Former Sheriff Alex Villanueva provided contentious testimony during a special hearing on deputy gangs held at Loyola Law School by the Civilian Oversight Commission on Friday.
Last year, the commission asserted in a report that over a dozen deputy gangs and cliques operate in the LA Sheriff’s Department and “exalt the use of excessive force against civilians, harass other deputies, and undermine the chain of command.” The Commission announced it would hold the hearing after Villanueva suddenly changed his stance on complying with several subpoenas the oversight officials issued.
The about-face came in late December, just days after a county judge scheduled a hearing to decide whether or not to order Villanueva, who is running for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors 4th District seat against Janice Hahn, to comply with subpoenas. When asked if his candidacy had impacted his decision to testify, he responded, “Of course. That’s why I’m here.”
Before the hearing began, activists with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, the Check the Sheriff Coalition, and Cancel the Contract Antelope Valley held a press conference outside of the doors of the courtroom. The groups were there to call attention to the killing of 27-year-old Niani Finlayson, who was killed in December by Lancaster deputy Ty Shelton. Shelton also killed 61-year-old Michael Thomas in June of 2020. Finlayson’s mother, Tracie Hall, addressed reporters. “I have to live daily with [her daughters] asking for their mother,” she said. “She’s been stolen, murdered.”
Finlayson’s family and the organizations are demanding an independent investigation of the shooting by the Department of Justice, and prosecution of Shelton by the LA District Attorney’s office. They also want to see him fired, and the release of the unedited body cam footage of the incident.
The hearing began with Villanueva speaking over lead investigator Bert Deixler, accusing him and the Commission of “bashing” him and demanding the opportunity to make an opening statement. A number of Villanueva supporters who attended the hearing applauded and jeered.
Villanueva was argumentative throughout his comments and challenged the special counsel’s authority to make inquiries on the interpretation of law.
During his remarks, Villanueva denied any link between deputy misconduct and deputy gangs. “It’s no secret there are subgroups within the Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “They exist everywhere, and they will always exist.” Villanueva stated the department could not fire employees for tattoos, even going as far as to say that when an employee with a swastika tattoo was discovered, they could not be fired for having it.
Villanueva further pontificated that deputy gang ink simply commemorates an era in a station’s history: “Tattoos from a subgroup are a point in time of a given place.” He also said he did not inquire about several former executives’ deputy gang tattoos and membership, including his former chief of staff, Larry Del Mese. Del Mess said in July of 2022 Commission testimony that he had a tattoo belonging to the Grim Reapers deputy gang that was later removed.
The former sheriff said that he did not take action in response to when then-Chief, now Undersheriff April Tardy told the commission that the Banditos deputy gang met the legal standard to be identified as such. “We elected not to touch the matter only because it became a hot political potato that you guys would be eager to jump on if I did anything.” Villanueva also said he believed Tardy’s testimony to be false.
Villanueva also called his former Division Chief, Matthew Burson a “liar” for stating he was directed not to ask about deputy gangs during an investigation. Burson was overseeing a criminal investigation into an attack by alleged members of the Banditos on non-member deputies. Burson testified that on December 7 of 2018, just 4 days after Villanueva was sworn in as sheriff, Burson was instructed by Villnueva’s then-chief of staff, Del Mese, not to ask about deputy gangs.
Burson said the day before that conversation, Villanueva promoted him two ranks from captain to division chief, skipping commander. He insisted in his testimony there was “absolutely not” a quid pro quo for the promotion.
In his own testimony for the commission in July 2022, Del Mese said he did not recall the conversation with Burson. Villanueva stated Friday that he never told Del Mese to influence Burson’s investigation. The former sheriff further accused the investigator looking into the brawl, Jeff Chow, of altering his log of his actions during the investigation in order to implicate Villanueva in misconduct.
Villanueva did admit he was responsible for the promotion of self-identified, tattooed Executioner Jaime Juarez to detective following Juarez’s punitive removal from patrol after he shot 4 people. “I’m responsible for the decisions everyone makes, yes,” he said of the choice to elevate Juarez in rank.
The former sheriff is expected to return to the commission to continue his testimony in March after the election.