[News] L.A. County investigators were told not to ask about Banditos, chief says

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was transitioning into office late in 2018 when then-Capt. Matthew Burson was overseeing a high-profile criminal investigation into an alleged assault involving East L.A. deputies at a station party.

At the time, Burson said he was given instructions on behalf of the incoming 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 fight.

“I assumed there was a valid reason for it, and followed orders,” Burson said in a sworn declaration filed in court Tuesday. “I did not at that time suspect any ulterior motives, including a cover-up.”

Villanueva did not immediately respond Tuesday morning to questions about why he passed down those orders.

Burson’s declaration was made public as part of a lawsuit by deputies who say they faced pervasive harassment by the Banditos while working at the East L.A. station.

It corroborates testimony presented in May at a Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission hearing on “deputy gangs.” It also highlights other failures by the Sheriff’s Department to properly crack down on the groups.

The agency has long struggled with deputies who have matching tattoos running amok at sheriff’s stations and in county jails, controlling their command staff and using violence.

The oversight commission last month disclosed a log kept by Sgt. Jefferson Chow, the investigator probing the East L.A. station party fight. In it, Chow wrote that, before Villanueva took office, he was instructed by Burson to question witnesses about the gang-like deputy groups.

Within a few weeks though, that instruction changed. The sergeant wrote in the log that Burson told him questions about the Banditos or other similar groups didn’t 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 gave him the instruction and why, but he did not show up. His declaration released Tuesday fills in some of those gaps.

Burson communicated the orders from the sheriff’s office to Chow twice — once before Villanueva was sworn in, and again after. The first time, ask about the Banditos; the second time, don’t.

By the second time, Burson had been promoted from captain to chief. He said in his declaration that he was not offered a “quid pro deal” to cover up deputy gangs in exchange for a promotion, though he did acknowledge that “the timing of it might look suspect.”

Burson could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday morning.

According to his declaration, Burson was told by the sheriff’s chief of staff the second time that what happened at the party was no big deal — just “drunken mutual combat.” Larry Del Mese, the chief of staff at the time who has since retired, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday morning.

Villanueva has echoed that line in the past, saying there are no “gangs” in the department but that the problems stem from deputies who get drunk and then get into fights. But the sheriff has also taken credit for addressing the problem of rogue groups with a policy that prohibits deputies from joining cliques that promote behavior that violates the rights of others.

Burson claimed in his declaration that Villanueva’s policy has “never actually been enforced.” He also said Chow’s investigation into the station party incident rebutted the characterization of it as a two-way brawl. Chow testified in a deposition in the lawsuit recently that prosecutors should have filed criminal charges.

At the oversight commission hearing, Inspector General Max Huntsman testified that the prosecutors who declined to file battery charges in the station party fight case didn’t know the full story, because the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation did not look meaningfully at allegations that the deputies who instigated the fight were Banditos members.

“The manner in which this case was investigated and presented amounted to a cover-up — essentially obstruction of justice,” Huntsman testified.

A district attorney spokesperson told The Times earlier this month that officials “monitored the testimony and are evaluating the information,” but refused to answer whether they would be taking another look at the case.

Burson said he expects — and himself requests — the Department of Justice to step in to assess the matter.

“It is not my position and role to determine if the sheriff and his office purposefully engaged in a cover-up,” he said in the declaration. “But if I was unwittingly used in such a cover-up and interference in a criminal investigation, I find this deeply troubling.”

Burson’s declaration highlighted other missteps.

At a news conference in August 2020, Burson announced plans for a full-scale investigation that would examine the “deputy gang” problem across the entire organization, not just at a single station.

“Our intent is to examine the department in its entirety,” Burson said at the time. “I am absolutely sickened by the mere allegation of any deputy hiding behind a badge to hurt anyone.”

But he said that investigation never happened.

Burson said in the declaration that he was instructed by the Sheriff’s Department to hold off until the research firm hired by the county’s Board of Supervisors to study the groups had completed its report. By the time that happened in September 2021, Burson was on medical leave. He retired a few months later.

Villanueva did not immediately respond to questions about why there was a delay and why the investigation never happened after the study was published.

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