Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s former chief of staff testified Friday he belonged to an alleged deputy gang known as the Grim Reapers for more than two decades, but became disenchanted and removed the notorious group’s gruesome tattoo from his ankle for the sake of his job.
“Why did you remove the Grim Reaper tattoo?” William Forman, an attorney for the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission asked retired Deputy Lawrence Del Mese during the third public hearing in an ongoing investigation of deputy gangs.
“Because I believed it had become something that didn’t serve me in any purpose,” Del Mese said, adding he got rid of the tattoo in 2018 following his appointment as a top aide to Villanueva. “The perception is a lot different than it was in 1990. It can become a liability to the employee, their career and the department.”
Del Mese, who testified via video for health reasons, was reluctant to disclose his membership in the Grim Reapers. He told the commission he was invited to join while serving as a deputy at the Lennox station.
“It was a fraternal group that worked hard and received some recognition from its peers,” Del Mese said in describing the Grim Reapers. He noted that his tattoo included “22,” signifying he was the 22nd member to join.
Forman pressed Del Mese for more details regarding his Grim Reapers membership and details about the tattoo.
“Why would a group of deputies who are charged with protecting people from violence and upholding the law choose a symbol of death?” he asked. Del Mese replied that he didn’t know. “It’s something that I got and something I got rid of,” he said.
Under further questioning from Forman, Del Mese testified he was unaware of his inclusion on California’s Brady List for gang activity as a Grim Reaper associate. “This is the first that I have been notified,” he said.
The Brady List is a public database that contains information of police misconduct, use-of-force reports and other complaints. Defense attorneys at trial often challenge the credibility of officers based on their inclusion on the list.
Del Mese said he became involved with Villanueva in 2018 during his campaign for sheriff.
His main duties included accompanying Villanueva to constituency meetings and keeping him focused on the issues, which apparently did not include tackling the deputy gang problem.
“I don’t recall ever having conversations with him (Villanueva) about that,” Del Mese testified.
Del Mese said one of his first duties as Villanueva’s chief of staff during the transition period between the time he was elected and took office was to send an email to at-will employees that he wanted to terminate or demote, including political opponent former Sheriff James McDonnell.
Recipients were notified they could take a full-rank demotion or retire once Villanueva assumed office.
Del Mese said he also was told to send Alicia Ault, the chief of the department’s professional standards and training division, a settlement agreement to reinstate Caren Carl Mandoyan, a former deputy who had been fired in 2016 by McDonnell amid allegations of domestic violence and stalking.
Del Mese said he believes Mandoyan’s attorney gave him the agreement during a meeting at a storefront that served as Villanueva’s transition team headquarters.
Additionally, Del Mese denied a claim from Ault that he asked her to wipe Mandoyan’s disciplinary record clean and award him back pay. “I know I didn’t tell her that,” he told Forman.
Del Mese said he only lasted a short time as chief of staff, partly because he disagreed with Villanueva over the reinstatement of Mandoyan.
“I had a very short run in that administration for a reason, because I learned from this case, not to be the messenger,” he said. “I learned from other situations to speak the truth. And I think, overall, that was not appreciated.”
Villanueva, who has repeatedly refused subpoenas to testify before the oversight commission, has described its actions on social media as “wildly unconstitutional and bizarre theatrics.” He did not respond to requests for comment regarding Del Mese’s testimony.
During previous hearings of the commission, which started in May, attention focused on a deputy gang known as the Banditos that operated in the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station.
Bert H. Deixler, special counsel to the commission, said during the second public hearing last month that “attorneys have conducted multiple interviews with witnesses about the Banditos’ activities, but all have refused to testify publicly, even with promises of anonymity.”
Witnesses are afraid to testify, Deixler said, because they fear “career suicide” and physical harm.
Source: Orange County Register