At Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s swearing-in ceremony in 2018, a section of seats up front was cordoned off for deputies from the East L.A. sheriff's station.
The special treatment raised eyebrows. The station had been under scrutiny at the time because of an alleged assault involving deputies linked to the Banditos — one of the controversial groups scattered across the department often referred to as "deputy gangs."
Matthew Burson, at the time a captain in the Sheriff's Department who was overseeing a criminal investigation into the assault, took particular notice.
“You’re sheriff of the entire county — you don't single out one station as your favorite," Burson, who was promoted by Villanueva to chief and is now retired, testified Friday before the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.
Burson appeared as part of the commission's ongoing public hearings into the "deputy gangs," which have plagued the department for decades. Under oath, Burson said he was directed to steer the investigation away from the Banditos, confirming a written declaration filed in a lawsuit last month in which Burson said he was ordered to direct investigators not to ask questions about the group.
"Don't look into the Bandito aspect of the case," he said he was told. "Just focus on the alcohol and the fight."
Burson said Villanueva's chief of staff at the time gave him the order on behalf of the sheriff.
It didn't occur to him then, but he said he now feels he was unwittingly used to help cover up the Banditos' involvement in the incident.
"Do you now feel that you were used as kind of an unknowing dupe to shut down an investigation?" asked Bert Deixler, the attorney heading the commission's investigation.
"I believe I was," Burson said.
Jason Tokoro, an attorney representing the sheriff's department in a lawsuit that involves Burson's allegations, declined to comment on the former chief's specific claims, but said in a statement the department "takes seriously any allegations of Deputy Subgroup misconduct and conducts its investigations accordingly."
The troubling testimony by a former top-ranking executive added to other revelations that have come to light at the commission's hearings. Deputies with alleged ties to the groups have been accused of using violent and aggressive tactics, and have cost taxpayers at least $55 million in settlements and payouts in incidents that date to the 1990s.
Villanueva and his second in command, Undersheriff Tim Murakami, defied subpoenas to testify Friday.
Villanueva's attorney cited three reasons for his absence, Deixler said, including that he feared for his security because members of the public had worn "F the sheriff" shirts at prior hearings. Murakami relayed to the commission that testifying would be too stressful and create an adverse health risk.
"I'm astonished that Undersheriff Murakami is able to perform the duties of undersheriff but he's unable to appear and testify for an hour or so," said Commissioner Robert Bonner, a former federal judge. "If he's not able to appear and testify, I suggest that he forthwith resign, take medical leave without pay or some other appropriate actions, because he has no business being the undersheriff."
Deixler said he learned that a sheriff's employee who was a potential witness had been ordered this week by the department to sign a confidentiality agreement. The agreement seemingly would have complicated the employee's ability to testify. Deixler did not name the employee, but multiple sources identified him as Sgt. Jefferson Chow, who worked on the assault investigation and who was told by Burson not to ask questions about the Banditos.
The Sheriff's Department did not respond to questions about the nondisclosure agreement.
Deixler also asked the commission to authorize a subpoena requiring the Sheriff's Department preserve all documents related to the East L.A. assault investigation, which stemmed from an incident in which a group of Banditos allegedly assaulted other deputies at an off-duty party.
Larry Del Mese, Villanueva's former chief of staff, also testified Friday. He said he did not recall instructing Burson to not ask questions about the Banditos or ever having a conversation with Villanueva about the group.
Such an order would have been inappropriate, he said.
"Is that good policing?" asked Bill Forman, another attorney working for the commission.
"Is it corrupt policing?" Forman asked.
"Could be," Del Mese said. "If he was trying to obstruct an investigation I think it could be criminal."
The district attorney declined to file charges against the deputies involved in the assault. Three deputies who were fired for their roles in the incident are trying to get their jobs back, according to testimony Friday.
Del Mese initially resisted answering questions about whether he belonged to one of the deputy groups, citing his right to privacy. Commissioners pressed, and he eventually admitted that he was a member of the Grim Reapers, a group based in the department's now-shuttered Lennox station. He acknowledged getting a tattoo of a Grim Reaper that members of the group received. The tattoos were numbered in the order they were received and his was No. 22, he said.
"It was a fraternal group that worked hard and received some recognition from their peers," Del Mese said. He said he didn't know what he did to get the invite.
He said he had his tattoo removed around 2018 or 2019.
"It served me no purpose from the day I got it but it had obviously become a liability," Del Mese said. Del Mese said he lasted six months as Villanueva's chief of staff and was eventually transferred partially over a disagreement about Villanueva's fight to reinstate a deputy fired over allegations of domestic violence and dishonesty.
Chief April Tardy also testified Friday, saying 11 deputies who were "self-admitted" members of the Executioners group were transferred out of the Compton station and into non-patrol assignments.
She said that none of the deputies were found to have violated department policy and that they were not disciplined.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.