Exclusive: Los Angeles sheriff's deputies say they were beaten by fellow deputies

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Two Los Angeles County deputies who say they were beaten and strangled to the point they believed they might die spoke exclusively to Eyewitness News.

"I knew I was losing consciousness. I knew that at the moment I was being overpowered. So I did feel like I was being killed," says one of the injured deputies.

In all, eight deputies are demanding $60 million in a new lawsuit against Los Angeles County and four fellow deputies they say are members of the "Banditos" deputy gang.

"We're hoping that the county and the Sheriff's Department finally changes, finally fixes what they admit has been a problem for 50 years," says their attorney Vincent Miller. "It's unbelievable to anyone on the outside that you'd have gang-member cops."

According to the lawsuit, the attack took place after a party at Kennedy Hall last September that was sanctioned by the East Los Angeles Sheriff's Station.

The deputies say the deputy clique or gang ran the East Los Angeles station like a criminal enterprise - controlling schedules, demanding donations and pressuring recruits to make arrests even if they were bad ones.

Deputies say the gang strictly enforces a code of silence.

"People see what's going on with us - how we are now being treated - and they are afraid to talk," says a deputy plaintiff who did not want to be identified.

County officials vow to get to the bottom of this issue once and for all, but previous attempts have gone nowhere. An outright ban on deputy cliques or secret societies raises First Amendment issues.

"I do think that Sheriff McDonnell wanted to address this issue and that past boards have not always had the appetites to take this issue on," says former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky who worked with McDonnell on jail reform.

On Tuesday, researchers with the nonprofit RAND corporation unveiled their plans for a year-long study of deputy subgroups in the LASD at a meeting of the Civilian Oversight Commission. Researchers expect to conduct interviews with LASD leaders, community members and anonymously survey all 10,000 sworn members of the department.

Meanwhile, the LASD's chief watchdog, Inspector General Max Huntsman, told commissioners he's ready to conduct a separate investigation, but needs subpoena power to get at the truth.

"I'm not backing down, I'm not slowing down," Huntsman told the commissioners. "I think it's crazy that we have an elected sheriff stating publicly that there are no secret societies, only station tattoos. Given what we all know publicly, given what happened with the Banditos that is common knowledge."

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is exploring how they can expand the Inspector General's authority to include subpoena power, which would give him the ability to force witnesses to talk.

Alarm among county leaders has been fueled by the millions in taxpayer dollars they've doled out to settle claims over the decades.

"For 50 years, the Sheriff's Department has not addressed this problem," said Huntsman. "And management has actually supported them by enforcing a code of silence. That is a 50-year problem -- it didn't just arise with our new sheriff."

With public outcry rising, county supervisors passed a motion earlier this year that blasts all past sheriffs for failing to root out the gangs. The board is demanding a full account of past gang or clique-related incidents and how much they cost the county.

Sheriff Villanueva has acknowledged the role of the "Banditos" and earlier this year told Eyewitness News he removed key members of the clique and the station's former captain.

"Pretty much they were calling the shots, they were dictating the decisions of the station and that has had a very bad outcome obviously," said Villanueva said in June.

Attorney Vincent Miller says Villanueva's claim to have transferred 36 people out of the East Los Angeles station was contradicted by the current East Los Angeles Captain Ernie Chavez.

"The reality is there were only a few Banditos that were actually transferred out of the station," says Miller.

Villanueva presented a draft policy months ago that prohibits deputies from joining "any group which promotes conduct that violates the rights of employees or members of the public."

Eyewitness News asked the LASD for an update on the draft policy, but did not receive an answer.

"It is embarrassing to know that the agency I work for hasn't done anything to fix the problem," says a plaintiff.

One of the alleged Banditos accused in the lawsuit is Deputy Gregory Rodriquez. He was previously fired for allegedly falsifying a police report. He was prosecuted, but at trial the jury deadlocked and the case was later dismissed. The man who was jailed based on that report sued the department and won a $549,000 settlement.

Rodriguez got his job back and returned to the East Los Angeles Station just months before the Kennedy Hall attack in September 2018. The other defendants named in the lawsuit are Deputy Rafael "Rene" Munoz, Deputy David Silverio and Sgt. Mike Hernandez. The LASD says all four are on paid administrative leave.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office says the criminal case involving those deputies and the attack at Kennedy Hall is still under review.
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