LOS ANGELES -- Current and former members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department with close ties to Sheriff Alex Villanueva testified Friday about what they know about alleged deputy gangs within the department.
Villanueva's former chief of staff Larry Del Mese made a stunning admission under oath, admitting he belonged to an alleged deputy gang known as the Grim Reapers.
"I was a member of the Grim Reapers," Del Mese testified by video during a public hearing in the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission's investigation on deputy gangs.
Villanueva has denied the existence of deputy gangs.
Del Mese was asked if he ever got a Grim Reaper tattoo.
"Yes," Del Mese told the special counsel.
Del Mese was also asked if he still has the tattoo, to which he said he does not.
Villanueva defied a subpoena to testify before the commission for the fifth time, saying he fears for his safety.
"The sheriff fears for his security because he has been informed that members of the public have attended and wear shirts or jackets that say, 'F the sheriff,'" special counsel Bert Deixler announced at the hearing.
"It literally is a political circus designed for political damage. It's not designed to get anything of value for either the community or me as the employer," Villanueva said Friday.
In late 2018 when Villanueva was transitioning into office, Matthew Burson, a captain in the sheriff's department at the time, was overseeing an investigation into an attack at a party in East L.A. where older Bandito deputies assaulted younger non-Bandito deputies.
Burson says he was given instructions on behalf of Villanueva to not ask questions about the Banditos deputy gang.
"Did it seem odd to you that the order to pause an investigation into the motive for a crime was coming at the direction of a person who was not yet the sheriff of Los Angeles County?" the special counsel asked.
"Yes," Burson replied.
Burson was also asked about Villanueva's second-in-command, Undersheriff Tim Murakami.
Burson testified he knew Murakami for approximately 30 years. He told the special counsel that Murakami has a tattoo of a "caveman" on his ankle.
Villanueva says he's cracked down on deputy gangs and that the Banditos no longer exist. In his testimony Friday, Burson told the committee what didn't happen after Villanueva assigned him in 2020 to investigate deputy gangs.
"Did the comprehensive investigation of the entire department that you announced on August 13, 2020 occur?"
"No," Burson told the special counsel.
Del Mese also explained to the committee why he didn't have a lengthy tenure as Villanueva's chief of staff.
"People that told him 'yes' got promotions, one after another that continue onto this day. I had a very short run in that administration for a reason because I learned from this case not to be the messenger. I learned from other situations not to speak my truth and overall, that was not appreciated," said Del Mese, who is now retired from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
Murakami also didn't show up to testify Friday even though he was subpoenaed. His physician told the committee's investigator that testifying would be too stressful for Murakami and it would create an adverse health risk.