By Frank Stoltze
Originally published Mar 18, 2022
A coalition of groups critical of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is accusing him of trying to intimidate the families of two people fatally shot by his deputies.
The Check the Sheriff coalition, which includes the ACLU and other groups, issued a statement calling on the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to investigate Villanueva’s actions and to urge the Board of Supervisors to create a mechanism to remove sheriffs from office.
Villanueva is up for reelection this year, but critics have wanted him removed since his first year in office.
“In recent weeks, Villanueva has twice publicly named and targeted family members who have openly protested deputy killings of their loved ones in an attempt to bolster his own political agenda, denigrate the character of these families and their loved ones,” the coalition said in its statement.
The sheriff’s “villainizing” of the families of people killed by his deputies is “not only morally disturbing, but also incredibly dangerous,” it said.
“Villanueva is opening the door for his supporters to dox, harass, and potentially physically harm these families,” the statement continues. “This is a clear attempt to punish the Rea and Vargas families for speaking out. It is also an attempt to send a message to other impacted family members that they should be afraid to speak out.”
The Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘Dangerous And Threatening Behavior’
The focus of the statement is a Feb. 23 press conference by Villanueva during which he played body camera footage that showed the mother and sister of 18-year-old Paul Rea at an East L.A. taco stand. They are seen walking past deputies, including the one who fatally shot Rea in 2019.
“You killed an 18-year-old,” Rea’s sister is heard yelling. “How does he feel, he killed an 18-year-old?”
Villanueva said the video was evidence that the Reas harass deputies — not the other way around, as the family has alleged.
Rea’s grandmother Julie Martinez told the Oversight Commission Thursday that the video was edited — that the deputy started the confrontation by “shoving his plate towards them, asking them if they wanted tacos, and smirking at them.”
The sheriff “yet again is engaging in this dangerous and threatening behavior by utilizing press conferences to destroy the character of the Vargas and Rea families,” Martinez said.
The coalition’s statement also cites a Feb. 19 letter from Villanueva to the Board of Supervisors in which he accuses the family of Anthony Vargas, who was killed by East L.A. deputies in 2018, of falsely claiming Vargas was killed by members of a deputy gang — the Banditos.
The Vargas family previously has accused deputies of harassing them after Anthony was killed.
A 2021 report by the National Lawyers Guild lists allegations from relatives of Vargas, who was fatally shot by deputies in 2018, and Rea.
In the case of the Vargas family, “LASD patrol cars drive slowly past family members’ homes or park outside their homes on an almost daily basis, a phenomenon that only arose after Anthony’s death,” according to the report.
The sheriff has said his deputies were responding to complaints by neighbors of unruly behavior at the residence.
Martinez told the commission Thursday that both families have been doxed after speaking out publicly against the sheriff and that her family has had to move “several times” out of fear of retaliation.
“It is with tremendous fear for the safety of the families that have been impacted by Sheriff Villanueva that I am speaking out today,” she said.
Villanueva has accused the families of working in concert with the Board of Supervisors to “attack the reputation of the sheriff’s department.” He noted both shootings were deemed legally justified by the DA’s office.
“We are independent of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors,” Martinez said. “They do not put us up to this.
The focus of the coalition’s letter was not the shootings but the alleged ongoing harassment of the families by not just the sheriff but his deputies.
“Some of the behavior by LASD sworn personnel at memorial sites exhibited toward the families of those who have died as a result of LASD use of force has been perceived as harassment,” Inspector General Max Huntsman wrote in a 2020 report. “Limited evidence makes the intent of the deputies difficult to determine in individual cases.”
Huntsman called on Villanueva to adopt a policy to prevent harassment of victims’ families.
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2022 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.