At Compton sheriffs station, its called a ghost gun: A weapon a deputy says he spots on a suspect but that is never found when colleagues respond to the scene and search for it.
Thats because the call-out is based on a lie. The deputy didnt actually see a gun, but his suspect could turn out to be armed and an arrest or recovered firearm could pad his reputation.
Its the kind of behavior that plays out regularly at the station, according to a whistleblower who worked there for five years and recounted other sensational allegations in a recent deposition obtained by The Times in a federal civil rights lawsuit.
In reality, theyve never seen the gun, L.A. County Sheriffs Deputy Austreberto Gonzalez said under oath. And then at the end when their containments are set up, you know, the gun is never recovered. You know, theyll call it a day and say, Thank you for rolling. Were going to call it, and a gun was never recovered.
Gonzalez says that the scheme is employed in Compton by tattooed deputies who call themselves the Executioners, the clandestine gang many believe runs the station.
His allegations add to a growing body of information about the Compton clique, one of several tattooed deputy groups within the Sheriffs Department with names such as the Grim Reapers, Banditos and Jump Out Boys.
The Sheriffs Department has been aware of the groups for decades but has struggled to crackdown, despite repeated internal and independent investigations and instances in which members are accused of misconduct.
Gonzalezs statements were introduced in an excessive force lawsuit filed against the Sheriffs Department by Sheldon Lockett. The judge hearing the case cited the evidence when tentatively deciding to advance the case for trial.
Accepting the deputys testimony, there is evidence that the clique existed in Compton and that it routinely violated the rights of suspects, Magistrate Judge Patrick J. Walsh said in his tentative ruling. The testimony also establishes that the command staff at the station knew about it and not only did not stop it but it encouraged the behavior and placed its members in positions of authority where they could help other members.
The Sheriffs Department said the FBI is now involved in a probe of the Executioners.
In his deposition, Gonzalez identified Miguel Vega, the Compton station deputy who killed 18-year-old Andres Guardado in a controversial shooting in June that sparked weeks of protests, and his partner, Chris Hernandez, as prospective members of the Executioners. Their attorneys said Wednesday that those allegations are false.
Deputy Vega does not have one single tattoo on his body, much less a deputy gang tattoo, said his attorney Adam Marangell. He doesnt have one nor does he plan on getting one.
The Sheriffs Department said in a statement that it had not yet received the transcript of Gonzalezs testimony. Once we do, counsel will review and we can respond appropriately, a spokesman said. County attorneys have argued that Gonzalezs testimony about the Executioners was nothing more than speculation and conjecture, as hes not in the group and has no personal knowledge about it.
Lockett alleges he was targeted by deputies chasing ink when he was beaten and falsely arrested for attempted murder in 2016, his attorneys said. He sued in 2018.
Deputies that day pulled up to Lockett outside his godmothers home and jumped out of their car with their guns drawn because they said he matched the description of the shooting suspect. Lockett froze, then ran. The deputies, Samuel Aldama and Mizrain Orrego, radioed that Lockett had a gun, which he says was a lie. No gun was found.
They chased him until they found him hiding in a backyard, where Lockett says he surrendered. Even so, he says Aldama punched him in the head five times while hurling the N-word. He alleged that one of the deputies rammed the end of a police baton into his eye socket, which caused permanent damage, and that he was kicked in the back of the head. The county has denied the allegations.
Lockett was arrested for attempted murder and other gun charges and spent eight months in jail. In August, prosecutors dropped charges due to insufficient evidence and after a witness testified that she was mistaken when she identified him, according to a district attorneys office spokeswoman.
After the arrest, Locketts mother filed a complaint to the Sheriffs Department.
They did nothing, Locketts attorney John Sweeney said during a hearing this week. Instead, he claims they served a search warrant on her home in retaliation. About seven months after Locketts arrest and three weeks after charges were dropped, Aldama and Orrego shot at 31-year-old Donta Taylor during a foot chase. Deputies claimed Taylor had a handgun, but no weapon was found.
Had that been investigated ... Donta Taylor would still be alive, Sweeney said. This was nothing more than a sport kill and an attempt to getting into this gang. And instead of being prosecuted, what happened? There were inking parties and celebrations.
Aldama admitted under oath to having a tattoo on his calf depicting a skull with a rifle and a military-style helmet emerging from flames. The letters CPT, for Compton, appear on the helmet. Aldama said he was one of as many as 20 other deputies selected to get the same tattoo after working hard by making arrests and answering calls. He denied being part of a club.
L.A. County settled a lawsuit brought by Taylors family for $7 million. Deputies with alleged ties to these cliques, which are accused of using violent and aggressive tactics similar to those of criminal street gangs, have cost taxpayers $55 million in settlements and payouts in incidents that date to the 1990s, according to county records obtained by The Times.
Walsh said that three Compton deputies, including Aldama and Orrego, have denied in other court proceedings that they were part of a clique and attributed their matching tattoos to serendipity.
The depositions of those three deputies are under seal, but Locketts attorney Steven Glickman argued during a court hearing Thursday that their tattoos are numbered. In their depositions, Glickman said Aldama testified that his tattoos No. 38 was a nod to his first gun; Orregos said his tattoo, which was covered up, was never numbered and he got it in solidarity with Aldama, his friend who had cancer; and Deputy Rogelio Benzors tattoo has a No. 40, which he explained as a reference to his future retirement in 2040.
The county had argued that Locketts attorneys failed to produce evidence that there was a clique and show that the county knew about it.
Obviously, these rogue officers are not going to simply admit that they had formed an unlawful group bent on assaulting minorities, the judge wrote. And, presumably, the clique would not be issuing membership cards, or taking minutes at membership meetings, or doing anything else that normal, lawful organizations do. Thus, it would seem impossible for a plaintiff to find tangible evidence to prove that the officers were lying when they denied the existence of their group.
Just last week, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he was moving to discipline 26 employees with firings or suspensions for their roles in a fight at an off-duty East L.A. station party at Kennedy Hall where deputies say they were attacked by inked members of the Banditos, who allegedly wielded power at the station. But he denied that gangs exist within the Sheriffs Department.
There is zero evidence of three or more deputies engaged in criminal activity with a unifying symbol whose primary purpose is to commit crime, Villanueva said.
Two deputies who said they were assaulted and knocked unconscious are among those facing discipline for policy violations that include failing to report the Kennedy Hall incident to superiors, their attorney Vincent Miller said.
My guys are in trouble for not reporting the Banditos to the Banditos, Miller said, adding that his clients did report the incident right away to a lieutenant they trusted.
Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against the deputies who Miller says attacked his clients. But an administrative investigation found that some employees at East L.A. station were acting as so-called shot callers, controlling scheduling and events at the station, Cmdr. April Tardy said, using a term often used to describe top leaders in prisons and gangs.
At Compton station, the Executioners ruled the station using a similar structure, Gonzalez testified. About 15 or 20 deputies are Executioners, he said, and at least another handful are prospective members who are chasing ink. He said its the word out that only two deputies are inked each year women and Black people arent allowed. A vast majority of members and prospects, he said, have been involved in high-profile shootings or beatings.
After a shooting, members will have a party at a bar and call it a 998 debrief, referencing the code for a deputy-involved shooting. Some say its to celebrate that a deputy survived, he said. But oftentimes, Gonzalez said, after the party, the deputy and their partner will get inked. Gonzalez said hed never been invited to nor attended one.
I think it is some type of reward, Gonzalez testified. He added later: So we call it ink chasers because theyre out there trying to show the rest of the members, the rest of the inked members that, you know, theyre worthy of that tattoo.
He said in the deposition that Jaime Juarez, a deputy he identified as the Executioners shot caller, carried out a work slowdown last year when the acting captain refused to install a member as scheduling deputy. The powerful position, which Juarez had previously held, controls scheduling, days off and overtime, Gonzalez said.
There was nobody being arrested. Very minimal arrests were being done at that time, Gonzalez said of the work slowdown. We have a booking line. We would hardly ever see a unit in the booking line with, you know you know, with suspects in their back seats. It was so obvious that, you know, we all noticed that.
The Times has requested arrest records from the Compton station to determine if such a slowdown occurred. Juarez did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2017, Gonzalez said, the Compton station captain at the time had turned to that deputy to boost arrest stats after he was reprimanded for low numbers at the station. Monthly arrests per deputy more than doubled and that captain was eventually promoted, he said.
Gonzalez testified that he faced blowback earlier this year after anonymously reporting an inked Executioner to the Internal Affairs Bureau for assaulting a fellow deputy. After Gonzalez made his report, graffiti appeared at the station calling him a rat. He was warned by another deputy to be careful.
They know it was you, Gonzalez recalled being told. He filed a legal claim against the county in June alleging retaliation.
One deputy told Gonzalez he didnt want to partner with him out of fear of getting screwed with, he said.
Gonzalez testified that he feared for his safety from the clique.
I think that I now call them a gang because thats what gangs do. They beat up other people, he said. " I call that a gang. Their focus is not the station, their focus is not the department, and their focus is not their job. Their focus is their group.
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