge dismissed Gonzalez’s lawsuit. Villanueva celebrated the decision with a tweet reading “Google this,” a reference to the People’s City Council’s “Google LASD Gangs” social media campaign. Gonzalez’s attorney said he is appealing the decision. “The judge refused to permit discovery with respect to The Executioners gang,” Al Romero said, “which along with his ruling dismissing the case, constituted a cover-up of murders of young men of color in Compton.”

A May 24 federal court trial date is set in the Lockett case. In the Taylor and Lockett cases, both Orrego and Aldama have denied that they used excessive force and claim that the force they used was reasonable. In June 2017, Orrego was terminated from the LASD after being charged with a DUI in 2015 in Orange County and allegedly making false statements about the arrest; he is currently suing the department to get his job back. Aldama remains a deputy, but in November the LASD said Aldama was suspended for 15 days for allegedly making “misleading statements” about Orrego’s DUI.

The issue of deputy gangs is dominating the 2022 sheriff’s race. Villanueva faces several challengers including the Compton-raised Cecil Rhambo. In December, a Villanueva campaign manager sent a text message to Democratic Party members suggesting that Rhambo, who retired from the LASD in 2014, was a member of a deputy gang. Rhambo then sent video to a Los Angeles Times reporter showing him shirtless and without tattoos on his torso, back, and arms; months earlier, Rhambo pulled up his pant legs for local-TV reporter Kate Cagle to prove he didn’t have tattoos on his calves or ankles. “After I defeat Alex Villanueva — as Sheriff — I’ll permanently end deputy gangs,” Rhambo tweeted on December 12. The next day, Rhambo was endorsed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. On February 1, Gomez and Raskin sent another letter to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting an investigation into deputy gangs.

When contacted for comment for this story, an LASD spokesperson pointed me to public statements by Villanueva about deputy gangs. “The Department does not have gangs,” Villanueva wrote in a November letter to the Civilian Oversight Commission.

Villanueva recently said that 43 shootings committed by his deputies are “pending a letter of opinion” from the Los Angeles County DA’s office. Sweeney confirmed to me that one of the cases under review is Aldama and Orrego’s killing of Taylor in 2016. Of his recent deputy-gang-related cases, Taylor’s has the strongest chance at being prosecuted as a murder, Sweeney believes. “The killings that are going on, nobody cared about them because they were nameless, faceless Black people over in the ghetto,” he told me. “Until we gave them a voice.”