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HomeUS NewsJudge rules abuse suit against L.A. deputy gang can move forward

Judge rules abuse suit against L.A. deputy gang can move forward

An expansive lawsuit filed by eight Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department employees who say they were harassed and attacked by alleged members of a deputy gang will be allowed to move forward, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The suit alleges that several deputies who were assigned to the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station were repeatedly pressured to quit or leave. Some said they were assaulted by alleged members of the gang known as the Banditos during a now-notorious off-duty brawl at the Kennedy Hall event space.

The eight deputies are asking for a total of at least $80 million, as well as seeking policy changes and supervision that might prevent future abuses.

Last year, the county filed a motion to have the lawsuit tossed out of court. But after two hearings — one this week and one last week — Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu refused, saying there were enough issues that the two sides couldn’t agree on to justify continuing ahead, albeit with a slightly narrower scope.

Vince Miller, the attorney representing the eight deputies, said the judge’s decision was a win.

“My clients were put through a nightmare by the Banditos gang,” Miller told The Times. Now, he said, county leaders will “have the evidence to finally force through real reform on deputy gangs.”

In a statement late Wednesday, Jason Tokoro — a lawyer who is representing the county — highlighted the judge’s decision to dismiss a claim alleging the violation of constitutional rights, saying it was the most significant piece of the ruling.

“What remains are employment practice claims, which will be held over for trial,” he said.

The case began in the fall of 2019, when the eight East L.A. deputies — Art Hernandez, Alfred Gonzalez, Benjamin Zaredini, David Casas, Louis Granados, Mario Contreras, Oscar Escobedo and Ariela Lemus — sued both the county and four specific alleged Banditos. Three of the defendants have since been fired, and one retired before he could be terminated.

Over the last four years, attorneys have wrangled over pretrial disputes, such as establishing which basic facts the two sides agree on. The filings now number hundreds of pages, and they focus on a series of claims that include harassment, racial discrimination and retaliation. After the hearings this week and last week, Treu decided to toss out some of the claims but leave most of the case intact.

At the heart of the lawsuit are allegations about a so-called deputy gang known as the Banditos, a clique of predominantly Latino deputies who sport tattoos of a skeleton with a sombrero, bandoleer and pistol. Some of the gang’s alleged members go by names such as “the Godfather” and “Bam Bam.”

The group has controlled the East L.A. station, according to the suit, and its members have allegedly pressured younger Latino deputies to work excessive hours, demanded that they pay “taxes” to gang members and withheld backup on dangerous calls.

And in the early hours of Sept. 18, 2018, the suit says, it was several alleged Banditos members who showed up to the Kennedy Hall party with a plan to beat up a newer deputy who had begun training at the station the year before.

Later, as the party wound down in the early morning hours, they approached him in the parking lot, at one point threatening his family, the lawsuit says.

Other deputies tried to intervene. One — Art Hernandez, now a plaintiff — reportedly was knocked to the ground and punched multiple times in the face. When he got up, he was knocked unconscious. Another was strangled and lost consciousness. Both were later hospitalized.

Three of the deputies named in the suit were eventually fired, and the fourth, Michael Hernandez, retired. The district attorney’s office declined to pursue criminal charges against any of them in relation to the Kennedy Hall incident, saying in 2020 that there wasn’t enough evidence to move forward because it was dark out and everyone involved had been drinking.

The deputies who filed the suit have since been transferred to other stations.

Given the volume of the court filings and the number of people involved in the case, the judge decided to break the hearing into two parts: one to handle the claims against the individual defendants, and one to handle the claims against the county as a whole.

In last week’s hearing, lawyers for the deputies targeted in the lawsuit argued that most of the claims applied only to a “small number” of the defendants and only a few of the plaintiffs. They also said that the core allegations of gang activity and harassment were “racially neutral,” and not evidence of pervasive bias.

The first hearing lasted less than an hour, and by midafternoon the judge ruled that all the claims against the individual defendants would continue to move forward.

In this week’s hearing, lawyers representing the county argued that the fact that three of the alleged Banditos named in the lawsuit were eventually fired showed that officials had taken action to address the problem. Miller said that, despite that, his evidence showed that the county had engaged in a “criminal cover-up.”

Ultimately, the judge tossed out some of the claims against the county, including the allegations of negligence and conspiracy to interfere with civil rights.

The developments come as Sheriff Robert Luna, who took office last year, begins to tackle what he has acknowledged is the department’s longstanding problem with violent groups of deputies running roughshod over certain stations, including the one in East L.A.

In February, Luna announced the appointment of a former federal prosecutor to oversee a new office designed to combat those problems within the department.

“This new office will be tasked with helping to eradicate all deputy gangs from this department,” Luna said at the time. “I will have an absolute zero tolerance for this type of conduct.”

A few weeks later, the Civilian Oversight Commission’s special counsel released a detailed 70-page report condemning the “cancer” of deputy gangs and urging Luna to adopt more than two dozen recommendations to eliminate the groups and their influence. Two months later, he has yet to do that.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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