LOS ANGELES — The paper trail on alleged deputy gangs in Los Angeles County goes back to the 1970s.

Investigative journalist Cerise Castle has uncovered at least 18.

What You Need To Know

  • Investigative journalist Cerise Castle spent six months creating a database of alleged deputy gang members inside the LA County Sheriff's Department

  • Castle's 15-part series on nonprofit journalism site Knock LA is racking up views and resonating

  • Sheriff Alex Villanueva called it "absolute nonsense" and said trail attorneys seeking settlements have created a "boogeyman"

  • Villanueva said he's banned subgroups in the organization and disrupted alleged deputy gangs in East LA and Compton

"These gang members are the men who are often admired the most at their station," Castle said.

Castle's plan to compile a complete history of alleged gang affiliations inside the county sheriff's department unfolded in the wake of the George Floyd uprising last summer. She was hit by a rubber bullet while reporting in the field and decided to use the time to write an anthology for nonprofit news site Knock LA.

"I struck gold when I filed a public records request to the county Board of Supervisors and turned up a list of litigation related to deputy gangs that the county actually keeps," Castle said.

She spent the next six months pouring over the documents, reviewing a trove of lawsuits totaling more than $50 million in settlements funded by taxpayers. The resulting 15-part series on Knock LA is racking up views and resonating.

"I've heard from people that have encountered these gang member deputies in their everyday life and have shared stories with me about =[the] violence they've shared at the hands of these people, both in and out of uniform," Castle said.

Using the court records, including transcripts of sworn depositions, Castle created a database of more than 300 deputies who are believed to be members of affiliates of deputy gangs in the LA County sheriff's department. The list includes Sheriff Alex Villanueva himself, who called it a work of fiction.

"Apparently, unbeknownst to me, they had me as a gangbanger, so it's absolute nonsense," Villanueva said. "They've created a boogeyman, and there's trial attorneys who try to make money by selling the boogeyman to an unsuspecting jury."

Villanueva added that he's banned subgroups in the organization, disrupted alleged deputy gangs in East LA and Compton, and supports statewide legislation prohibiting law enforcement groups that harm the community. But he noted that the database is wrong.

"These are a lot of honorable people that are on that list and people who are no longer with the department. They retired a long time ago, but they're on this list. And some of them, I think, could pursue a defamation lawsuit against this Knock LA," Villanueva said.

Castle explained how she identified gang members by combing through sworn testimony during depositions, where some deputies admitted they had tattoos or membership in a deputy gang. After reviewing his comments on her reporting, Castle said Villanueva is trying to have it both ways.

"It's very interesting to me that he's sponsoring legislation like that but also saying these deputy gangs don't exist. That's pure cognitive dissidence right there. It just doesn't make sense," she said.

Spectrum News 1 reached out to LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman, who stated that the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department had obstructed his investigation into deputy gangs.

"To call the database a work of pure fiction ignores the fact that the author provided links to the court documents, which contain many of the names," Huntsman said. "The sheriff oversaw a criminal investigation of the 'Banditos,' in which he allowed two dozen deputies to decline to give statements against their fellow deputies in violation of LASD policy and resulting in a DA reject of criminal charges against members. I have no reason to think he has a tattoo, but I'm sure the Banditos appreciated his help."

In her reporting, Castle began collecting deputy gang swag: a handmade flag from Etsy with a "Fort Apache" logo, memoirs by deputies, and — after taking on the sheriff's department — something else.

"I've received numerous death threats since the series was published," she said.

Just in case, Castle has purchased a bulletproof vest.