Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva took office in late 2018 when then-Capt. Matthew Burson oversaw a high-profile criminal investigation into an alleged assault involving East LA deputies at a train station party.
At the time, Burson said he received instructions on behalf of the new sheriff on how to handle the case: Investigators, he was told, should avoid questions about the Banditos, the gang-like group of deputies whose members were accused of instigating the case to have fight.
“I assumed there was a valid reason for this and followed the instructions,” Burson said in an affidavit filed in court on Tuesday. “I did not suspect any ulterior motives at the time, including a cover-up.”
Villanueva did not immediately respond to questions Tuesday morning about why he passed those orders.
Burson’s statement was released amid a lawsuit by deputies who say they were pervasively harassed by the banditos while working at the East LA station.
It corroborates statements made at a May Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission hearing on “representative gangs.” It also highlights other failures by the sheriff’s department to deal properly with the groups.
The agency has long struggled with deputies who have matching tattoos running amok in sheriff’s stations and county jails, controlling their command staff and using violence.
The Oversight Commission got a transcript last month from Sgt. Jefferson Chow, the investigator investigating the East LA station’s party fight. In it, Chow wrote that before Villanueva took office, he was instructed by Burson to interview witnesses about the gang-like congressional groups.
Within a few weeks, however, this instruction changed. The sergeant wrote in the transcript that Burson had told him questions about the Banditos or any other similar group did not need to be part of his investigation.
Burson had been subpoenaed to testify at the commission’s second hearing on June 10 to clarify who ordered him and why, but he did not show up. His statement released on Tuesday fills in some of those gaps.
Burson shared the sheriff’s office orders with Chow twice — once before Villanueva was sworn in and again after. Ask about the Banditos the first time; not the second time.
The second time, Burson had been promoted from captain to chief. He said in his statement that he wasn’t offered a “quid-pro deal” to cover up proxy gangs in exchange for a promotion, although he acknowledged “the timing of that might seem suspicious.”
Burson could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday morning.
According to his statement, the second time around, Burson was told by the sheriff’s chief of staff that what happened at the party was no big deal — just “drunken backfighting.” Larry Del Mese, the then chief of staff who has since retired, could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday morning.
Villanueva has repeated that line in the past, saying there are no “gangs” in the department, instead the problems stem from MPs getting drunk and then getting into fights. But the sheriff has also garnered credit for tackling the problem of rogue groups with a policy that bans deputies from joining cliques that encourage behavior that violates the rights of others.
Burson claimed in his statement that Villanueva’s policies “were never really enforced.” He also said Chow’s investigation of the station party incident disproved the characterization as a two-way brawl. Chow recently testified in the lawsuit that prosecutors should have filed criminal charges.
At the Oversight Commission hearing, Inspector General Max Huntsman testified that the prosecutors, who declined to press charges in the station parties’ case, did not know the full story because the sheriff’s department investigations did not instigate the allegations the deputies instigated meaningfully studied the fight were Banditos members.
“The way this case was investigated and presented amounted to a cover-up – essentially an obstruction of justice,” Huntsman testified.
A spokesman for the district attorney told the Times earlier this month that officers were “monitoring the testimonies and evaluating the information,” but declined to say whether they would look at the case again.
Burson said he expects – and requests – that the Justice Department step in to adjudicate the matter.
“It is not my position and role to determine whether the sheriff and his office are intentionally involved in a cover-up,” he said in the statement. “But if I have been unwittingly used for such a cover-up and interference in a criminal investigation, I find it deeply disturbing.”
Burson’s statement highlighted other missteps.
At an August 2020 press conference, Burson announced plans for a full investigation that would investigate the “deputy gang” issue across the organization rather than just at a single station.
“Our intention is to study the department in its entirety,” Burson said at the time. “I am absolutely disgusted by the mere suggestion that an MP is hiding behind a badge to hurt someone.”
But he said the investigation never took place.
Burson said in the statement that he was instructed by the sheriff’s department to wait until the research firm hired by the county’s board of supervisors to study the groups completed its report. When this happened in September 2021, Burson was on sick leave. A few months later he retired.
Villanueva did not immediately respond to questions about why there was a delay and why the investigation never took place after the study was published.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-21/investigators-probing-deputy-gang-violence-were-told-not-to-ask-about-banditos-chief-says L.A. County investigators were told not to ask about Banditos, chief says